A Child's Primary Influence: How Inadequate Parental Attachment

Leads to Deviant Behavior


Cicely N. Green


Deviant behavior such as violence, substance abuse, and the development of clinical disorders is often associated with peer influence and society. It is agreed that peers and society highly impact the behavior of an individual, especially during adolescence; however, an individual first learns and encounters their first influences through family, particularly parents. Therefore, individuals' attachments to their parents are to be further explored by using the Kentucky Youth Survey and Family Systems theory as another approach in predicting deviance.

The first and therefore, most influential figures in one's life is the parent. Since family is the primary social interaction among children, parents are the first to form, or hinder their child's self-esteem; they create rules and an environment for their child to be classically conditioned through; and parents also mold their child's view on relationships (Engel, 2006). Parents have such a significant impact on an individual's development that they have the extraordinary power, sometimes used intentionally, for their children to become anything the parents wish; based on the parents' pattern of behavior and children's physical and emotional attachment to their parents, children can develop healthily and become self-motivating; however, children also can become maladaptive and even destructive to themselves and/or others. Hirschi (1983) stated, 'Criminologists become interested in people only after they have committed criminal acts, and then it is too late to learn much about the family situation, especially during the child-rearing years. As a result, many theories of criminal behavior ignore the family and thus do not explain specific problems in child rearing that may be associated with a likelihood of later deviant behavior' (Katz; Dunham; Zimmerman, 1997). Increased attention shall be focused towards the prevention of children becoming deviant, particularly during adolescence, once they have been exposed to an unhealthy child-rearing environment.

Deviant behavior among children, adolescents, and adults appear to be strongly influenced by the unfavorable attachment and relationship they experienced with their parents.  According to the psychological theory of Family Systems, 'Individuals are best understood through assessing the interactions between and among family members'it is not possible to accurately assess an individual's concern without observing the interaction of the other family members' (Corey, p. 412, 2009). Known as a 'system,' the family functions so that each member is connected in order to influence one another's behaviors and create schemas. 

Data from the Kentucky Youth Survey (1997) was used for this study in order to test the hypothesis that parental attachment is a significant factor in a child's development; the Kentucky Youth Survey measured the patterns of violence and behavior as it related to the environment and lifestyle of youthful individuals. The lack of adequate parenting often leads to an impairing development that can lead to deviant behavior. In order to further understand parental attachment and the influence it may have on producing deviant behavior, Family Systems theory, consequences of inadequate parental attachment, and other possible causal factors of deviance, must be fully explored through relevant literature.

Family Systems

Western culture often emphasizes independence, whereas many Eastern cultures accentuate the importance and dependency families should provide. Researchers discovered that individuals cannot become independent without first being influenced by family, which eventually resulted in the development of family systems theory. According to the text Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 'A family systems perspective holds that individuals are best understood through assessing the interactions between and among family members. The development and behavior of one family member is inextricably interconnected with others in the family' (Corey, p. 412, 2009). Therefore, one cannot accurately understand an individual without reference to their family.

The impact of family on a child's development is now becoming recognized in educational settings. According to the article Understanding Families: Applying Family Systems Theory to Early Childhood Practice, 'At times it seems that teachers focus on children as if they appear from nowhere, land in their classrooms, and merely disappear at the end of the day' since educators are often trained to work with only children instead of the children and their families (Christian, 2006). Teachers must also interact with their young students' families and understand the diversity of each family and the family system since both the familial and school environment influence and can benefit as well as harm a child's development (Christian, 2006). Bowen's family systems theory can be interrelated with John Bowlby's attachment theory and both are recommended to be used in family therapy since the onset of many family problems are from unhealthy parental attachment. Bowlby's attachment theory focuses upon how the emotional attachment formed with the primary caregiver influences a child's development. Unresolved attachment can be related to previous trauma in attachment relationships stemming from loss, abuse, separation, severe inconsistency as well as rejection (Van ecke; Chope; Emmelkamp, 2006).  Successful attachment enables the child to be confident and feel safe enough to explore the world and form healthy relationships. To that end, lack of attention and care can result in the failure to attach to a primary caregiver, which will increase the chance of a child becoming deviant with an inability to form healthy relationships.

