In Teens, Poor Social Skills Signal Emotional And Behavioral Problems

May 27, 1998

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have found that a teenager's social role functioning--how well or poorly that young person interacts with family and peers, participates in school, and controls behavior--can reveal the presence or absence of psychiatric disorders much earlier than can traditional indicators such as school failure and contact with police, which appear after problems have already become entrenched. Social role dysfunction can also help indicate whether a teen's psychiatric problems will be acted out as behavior problems or turned inward to cause emotional difficulties.

The findings were reported in the June 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.

Lead author Anne W. Riley, PhD, assistant professor, Health Policy and Management, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said, "Currently, less than half the teens with major psychiatric problems are identified and given help for emotional problems. This means that many people with psychiatric disorders, especially depression and anxiety, are not even identified until they are adults, after they have had a second or third episode of the disorder." Riley also noted that treatments now aimed at troubled teens are usually focused more on squelching problem behaviors than getting youngsters back on track socially and emotionally.

The researchers looked at 288 carefully screened youths, dividing them into four major groups: those with emotional (or "internalizing") disorders, those with disruptive (or "externalizing") disorders, those with both, and those with no emotional or behavioral problems.

They found that those with disruptive disorders, in general, had the worst academic performance, the poorest relationships with family and friends, and the poorest "self management" (taking responsibility, planning, controlling anger, and being on time) of the teenagers studied.

Boys with any type of psychiatric disorder were found to have significant academic problems, as well as more trouble in relationships with family and friends, and less acceptance by peers than did healthy boys. There were no consistent, large differences in social functioning between disordered and healthy girls.

The researchers also found differences between genders among the teenagers studied. On average, girls with psychiatric disorders scored better than the boys with disorders on every measure of social functioning except organized activities, this last perhaps reflecting the boys' greater participation in team sports.

These differences in teenager's everyday behavior at school, home, and in the community may help explain why boys are more likely to be identified as having emotional or behavioral problems that need treatment.

The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

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