Understanding Girls’ Problem Behavior



Friends, Lovers and Groups: Key Relationships in Adolescence
Edited by Rutger C. M. E. Engels, Margaret Kerr and Håkan Stattin

What Can Parents Do?: New Insights into the Role of Parents in Adolescent Problem Behavior
Edited by Margaret Kerr, Håkan Stattin and Rutger C. M. E. Engels


We dedicate this book to the memory of Xiaojia Ge, a devoted
scholar in the area of girls’ problem behavior and a valued
colleague and mentor


Geertjan Overbeek and Anna-Karin Andershed

Xiaojia Ge, Misaki N. Natsuaki, Run Jin, and Michael C. Biehl

Lauree C. Tilton-Weaver, Fumiko Kakihara, Sheila K. Marshall, and Nancy L. Galambos

Kathleen Pajer, Andrea Lourie, and Lisa Leininger

Joanne Belknap, Emily Gaarder, Kristi Holsinger, Cathy McDaniels Wilson, and Bonnie Cady

Kate Keenan, Xin Feng, Dara Babinski, Alison Hipwell, Amanda Hinze, Rolf Loeber, and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber

Annika K. E. de Haan, Geertjan Overbeek, Karin S. Nijhof, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels

Debra Pepler, Jennifer Connolly, Wendy Craig, and Depeng Jiang

Marlene M. Moretti and Ingrid Obsuth

Lisa A. Serbin, Dale M. Stack, Michele Hubert, Alex E. Schwartzman, and Jane Ledingham

About the Editors

Anna-Karin Andershed is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Örebro University, Sweden. She earned her PhD at Örebro University. Her research focuses on the development and life-span consequences of antisocial behavior, especially among girls and women. She is currently involved in the development of an assessment instrument for youth with or at risk for antisocial behavior, and a universal/indicated intervention for preschool children.

Rutger C. M. E. Engels is Professor in Developmental Psychopathology at the Radboud University Nijmegen. He is director of the dept. of Developmental Psychopathology, and director of the KNAW-acknowledged (in 2006) Behavioural Science Institute. He received his MA in Social Psychology in 1993 at the University of Groningen and his PhD in 1998 at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Maastricht. In 1998 he became post-doc at the Dept. of Child and Adolescent Studies at Utrecht University, and in 2000 he was appointed as assistant professor. In 2001, he was appointed as full professor at the Radboud University Nijmegen. His research focuses on the interplay between individual characteristics (e.g., personality, outcome expectancies, genes), environmental cues and actual social interactions on the initiation, maintenance and determination of addictive behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol use, overeating, and drug use. His work is characterized by a multi-disciplinary approach with research designs are employed to test our theoretical models ranging from epidemiological survey studies, lab experiments, systematic observational studies in naturalistic settings to genetic research.

Margaret Kerr is Professor of Psychology at Örebro University, Sweden, and Co-director of the Center for Developmental Research. She earned her PhD at Cornell University, USA, and then completed a post-doctoral research fellowship with Richard Tremblay at the University of Montreal, Canada. She has been an associate editor of the Journal of Research on Adolescence. Her research focuses on internal and external adjustment in adolescence and their roles in the life course. Her current research interests include adolescents’ choices of developmental contexts, parent-child relationships, and peer networks and their roles in the development of internalizing and externalizing problems.

Geertjan Overbeek is Associate Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. He earned his PhD at Utrecht University (2003), after which he worked as post-doc and Assistant Professor at the Behavioural Science Institute of the Radboud University Nijmegen for five years. His research focuses on the development of parent-child interactions and adolescents’ social-emotional development, with a special interest in the development of internalizing and externalizing forms of problem behavior.

Håkan Stattin is Professor of Psychology at Uppsala and Örebro Universities, Sweden. He earned his PhD at Stockholm University. He co-directs the Center for Developmental Research at Örebro University and has served as President of the European Association for Research on Adolescence and associate editor for the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. He is probably best known for his research in three areas: delinquency development, pubertal maturation in adolescent girls, and parental monitoring. His works include an authored book (with David Magnusson in 1990), Pubertal Maturation in Female Development. In addition to his continued basic research in these areas, he is conducting prevention trials to reduce alcohol drinking and delinquency among adolescents.

