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An “immigrant paradox” for adolescent externalizing behavior? Evidence from a national sample

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Recent decades have witnessed a rise in the number of immigrant children in the United States (US) and concomitant concerns regarding externalizing behaviors such as crime, violence, and drug misuse by immigrant adolescents. The objective of the present study was to systematically compare the prevalence of externalizing behaviors and migration-related factors among immigrant and US-born adolescents in the US.


Data on 12 to 17 year olds (Weighted N in thousands = 25,057) from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) R-DAS between 2002 and 2009 were used. The R-DAS online analytic software was employed. Prevalence estimates and 95 % confidence intervals were calculated adjusting for the complex survey sampling design.


Compared to their US-born counterparts, immigrant adolescents—particularly those between the ages of 15 and 17 years—are significantly less likely to be involved in externalizing behaviors. In addition, later age of arrival and fewer years spent in the US were associated with reduced odds of externalizing behavior. Supplementary analyses indicate that the link between nativity and externalizing behavior may be primarily driven by differences between US-born and immigrant youth who self-identify as non-Hispanic black or Hispanic. Immigrant adolescents are also more likely to report cohesive parental relationships, positive school engagement, and disapproving views with respect to adolescent substance use.


This study extends prior research on the “immigrant paradox” to externalizing behavior among adolescents using a nationally representative data source. Findings highlight the importance of examining age, age of arrival, duration, and race/ethnicity in the study of nativity and externalizing.

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This research was supported in part by Grant Number R25 DA030310 (PI: Anthony) from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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Correspondence to Christopher P. Salas-Wright.

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Salas-Wright, C.P., Vaughn, M.G., Schwartz, S.J. et al. An “immigrant paradox” for adolescent externalizing behavior? Evidence from a national sample. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 51, 27–37 (2016).

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