Impact of Early Adolescent Externalizing Problem Behaviors on Identity Development in Middle to Late Adolescence: A Prospective 7-year Longitudinal Study

Elisabetta Crocetti


By: Elisabetta Crocetti, Utrecht University, the Netherlands
Theo Klimstra, Tilburg University, the Netherlands
William W. Hale III, Utrecht University, the Netherlands
Hans M. Koot, VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Wim Meeus, Utrecht University and at Tilburg University, the Netherlands

Identity formation is the core developmental task of adolescence (Erikson, 1950, 1968). Since post-modern societies are seemingly characterized by increasing uncertainty, this task is particularly challenging because adolescents have to enact significant choices in multiple domains. Additionally, a number of factors can hamper adolescent identity formation. In particular, adolescents at a high-risk for problem behaviors may face more difficulties in defining a coherent and stable sense of identity.

In this study, we focused on the potential detrimental role that externalizing problem behaviors (e.g., aggressive and delinquent behaviors) can have on identity development. In particular, we sought to shed light on identity paths of both boy and girl early adolescents with either a low-risk or high-risk for externalizing problem behaviors. The distinction of the low-risk and high-risk groups was based on teacher reports provided when the respondents were 11 or 12 years old. Then, youth were followed over the course of adolescence from 14 to 18 years old, with a five-wave longitudinal design with annual assessments, to monitor their identity development.

Our results indicated that early adolescents who had been rated as a low-risk versus a high-risk for externalizing problem behaviors by their teachers reported significant differences in identity. Specifically, high-risk boys exhibited the most disorganized identity at age 14: they displayed a combination of low commitment, medium in-depth exploration, and high reconsideration of commitment. Furthermore, over the course of adolescence (ages 14-18) high-risk girls displayed a decrease in commitment, particularly sharp at the beginning of adolescence, which was combined with an increase in reconsideration that was the most pronounced toward the end of adolescence.

Thus, this study highlighted that boys and girls with a high-risk of externalizing symptoms reported more difficulties in developing a firm sense of identity over middle to late adolescence. Because externalizing problems behaviors and an incoherent sense of identity might reinforce each other in a negative spiral, it seems necessary to intervene promptly on the high-risk adolescents in order to promote positive youth development.

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