Parental Attachment and Attachment Theory

Mary Ainsworth contributed to Bowlby's theory by indicating separate attachment types. Securely attached individuals become visibly upset when their caregivers leave and are happy when their parents return. These individuals also show a balance between a healthy connection to others and self-reliance; they tend to have a positive self-image (low anxiety) and demonstrate trust and open communication in relationships (low avoidance). Also, secure parental attachment is associated with less engagement in high-risk behaviors, fewer mental health problems, and enhanced social skills and coping strategies (Moretti; Peled, 2004). However, those with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents and caregivers. These individuals question their self-worth and fear abandonment (high anxiety), whereas dismissing'avoidant adults distrust others and minimize or shun interpersonal intimacy (high avoidance). Fearful'avoidant adults experience high levels of both attachment anxiety and avoidance (Riggs; Sahl; Greenwald; Atkison; Paulson; Ross, 2007).

More often than not, children experience unhealthy attachment and relationships with parents, which appear to result in childhood aggression and hostility. The study featured in Attachment, family dysfunction, parental alcoholism, and interpersonal distress in late adolescence: A structural model, surveyed undergraduate students to discover the relationship between family environment, attachment and, interpersonal distress. The results showed that parental alcoholism was not a significant predictor of attachment to parents or interpersonal distress; however, the mediating role of parental attachment was evident when family dysfunction was examined. As the level of family dysfunction increased, participants reported less parental attachment and more interpersonal distress (Mothersead; Kivlighan; Wynkoop, 1998).

Parental Attachment and Self-esteem

Children and adolescents hostility towards parental figures because of insignificant parental attachment often leads to low self-esteem in adolescence, which seems to result in deviant behavior to compensate for their insecurities. A large population of adolescents were surveyed in the National Educational Longitudinal Study, which indicated that both high parental support and parental monitoring were related to greater self-esteem and lower risk behaviors (Parker; Benson, 2004). Research also supports that African-American, European-American, and Mexican-American children and adolescents that have secure attachments with their parents have a more positive sense of self esteem and reported less involvement in anti-social behaviors than their less securely attached peers (Arbona; Power, 2003; Stevenson, 2009).

Deviant behavior

The adolescents that have a less secure attachment with their parents are more likely to compensate for their emotional disturbances by engaging in anti-social and/or deviant behavior (Overbeek; Vollebergh; Engels; Meeus, 2005). Even though research has shown that familial disruption and reduced levels of parental attachment is associated with deviance among adolescents, research also suggests that socio-economic status (SES) and gender are not significant factors that increase the chance of adolescent deviant behavior (Kierkus; Baer, 2003; Wright; Caspi; Moffitt; Miech; Silva, 1999). However, one study that used longitudinal data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study recognized, 'SES has both a negative and a positive indirect effect upon delinquency that, in tandem, results in little overall correlation between the two. We found that low SES promoted delinquency by increasing individuals' alienation, financial strain, and aggression and by decreasing educational and occupational aspirations, whereas high SES promoted individuals' delinquency by increasing risk taking and social power and by decreasing conventional values' (Wright; Caspi; Moffitt; Miech; Silva, 1999).

Furthermore, aside from unhealthy parental attachment, peer influence has become one of the most significant factors found by researchers to predict delinquency. One research study used a sample of preadolescent youth to discover the effect of family and peer relationships on delinquency. The results showed that family structure, parental supervision, and parental attachment neither determined serious delinquency. Instead, peer association had the most influence upon an adolescent engaging in serious delinquent behavior (Ingram; Patchin; Huebner; McCluskey; Bynum, 2007; Davis; Tang; Janet, K, 2004). However, those who have been exposed to insecure parental attachment and a dysfunctional familial structure have a greater chance of becoming influenced by delinquent peers than those who were reared through a healthy attachment and family structure (Crosnoe; Erickson; Dornbusch, 2002).

Parental Attachment and Psychopathology

Such a pattern of inadequate relationships and deviant behavior may lead adolescents to become juvenile offenders with severe mental and personality disorders. In addition, research has shown that child abuse is also a predictor of mental illness, such as depression and psychopathology (Stevenson, 2009). According to the study conducted in Family Environment and Adult Attachment as Predictors of Psychopathology and Personality Dysfunction Among Inpatient Abuse Survivors, 'Because protection is the primary biological and evolutionary function of family caregivers, childhood abuse may be especially traumatic when it occurs within the context of family attachment relationships' (Riggs; Sahl; Greenwald; Atkison; Paulson; Ross, 2007, p. 578) Therefore, child abuse and insecure models of attachment typically result in a child developing low self-esteem, interpersonal problems, increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, somatization, personality disorders, and other psychological difficulties (Riggs; Sahl; Greenwald; Atkison; Paulson; Ross, 2007). For instance, low family cohesion and high conflict and/or control has been linked to depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and histrionic personality disorder in college and community samples of child abuse survivors (Riggs; Sahl; Greenwald; Atkison; Paulson; Ross, 2007).

