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How are parent–child conflict and childhood externalizing symptoms related over time? Results from a genetically informative cross-lagged study



The present study attempted to determine the direction and etiology of the robust relationship between childhood externalizing (EXT) symptoms and parent–child conflict using a genetically informative longitudinal model and data from the ongoing Minnesota Twin Family Study. Participants consisted of 1,506 same-sex twins assessed at ages 11 and 14, and their parents. The relationship between EXT and parent–child conflict from ages 11 to 14 was examined within a biometrical cross-lagged design. The results revealed three primary findings: first, the stability of conflict and externalizing over time is largely, although not solely, a result of genetic factors. Second, there appears to be a bidirectional relationship between conflict and EXT over time, such that both conflict and EXT at 11 independently predict the other 3 years later. Finally, the results are consistent with the notion that parent–child conflict partially results from parental responses to their child's heritable externalizing behavior, while simultaneously contributing to child externalizing via environmental mechanisms. These results suggest a “downward spiral” of interplay between parent–child conflict and EXT, and offer confirmation of a (partially) environmentally mediated effect of parenting on child behavior.This research was funded in part by USPHS grants (DA05147, DA13240, AA09367, AA00175, MH 65137), a National Institutes of Mental Health training grant (MH17069 to S.A.B.), and a Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (S.A.B.). We also thank Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for the research time that enabled the primary author to conduct this study.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Alex Burt, Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, Psychology Building, East Lansing, MI, 48824; E-mail:


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