Family Functioning and Adolescent Internalizing and Externalizing Problems: Disentangling Between-, and Within-family Associations

Background

Adolescence is often a period of onset for internalizing and externalizing problems. At the same time, adolescent maturation and increasing autonomy from parents push for changes in family functioning. Theoretically, changes in family functioning are linked with changes in adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems; these links are located in the within-family level. This means that regardless whether a family has generally high or generally low functioning, improvements in a family’s functioning should be accompanied by improvements in adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems in this family. However, extant studies examining these links often failed to focus on such within-family fluctuations, because they did not take into account the stable between-family differences among families. This longitudinal, pre-registered, and open-science study aimed at examining the empirical support for the expected within-family links among family functioning, and internalizing and externalizing problems, by applying novel analytic techniques that explicitly disaggregate the between-family variance, from the within-family variance.

Method

Greek adolescents (N = 480, Mage = 15.73, 47.9% girls, at Wave 1) completed self-report questionnaires, three times in 12 months. Nine bivariate Random-Intercept Cross-Lagged Panel Models (RI-CLPM) were applied examining the dynamic within-family associations among three dimensions of family functioning (flexibility, cohesion, communication) and three dimensions of internalizing and externalizing problems (symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger). Explicitly disentangling between-family differences from within-family processes, these models offer a more stringent examination of within-family hypotheses. In addition, models with alternative specification to that of the RI-CLPMs were applied.

Results

Family functioning was not significantly associated with internalizing or externalizing problems, on the within-family level. Significant negative associations emerged on the between-family level. Also, alternative standard Cross-Lagged Panel Models (CLPM) were applied; such models have been recently criticized for failing to explicitly disentangle between-family variance from within-family variance, but they have been the standard approach to investigating questions of temporal ordering. These models showed that those adolescents who reported higher symptoms of depression at Wave 1 and Wave 2, compared to their peers, also reported lower family flexibility, cohesion, and communication six months later, but not vice versa. In addition, adolescents with higher anxiety and anger had lower  family cohesion six months later.

Conclusion

Results from these analyses offered evidence that adolescents with higher internalizing and externalizing problems compared to their peers, tended to be those who later experienced worse family functioning, but not vice versa. However, the theoretically expected links on the within-family level were not supported. Therefore, the current theoretical models of family functioning might work well as static descriptions of differences between families, but fail to explicate how fluctuations in family functioning and/or internalizing and externalizing problems might dynamically affect each other during adolescence. Thus, this study calls for theoretical refinement regarding how family functioning is associated with adolescent adaptation.

Contact: s.mastrotheodoros@uu.nl

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