It is not too far a leap to think that children who grow up in a household where crime is the norm and criminality is part of everyday life may be at higher risk of turning to criminal behavior themselves. It is an area which has attracted a great deal of research with the view that if such connections can be made, then interventions can follow in attempts to prevent such children from falling into a life of crime and support them to make better life choices.

A new study published this year in the Journal of Aggression and Violent Behavior by researchers from the University of California and the University of Cambridge has carried out a systematic review of all research which has focused on the transmission of criminal behavior between parent and child.


The review project included studies from research carried out in eight different countries; the United States, Austria, Denmark, England, Finland, Sweden, The Netherlands, and New Zealand, from 1950 until the end of 2016 with a total of 21 studies being included in the final review analysis which involved a staggering 3,423,483 children.

The research focused on the issue of ‘intergenerational transmission’, a term meaning that some characteristics of behaviour can be seen in both the parent and the child which applies not only to crime but to social status, parenting styles, life choices, and education. Overall the research looked specifically at the prevalence of criminal behavior in children of criminal parents compared to children with non-criminal parents.

“Several theories explain intergenerational transmission using a combination of different processes, including social learning, criminogenic environmental influences, official bias from the criminal justice system, and biological or biosocial transmission.”

Children learn from their parents. In classic social learning theory from psychology, the examples that parents set in their lifestyles and behaviors guide the behaviors, morals, and motivations of their children. Associated theories which build on this highlight how parents are the primary role models for their children and through observation, children learn and may imitate their parents’ behaviors believing such behaviors are acceptable. When such lessons are present very early in life, they can become ingrained increasing the risk of a child following that same model as they grow older and begin to make decisions for themselves.


Specifically, when looking at criminal behavior, previous research had indicated a relationship between a father’s conviction history and imprisonment and the criminal behavior of his son, but little was known as to the extent of this correlation.

“Parental crime predicts increased risk for offspring’s delinquent and criminal behavior.”

The results of this study showed that children of criminal parents were 2.4 times more likely to engage in criminal behavior themselves compared to the children of non-criminal parents. Furthermore, when variables which may influence such behavior were accounted for such as education, socioeconomic status, substance abuse and abuse within the home, these children remained at higher risk of criminality to a level of 1.8 times higher than those with parents not engaging in criminal behavior.

The results showed that there was no difference when looking at the gender of the child — i.e. male children were not at more risk of criminal behavior than female children — but higher risks were found in specific parent-child gender relationships. The strongest transmission of criminal behavior was between mothers and daughters, followed by mothers and sons, fathers to daughters and then fathers to sons. A surprising finding within the literature which has focused on father to son relationships and the expected higher risk of behavior transference. Here, it was found that the transmission from mothers to their children was stronger than that from fathers.

Authors suggest that as criminal behavior is less common in mothers compared to fathers, when they do engage in such behavior it may be more deviant and therefore have a stronger influence on children. Furthermore, mothers can often be the main caregiver within the home and for children, this could mean that arrests, convictions, and possible imprisonment have a greater influence on the family and the development of those children than it may have done if the criminal behavior had come from the father.

This supports the findings of an influential study by Dutch researchers published in 2009 which collected the criminal history data of five generations starting with 198 adolescent males who were placed in a reform school due to delinquency in the Netherlands between 1911 and 1914. From there they tracked the martial partners of these men as they progressed through life and their children, repeating the tracking cycle to reach a comprehensive history of five generations.

The Dutch researchers tracked all lifetime convictions from serious traffic offences to murder and found that delinquency and criminal behavior in a parent increases the risk that the offspring will also engage in such behavior.


Violent behavior was found to be particularly strong with a finding that 50% of all the violent offences committed were carried out by just 5% of the families. Male children with a criminal father were found to have a 1.4 to 2.3 higher risk of displaying criminal behavior themselves when compared to individuals who did not have a criminal father. The odds rose to 2.3 to 3.4 times higher when only violent behavior was examined.

The most recent study also looked at the intergenerational transmission levels across different countries and discovered that it was significantly lower in Sweden and Denmark than it is in the United States, despite the U.S. having a much harsher criminal justice system and punishments in place for the same crimes. This difference is most likely due to the very different methods and opinion on criminal justice in these two countries.

When looking at the ages at which children engaged in such criminal behavior, late adolescents was the strongest point and the lowest point being at middle age. The authors suggest the effects of the influence and transmission of criminal behavior from parent to child may essentially “wear off” or become less influential as the child ages. This supports the notion that early childhood is the most influential period for children learning behavior and observing behavior patterns in their parents.

While not all children who have criminal parents will become criminals themselves, this study does highlight the risk factors involved and give a more solid scientific basis for how this group of children are at higher risk. Intervention programmes designed for these children could be highly beneficial in breaking this cycle giving such children the best chance of not following a similar criminal path as their parents.