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Unique Associations between Childhood Temperament Characteristics and Subsequent Psychopathology Symptom Trajectories from Childhood to Early Adolescence

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Abstract

Existing research suggests that temperamental traits that emerge early in childhood may have utility for early detection and intervention for common mental disorders. The present study examined the unique relationships between the temperament characteristics of reactivity, approach-sociability, and persistence in early childhood and subsequent symptom trajectories of psychopathology (depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; ADHD) from childhood to early adolescence. Data were from the first five waves of the older cohort from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (n = 4983; 51.2% male), which spanned ages 4–5 to 12–13. Multivariate ordinal and logistic regressions examined whether parent-reported child temperament characteristics at age 4–5 predicted the study child’s subsequent symptom trajectories for each domain of psychopathology (derived using latent class growth analyses), after controlling for other presenting symptoms. Temperament characteristics differentially predicted the symptom trajectories for depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, and ADHD: Higher levels of reactivity uniquely predicted higher symptom trajectories for all 4 domains; higher levels of approach-sociability predicted higher trajectories of conduct disorder and ADHD, but lower trajectories of anxiety; and higher levels of persistence were related to lower trajectories of conduct disorder and ADHD. These findings suggest that temperament is an early identifiable risk factor for the development of psychopathology, and that identification and timely interventions for children with highly reactive temperaments in particular could prevent later mental health problems.

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Notes

  1. Attrition in LSAC has been examined in detail elsewhere (Cusack and Defina 2013), and the bias in our study due to attrition was reduced by applying survey weights. However, these weights are based on demographic representativeness and do not necessarily account for differential drop-out with regard to the measures under investigation. As such, we analysed the symptom levels for each domain of psychopathology at Wave 1 for participants who dropped out of the study compared to participants who continued on to Wave 5. While there were no significant differences between the groups in symptom levels of anxiety, t(1871.44) = 0.28, p = 0.782; Cohen’s d < 0.01, or depression, t(1802.50) = 1.95, p = 0.052; Cohen’s d = 0.07, there were small but significant differences in symptoms of conduct disorder, t(1986.44) = 5.22, p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 0.17, and ADHD, t(2027.30) = 6.04, p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 0.20. In short, participants who dropped out tended to have higher externalizing symptoms on average, but the small effect sizes highlight that the two groups have more than 92% overlap in the distribution of these symptoms.

  2. None of the scales used in the present study had excellent internal consistency. However, given the scales all represent abbreviated measures of complex constructs, we would expect moderate internal consistency at best, given the heterogeneous item content required to achieve content validity (i.e., substantial item specific variance) and the small number of items (i.e., two to five) included in each scale.

  3. The use of standardised scales to represent the four domains of psychopathology at each time point highlights individuals’ relative symptom severity at each wave (i.e., the number of standard deviations away from the population mean), rather than absolute changes in symptom severity. This reflects a statistical deviation conceptualisation of psychopathology, and prevents population level age-related changes between waves from obscuring individual differences.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported in part a National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) training grant supporting the work of Miriam Forbes (T320A037183). NIDA had no further role in the study design; in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; in writing; nor in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication. The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children is conducted in partnership between the Department of Social Services, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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Correspondence to Miriam K. Forbes.

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This research was supported in part a National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) training grant supporting the work of Miriam Forbes (T320A037183). NIDA had no further role in the study design; in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; in writing; nor in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

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Forbes, M.K., Rapee, R.M., Camberis, AL. et al. Unique Associations between Childhood Temperament Characteristics and Subsequent Psychopathology Symptom Trajectories from Childhood to Early Adolescence. J Abnorm Child Psychol 45, 1221–1233 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-016-0236-7

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