Research suggests that dependent personality disorder was related to high levels of family control and low levels of expressiveness and independence; High family conflict and disorganization may characterize the early family experiences of patients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Preoccupied adult attachment style is characterized by hyper activating strategies of coping and emotional regulation and has been linked to low self-control and tolerance, interpersonal dependence/reliance, as well as histrionic, dependent, and borderline personality traits (Riggs; Sahl; Greenwald; Atkison; Paulson; Ross, 2007). In dismissing'avoidant attachment is characterized by deactivating strategies and in nonclinical samples has been associated with substance abuse, somatization, and repressive, with possible links suggested to dissociation and narcissistic, schizoid, antisocial, paranoid, and obsessive'compulsive personality. Findings in nonclinical samples also have documented significant relationships between fearful'avoidant attachment and depression, somatic anxiety, substance abuse, dissociation, and paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, avoidant, self-defeating, borderline, narcissistic, and obsessive'compulsive personality traits. High attachment anxiety and an inability to depend (fearful-avoidance) were related to paranoid, schizotypal, and borderline personality (Riggs; Sahl; Greenwald; Atkison; Paulson; Ross, 2007). Insecure attachment and most of the personality disorders share similar developmental antecedents (Brennan; Shaver, 1998).

Literature supports my hypothesis that childhood family environment and attachment contribute to deviant behavior. Inadequate attachment leads to hostility towards the parents, which results in the child developing low self-esteem. In order to compensate for their insecurities, adolescents are more likely to be influenced by delinquent peers, engage in deviant behavior, and develop psychological problems.  Once mental health professionals recognize unhealthy parental attachments before the client reaches adolescence, intervention measures can become effective and reduce the likelihood of deviant behavior in adolescence and throughout their lives. Even though the relation between parental attachment and deviant behavior has been previously researched, I will be using the family systems theory, attachment theory, and data from the Kentucky Youth Survey in order to test my hypothesis.


The data for this study came from the Kentucky Youth Survey (KYS), which surveyed sixth through 12th grade adolescents on questions pertaining to their family, school, and community environment, relationships with parents and friends, involvement in violence and victimization, emotional health, and cigarette and alcohol use. Conducted through the University of Kentucky at the Center for Prevention Research, the KYS featured 53 questions, 265 variables, and a sample size of 26, 687 students; however, space constraints caused the sample size to be reduced to N=1,303 chosen at random. By using the KYS as secondary data, proxy measures were used in order to derive a hypothesis (Clayton; Wilcox, 2001).


Parental Attachment

The key independent variable for this study is inadequate parental attachment. Inadequate parental attachment is defined as an unsuccessful parent-child attachment as a result of abuse, neglect, and/or low and inconsistent parenting skills. Inadequate parental attachment is used over peer influence because parents and family were shown in the literature to represent a primary influence for future deviant behavior. In addition, family systems theory and attachment theory support the hypothesis that the greatest influence on children's development is parent-child relationships and attachments. In order to measure inadequate parental attachment, the parental attachment scale was created from the KYS data; the following variables were used in the parental attachment scale: (1) how often my parent(s) seems to understand me; (2) how often my parent(s) makes rules that seem fair to me; (3) how often my parent(s) knows where I am when I'm not at home; (4) how often my parent(s) knows who I am with when not at home; (5) how often my parent(s) is concerned with how am doing in school; (6) how often I share my thoughts and feelings with my parent(s); (7) how often I feel unwanted by my parent(s); (8) how often I do things with my parent(s); (9) how often my parent(s) punishes me by scolding me; (10) how often my parent(s) punishes me by grounding me. Respondents chose from a four-item Likert scale: 1 ('never'); 2 ('almost never); 3 (sometimes); 4 ('most of the time'). However, variables 7, 9, and 10 were recoded to go into the opposing direction so that 1 = most of the time and 4 = never (Clayton; Wilcox, 2001).

Dependent Variables  

This study explores four dependent variables, or outcomes of inadequate parental attachment according to various studies featured above in the literature review: deviant behavior defined as violence, substance abuse, low self-esteem, high peer attachment and behavioral problems.


