Who’s fault is it anyway? Absent fathers and teenage delinquency


In the Developmental Psychology unit of the AS we look at a longitudinal study of children who have been maternally deprived (Hodges and Tizard). Prior to the Hodges and Tizard study it was thought (mainly as a result of Bowlby’s research) that those children who were maternally deprived as children would become affectionless psychopaths.

John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a child psychoanalyst who focused on the relationship between mother and child. According to Bowlby (1951), “an infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his [sic] mother (or permanent mother-figure) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.” No-one would disagree with that. However, Bowlby went on to put forward the more controversial maternal deprivation hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, breaking the maternal bond with the child during the early years of its life is likely to have serious effects on its intellectual, social, and emotional development. Bowlby also claimed that many of these negative effects of maternal deprivation are permanent and irreversible.

Hodges and Tizard showed that this wasn’t the case and even if children didn’t have a mother figure for the first few years of their life could make attachments with others later on and certainly didn’t become affectionless psychopaths.

So, we’ve looked that the mothers effect on a child’s later behaviour, but what about a father figure? Recent comments (here and here for example) by David Cameron have suggested (well outright statements) that it’s actually absent fathers that are causing teenage delinquency and poor behaviour in our society at the moment.

A recent study by Rebekah Coley, that was highlighted on the fabulous BPS Research Digest, suggests that there is actually a significant effect of fathers (or more correctly the lack of a father figure).

Fatherly involvement appeared to have a protective effect. The teenagers who saw more of their fathers at the first interview, and/or who had more communications with him, were less likely to be involved in delinquent behaviour, such as stealing and drug use, at the second interview. (From BPS RD)

This does have repercussions for the weight that we give to fathers involvement in children’s upbringing but I feel that we should take this research with caution. It would be all too easy to blame, at least in part, fathers (or the lack of) for childhood adolescence in teenagers. Well, that’s my thoughts at least.


Coley, R.L. & Medeiros, B.L. (2007). Reciprocal longitudinal relations between non-resident father involvement and adolescent delinquency. Child Development, 78, 132-147.

Hodges, J. & Tizard, B. (1989b) Social and family relationships of ex-institutional adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 30, 77-97.

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One Response to “Who’s fault is it anyway? Absent fathers and teenage delinquency”

  1. fen October 14, 2007 at 8:20 am #

    i need help to make up a quesionaire with 10 questions on absent fathers from homes

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