List of Contributors

Anna-Karin Andershed, School of Law, Psychology and Social Work, Örebro University, Örebro, Sweden

Dara Babinski, Center for Children and Families, University of Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA

Joanne Belknap, Sociology Department, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA

Michael C. Biehl, Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, CA, USA

Bonnie Cady, Central Region, Colorado Division of Youth Corrections, Denver, CO, USA,

Jennifer Connolly, LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Wendy Craig, Department of Psychology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Rutger C. M. E. Engels, Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Xin Feng, College of Education and Human Ecology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

Nancy L. Galambos, Department of Psychology, University of Alberta Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Emily Gaarder, Department of Sociology/Anthropology, University of Minnesota-Duluth, Duluth, MN, USA

Xiaojia Ge, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, USA

Annika K.E. de Haan, Langeveld Institute, Centre for Cognitive and Motor Disabilities Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Amanda Hinze, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Alison Hipwell, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Kristi Holsinger, Sociology/Criminal Justice-Criminology, University of Missouri-Kansas City, MO, USA

Michele Hubert, Centre for Research in Human Development, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Depeng Jiang, Department of Community Health Science, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, Canada

Run Jin, Department of Psychology and Child Development, California State University, Stanislaus, CA, USA

Fumiko Kakihara, Center for Developmental Research, Örebro University, Örebro, Sweden

Kate Keenan, Department of Psychiatry Behavioral Neuroscience, University of Chicago, IL, USA

Jane Ledingham, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Lisa Leininger, The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, OH, USA

Rolf Loeber, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Andrea Lourie, Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, OH, USA

Sheila K. Marshall, Jack Bell Bldg. School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Marlene M. Moretti, Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

Misaki N. Natsuaki, Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, CA, USA

Karin S. Nijhof, Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Ingrid Obsuth, Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

Geertjan Overbeek, Department of Developmental Psychology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Kathleen Pajer, The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, OH, USA

Debra Pepler, LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Alex E. Schwartzman, Centre for Research in Human Development, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Lisa A. Serbin, Centre for Research in Human Development, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Dale M. Stack, Centre for Research in Human Development, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Lauree C. Tilton-Weaver, Center for Developmental Research, Örebro University, Örebro, Sweden

Cathy McDaniels Wilson, Department of Psychology, Xavier University-Cincinnati, OH, USA


We are grateful to The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education for supporting the collaborative project between the editors that resulted in the Hot Topics book series.


Girls’ Problem Behavior: From the What to the Why

Geertjan Overbeek

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Anna-Karin Andershed

Örebro University, Sweden

Girls’ problem behavior, or at least their delinquency, is less rare than commonly thought. Even though girls’ issues and girls’ problems are of great concern for societies as well as researchers, and despite a growing interest in unravelling the processes and mechanisms behind girls’ problem behavior, the knowledge base in this area is still meager. There are exceptions, of course, and what these exceptions indicate is that the causes, expressions, development, and trajectories for many of the problems experienced by young people may differ as a function of gender (Bell, Foster, and Mash, 2005). To date, though, there are only a few longitudinal studies that have provided insight into the potentially different adjustment processes experienced by boys and girls. In addition, studies with a focused female perspective are few, in contrast to the bulk of research and literature directed toward understanding the development of boys. The overarching purpose of this volume is to yield an improved understanding of some of the key aspects of girls’ problem behaviors. Drawing on studies of the maturing girl and following her through adolescence, into adulthood, and up to the point where she, herself, becomes a parent, we want to illustrate the process of initiating, establishing, and potentially overcoming problem behavior, and the processes that contribute to this development.


Despite the increasing prevalence and severity of girls’ problem behavior over the past decades, a review of female juvenile delinquency (Hoyt and Scherer, 1998) concluded that delinquent girls are “misunderstood by the juvenile justice system” and “neglected by social science” (p. 81). Specifically, research on the development of girls’ problem behavior was virtually non-existent until the 1970s and 1980s, and some argue that the few studies that did focus on girls were characterized by trying to ‘fit’ girls and women into theoretical models originally designed to explain the development of male problem behavior (i.e., the “add women and stir” approach, Daly and Chesney-Lind, 1988). This is perhaps not so strange, given that the gender gap in serious antisocial behavior is well documented. Boys do suffer more often than girls from this type of psychopathology, and the problem behaviors boys engage in are often more physically harmful to themselves and others than problem behaviors expressed by girls (see Crick and Zahn-Waxler, 2003). Further, childhood risk factors are much poorer predictors of adult criminality for girls than they are for boys, and concurrent associations between risk and protective factors and delinquency are generally weaker for girls than for boys (e.g., Fagan et al., 2007). Hence, boys’ and men’s adjustment problems are more visible to us – both as researchers and as members of society – and with the theoretical models at hand they are easier to understand and explain. And if these models have worked so well for boys, why not try them out on girls as well?

