Family Processes or Structure? Examining Influences on Risk for Adolescent Externalizing Problem Behaviors

Author: ORCID icon
Savell, Shannon, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wilson, Melvin, Psychology, University of Virginia
Emery, Robert, Psychology, University of Virginia

Family context is considered one of the most influential environments for child development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner, 1986). Structure and processes, both facets of the family context, influence children’s behavior and development in different ways. The objective of the current studies was to thoroughly investigate the role of family structure and family processes in risk for externalizing problem behaviors from toddlerhood through adolescence. In a large longitudinal study of low-income families from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, we found that across a variety of modern family structure types, there were no significant differences in child behavior. However, when collapsing across family structure type, higher parent-child relationship quality, characterized by warmth, support and communication, was significantly related to lower levels of adolescent externalizing problem behavior. To further examine the impact of family processes on adolescent behavior, three mediation analyses were conducted. We found that primary caregiver depressive symptoms mediated the association between caregiver romantic satisfaction and adolescent externalizing problem behavior. Parent- child relationship quality also mediated the association between caregiver romantic satisfaction and adolescent behavior. However, positive parenting practices only partially mediated the association between romantic satisfaction and adolescent behavior. The results indicate that family processes may be more impactful than family structure on risk for adolescent problem behaviors suggesting that the quality of the caregiver-child relationship and caregiver-caregiver relationship may be more important than who the caregivers are across time. The findings highlight the need for prevention and intervention techniques to foster healthy family processes to reduce risk for adolescent problem behaviors.

MA (Master of Arts)
family structure, family process, adolescent externalizing problem behavior, longitudinal
Sponsoring Agency:
National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA023245, R01 DA022773)
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