Childhood behavior problems predict emotional baggage for young adults

September 13, 2000

University Park, Pa. -- Childhood behavior problems such as temper tantrums, bullying or destructiveness increase the risk of emotional trouble for the young adult, a Penn State expert says.

"Compared to their better adjusted peers, children with a history of behavior disorders, once they entered adulthood, achieved significantly lower levels of overall happiness, life satisfaction and self-esteem," says Chris Knoester, doctoral student in sociology. "They also report weaker rapport with relatives, poorer relations with their parents and in general more difficulty in establishing intimacy.

"These same persons attained one year less of education, on average, and were about 8 percent more likely to divorce or have a child before marrying," he notes.

Knoester presented his findings in the paper, "Do Childhood Behavior Problems Predict Outcomes in Young Adulthood? Exploring The Relationship Between Offspring Behavior Problems While Growing Up and Their Outcomes in Young Adulthood," at the recent conference of the American Sociological Association.

The Penn State researcher analyzed data from the longitudinal Marital Instability over the Life Course Study, initiated in 1980 by Dr. Alan Booth and Dr. Paul R. Amato, then at the University of Nebraska and both now at Penn State. Their analysis entailed a nationwide survey of 2,033 married individuals under age 55, with the sample being reinterviewed four more times (1983, 1988, 1992 and 1997).

As part of their continuing study in 1992 and 1997, Booth and Amato interviewed not only members of the original sample but 691 of the children who, in the course of each of those years, had reached the age of 19 and above.

Knoester compared the answers given by these offspring with a survey of remaining parents from the original 1980 sample. The parents were asked whether their children had trouble getting along with peers, bullied or mistreated other children, cheated or told lies, were disobedient at home, easily lost their tempers, were destructive of their own and others' property and were often restless, hyperactive, stubborn, irritable and argumentative.

These are the warning signs that predict emotional and psychological struggles in early adulthood, according to Knoester.

"The size, level of education, overall mental stability and socioeconomic status of the family account for some of the long-term effects of childhood behavior problems," says the Penn State researcher. "For example, young adults from larger families who `act up' as children show significantly higher levels of psychological being and closeness with parents in adulthood than do similar offspring from smaller families.

"This may be because the childhood problems of children from large families represent a natural call for their parents' attention, since they may fear being overlooked in favor of their siblings. However, these problems are not as symptomatic of serious difficulties as are the problems of other children," he notes.

"Parent-child relations and marital quality of the parents appear to be the most important factors alleviating the impact of childhood behavior problems. Thus, parents or stepparents of children having such problems should strive to maintain quality relations with their offspring as well as the offspring's other parent," Knoester adds.
EDITORS: Mr. Knoester is at by e-mail.

Penn State

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