You are here: Home » Issues » Social Control Theory

Social Control Theory

Social control theory (the role of social bonds) provides a useful framework in the examination of drug use and delinquency among youth and young re-offenders. This essay discusses the issues about children that are at risk in becoming delinquent youth where there are low levels of affection and bonding in ones family, low achievement in school and become involved in anti social peer groups. The Hirschi’s social control theory was also considered to explain that juveniles who behaved in an illegal manner have not developed social bonds to a conventional parent. This paper also explores juvenile offender use drugs to fill the emotional void created by their inability to form social ties with their families.


When a child enters adolescence the selection of peers and the nature of support from ones peers becomes an important factor. Having friends who use drugs or are involved in delinquent activities can cause a law abiding individual to be at great risk of engaging in these activities. Being personally and socially competent is also important and is reflected in the feelings of control over one’s own life, being ability to detach from problems in the family as well as reaching out for help outside the family. An individual must have the ability to cope with situations that are not always apt to change. An individual can have this ability with the proper social support. However, if an individual does not have strong social support, the risk factors for becoming a drug user or getting involved in delinquent activities become extremely high and the individual is likely to get involved. The ability to cope is not based on the number of social supporters, but rather on the strength of attachment, the frequency, the duration and intensity of the social support relationships. (Ex. A child’s peers are involved in using drugs. The child will refuse involvement if the relationship with his parents is strong and the attachment is strong).

An individual may use drugs in order to gain acceptance and support from peers however he may also use substances to gain greater parental attention. In addition, using substances provides a mechanism to escape from the world they are living in and gain control over something not in his or her authority. Substance abuse may result in a lack of performance in school, health conditions and problem in family involvement as well as problems in peer groups. (Ex. If a child’s relationship with peers is stronger and more frequent then relationships at home, the child may risk breaking the social ties with the family which results in family problems).

According to Kierkus and Baer (2002) parental attachment may explain why children from a non-traditional family (family with one or no biological parents) are at higher risk of becoming involved in delinquent activity. It was believed that single parents were not able to supervise the children as well as a two parent family. Disrupted families were associated with greater conflict and unhappiness than a traditional family. It was also found that children from non-traditional families hold lower levels of parental attachment than children of traditional families. (Nye, 1985, cited in Kierkus and Baer, 2002).

Finding of Kierkus and Baer (2002) showed that family structure is a significant factor in delinquent behaviour among children. The most criminogenic family types are those where neither biological parent is present. The social bonds within that family were weak because the child could not relate to the rest of the family. He was the outcast and relied on other means for support. Children from two parent families were found to escape from delinquency earlier than one parent families and abuse in the home results in a cycle of violence. The child associates family with abuse and carries out these associations into later life and into his or her own family.

Social Control Theory

Control theorists suggest that attachment and commitment to conforming people, institutions and values prevents an individual to deviate. Social control theory suggests that delinquency arises when an individual’s bonds to society are weak or broken.

There are two kinds of control theory which explains when attachment and commitment occur and how they are weakened. Broken bond theory assumes that socialization into convention occurs at a young age however something breaks the bonds or weakens them, causing the person to deviate. Failure to bond theory is the second kind of control theory. This theory assumes that individuals perform delinquent acts because the bonds to convention were never created in the first place. Persuading an individual to conforming behaviour requires a distinct form of socialization which can possibly go wrong (Lanier and Henry, 2004).

Juvenile Drug Use and the Role of Social Bonds

Many factors have been found to correlate to juvenile drug use. However, family involvement or lack there of as well as delinquent peers, have been shown to be the most significant factor in juvenile drug use. The strength of conventional bonds with parents has direct influence on behaviour. Parents can guide children into appropriate law abiding behaviour. Social bonds also develop and change over time which allows for different levels of control over juveniles into adulthood. The likelihood of drug use by juveniles decreases when parents are more likely to monitor the children. If one or both parents are drug users, the likelihood of a child becoming a drug user is increased because of the lack of supervision. This correlation is even more significant when mothers are found to be the drug user (Gilmore, Rodriguez, & Webb, 2005).

Peer related bonds have direct and indirect influences on juvenile drug use. Ayers et al. (1999) cited in Gilmore et al. (2005) found that contact with non-delinquent peers have direct influence on an individuals resistance of drug related delinquent behaviour.

When individuals have not formed conventional bonds, their ability to use their better judgement is left behind thus there is no one to disappoint. Juveniles who do not take part in school related or conventional activities such as school sports and clubs were also more likely to engage in drug use and delinquency. Attachment and commitment to convention prevents an individual from engaging in delinquent activities such as drug use, in fear of being pushed aside from a conventional parent or friend. The consequences of breaking bonds outweigh the delinquent act.

Court Case

The appellant was born in China in 1978 and was engaged in gang activity in early high school. He had accumulated five years of previous convictions which was in the discussion of the pre-disposition report which was prepared for sentencing. In his sixth conviction, the appellant who was sixteen at the time was seen placing a shipment of one hundred fifty seven pounds of heroin into a van and drove away. The appellant was then seen redistributing the heroin into two boxes and hid them in some bushes at a park in Langley. The young offender was sentenced to two years closed custody by the court of appeal. The appellant was raised to adult court where the decision was reversed for reasons given by Madam Justice Ryan. In his sentence, his family background, education which was not completed, the protection of society and the youth’s needs were all taken into account in the decision for his sentence. He was then sentenced to one year closed custody in substitution for the two years he was previously facing. In this case the young offender did not form any kind of conventional bond. He was not in school completing his education and did not have a conventional parent to prevent him from engaging in delinquent acts. Associating himself with other delinquent youth (.R. v. J. (G.L.), 1998). Social bond theory explains why this young offender involved himself into drug related delinquent behaviour. He had built social bonds with gang members and the gang was considered his family. The family was not law abiding which resulted in his behaviour. He would have also broken the social ties with the gang if he would not have carried out the heroin trafficking duty.


Social bonds play a significant role in an individuals desire to resist drug related delinquent behaviour. Courts must make an effort to address and explore the broken bonds that increase delinquent behaviour otherwise there will be little not no progress in programs designed to prevent delinquency and drug use among youth (Gilmore et al. 2005). The parental attachment concept of social control theory suggests that the closer the relationship between parents and children, the more the children will be attached and identify with his or her parents resulting low levels of delinquency among the children.

Family structure plays a significant role in parental attachment and delinquent behaviour among children. Children from non traditional families are more likely to get involved in delinquent activities such as drugs or drug trafficking because there is little or no attachment to the parents. Engaging in delinquent activity is a means to gain control over something in one’s life and perhaps an attempt to gain parental attention in order to build the social ties.

Social bonds play a significant role in explaining why some youth do and do not choose substance abuse and other drug related activities. Youth who reject substance use involvement, do so in fear the bond with family members or conventional peers will be broken. The social ties which prevent drug use among youth involves attachment to a conventional parent, peer or program, intensity of the relationship and attachment, how frequent the youth is in the presence of the conventional other and the duration of time spent and relationship with the conventional parent, peer or program.

Erickson, P. & Butters, J., (2005). How does the Canadian juvenile justice system respond to detained youth with substance abuse associated problems? Gaps, challenges,  and emerging issues. Substance Use and Misuse, 40, 953-973

Liked it
Powered by Powered by Triond