Externalizing Behavior in Children Linked to Maternal Depression

Behavior problems in children are not uncommon. Although they have always existed in one form or another, they are receiving much more attention in recent years. There is a diagnostic label for many behavior problems that used to be seen as merely unruly, defiant, disobedient, or overactive behavior. Although the majority of these are rooted in evidentiary science and all warrant attention, the causes of these behavioral disturbances have yet to be fully explored. One theory suggests that a child’s behavior is partly influenced by their family environment. In an effort to understand this relationship better, Kristin M. Lindahl of the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami recently led a study that asked three specific questions:

Do family disruptions and family alliance imbalances lead to maladjusted behavior in children?
Do these imbalances vary in severity for girls and boys?
How do girls and boys react to these imbalances?

Lindahl assessed 270 dual-parent households and grouped them into three types of family alliances, including balanced, disengaged, or parent-child focused (dyadic). She found that all of the children were indirectly affected by imbalances in the family alliances. Youth behavioral and maladjustment issues were higher among the children who came from families with unclear boundaries. The disengaged and dyadic families produced children with the highest levels of maladaptive behavior, implying that parents who are uninvolved or dismissive may be neglecting the emotional needs of their children. The children from highly dyadic family structures may feel stress or guilt over being forced to ally with one parent more than the other or may be emotionally overwhelmed at having to be the strong shoulder for one or both of their parents.

When looking at gender differences, Lindahl found that boys responded more with externalizing behaviors such as anger and hostility, while girls reacted to family imbalance with internalizing behaviors and sadness. She believes that clinicians who specialize in childhood behavior issues should look closely at the family alliance as a contributing factor for such problems. “The findings help target goals for intervention and indicate that worthwhile objectives may include realigning family subsystem boundaries, changing family communication patterns, and improving affective coping skills for youth,” said Lindahl. These coping skills should include stress management, emotional regulation, and adaptation to conflict within the family unit.

Lindahl, Kristin M., Hallie R. Bregman, and Neena M. Malik. Family boundary structures and child adjustment: The indirect role of emotional reactivity. Journal of Family Psychology 26.6 (2012): 839-47. Print.

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  • Ira Bindman

    Ira Bindman

    January 15th, 2013 at 5:40 PM

    Wow, I’m impressed by the depth and profundity of these observations. Thank you for putting our these ideas so clearly. I ca see how my own childhood upbringing, as well as many of my patients, conforms to these patterns of behavior.

  • chloe


    January 15th, 2013 at 11:59 PM

    no doubt family environment affects a young person.even if they do not feel really ‘connected’ to their family members, that is an effect too. an effect caused by lack of bonding.

    having friends from a varied background in high school I can vouch for the fact that family balance and environment, and parental behavior all play an important role in the development of a youngster and is something that all parents need to keep a check on.

  • justin


    January 16th, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    Who wouldn’t think that the family dynamic would not play a role in how children behave?
    I am 40 years old, and a lot of how I feel often comes from the role that I am forced to play in the family and what the dyanamic is that is going on within the house at that time.
    If I am a grown man who still struggles with that, then you know that children are bound to feel the same way.
    We as parents have to be able to offer them some kind of balance and stability so that they don’t always feel as if they are carrying the weight of the family solely on them.

  • BL


    January 16th, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Children are unfairly often the ones who pay for poor family dynamics. And guess what happens next? They grow up to have children who have to deal with poor family dynamics. Instead of all of the fluff that is in curriculum in schools, maybe we should start incorporating meaningful, intense, frequent therapy for kids who are acting out or are withdrawn. Well trained therapists are adept at helping children cope with dynamics at home that are far from ideal.

  • Jana


    January 16th, 2013 at 10:27 AM

    I truly do not understand a parent who is not engaged. And, I supposed I need to thank my lucky stars that I do not. I can’t imagine not being there when we all get home at the end of the day and helping my kids with homework, making sure they get some exercise, and fixing them a nutritious dinner. My favorite thing to do after dinner is go outside and play basketball with the kids when it’s nice out. People who don’t take the time are really missing out on the greatest part of life.

  • Kaelen


    January 16th, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    kids arent just trash to be thrown away you have to really love them. if you cant do that you shouldnt have any.

  • loni q

    loni q

    January 16th, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    When we were little, my mom and dad didn’t interact real good with us so we went to see somebody to get some help. My brother had been getting in trouble at school nonstop. So, the lady we went to gave us some suggestions. My mom and dad tried them and we all liked them. I wish I knew her name so I could thank her for her help. It really changed or lives.

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