Skip to Content
Advanced Search

Attachment, Loss And Violence in Girls


Ryder, Judith A. (2007).  “ ‘I Wasn’t Really Bonded With My Family’: Attachment, Loss And Violence, Among Adolescent Female Offenders”. Critical Criminology 15:19-40, DOI 10. 1007/s10612-00609017-x.





“Without an understanding of the processes that move girls toward violent behavior we are ill-equipped to develop appropriate theories or effective interventions”, states Author, Judith Ryder, upon embarked on this study, pointing out the lamentably small research that has been devoted to the study of girls and violence. Despite the growing percentage of young girls who are entering the juvenile justice system, the primary study subjects of violence trends tend to be adolescent or adult males. The focus of Ryder’s study is thus the traumatic preliminary events that take place in the lives of adolescent girls, such as loss, abuse, and neglect, often by parents or caregivers, that consequently disrupt critical stages of bonding and attachment, consequently making them vulnerable to engage in violent behavior.





Ryder uses four research fundamentals as models in discussing early childhood trauma and adolescent violence among young women: Developmental Criminology, Feminist Research, Attachment Theory, and Trauma Theory.


-         DEVELOPMENTAL CRIMINOLOGY: Stresses the inseparable link between events in ones childhood and their effect in adulthood development.


o       Children who have experienced abuse or violence when they are little and how much more they are prone to exhibit violent behavior in later years.


o       Attachment is an acquired state.


o       Disciplining a child at a young age teaches boundaries and self-control from innate destructive impulses.


o       This perspective does not address how the loss of caregiver at a young age affects a child’s ability to bond later in life, or how it might make them more prone to engage in violence.


o       Few theories from this school of thought are addressed to girls, and so as Ryder rightly points out, it’s likely to miss gender-specific characteristics.


-         FEMINIST RESEARCH: Counters traditional research on violence by focusing in on young women and their unique experiences of women.


o       Although violence experienced by adolescents is becoming a common denominator in youth in juvenile custody, it seems to be more acute for girls.


o       Several studies within this body of research have narrowed down “commonplaces” within women’s community where they are likely to experience violence and how they are likely to negotiate violence within these settings.


o       It focuses on violence, abuse and neglect within the home by parents, family, caregivers, which seem to be repeating themes within the lives of female juvenile delinquents. 


o       Has brought victimization to the forefront of criminological studies.


o       Victimization experienced by women at a young age sets them up for a higher risk for later involvement in delinquency.


o       Ryder points out that “the pattern of victims to survivors to offenders may not fit all females but because victimization figures so prominently in females’ lives such experiences are likely to contribute to “blurred” boundaries between victims and offenders”.


-         ATTACHEMENT THEORY: Emphasizes the innate need of humans for attachment bonds with others as a means of survival.


o       Highlights the importance of child-hood experiences as a key determinant in ones development.


o       Links victimization with delinquency.


o       According to Attachment Theory, the way in which children are treated is the way in which they will “develop in a socially cooperative way”. Maltreatment thus disrupts the process of the development of attachment of a child and so the child is likely to develop in a state of detachment with others, which might culminate into a state of frustration for not having their attachment needs met, which manifests itself through violent or delinquent behavior.


o       A key factor of this theory is that the involvement of others who are able of provide adequate caring and nurturing support to child, may offset what would be a path of crime and delinquency.


-         TRAUMA THEORY: Traumatic experiences affect one’s perception of the world they live in.


o       Ones individual capability to deal with various life events (regardless of the how upsetting) is a consequence of ones personality, context and the effective network that one has around.


o       A child’s caregivers “unavailability” (as a result of incarceration, divorce, addictions, mental instability, etc.) may leave children more susceptible to its effects. Exposure to violence may only aggravate the increased likelihood of violent behavior and alcohol and drug abuse.


o       Exposure to violence and other stressors within a child’s environment may lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress.








-         PARTICIPANTS: 24 female teens adjudicated for assault in a New York State Office of Children and Family Services facility. They were primarily women of color: 58% Black; 17% Hispanic or Latina; 17% Biracial/Multiracial; 8% were White. The ages varied from 13-16 years old.


-         INNTERVIEW PROCEDURE: Each participant answered a semi-structured interview and answered a semi-structured questionnaire focusing on the respondent’s life prior to custody, including any traumatic events and family functioning. 


-         All responses were coded and entered in SPSS; all original wording was carefully maintained.


-         Ryder noted common themes and sub-themes that emerged in the interview process, such included death, physical absence, and psychological unavailability.




-         The young woman all had experienced loss, abuse, and other forms of traumatic events before their 11th birthdays—Each reported an average of 10 events.


-         No single event indicated trauma, although the frequency of such events were significant and happened on a frequent basis, and many crimes which occurred in violent or socially stigmatized contexts (homicide, AIDS, drug overdose, etc.)


-         Regardless of who died, respondents experienced confusion, anxiety and rage. Much, which Ryder points out, was never properly addressed as a result of absent or ineffective emotional networks.


-         Those who were responsible for their care and within their communities inflicted much of the violence experienced by the respondents, upon.


-         Sexual abuse was reported the lowest (although it happened among the youngest 6-10years old and among family members).


-         ¾ of the women had witnessed a stabbing or shooting outside their home; 2/3 had been awakened by gunfire; 65% had witnessed a killing; 42% had witnessed a fire or an explosion; 42% reported an accident requiring hospital treatment; 29% had been stabbed or shot; 17% had been mugged; 17% had been seriously ill and ¼ of the women had lost their homes.




-         Numerous parental figures had entered and then left the girls’ lives, leaving them to fend for themselves,


-         The young women never spoke of adult comfort as a result of physiological absence (due to substance abuse, serious illnesses, disability, work or personal problems).


-         Respondents often preferred to not reach out for emotional help and guidance as “Relationships were already tenuous”, as Ryder states, “and so…feared causing additional disturbances”.




Ryder stresses the desperate need for further research of female issues dealing with violence, “the respondents are situated at the “deep end” of the juvenile justice system” states Ryder, “traditionally girls’ violence has either been ignored or sensationalized with little effort to understand the underlying processes that contribute to such behavior”. And although she recognizes that this study was very limited in terms of the number of respondents, Ryder affirms that this study makes a strong case for proper intervention methods that are truly coveted by these young teens. “Reattachment is always possible” she believes, “the ability to alter relationships provides a hopeful note for intervening…there is a need to provide young women with a safe place to share traumatic experiences and to receive appropriate clinical care”. Without the necessary research backed by adequate funding, such resources are non-existent or unattainable—“clearly we need consistent support, services and connections with caring adults if we seek to address the underlying mechanisms that contribute to violent behavior”, says Ryder.




  1. Who was your source of mentorship as a young person?
  2. How did you rely on that person/persons/organization for advice, wisdom, or guidance?
  3. Judith Ryder believes that investing in a life of a teen may mitigate the effects of growing up in poverty, had minimal emotional, social, educational and/or health support. In what ways might someone go about doing that in a young life?



Gaby Morales c. CYS