Behavioral and Psychological Adjustment

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the role that aggression, anxiety, and depression play in adolescent development
Young teenager holding his fists out ready to punch the photographer.

Figure 1. Early antisocial behavior leads to befriending others who also engage in antisocial behavior, which only perpetuates the downward cycle of aggression and wrongful acts. [Image: Philippe Put]

Aggression and Antisocial Behavior

Several major theories of the development of antisocial behavior treat adolescence as an important period. Patterson’s (1982)[1] early versus late starter model of the development of aggressive and antisocial behavior distinguishes youths whose antisocial behavior begins during childhood (early starters) versus adolescence (late starters). According to the theory, early starters are at greater risk for long-term antisocial behavior that extends into adulthood than are late starters. Late starters who become antisocial during adolescence are theorized to experience poor parental monitoring and supervision, aspects of parenting that become more salient during adolescence. Poor monitoring and lack of supervision contribute to increasing involvement with deviant peers, which in turn promotes adolescents’ own antisocial behavior. Late starters desist from antisocial behavior when changes in the environment make other options more appealing.

Similarly, Moffitt’s (1993)[2] life-course persistent versus adolescent-limited model distinguishes between antisocial behavior that begins in childhood versus adolescence. Moffitt regards adolescent-limited antisocial behavior as resulting from a “maturity gap” between adolescents’ dependence on and control by adults and their desire to demonstrate their freedom from adult constraint. However, as they continue to develop, and legitimate adult roles and privileges become available to them, there are fewer incentives to engage in antisocial behavior, leading to desistance in these antisocial behaviors.

Watch It

Experiencing violence as an adolescent increases the odds of that adolescent later becoming an abusive adult, although it is not a given. Watch this video to learn more about the effects of abuse and perpetuated violence.

You can view the transcript for “Does Having Abusive Parents Mean You’ll Become One?” here (opens in new window).

Psychology and MASS Shootings

Virginia Tech, Columbine, Stoneman Douglas High School, Santa Fe High School, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Las Vegas, Orlando—all sites of horrific and tragic mass shootings. Why are they so common? And what led the perpetrators to commit these acts of violence? Several possible factors may work together to create a fertile environment for mass murder in the United States. Most commonly suggested include:

  • Higher accessibility and ownership of guns. The U.S. has the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world with 120.5 firearms per 100 people; the second highest is Yemen with 52.8 firearms per 100 people.[3]
  • Mental illness[4] and its treatment (or the lack thereof) with psychiatric drugs. This is controversial.[5] Many of the mass shooters in the U.S. suffered from mental illness, but the estimated number of mental illness cases has not increased as significantly as the number of mass shootings.[6] Under 5% of violent behaviors in the U.S. are committed by persons with mental health diagnoses. A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found evidence that a majority of school shooters displayed evidence of mental health symptoms, often undiagnosed or untreated. Criminologists Fox and DeLateur note that mental illness is only part of the issue, however, and mass shooters tend to externalize their problems, blaming others, and are unlikely to seek psychiatric help, even if available.[7] Other scholars have concluded that mass murderers display a common constellation of chronic mental health symptoms, chronic anger or antisocial traits, and a tendency to blame others for problems.[8] However, they note that attempting to “profile” school shooters with such a constellation of traits will likely result in many false positives as many individuals with such a profile do not engage in violent behaviors.
  • The desire to seek revenge for a long history of being bullied at school. In recent years, citizens calling themselves “targeted individual” have cited adult bullying campaigns as a reason for their deadly violence.[9]
  • The widespread chronic gap between people’s expectations for themselves and their actual achievement, and individualistic culture.
  • Desire for fame and notoriety. Also, mass shooters learn from one another through “media contagion,” that is, “the mass media coverage of them and the proliferation of social media sites that tend to glorify the shooters and downplay the victims.”
  • The copycat phenomenon.
  • Failure of government background checks due to incomplete databases and/or staff shortages

Read this NPR article on school shooters to learn more about common threads shared by some who commit mass violence.

Anxiety and Depression

Developmental models of anxiety and depression also treat adolescence as an important period, especially in terms of the emergence of gender differences in prevalence rates that persist through adulthood (Rudolph, 2009) [10] Starting in early adolescence, compared with males, females have rates of anxiety that are about twice as high and rates of depression that are 1.5 to 3 times as high (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) [11] Although the rates vary across specific anxiety and depression diagnoses, rates for some disorders are markedly higher in adolescence than in childhood or adulthood. For example, prevalence rates for specific phobias are about 5% in children and 3%–5% in adults but 16% in adolescents. Additionally, some adolescents sink into major depression, a deep sadness and hopelessness that disrupts all normal, regular activities. Causes include many factors such as genetics and early childhood experiences that predate adolescence, but puberty may push vulnerable children, especially girls into despair.

