Pathways to Delinquent and Sex Offending Behavior: The Role of Childhood Adversity and Environmental Context in a Treatment Sample of Male Adolescents

Document Type


Publication Date



Background: Exposure to greater Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has been associated with increased likelihood of general and sex offending behaviors. However, few studies consider both the impact of varied ACE exposures and other early experiences on pathways to offending behaviors in adolescents who have engaged in sexually abusive behaviors.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of ACEs and sexual boundary problems within the home on the development of delinquent and sexually abusive behavior.

Participants & setting: Data were collected from archival records of male adolescents (N = 285) who had received treatment for sexually abusive behavior at a youth facility.

Methods: This study investigated the effects of individual adverse experiences on delinquent nonsexual and sexually abusive behaviors through structural equation modeling.

Results: Structural equation modeling revealed a three-factor model for ACEs. Direction and significance of paths between ACEs and the onset, persistence, and nature of maladaptive behaviors differed. Household dysfunction was related to an earlier onset (β = 1.19, p = 0.013) and more persistent nonsexual delinquent offending (β = 1.05, p = 0.048) and contact sexual offending (β = 1.19, p = 0.010). Conversely, sexual abuse and exposure to sexual boundary problems were associated with an earlier onset of sexually abusive behavior (β = −1.08, p = 0.038) as well as indicators of adolescent-onset (β = −1.30, p = 0.002), less persistent (β = −1.53, p = 0.001), and nonviolent (β = −1.89, p = 0.001) delinquency.

Conclusions: Findings suggest variations in ACE exposures differentially influence the onset, severity, and persistence of delinquent and sexually abusive behaviors among these youths.