The role of child and parental mentalizing for the development of conduct problems over time

Original Contribution


The current study aimed to investigate the role of parental and child mentalizing in the development of conduct problems over time in a community sample of 7- to 11-year-olds (N = 659). To measure child mentalizing, children were asked to complete a social vignettes task at baseline as a measure of distorted mentalizing. Parents (primarily mothers) were asked to complete the same task, guessing their child’s responses in the social scenarios as a measure of maternal mentalizing. Conduct problems were evaluated using repeated measures from multi-informant (self-, teacher-, and parent-report) questionnaires completed at baseline and 1-year follow-up. As expected, children who had an overly positive mentalizing style were more likely to be reported by teachers as having conduct problems at 1-year follow-up. These findings held when controlling for baseline conduct problems, IQ, SES, and sex. Findings for maternal mentalizing were significant for follow-up parent-report conduct problem symptoms at the bivariate level of analyses, but not at the multivariate level when controlling for baseline conduct problems and age. These findings extend previous reports by providing predictive validity for distorted mentalizing in the development of conduct problems.


Conduct problems Social cognition Distorted mentalizing Parental mentalizing Child mentalizing 


  1. 1.
    Achenbach TM, Becker A, Dopfner M, Heiervang E, Roessner V, Stenhausen HC, Rothenberger A (2008) Multicultural assessment of child and adolescent psychopathology with ASEBA and SDQ instruments: research findings, applications, and future directions. J Child Psychol Psych 49(3):251–275. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01867.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Aguilar B, Sroufe LA, Egeland B, Carlson E (2000) Distinguishing the early-onset/persistent and adolescent-onset antisocial behavior types: from birth to 16 years. Dev Psychopathol 12:109–132. doi:10.1017/S0954579400002017 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    American Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders, 4th edn. Author, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Baron-Cohen S, Leslie AM, Frith U (1985) Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’? Cognition 21(1):37–46. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Baron-Cohen S, Jolliffe T, Mortimore C, Robertson M (1997) Another advanced test of theory of mind: evidence from very high functioning adults with autism or asperger syndrome. J Child Psychol Psych 38(7):813–822. Retrieved from
  6. 6.
    Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004) The empathy quotient: an investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. J Autism Dev Disord 34(2):163–175. doi:10.1023/B:JADD.0000022607.19833.00 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Baumeister RF, Smart L, Boden JM (1996) Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: the dark side of high self-esteem. Psychol Rev 103(1):5–33. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Baumeister RF, Smart L, Boden JM (1999) Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: the dark side of high self-esteem. In: Baumeister RF (ed) The self in social psychology. Key readings in social psychology. Psychology Press, Philadelphia, pp 240–284Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Becker A, Woerner W, Hasselhorn M, Banaschewski T, Rothenberger A (2004) Validation of the parent and teacher SDQ in a clinical sample. Eur Child Adoles Psy 13:II11-6. doi: 10.1007/s00787-004-2003-5 Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Bernstein DP, Cohen P, Skodol A, Bezirganian S, Brook JS (1996) Childhood antecedents of adolescent personality disorders. Am J Psychiat 153(7):907–913. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Bogels SM, Zigterman D (2000) Dysfunctional cognitions in children with social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. J Abnorm Child Psych 28(2):205–211. doi:10.1023/A:1005179032470 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Brendgen M, Vitaro F, Turgeon L, Poulin B, Wanner B (2004) Is there a dark side of positive illusions? Overestimation of social competence and subsequent adjustment in aggressive and nonaggressive children. J Abnorm Child Psych 32(3):305–320. doi:10.1023/ CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Campbell SB, Shaw DS, Gilliom M (2000) Early externalizing behavior problems: toddlers and preschoolers at risk for later maladjustment. Dev Psychopathol 12(3):467–488. doi:10.1017/S0954579400003114 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Caspi A, Henry B, McGee RO, Moffitt T, Sylva PA (1995) Temperamental origins of child and adolescent behavior problems: from age three to age fifteen. Child Dev 66(1):55–68. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1995.tb00855 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Coie JD, Lochman JE, Terry R, Hyman C (1992) Predicting early adolescent disorder from childhood aggression and peer rejection. J Consult Clin Psych 60(5):783–792. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    David CF, Kistner JA (2000) Do positive self-perceptions have a ‘dark side’? Examination of the link between perceptual bias and aggression. J Abnorm Child Psych 28(4):327–337. doi:10.1023/A:1005164925300 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Dodge KA (1993) Social-cognitive mechanisms in the development of conduct disorder and depression. Annu Rev Psychol 44:559–584. Retrieved from