During puberty, the rate of major depression more than doubles to an estimated 15%, affecting about one in five girls and one in ten boys. The gender difference occurs for many reasons, biological and cultural (Uddin et al., 2010) [12] Anxiety and depression are particularly concerning because suicide is one of the leading causes of death during adolescence. Some adolescents experience suicidal ideation (distressing thoughts about killing oneself) which become most common at about age 15 (Berger, 2019) [13] and can lead to parasuicide, also called attempted suicide or failed suicide. Suicidal ideation and parasuicide should be taken seriously and serve as a warning that emotions may be overwhelming.

Watch It

This short video emphasizes how suicide is a major health issue and concern for teenagers, and also how it is important for parents, caregivers, teachers, and friends to be open enough to talk about it.

You can view the transcript for “Talking with Kids About Suicide” here (opens in new window).

Developmental models focus on interpersonal contexts in both childhood and adolescence that foster depression and anxiety (e.g., Rudolph, 2009) [14] Family adversity, such as abuse and parental psychopathology, during childhood sets the stage for social and behavioral problems during adolescence. Adolescents with such problems generate stress in their relationships (e.g., by resolving conflict poorly and excessively seeking reassurance) and select into more maladaptive social contexts (e.g., “misery loves company” scenarios in which depressed youths select other depressed youths as friends and then frequently co-ruminate as they discuss their problems, exacerbating negative affect and stress). These processes are intensified for girls compared with boys because girls have more relationship-oriented goals related to intimacy and social approval, leaving them more vulnerable to disruption in these relationships. Anxiety and depression then exacerbate problems in social relationships, which in turn contribute to the stability of anxiety and depression over time.

Try It


major depression:
feelings of hopelessness, lethargy, and worthlessness that last two weeks or more
any potentially lethal action against the self that does not result in death. (also called attempted suicide or failed suicide)
the act of intentionally causing one’s own death
suicidal ideation:
thinking about suicide, usually with some serious emotional and intellectual or cognitive overtones

  1. Patterson, G. R. (1982). Coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia Press.
  2. Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life course persistent antisocial behavior: Developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674–701.
  3. Healy, Melissa (August 24, 2015). "Why the U.S. is No. 1 – in mass shootings". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  4. Grinberg, Emanuella (January 25, 2016). "The real mental health issue behind gun violence". CNN. Retrieved November 7, 2017.
  5. Campbell, Holly (December 2, 2015). "Inside the mind of a mass murderer". WANE-TV. Retrieved November 9, 2017.
  6. Christensen, Jen (October 5, 2017). "Why the US has the most mass shootings". CNN. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  7. Peters, Justin (December 19, 2013). "Everything You Think You Know about Mass Murder Is Wrong". Slate.
  8. Ferguson, Christopher J.; Coulson, Mark; Barnett, Jane (January 1, 2011). "Psychological Profiles of School Shooters: Positive Directions and One Big Wrong Turn". Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations. 11 (2): 141–158. doi:10.1080/15332586.2011.581523.
  9. Burgess, Ann Wolbert; Garbarino, Christina; Carlson, Mary I. (2006). "Pathological teasing and bullying turned deadly: Shooters and suicide". Victims and Offenders. 1 (1): 1–14. doi:10.1080/15564880500498705.
  10. Rudolph, K. D. (2009). The interpersonal context of adolescent depression. In S. Nolen-Hoeksema & L. M. Hilt (Eds.), Handbook of depression in adolescents (pp. 377–418). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.
  11. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  12. Uddin, M., Koenen, K.C., de los Santos, R., Bakshis, E., Aielle, A.E., & Galea, S. (2010). Gender differences in the genetic and environmental determinants of adolescent depression. Depression and Anxiety, 27(7), 658-666.
  13. Berger, K.S. (2019). Invitation to the Lifespan (4th ed). Worth Publishers, NY.
  14. Rudolph, K. D. (2009). The interpersonal context of adolescent depression. In S. Nolen-Hoeksema & L. M. Hilt (Eds.), Handbook of depression in adolescents (pp. 377–418). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.