Home > Psychology > Externalizing Behavior: A Journal Article Review

Externalizing Behavior: A Journal Article Review

Developmental Psychology, Vol.45, 2009

Infancy Parenting and Externalizing Psychopathology from Childhood through Adulthood: Developmental Trends

Michael F. Forber and Byron Egeland


This article attempted to answer the question, does poor-quality early parenting have a correlation with externalization of behavior as a child continues to progress developmentally toward adulthood? Previous findings were suggestive that poor-quality early parenting was more strongly associated with externalization or behavior problems in early childhood than in adolescence. The results of this study also suggested a similar result with the added inference that externalization during adulthood is more directly correlated to early parenting. There were two theories offered to explain the lack of exhibition of the behavior during adolescence.

The first theory offered to explain the regression of parental influence on behavior during adolescence is called the developmental period explanation which states that during adolescence, it is normal for the adolescent to exhibit a greater predisposition toward externalization of behavior regardless of parental upbringing. This is thought to be caused by increased pressure by deviant peers. Even children with a history of externalization from late preschool age to preadolescence are exposed to the same deviant peer groups. During this adolescent period, poor-quality early parenting has less of an impact than peer pressure according to the results. Conversely, behavioral externalization is relatively low in the late preschool age to preadolescent group, so incidences may be more heavily related to early parenting.

The second salient theory to explain why externalization associated with early parenting decreases during adolescence is called the decaying relation explanation, which attributes the decrease to a longer interval separating risk and outcome. The keystone of this theory is that successful adaptation in previous encounters serves as a tool to cope with future experiences. This coping ability, however, can be affected by future circumstances. This means that successful adaptation in a given situation does not always lead to better coping skills for future encounters if significant events have altered the adolescent’s coping mechanism. For example, negative experiences outside of the early parent-child relationship may cause the adolescent to exhibit more psychopathology than is proportional to the quality of interaction in early childhood.

The results of the tests−parental surveys for kindergarteners, first-graders, and 16-year-olds, and participant surveys for 16-, 23-, and 26-year-olds−indicated that externalization of behavior related to poor-quality early parenting is more prevalent in preadolescent children and adults. This result is suggestive that in stages where externalization is not normative, as in preadolescence or adulthood, those incidences of the behavior are more directly linked to poor-quality early parenting. In adolescence, the major contributing factor is not early parenting. Rather, it is more based on peer interaction and individual choice. Further, researchers suggest that infancy, characterized by rapid development of the ability to regulate emotion, pattern relational abilities, and other internal representations of relationships, may be a sensitive period for future environmental influence. The authors also introduce the idea of a genetic link regarding externalization between the parent and child due to similar results regarding antisocial behavior. Preadolescent and adult antisocial behaviors show a stronger genetic link than that of adolescent antisocial behavior. It is plausible to suggest that, due to these findings, externalization of behavior may be linked to a genetic liability shared between parent and child.


This was a very interesting article about how early parenting has the potential to lead to externalization of behavior; i.e. hyperactivity, delinquency, and aggression. It is apparent that the parenting style taken in the early formative years has a direct effect on the child for the remainder of his/her life. The effect is most pronounced in preadolescence and adulthood, but it still affects adolescence, albeit a more muted effect within that age range.  The most interesting factor of the study was the drop in level for 16-year-olds. In both sets of surveys, the participants and the parents believed that poor-quality early parenting had little to do with the externalization of behavior, but the numbers rebound back to comparable levels between preadolescent parental surveys and adult participant surveys. This could mean that in preadolescence, parents believe that they are responsible for their children’s behavior, but after a certain age of maturity, the parents believe that society, peer influence, and individual choice have more to do with the adolescent’s behavior. Similarly, the surveyed adolescents responded in a way that leads the reader to believe that they agree that their early parental experience has little to do with incidences of externalizing behavior during adolescence, but after a few more years of gained maturity, the adults cite poor-quality parenting as a reason for acting out.

After reading the survey, I was stunned to see the percentage of adults who personally cite early parental influence as the reason behind their externalization of behavior. I believe that adults are completely responsible and accountable for their actions. I understand that nurture during formative years has much to do with the adult that you become, but honestly, I have a strong belief that if a person has the desire to overcome the shortcomings of early life that one cannot control, the shortcomings can and will be overcome. I seriously ask myself, “What happened to personal responsibility? When did it become the normal course of action to blame someone else when something goes wrong?”

The data collected within the survey is good, but further studies are needed to correlate whether there is truth in what the data suggests. If other studies find the same result, then the data might useful as early intervention for preadolescent and adults prone to externalization of behavior. Also, a survey could be useful for school age children to identify which students might need more individual attention based on early parental relationships.

  1. Brandy Pfeifer
    November 24, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Nature vs. Nuture… a debate that will probably never end. Why can’t people just agree that it is a combination of both and that neither one alone accounts for the individuals personality or behaviors?

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