Clearly, there are findings that support the notion that the mechanisms and processes behind problem behaviors are the same for boys and girls. For example, the same risk and causal factors seem to predict similar trajectories of problem behavior regardless of gender (Moffitt et al., 2001; Lahey et al., 2006; Van Hulle et al., 2007). However, there may be specific gender differences in risk factors that are understudied, and therefore remain to be uncovered. Thus, instead of focusing on differences in the specific types of problem behavior across the sexes –which has been the major research focus until now (Moffitt et al., 2001; Fagan et al., 2007; Van Hulle et al., 2007) – the main topic on our research agenda should be the examination of different etiologies of problem behavior for the sexes, which may come about as a result of differences in magnitude of and exposure to actual and perceived risks.

Even though females’ problem behavior may be less common and serious than males’, this does not mean that they are insignificant for the girls themselves or for society. This volume presents data showing that conduct disorder, which is strongly linked to delinquency, is the second most common psychiatric disorder among girls in the USA, UK, and New Zealand. In addition, girls accounted for a sizeable 24% of arrests for aggravated assault, 35% of forgery arrests, and 40% of embezzlement charges for American delinquents in 2003 (Pajer, Lourie, and Leininger, Chapter 4, this volume). Important to note, also, is that over the past decades girls seem to have ‘moved on’ from relatively minor misconducts such as shoplifting, social forms of aggression (i.e., actively isolating and gossiping about others), and vandalism to more serious crimes such as assault and robbery. Between 1980 and 2003, arrest rates for assaults by girls in the US increased explosively, by more than 250% (Pajer, Lourie, and Leininger, Chapter 4, this volume). Over the past 23 years in the United States, arrest rates for female juveniles for simple and aggravated assaults have increased, while these same rates for juvenile males decreased. In Canada a similar trend is apparent; between 1996 and 2002 a slight decrease occurred in the rate of violent crime committed by boys but a modest increase surfaced for girls, reflecting more frequent engagement in common assault (Moretti and Osbuth, Chapter 9, this volume). Hence, the fact that girls and women are not engaged in serious antisocial behavior to the same extent as boys and men does not mean that their antisocial behavior should be disregarded. Rather, it seems as if we have to revise some of our preconceptions about female maladjustment.

In addition to these increasing prevalence rates, it is important to note that more than for boys, for girls the development of externalizing behavior seems to be characterized by relatively high levels of functional impairment and comorbidity with other – mostly internalizing – psychopathologies. This is important, because adolescents who suffer from comorbid conditions (e.g., being diagnosed with clinical-level depression and conduct disorder) are at increased risk for a diversity of poor outcomes on domains such as work, friendships and romantic relationships, etc. The increased risk for poor outcomes may be particularly true for girls, as previous studies on suicidal ideation and behavior showed that this behavior was significantly more prevalent in conduct disordered adolescent girls than boys (Keenan, Chapter 6, this volume). For instance, one study showed that highly aggressive girls age 14–15 years have three times the observed rate of attempted suicide that boys have (Cairns, Petersen, and Neckerman, 1988). This means that even though the consequences and correlates of girls’ antisocial behavior probably are somewhat different than those of boys’, they can be equally detrimental for the individuals themselves and the people around them.

In the 10 years since Hoyt and Scherer drew their conclusion that female delinquency was understudied, there has been a growing consensus that in order to develop a complete understanding of girls’ problem behavior, it is necessary to uncover the processes and mechanisms that are unique for the development of misconduct in girls. In more empirical terms, one could say that we need to start treating gender as more than a control variable (Fagan et al., 2007). Knowledge in this area is advancing rapidly now, and because research is presently being conducted from many different theoretical and disciplinary angles, we consider it a ‘hot topic’ in developmental research. The time is ripe to summarize these advancements. In this volume, we do so by presenting a variety of intriguing studies that go from the what to the why, examining in detail the antecedents, correlates, and consequences of female misconduct.

