Identity Distress, Parental Response, and Problem Behaviors in Juvenile Justice-Involved Boys

Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 2020, 884 –901.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2020 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Psychological Sciences Research Institute, UCLouvain
Child Study Center, Yale University
Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin
Youth involved with the juvenile justice system are not exempt from experiencing identity-related turmoil that is common
during adolescence. Parents’ responses may exacerbate or mitigate this turmoil and, in turn, youth problem behaviors.
Thus, this study investigated identity distress as a mediator of the relationship between parental response to adolescents’
distress and their problem behaviors among 113 detained males aged 12 to 18 (Mage = 15.3, SD = 1.44) in Connecticut,
USA. Participants completed measures of identity distress, parental response to their developmental distress, and multiple
problem behaviors. A latent mediation model indicated that a supportive parental response was directly associated with
decreased problem behaviors, whereas an avoidant parental response was indirectly associated with increased problem
behaviors through increased identity distress. Developmentally salient identity-related distress of juveniles and the cor-
responding response of their parents are important to consider in understanding youth externalizing problem behaviors
within the juvenile justice system.
Keywords: adolescence; juvenile delinquency; mediation; parenting; psychopathology; juvenile offenders; mental health
The U.S. juvenile justice system is considered the largest in the world (Grigorenko et al.,
2019). Despite the decrease in juvenile crime in the United States since the 2000s
(Puzzanchera, 2020), this system remains a major context impacting the development of
many youth. In 2017, more than 43,000 juveniles were held in over 1,700 residential place-
ment facilities, 84.8% of which were male, with a vast majority aged 14 to 17 (Sickmund
et al., 2019). Nevertheless, extensive reviews and large-scale empirical studies have shown
that juvenile incarceration is often linked to poor developmental outcomes and an increased
likelihood of subsequent criminal behavior (e.g., Lambie & Randell, 2013). These poor
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We thank all youth and their parents for participating in this study, Kristen Piering,
Baruch Wolhendler, and Mathiew Berler for help with data collection, and Rihab Mahmood for editorial assis-
tance. We are indebted to the staff at the Connecticut Judicial Branch, Court Support Services Division, for
their support of our project at the detention facility. This research was partly supported by the Spencer
Foundation (Grant #201200103, PI: Baptiste Barbot). Correspondence concerning this article should be
addressed to Baptiste Barbot, Psychological Sciences Research Institute, UCLouvain, Place Cardinal Mercier
10/L3.05.01, Louvain-la-Neuve 1348, Belgium; e-mail:
968880CJBXXX10.1177/0093854820968880Criminal Justice and BehaviorBarbot, Hein / Identity Distress, Parenting, & Problem Behaviors
outcomes suggest that incarceration fails to meet the developmental and criminogenic
needs of justice-involved youth (Lambie & Randell, 2013). This calls for a better under-
standing and consideration of these needs (Steinberg et al., 2004). In addition, incarcera-
tion, like other forms of institutionalization, may lead to the youth further disengaging
from parental involvement. This poses an additional challenge as parental involvement
has been shown to be crucial in helping youth desisting from crime (Burke et al., 2014;
Walker et al., 2015).
The literature on juvenile delinquency has rarely addressed the developmental needs of
incarcerated juveniles (Barbot & Hunter, 2012). Concurrently, young people charged
with crimes are overlooked in the normative adolescent development literature (Knight
et al., 2009). One exception, touted adolescence-limited delinquency, refers to a group of
juveniles for whom the onset of problem behaviors coincides with the onset of adoles-
cence (Moffitt, 1993). The developmental mechanism underlying this distinctive pathway
to juvenile delinquency has been viewed as an exaggeration of developmentally norma-
tive adolescent rebellion (Moffitt, 1993). Indeed, delinquency may be a byproduct of the
individuation process whereby adolescents affirm their maturity through behaviors that
reflect independence such as (minor) delinquent acts (Dijkstra et al., 2015; Levey et al.,
2019). This individuation process is also marked by an increased reliance on peers and
distancing from parents (Hadiwijaya et al., 2017). The process occurs during a time in
which parental monitoring and support remain essential in both preventing adolescents’
problem behaviors (Hoeve et al., 2009; Pinquart, 2017) and addressing their internal tur-
moil (Barbot, Heinz, & Luthar, 2014).
Based on these considerations, in this study, we argue that beyond the “typical” adoles-
cent rebellion, identity-related distress that is developmentally salient in adolescence also
contributes to problem behaviors among juvenile justice-involved youth. In addition, we
situate the supportive versus dismissive response of parents in addressing their adolescent’s
distress as a factor that may exacerbate or mitigate identity-related distress and, in turn,
problem behaviors. In other words, we sought to examine the indirect relationship between
parental support and youth problem behaviors (through adolescent identity distress) as a
pathway to juvenile problem behaviors. The associations between parenting and problem
behaviors in adolescence have generally been conceptualized as direct relationships (Hoeve
et al., 2009; Pinquart, 2017) with limited considerations of individual-level factors and
resources that mitigate these relationships. Elucidating the complex relationships among
these factors is needed so they can be directly targeted in future rehabilitation and interven-
tion programs for justice-involved youth in the United States and beyond. Furthermore,
understanding the way parents may contribute to increased or decreased identity distress for
those youth could offer important strategies to involve parents in such rehabilitation efforts.
This is an often challenging, yet, crucial endeavor for successful juvenile justice services
(Burke et al., 2014; Walker et al., 2015).
There is a tradition of sociological and ethnographic work focused on the identity
experience of inmates and other institutionalized individuals (e.g., Goffman, 1968). In
essence, this tradition suggests that the adaptation to confinement in a correctional facil-
ity is marked by processes of identity negotiation that both challenge professed prior

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