In order to measure level of violence, the violence scale was created from the KYS data; the following variables were used in the violence scale: (1) ever shoved or tripped someone; (2) ever sat on someone or pinned someone down; (3) ever hit, punched, or slapped someone with hand or fist; (4) ever hit someone with object were holding or threw; (5) ever pulled, twisted, squeezed or pinched part of other's body; (6) ever laid trap for someone so he/she would get hurt; (7) ever been in fist fight; (8) ever used weapon during fight; (9) ever threatened to hurt someone with weapon; (10) ever used gun to threaten someone. Respondents either answered 'yes' (1) or 'no' (2) (Clayton; Wilcox, 2001).

Substance Use

In order to measure amount of substance usage, the substance scale was created from the KYS data; the following variables were used in the substance scale: (1) gotten drunk; (2) smoked marijuana; (3) used inhalants; (4) used cocaine. Respondents either answered 'yes' (1) or 'no' (2) (Clayton; Wilcox, 2001).


In order to measure low self-esteem, the esteem scale was created from the KYS data; the following variables were used in the esteem scale: (1) during past week, did not feel like eating: appetite was poor; (2) during past week, felt that I could not shake off blues even with help from family & friends; (3) during past week, had trouble keeping mind on what I was doing; (4) during past week, felt depressed; (5) during past week, thought my life had been a failure; (6) during past week, felt fearful; (7) during past week, my sleep was restless; (8) during past week, I talked less than usual; (9) during past week, felt lonely; (10) during past week, people were unfriendly; (11) during past week, had crying spells; (12) during past week, felt sad; (13) during past week, felt that people disliked me; (14) during past week, I could not get "going"; (15) during past week, felt I was just as good as other people; (16) during past week, felt that everything I did was an effort; (17) during past week, felt hopeful about the future; (18) during past week, I was happy; (19) during past week, I enjoyed life. Respondents chose from a four-item Likert scale: 1 ('rarely or none of time'); 2 ('some or little of time'); 3 (occasionally or moderate amount of time'); 4 ('most or all of time'). However, variables 15 through 18 were recoded to go in the opposing direction so that 1 = most or all of time and 4 = rare or none of time (Clayton; Wilcox, 2001).

Peer Attachment

In order to measure level of peer attachment, the esteem scale was created from the KYS data; the following variables were used in the peer attachment scale: (1) would like to be like my best friends; (2) I respect the opinions of my best friends; (3) my best friends would stick by me if I got into trouble; (4) I would stick by my best friends if they got into trouble; (5) people I think of as "best friends" also think of me the same way; (6) I fit in well with my best friends; (7) my best friends take interest in my problems; (8) I feel close to my best friends; (9) I feel lonely when I am with my best friends. However, variable 9 was recoded so that it could go in the opposing direction where 4 =strongly disagree and 1 =strongly disagree. Respondents chose from a four-item Likert scale that ranged from 1 ('strongly disagree') to 4 ('strongly agree') (Clayton; Wilcox, 2001).

Behavioral Problems

            In order to measure the level of behavioral problems, the behavior scale was created from the KYS data; the following variables were used in the behavior scale: (1) received counseling because of behavior or moods; (2) been in hospital because of behavior/moods; (3) been in jail or detention center; (4) been in special class/program because of behavior problem. Respondents either answered 'yes' (1) or 'no' (2) (Clayton; Wilcox, 2001).

Control Variables   

The control variables include race/ethnicity; age; and gender. Race/ethnicity is controlled because minority ethnic groups seem to be more inclined towards violence. Race was measured by respondents choosing the race/ethnicity that they considered themselves: (1) White; (2) Black; (3) Native American; (4) Mexican/Chicano; (5) Puerto Rican/other Latin American; (6) Asian; (7) White and Black; (8) Other. However, for this study, variables two through eight were recoded to 'nonwhite' (2). Age is controlled since the effects of inadequate parental attachment will be present at different points in the participants' lives. Respondents indicated their age, which ranged from 10 years of age to 20 years of age. Gender is controlled since females and males tend to express low self-esteem and deviance differently; in addition, many mental disorders are more prevalent among a certain gender. Females were coded to equal '0' and males were coded to equal '1'.


For each scale and variable, each '1' of the respondents' answers was counted in order to run and understand the bivariate and multivariate analysis. The table of descriptive statistics on page 13 further indicates the meaning of each variable and response: 50% of the sample is male and 50% is female; the average age of the sample is 14 years of age; 85% of the sample is white; more than half of the sample are highly attached to their parents; less than half of the sample are violent; a small amount of the sample use substances; almost half of the sample have high self-esteem; more than half are highly attached to their peers; and a minimal amount of the sample have behavioral problems.