  18. 18.
    Everitt BJ (1995) The analysis of repeated measures: a practical review with examples. Statistician 44(1):113–135. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Fonagy P, Target M (1997) Attachment and reflective function: their role in self-organization. Dev Psychopathol 9(4):697–700. doi:10.1017/S0954579497001399 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Fonagy P, Leigh T, Steele M, Steele H, Kennedy R, Mattoon G, Target M, Gerber A (1996) The relation of attachment status, psychiatric classification, and response to psychotherapy. J Consult Clin Psych 64:22–31. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.64.1.22 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Fonagy P, Steele H, Moran G, Steele M, Higgitt A (1991) The capacity for understanding mental states: the reflective self in parent and child and its significance for security of attachment. Inf Mental Hlth J 13(3):200–217. doi:10.1002/1097-0355 Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Fonagy P, Steele M, Steele H, Leigh T, Kennedy R, Mattoon G (1995) Attachment, the reflective self, and borderline states: the predictive validity of the adult attachment interview and pathological emotional development. In: Goldberg RS (ed) Attachment theory: social developmental and clinical perspectives. Analytic, New York, pp 233–278Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Frith CD, Frith U (2006) The neural basis of mentalizing. Neuron 50(4):531–534. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2006.05.001 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Goodman R (1997) The strengths and difficulties questionnaire: a research note. J Child Psychol Psych 38(5):581–586. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1997.tb01545 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Goodman R (2001) Psychometric properties of the strengths and difficulties questionnaire. J Am Acad Child Psy 40(1):1337–1345. doi:10.1097/00004583-200111000-00015 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Goodman R, Ford T, Simmons H, Gatward R, Meltzer H (2000) Using the strengths and difficulties questionnaire (SDQ) to screen for child psychiatric disorders in a community sample. Brit J Psychiat 177:534–539. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Goodyer IM, Croudace T, Dunn V, Herbert J, Jones PB (2009) Cohort profile: risk patterns and processes for psychopathology emerging during adolescence: the ROOTS project. Int J Epidemiol 39(2):361–369. doi:10.1093/ije/dyp173 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Greenberg MT, Speltz ML, DeKlyen M (1993) The role of attachment in early development of disruptive behavior problems. Dev Psychopathol 5:191–213. doi:10.1017/S095457940000434X CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ha C, Petersen N, Sharp C (2008) Narcissism, self-esteem, and conduct problems: Evidence from a British community sample of 7–11 year olds. Eur Child Adoles Psy 17(7):406–413. doi:10.1007/s00787-008-0682-z CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Kelvin RG, Goodyer IM, Teasdale JD, Brechin D (1999) Latent negative self-schema and high emotionality in well adolescents at risk for psychopathology. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 40(6):959–968. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00513 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Koskelainen M, Sourander A, Kaljonen A (2000) The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire among Finnish school-aged children and adolescents. Eur Child Adoles Psyc 9(4):277–284. doi:10.1007/s007870070031 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Lyons-Ruth K (1996) Attachment relationships among children with aggressive behaviour problems: the role of disorganized early attachment patterns. J Consult Clin Psychol 64:64–73. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.64.1.64 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Meins E (1997) Security of attachment and the social development of cognition. Psychology Press/Erlbaum (UK) Taylor and Francis, HoveGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Meins E, Fernyhough C, Fradley E, Tuckey M (2001) Rethinking maternal sensitivity: mother’s comments on infants’ mental processes predict security of attachment at 12 months. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 42(5):637–648. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00759 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Moffitt TE (1990) Juvenile delinquency and attention deficit disorder: Boys’ developmental trajectories from age 3 to age 15. Child Dev 61(3):893–910. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1990.tb02830 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Moffitt TE, Caspi A, Dickson N, Silva P, Stanton W (1996) Childhood-onset versus adolescent-onset antisocial conduct problems in males: natural history from ages 3–18 years. Dev Psychopathol 8:399–424. doi:10.1017/S0954579400007161 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Nesselroade JR, Stigler SM, Baltes PB (1980) Regression toward the mean and the study of change. Psychol Bull 88:622–637. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.88.3.622 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Office of National Statistics (1991) Retrieved from
