In Brief

A mother's delinquency prior to marriage not only predicts her future divorce, but also accounts for many of the behavior problems found among her children after divorce, suggests new research.

Robert E. Emery, PhD, and colleagues Mary C. Waldron, PhD, and Jeffrey Aaron, PhD, of the University of Virginia, and Katherine M. Kitzmann, PhD, of the University of Memphis, reported their findings in "Delinquent behavior, future divorce or nonmarital childbearing, and externalizing behavior among offspring: A 14-year prospective study," published in the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 13, No. 4, Dec. 1999).

They reviewed data on 1,204 mothers and their children, drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY)-Child Sample. The NLSY research began in 1979 and assessed young men and women, ages 14 to 21, on demographics, education and employment. Various psychological measures were also taken of the participants, including self-reports of delinquent behavior.

Emery and colleagues concluded that an adolescent mother's delinquent behavior in 1980--defined as abusing drugs, being delinquent at school and having contact with the criminal justice system--"significantly predicted" her divorced status in 1994.

They also established a link between a mother's prior delinquent behavior and her child's present problem behavior--defined as antisocial behavior, anxious or depressed behavior, social withdrawal or engaging in high levels of child-parent conflict. Therefore, the authors conclude, parents' personal behavior and personality characteristics have a greater impact on their children's behavior than does their married, never-married, or divorced status.