Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 30, 2020

Four Disruptive Teenagers, Four Reasons Why

by Sylia Wilson
Photo of a Teenage boy and girl sitting on a bench drinking beer

We’ve all seen how teenagers are portrayed in the media—sullen, rude, withdrawn. Sometimes even angry, hot headed, and liable to fly off the handle. Teenagers are often impulsive and prone to make risky, even dangerous, choices. And they can be argumentative and resentful of authority figures, including their parents and teachers.

Much of this is quite normal.  But when we see persistent patterns of aggression and rule-breaking that are more than just the typical turbulence of adolescence, children and teenagers might be diagnosed with one of two disruptive behavior disorders—oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder—which are among the most common psychological disorders in children and teenagers. As we might expect, teenagers with a disruptive behavior disorder show a variety of problems—they don’t get along with their parents, they have trouble making and keeping friends, they don’t do well in school, they tend to drink and use drugs, they often fall in with the wrong crowd, and some even get into trouble with the law. 

At the same time, not all of these teenagers ultimately end up poorly. In fact, most troubled teenagers end up all right, which raises the question of whether we can predict which teenagers will be okay and which teenagers need extra support or intervention. My colleagues and I wondered whether we might be able to identify which teenagers with disruptive behavior disorders are at particularly high risk by examining patterns of personality traits. Are some personality patterns more problematic than others?

We examined this question in a large sample of teenagers who we’ve been studying since they were 11 years old. This sample was chosen specifically to study disruptive behavior disorders, so more of them had a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder than we’d see in a typical group of teenagers. These teenagers visited our research facility with their parents three times, when they were 11, 14, and 17 years old. They answered questions about themselves, the things they do, and various aspects of their lives.

The 158 teenagers in our sample with a disruptive behavior disorder tended to display three problematic characteristics. First, they had higher negative emotionality. That is, they tended to experience stress, feel alienated from others, and be aggressive. They also had lower positive emotionality. They tended to be less happy, feel less close to other people, and be less social. And third, they showed lower constraint. They were less able to control themselves, more prone to take risks, and less likely to follow social norms. This was an interesting finding, but it wasn’t particularly surprising given what we know from past research.

But not all of the teenagers with a disruptive behavior disorder showed the same pattern of problems.  In fact, we could put them into four groups based on their patterns of personality traits. This was something new—all of these teenagers showed oppositional, defiant, and aggressive behavior, but they had different underlying patterns of personality characteristics.

We named one group with especially low constraint but relatively low negative emotionality the “disinhibited” group. We named another group with very high negative emotionality and very low positive emotionality the “high distress” group. We named yet another group with especially low negative emotionality the “low distress” group, and we named the fourth group, which showed relatively high positive emotionality and high constraint, the “positive” group.

Perhaps most importantly, some of these four groups were doing better than others. The “high distress” group was doing particularly poorly. Teenagers in this group were the most depressed, used alcohol and drugs most frequently, had the worst relationships with their parents, were the least engaged in school, and had the lowest grades. Teenagers in the “disinhibited” group also used alcohol and drugs, but they were generally doing better than teenagers in the “high distress” group.

The teenagers in the “low distress” and “positive” groups were doing surprisingly well. Compared to the “high distress” and “disinhibited” groups, teenagers in these two groups were less depressed, used alcohol and drugs less often, got along better with their parents, were more engaged in school, and had higher grades.

The take-home message is that not all disruptive teenagers are the same. Differences in personality traits seem to be important for understanding how well teenagers with a disruptive behavior disorder are doing. This important finding can help psychologists assess and treat troubled teenagers more effectively. Teenagers with high negative emotionality and low positive emotionality are at particularly high risk for problems, and psychological intervention is critical. In contrast, although teenagers with low negative emotionality, high positive emotionality, and high constraint might benefit from some extra support, such as time and attention from parents and teachers or help in school, their aggressive, rule-breaking behavior is probably just a temporary blip of adolescence.

Taking into consideration different patterns of personality traits can help us understand the tumultuous adolescent period and help disruptive teenagers.

For Further Reading

Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674-701.

Burt, S. A., & Neiderhiser, J. M. (2009). Aggressive versus nonaggressive antisocial behavior: Distinctive etiological moderation by age. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1164-1176.


Sylia Wilson is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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