  39. 39.
    Olson SL, Bates JE, Sandy JM, Lanthier R (2000) Early developmental precursors of externalizing behavior in middle childhood and adolescence. J Abnorm Child Psych 28(2):119–133. doi:10.1023/A:1005166629744 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Patterson GR, Yoerger K (1997) A developmental model for late-onset delinquency. Nebr Sym Mot 44:119–177. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Pettit GS, Polaha JA, Mize J (2001) Perceptual and attributional processes in aggression and conduct problems. In: Hill J, Maughan B (eds) Conduct disorders in childhood and adolescence. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 292–319Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Rothenberger A, Becker A, Erhart M, Wille N, Ravens-Sieberer U, BELLA study group (2008) Psychometric properties of the parent strengths and difficulties questionnaire in the general population of German children and adolescents: results of the BELA study. Eur Child Adoles Psy 17:99–105. doi:10.1007/s00787-008-1011-2
  43. 43.
    Ruffman T, Slade L, Crowe E (2002) The relation between children’s and mothers’ mental state language and theory-of-mind understanding. Child Dev 73(3):734. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00435
  44. 44.
    Sattler JM (1988) Assessment of children. Sattler, San DiegoGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Sharp C (2000) Biased minds: theory of mind and emotional-behaviour disorders of middle childhood. Dissertation, University of Cambridge, UKGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Sharp C, Croudace TJ, Goodyer IM (2007) Biased mentalizing in children aged seven to 11: latent class confirmation of response styles to social scenarios and associations with psychopathology. Soc Dev 16(1):181–202. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00378 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Sharp C, Fonagy P (2008) Social cognition and attachment-related disorders. In: Sharp C, Fonagy P, Goodyer IM (eds) Social cognition and developmental psychopathology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 269–302Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Sharp C, Fonagy P, Goodyer IM (2006) Imaging your child’s mind: Psychosocial adjustment and mothers’ ability to predict their children’s attributional response styles. Brit J Dev Psychol 24(1):197–214. doi:10.1348/026151005X82569 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Sharp C, Van Goozen SHM, Goodyer IM (2006) Children’s subjective emotional reactivity to affective pictures: gender differences and their antisocial correlates in an unselected sample of 7–11 year olds. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 47(2):143–150. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2005.01464 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    Slade A (2005) Parental reflective functioning: an introduction. Att Hum Dev 7(3):269–281. doi:10.1080/14616730500245906 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 51.
    SPSS for Windows, Rel. 17.0.3. 2009. SPSS, Inc.,ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Vasey MW, Dalgleish T, Silverman WK (2003) Research on information-processing factors in child and adolescent psychopathology: a critical commentary. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 32(1):81–93. doi:10.1207/S15374424JCCP3201_08 PubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Verhulst FC, Koot HM, Van der Ende J (1994) Differential predictive value of parents’ and teahers’ reports of children’s problem behaviors: a longitudinal study. J Abnorm Child Pscychol 22(5):531–546. doi:10.1007/BF02168936 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Vermunt JK (1997) LEM: Log-linear and event history analysis with missing data. Tilberg University, TilbergGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Vermunt JK, Magidson J (2000) Latent class cluster analysis. In: Hagenaars JA, McCutcheon AL (eds) Advances in latent class models. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  56. 56.
    Wechsler D (1992) Wechsler Intelligence Scale for children (3rd UK edn). Psychological Corporation, LondonGoogle Scholar
  57. 57.
    Woerner W, Becker A, Rothenberger A (2004) Normative data and scale properties of the German parent SDQ. Eur Child Adoles Psy 13:II/3-II/10. doi:10.1007/s00787-004-2002-6

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of HoustonHoustonUSA
  2. 2.Cambridge UniversityCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations