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Youth and the Law


Risk Factors

Why do youth get in trouble?

Young people get into trouble with the law for a variety of reasons. Many youth are put at greater risk of participating in criminal activity because of factors like their family situation, their school environment, or the kids they hang out with. Such “risk factors” often work together to increase chances that a youth will get into trouble. The more risk factors in a youth’s life, the greater the chance of coming into conflict with the law.
“Risk factors” are experiences in a young person’s life that increase the chances of a youth being victimized or of developing one or more behaviour problems. (The National Crime Prevention Council, 1997, Canada) The following is not a complete list, but it does describe some warning signs that signal a young person is at risk.


Living in poverty can negatively impact on a youth in many different ways. Youth who are hungry may not perform well at school. 42% of Canadians who depend on food banks are under the age of 18. The number of people using food banks in Canada has doubled in the last ten years. In 1997, 20.2% of New Brunswick youth under the age of 18 lived with families whose income fell below the poverty line. Families who live below the poverty line may not be able to put their children into sports and leisure programs, music lessons, or other extra-curricular activities. Fees and equipment for such programs may be too expensive. Youth who live in poverty may not even have access to necessities such as eyeglasses or hearing aids.

Peer Pressure

Young people often say that those who have the most influence on their lives are other youth. Many look to their peers for acceptance, companionship, and direction. Peer influence can be positive or negative. Negative peer influence tends to have a greater impact when youth do not feel recognized or connected at home. Such young people may feel particularly pressured to do things that are not good for their own healthy growth and development. This might include taking part in criminal activity, using drugs and alcohol, or having unprotected sex. Some youth may engage in anti-social behaviours because their peers exclude them because of their gender, sexual orientation, culture, race, or language. Without a caring adult to listen and offer support, many young people feel overwhelmed by the stresses of adolescence

Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Substance abuse devastates lives. Students who drink and use drugs have shorter attention spans, poor cognitive abilities, and are less motivated. Youth who live with adults who use drugs or drink excessively often do not know how to cope with their feelings of frustration, anger, and isolation. Substance abuse is also associated with risk-taking behaviour such as criminal activity. Whether young people drink or do drugs to escape the pain in their lives, or because they are bored and want to “fit in”, their impaired ability to make good decisions puts them at risk. In 1996, 60% of New Brunswick students reported using at least one drug.

Lack of Family Support

Young people need to be in caring environments with strong attachments to supportive adults. A 1999 Report on Canadian health indicated that young women between 15 and 19 years of age were the most likely of any age/sex group to show signs of depression.

Youth who live in abusive homes or lack the attention of a caring adult can suffer from low self-esteem, depression, and lack self-respect. They also tend to suffer from physical and behavioral problems. They may carry their emotional hurt into the schools where they "act out" in an aggressive manner affecting other students, as well as teachers. Some become timid and withdrawn while others begin to repeat the cycle of violence as they have no skills to solve problems without violence. Anger management can become an on-going problem.

Lack of family support can also mean neglect. Young people need guidance. Without it they may be unable to find healthy ways to handle their problems. Youth who have been raised by adults with inconsistent or poor parenting abilities have a lower chance of developing positive problem-solving, life and communication skills. They do not learn to care about themselves because they feel that no one else cares about them.


Most young people get into trouble between 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. – the “after school” hours. Youth who have difficulties in school are at a greater risk of participating in criminal activities. Canada has the third largest proportion of youth with poor literacy skills in the world. Young people experience difficulty for a number of reasons such as a lack of family support or learning disabilities. Research has shown that youth who have problems in school or who drop out early are at a higher risk of using drugs or committing offences. In 1995, 22% of young men and 14% of young women left high school before graduation.


Many youth complain of having nothing to do. The most common extra-curricular activity for children and youth is watching television. This may be because they cannot afford the expenses connected with taking part in sports or other clubs. It may be for lack of opportunities in their area such as leisure or volunteer activities. Many youth are left to care for themselves after school until their parents return home from their jobs. This means that a lot of young people have idle time on their hands.


A continuing concern for young people today is the rising youth unemployment rate. Young people want to be productive. Employment opportunities give youth a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of independence, and the opportunity to develop valuable skills. In addition to earning money, having a job teaches responsibility. Careers are sometimes built on the experiences gained from part-time employment. But when a youth leaves schools and cannot find a job, there is sense of hopelessness, frustration and worthlessness. Unemployed youth are at greater risk of participating in anti-social behaviours. In 1997, less than half of teenagers had summer jobs.

This pamphlet does not contain a complete statement of the law in this area and laws change from time to time. Anyone needing advice on his or her specific legal position should consult a lawyer.

Researched by: Centre for Research on Youth at Risk, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, N.B. E3B 5G3 (506) 452-0456

Published and Edited by:

Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick
P.O. Box 6000 Fredericton, N.B.
Tel: (506) 453-5369
Fax: (506) 462-5193

Funding provided by Justice Canada
March 2003


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