This volume, we hope, reflects the fact that recent advancements in understanding girls’ problem behavior have come about because of three interrelated features of research that has been conducted. First, most studies presented in this volume are aimed at understanding girls’ problem behaviors in their own right, without necessarily or exclusively applying theoretical models created for understanding boys’ problems. Nevertheless, some other studies presented in this volume increase our knowledge primarily by broadening our empirical scope. They provide first-ever data on (the explanatory mechanisms underlying) problem behavior in samples of girls. Second, a crucial feature is that the studies in this volume come from different scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines, from medicine, criminology, and clinical psychology to developmental psychology. This allows for an integration of data on physiological processes with perspectives on comorbidity, social contexts (i.e., relationships with parents and peers), and interpersonal reinforcement processes.

These latter issues, of social contexts and interpersonal processes, refer to a third feature of many of the studies presented in this volume – their attention to contexts of problem behavior development in girls. The term “contexts”, here, is used in the broadest possible sense. It refers to macro-level societal and neighborhood influences as well as the micro-level, moment-to-moment interactions within family and peer environments. Why the strong emphasis on social contexts in the development of girls’ problem behavior? A growing number of studies suggest that girls’ problem behaviors, more than boys’, are connected with negative and sometimes even traumatic social experiences and relationship dynamics in childhood and adolescence. Relationships can act both as a precipitating factor, and as a ‘maintaining arena’ in which problem behaviors find an outlet. This is evident, for instance, in research on conduct problems. Girls’ delinquency is mostly adolescent-onset and social in origin (Lahey, Moffitt, and Caspi, 2003), and girls often use their relationships to express aggression and as a means to aggress against others (e.g., Pepler and Craig, 2005; Xie, Cairns, and Cairns, 2005). Hence, we consider the context as crucial to achieving a full understanding of processes and mechanisms behind girls’ and women’s negative adjustment.


In this volume, we highlight new views in research on girls’ problem behavior. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 focuses on maturity and health, comprising three chapters that deal with female pubertal timing, subjective representations of maturity and HPA axis functioning in relation to problem behavior. Chapter 2 by Ge et al. examines a ‘contextual amplification hypothesis’, which holds that an early onset of puberty in girls increases the risk for developing problem behavior, and that this risk is higher for girls who live in adverse psychosocial contexts (or, in contrast, relatively low for girls who experience a supportive and enriching environment). Chapter 3, by Tilton-Weaver et al., focuses on girls’ subjective representations of maturity, more specifically, examining the extent to which discrepancies in adolescents’ subjective and desired age (i.e., experiencing a maturity gap or “overfit”) links to antisocial behavior, deviant peer associations, and problems in the parent–child relationship. Finally, Chapter 4, by Pajer et al., addresses the understudied question whether (subclinical) conduct disorder in girls is associated with physical discomfort and problems and health risk behaviors in a sample of 278 girls aged 15–16 years.

Part 2 focuses on the etiology leading up to girls’ problem behavior and the co-occurrence of girls’ problem behavior with internalizing and other psychopathologies. Chapter 5, by Belknap et al., takes a qualitative “pathways” approach to studying the etiology of externalizing behavior in incarcerated adolescent and young adult females. Based on data from focus groups and individual interviews across four studies, the authors emphasize the importance of physically or sexually abusive situations in childhood that lead up to help-seeking behaviors that are themselves criminalized (e.g., running away, self-medication by use of illicit drugs, prostitution, etc.) which, in turn, increase the risk of arrest and incarceration. Next, Chapter 6, by Keenan et al., focuses on the extent to which girls’ problem behavior co-occurs with depressive mood or places females at risk (i.e., makes them vulnerable) for the development of depression, based on data from a high risk sample of 232 9-year-old girls and their mothers, who participated in the Pittsburgh Youth Study. Also, this chapter deals with the important question whether this comorbid condition is associated with extra functional impairment in girls.

