Applied Psychology OPUS

The Combined Influence of Parenting and Early Puberty on the Development of Disruptive Behavior Problems in African American Girls

Hope White


Adolescent girls’ Disruptive Behavior Problems (DBP) are associated with increased risk for juvenile-justice system involvement and physical and mental health problems including severe and comorbid psychiatric disorders, substance use, violence, and mortality (Zahn, Hawkins, Chiacone, & Whitworth, 2008; Zahn et al., 2010). The onset of puberty increases risk for the development of DBP, particularly for girls with early pubertal development in comparison to their on-time or late-developing peers (Burt, McGue, DeMarte, Kreuger, & Iacono, 2006; Caspi, Lynam, Moffitt, & Silva, 1993; Haynie, 2003). The current literature on the relation between early pubertal development and DBP highlights the importance of girls’ interpersonal relationships with peers and parents as mechanisms that may protect against or promote the development of DBP (Ge, Brody, Conger, Simons, & Murry, 2002; Deardorff et al., 2013). However, few studies examine the combined influence of parenting and early onset of puberty on DBP within a single model. This study aims to further our understanding of the parenting constructs that accord risk for DBP through a longitudinal study design utilizing a clinical sample of African American adolescent girls and their female caregivers. Specifically, this study will examine the relationship among parental monitoring, parents’ communication of disapproval, and early pubertal onset on the development of DBP at one-year follow-up.

Keywords: pubertal development, pubertal timing, parental monitoring, parental disapproval, inconsistent parenting, Disruptive Behavior Problems

Disruptive Behavior Problems (DBP), including delinquency, violence, and oppositional behavior, are associated with increased risk for juvenile-justice system involvement, as well as physical and mental health problems (Zahn et al., 2008; Zahn et al., 2010). Girls’ DBP have been historically underrepresented in the research literature; however, girls’ DBP are increasingly recognized as unique from those of boys’, specifically in terms of manifestation and etiology (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006; Zahn et al., 2008). Thus, the psychological, health, and legal ramifications of DBP coupled with their unique female presentations elucidate the importance of better understanding female-specific pathways to these behaviors.
Girls who begin pubertal development early in comparison to peers are at greater risk for engaging in DBP at earlier ages (Burt et al., 2006; Ge, Brody, Conger, & Simons, 2006). However, there are three critical gaps in the literature. First, though research has demonstrated an association between parenting and girls’ DBP (Kroneman, Hipwell, Loeber, Koot, & Pardini, 2011), few studies have examined whether the effects of parenting are particularly influential in the context of early puberty. Second, most studies utilize predominantly European American samples, despite research suggesting that African American girls tend to develop earlier compared to other racial and ethnic groups (Ge et al., 2002; Lynne, Graber, Nichols, Brooks-Gunn, & Botvin, 2007). Third, several studies have revealed an association between early puberty and DBP in African American girls, but few have examined the role of parenting in conjunction with this association (Ge et al., 2002; Deardorff et al., 2013; Haynie, 2003; Mrug et al., 2008). This study addresses these gaps by examining the relations among early pubertal development, parenting (specifically parental monitoring and communication of disapproval), and DBP in a sample of African American girls referred for psychiatric care.

Inconsistent Parenting and DBP

Despite evidence demonstrating that inconsistent parenting is associated with DBP in general (Brody et al., 2001; Hoeve et al., 2009), parenting is a less reliable correlate of girls’ DBP (Javdani, Sadeh, & Verona, 2011). One of the reasons for this may be a lack of research examining more complex and nuanced parenting patterns. For instance, no studies have examined the combined effects of active parental monitoring practices and communicated disapproval (Tilton-Weaver, Burk, Kerr, & Stattin, 2013).
Parental Monitoring and Disapproval. Parents’ reactions to their children’s behavior and friendships represent important aspects of parenting evidenced to contribute to the development of DBP. First, effective parental monitoring, which comprises both information-seeking and surveillance, can protect against the development of adolescent DBP, delinquency, and substance use (Dillon, Pantin, Robbins, & Szapocznik, 2008; Dishion & Tipsord, 2011; Stattin & Kerr, 2000). Conversely, inadequate parental monitoring is correlated with association with deviant peers and adolescent DBP (Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992; Stattin & Kerr, 2000).

Second, several studies suggest that when parents communicate disapproval of their teenage child’s activities or friends, the child tends to engage in more DBP (Keijers et al., 2012; Mounts, 2001; Tilton-Weaver et al., 2013). This relation is particularly strong when adolescents perceive their parents’ disapproval as intrusive, which may occur when an adolescent feels over-controlled by high levels of monitoring or when parents are uninvolved but still attempt to prohibit behaviors (Mounts 2002; Soenens, Vansteenkiste, Smits, Lowet, & Goossens, 2007; Keijers et al., 2012). In sum, these findings suggest that low parental monitoring paired with high disapproval may be an especially risky combination for the development of DBP, particularly for early-developing girls (Ge et al., 2002; Keijers et al., 2012; Tilton-Weaver et al., 2013).  