Table 2, featured on page 14 illustrates the bivariate relations among the study variables. My hypothesis did not focus on the control variables of age, sex, and race; therefore, the following results will only focus on the independent and dependent variables. The bivariate analysis indicates there is a significant relationship at the .01 level (2-tailed) between parental attachment and adolescent violence, substance use, self-esteem, peer attachment, and behavioral problems. The amounts of violence, substance use, and behavioral problems each have a negative correlation with parental attachment. As parental attachment increases, the amount of violence decreases by .101, substance use decreases by .071, and behavioral problems decreases by .104. Self-esteem and peer attachment appear to have a positive correlation with parental attachment. As parental attachment increases, self-esteem increases by .503 and peer attachment increases by .125.

To test the effects of parental attachment on adolescent violence, substance use, self-esteem, peer attachment, and behavioral problems, while controlling for age, race, and sex, ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models were employed for each outcome variable, featured on page 15. Similar results as the bivariate analysis were found using this multivariate analysis. As parental attachment increased by one unit, violence decreased by .056, substance use decreased by .036, and behavioral problems decreased by .021, controlling for the age, race, and sex. In addition, as parental attachment increased by one unit, self-esteem increased by .956 and peer attachment increased by .127. All relationships were highly significant, therefore, supporting my hypothesis.


The results indicate that as youths' attachment with parents increases, violence, substance use, and behavioral problems decrease; peer attachment and self-esteem increase. Therefore, the KYS data supported my hypothesis for all dependent variables except for peer attachment. My hypothesis indicated that inadequate parental attachment leads to child hostility towards the parents, which tends to result in the child developing low self-esteem; in order to compensate for their insecurities, adolescents are more likely to be influenced by delinquent peers, engage in deviant behavior, and develop psychological problems.  In other words, as parental attachment increased, adolescent violence, substance use, peer attachment, and behavioral problems would decrease, and self-esteem would increase. However, the results show that as parental attachment increases, so does peer attachment, which is logical because if a child develops a healthy attachment with parents, that child will have a better ability to form healthy relationships in adolescence and adulthood (Ecke; Chope; Emmelkamp, 2006). 

Directions for future research can be applied in therapy, the criminal justice system, and childcare services. Once mental health professionals recognize unhealthy parental attachments before the client reaches adolescence, intervention measures can become effective and reduce the likelihood of deviant behavior in adolescence and throughout their lives, which could ultimately reduce delinquency and severe psychological problems throughout society. Limitations of this study include the reduced amount of data and variables from the KYS, and in the future, a less broad topic such as the impact of family violence on one specific deviant behavior can be explored. In conclusion, this study has been my first independent research project, and from this experience I have and will continue to learn and enjoy the places that research can take you.




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Table 1.  Descriptive Statistics for Study Variables





Descriptive Statistics









(0=female, 1=male)






(number of years)





Race (how you describe yourself)

(0=white, 1=nonwhite)





Parental Attachment Scale

(0=low attachment, 10=high attachment)





Violence Scale

(0=low violence, 10=high violence)





Substance Scale

(0=no substance use, 4=high substance use)





Esteem Scale

(0=low self-esteem, 19=high self-esteem)




Peer Attachment Scale

(8=low peer attachment, 32=high peer attachment)




Behavioral Scale

(0=no behaviors, 4=high behavioral problems)





n = 1,303

Table 2. Zero-Order Correlations among Study Variables











1. Sex









2. Age









3. Race









4. Parental Attachment Scale









5. Violence Scale









6. Substance Use Scale









7. Esteem Scale









8. Peer Attachment Scale









9. Behavioral Scale




















p < .01 **

p < .05 *

Table 3. OLS Regression Models Examining the Effect of Parental Attachment on Adolescent Violence, Substance Use, Self-Esteem, Peer Attachment, and Behavioral Problems.




Parental Attachment

Coeff.           S.E.


Coeff.           S.E.


Coeff.            S.E.


Coeff.           S.E.

Deviant Behaviors






        Violence Scale


-.056**     .022

1.4        .14

.09            .03

-1.0*      .2

Substance Scale

-.036**      .009

.11        .06

.19*           .01.

-.05      .08

Esteem Scale

-.956**      .042


1.3*      .27

-.04            .06


.006      .38


Peer Attachment Scale

-.127**       .039


-1.3*     .23


.002           .05


1.0*     .33


Behavioral Scale

-.021**      .006


.03        .03


.02*         .009


-.18*     .05



p < .01 **

p < .05 *.