Part 3 focuses on the relational characteristics and developments associated with girls’ problem behavior. It highlights explanatory mechanisms over very short (e.g., development of misconduct or deviant talk in 5-minute time intervals, on a micro-level) or short time intervals (i.e., development of bullying over half-year or one-year), as well as over decades of personal and even intergenerational development. This section contains four chapters. Chapter 7, by De Haan et al., examines whether deviancy training – a reinforcement mechanism in interpersonal contact that has been previously established in boys – stimulates the development of talk about rule-breaking in dyads of incarcerated and non-incarcerated females. Chapter 8, by Pepler et al., examines the development of bullying in adolescent females in relation to the development of parent–daughter conflicts and to the development of physical and emotional health problems. Chapter 9, by Moretti and Obsuth, examines the effectiveness of a parent-training program that teaches relationship principles. Based on a pre-post design with a control group, they present findings on the effectiveness of “Connect”, an attachment-based intervention for parents and caregivers with teens who engage in aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent behavior. Finally, Chapter 10, by Serbin et al., focuses on the pathways linking women’s histories of childhood behavior problems with their own children’s subsequent health and development. This intergenerational transmission mechanism is explored based on data from more than 4000 children from lower SES urban neighborhoods, who were followed up since 1976, over a 30-year time period. The study focuses on parents’ mental and physical health, patterns of spousal and child-directed violence, and socio-economic and environmental risk indicators.


To conclude this introductory chapter, this volume is the third in a book series on Hot Topics in Developmental Research. The first hot topic was peer relations in adolescence – dealing with issues such as behavioral genetic research on peer relationships, mechanisms of peer influence, romantic relationships, and peers in different contexts. The second hot topic focused on the question “What can parents do?” – integrating new insights into the role of parents in adolescent problem behavior. This third volume now summarizes and integrates the most recent empirical and theoretical advances in research on girls’ problem behavior. We have gathered the leading scholars in this field – scholars who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge of girls’ problem behavior forward. We believe that the chapters presented here tell a compelling story, because they showcase a variety of different assumptions and hypotheses about the nature of and explanatory mechanisms underlying girls’ problem behavior using a variety of sophisticated research strategies. We hope that these differences, and the different types of results and outcomes to which they lead, are ‘hot’ enough to provoke a scholarly discussion – and in such a way, form the basis for future, enlightening studies on girls’ problem behavior.


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Crick, N. R., and Zahn-Waxler, C. (2003). The development of psychopathology in females and males: Current progress and future challenges. Development and Psychopathology, 15, 719–742.

Daly, K. and Chesney-Lind, M. (1988). Feminism and criminology. Justice Quarterly, 5, 497–538.

Fagan, A. A., Van Horn, M. L., Hawkins, J. D., et al. (2007). Gender similarities and differences in the association between risk and protective factors and self-reported serious delinquency. Prevention Science, 8, 115–124.

Hoyt, S. and Scherer, D.G. (1998). Female juvenile delinquency: Misunderstood by the juvenile justice system, neglected by social science. Law and Human Behaviour, 22, 81–107.

Lahey, B. B., Moffitt, T. E., and Caspi, A. (2003). Causes of Conduct Disorder and Juvenile Delinquency. New York: Guilford Press.

Lahey, B. B., Van Hulle, C. A., Waldman, I. D., et al. (2006). Testing descriptive hypotheses regarding sex differences in the development of conduct problems and delinquency. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34, 737–755.

Magnusson, D. and Cairns, R. B. (1996). Developmental Science: Toward a unified framework. In R. B. Cairns, G. H. Elder, and E. J. Costello (eds) Developmental Science (pp. 7–30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Rutter, M., et al. (2001). Sex Differences in Antisocial Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pepler, D. J., and Craig, W. M. (2005). Aggressive girls on troubled trajectories: A developmental perspective. In D. J. Pepler, K. C. Madsen, C. Webster, et al. (eds) The Development and Treatment of Girlhood Aggression (pp. 3–28). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Van Hulle, C. A., Rodgers, J. L., D’Onofrio, B. M., et al. (2007). Sex differences in the causes of self-reported adolescent delinquency. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116, 236–248.

Xie, H., Cairns, B. D., and Cairns, R. B. (2005). The development of aggressive behaviors among girls: Measurement issues, social functions, and differential trajectories. In D. J. Pepler, K. C. Madsen, C. Webster, et al. (eds) The Development and Treatment of Girlhood Aggression (pp. 105–136). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.


Maturity and Health