Early Pubertal Development and Parenting in African American Girls

African American girls who develop early relative to their peers are at greater risk for engaging in DBP (Carter et al. 2009; Ge et al., 2006), particularly in the context of risky environments, such as urban and low-income neighborhoods and family conflict (Caspi et al., 1993; Lang et al., 2010). Early-developing girls need more parental support to assist them in navigating adolescence ahead of their peers, which suggests that parenting is particularly important for early-developing African American girls in disadvantaged neighborhoods due to the multiple levels of risk to which they are exposed (Ge et al., 2002).
Nurturing and involved parenting is indeed a protective factor of DBP in early-developing boys and girls, particularly for African American adolescents living in disadvantaged neighborhoods (Brody et al., 2001, Mrug et al., 2008). Conversely, harsh and inconsistent parenting is associated with increased risk for DBP in early-developing adolescents, including African-American youth (Deardorff et al., 2013; Ge et al., 2002). Thus, while preliminary research suggests inconsistent parenting is particularly risky for African American youths’ DBP, no studies have yet examined inconsistent parenting as conceptualized by low monitoring and high disapproval, or in a gender-specific model.

The Current Study

This study is designed to address these gaps in the literature by furthering our understanding of the role of parenting practices and early puberty on the development of DBP in African American adolescent girls by examining the following research questions: 1) To what extent do low parental monitoring and high parental communication of disapproval predict DBP? and 2) Is this combination of low parental monitoring and high parental communication of disapproval particularly risky for the development of DBP in girls who develop early?

We hypothesize that when girls are not monitored by parents, and perceive high levels of disapproval from parents, they are at greater risk for developing DBP one year later. This set of risk factors will be particularly highly associated with DBP for early-developing girls, as compared to those who are average- or late-developing (see Appendix A for conceptual model)


Participants and procedures. This study will employ a clinical sample of approximately 270 African American girls aged 12 to 16 and their female caregivers from a longitudinal study on HIV risk behavior among adolescents referred for psychiatric services at eight mental health clinics in a large city. This sample was selected due to the high base rates of DBP in this population. Girls were excluded from the study if they were not African American, were identified as having an intellectual disability, did not speak English, or did not live with a female guardian. After obtaining consent and assent, families completed self-report questionnaires, a computer-assisted self-interview, a structured diagnostic interview, and other measures unrelated to the current study. Assessments were also completed at one-year follow-up (78% retention rate).

Measures. (1) Demographics. Demographic information was collected from female caregivers at baseline, including adolescent’s age, ethnic background, and family SES. (2) DBP. The parent-reported Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach, 1991a) and adolescent-reported Youth Self Report (YSR; Achenbach, 1991b) were used to measure DBP at baseline and one-year follow-up using a composite score of both measures. (4) Parental monitoring. Parental monitoring was assessed using the Parenting Style Questionnaire, which is completed by the female caregiver and adolescent (PSQ; Oregon Social Learning Center, 1990). (6) Parental disapproval of behavior. Parental disapproval will be measured using three items about adolescents’ perceptions of parental attitudes regarding drug use, alcohol use, and sexual behavior. Sexual permissiveness items were derived from the Sexual Attitudes Scale (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1987). (7) Relative pubertal development. Caretaker report of their adolescent’s pubertal maturation relative to peers (early/average/late) was assessed at baseline using the Pubertal Development Scale (PDS, Petersen et al., 1988), which is supported by previous research as a reliable measure of relative puberty (see Appendix B for complete measures).

Data analytic plan. These research questions will be addressed using Hierarchical Linear Regression to assess the relative contributions of parenting and pubertal development on DBP at one-year follow-up. First, we will examine age, SES (covariates; Step 1), DBP at baseline (Step 2), and the main effects of parental monitoring and disapproval (Step 3). Next, we will examine the interaction between monitoring and disapproval (Step 4), and pubertal development and the parenting variables (Steps 5 and 6, respectively), in order to examine whether and to what extent the effects of monitoring and disapproval on DBP will vary based on pubertal timing.

Implications of the Current Study

This study addresses crucial limitations of previous studies by: 1) examining the role of inconsistent parenting practices on DBP, specifically the combination of low monitoring and high disapproval, and 2) testing a gender-specific model of the role of parenting on DBP in African-American girls who develop early. By contributing knowledge to the literature, the present study has the potential to influence the development of more effective interventions for the treatment and prevention of DBP in African American females at high risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system and mental and physical health sequelae.


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