Objective: Attenuated activity of stress-regulating systems has consistently been reported in boys with conduct problems. Results in studies of girls are inconsistent, which may result from the high prevalence of comorbid post-trauma symptoms. Therefore, the aim of the present study is to investigate post-trauma symptoms as a potential mediator in the relation between stress-regulation systems functioning and conduct problems in female adolescents. Methods: The sample consisted of 78 female adolescents (mean age 15.4; SD 1.1) admitted to a closed treatment institution. The diagnosis of disruptive behaviour disorder (DBD) was assessed by a structured interview-the diagnostic interview schedule for children version IV (DISC-IV). To assess post-trauma symptoms and externalizing behaviour problems, self-report questionnaires, youth self report (YSR) and the trauma symptom checklist for Children (TSCC) were used. The cortisol awakenings response (CAR) measured hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity, whereas autonomous nervous system (ANS) activity was assessed by heart rate (HR), pre-ejection period (PEP) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Independent t-tests were used to compare girls with and without DBD, while path analyses tested for the mediating role of post- trauma symptoms in the relation between stress regulating systems and externalizing behaviour. Results: Females with DBD (n = 37) reported significantly higher rates of post-trauma symptoms and externalizing behaviour problems than girls without DBD (n = 39). Path analysis found no relation between CAR and externalizing behaviour problems. With regard to ANS activity, positive direct effects on externalizing behaviour problems were present for HR (standardized β = 0.306, p = 0.020) and PEP (standardized β = -0.323, p = 0.031), though not for RSA. Furthermore, no relation-whether direct or indirect-could be determined from post-trauma symptoms. Conclusions: Present findings demonstrate that the neurobiological characteristics of female externalizing behaviour differ from males, since girls showed heightened instead of attenuated ANS activity. While the prevalence of post-trauma symptoms was high in girls with DBD, it did not mediate the relation between stress parameters and externalizing behaviour. Clinical implications and future directions are discussed.
- Autonomic nervous system
- Conduct problems