The term status offense implies that a kid has committed a crime, just by virtue of the word “offense.” Yet, they are anything but criminal. Kids—especially teenagers— are known to act up or disobey adults, and engaging in status offense behaviors is not uncommon. 

For many kids, misbehaving can be part of normal development. Adolescence is a time of complex social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.[] American Psychological Association (APA), Developing: A Reference for Professionals (Washington, DC: APA, 2002),  In figuring out who they are and how they want to behave in life, kids often engage in so-called teenage rebellion: exploratory, risk-taking behaviors that help teens assess social, personal, and familial boundaries.[] Institute of Medicine and National Research Council Committee on the Science of Adolescence, The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report (Washington, DC: The National Academies, 2011),  This period of life is also marked by higher impulsivity and susceptibility to peer pressure, leading many teenagers to engage in acts that can be of concern to adults.[] TJ Berndt, “Developmental changes in conformity to peers and parents,” Developmental Psychology 15 (1979), 608–616.

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Delinquency usually peaks in adolescence then tapers off.

However, research shows that delinquency and misbehaving tends to peak in mid-to-late adolescence, then rapidly decline and taper off in the twenties.[] Sharon Casey, “Understanding Youth Offenders: Developmental Criminology,” The Open Criminology Journal 4 (2011) 13–22,  In other words, many kids just need time to grow up and figure things out.[] Laurence Steinberg, “Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice,” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 5 (October 18, 2008),  These teens may need little to no intervention. Proper support, if any, can look like close mentoring with a caring adult who can help the kid navigate daily challenges or support for the parent who is learning to handle their child’s adolescent behaviors.

On the other hand, more severe risk-taking and misbehavior might be symptomatic of underlying issues that need attention. These sometimes-complex problems can be connected to all areas of a kid’s life—including experiences with family, school, community, and other personal factors. For instance, students may be truant because they experience academic anxiety and because they also have to help out at home, perhaps because of a parent’s illness or to care for a younger sibling. Other youth who “act out” may be experiencing serious conflicts at home, unmet mental health or special education needs, the loss of a loved one, abuse, maltreatment, and/or other traumas. 

Because these problems are sometimes complex, they are difficult to identify and address, despite the good intentions and efforts of families, schools, and communities. And, when kids’ needs go unmet, they can manifest into behaviors that disrupt their functioning at home and in school. Sometimes misbehaviors are even rational coping strategies—such as when a girl runs away to escape an abusive environment. In fact, running away, truancy, and substance use are the most common warning signs of child abuse, and one in five runaway or throw-away kids report being physically or sexually abused at home in the year prior to leaving or fearing abuse upon their return.[] Malika Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal, and Yasmin Vafa, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story (Washington, DC: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2015),; National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Homeless and Runaway Youth (Washington, DC: NCSL, 2016),  Rather than punishment, these cases call for more intensive individual and family services that address the kid’s and family’s unique needs.

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One in five runaway cases is tied to abuse.