Co-occurrence of aggression and anxiety might change during adolescence, or stay stable. We studied change and stability of four types of co-occurrence regarding direct aggression and anxiety in adolescence: an anxious and non-aggressive type, an aggressive and non-anxious type, a comorbid aggressive-anxious type and a no problems type.

We applied a person-centered approach to assess increases and decreases of these types, and tested various models of intra-individual change of the types: the stability, acting out and failure models. We used data from a five-wave study of 923 early-to-middle and 390 middle-to-late adolescents (48.5 % male), thereby covering the ages of 12–20. We observed accelerated development in the older cohort: adolescents tended to grow faster out of the aggressive types in middle-to-late adolescence than in early-to-middle adolescence. We observed one other group-dependent pattern of heterogeneity in development, namely “gender differentiation”: gender differences in aggression and generalized anxiety became stronger over time.

We found support for two perspectives on intra-individual change of the four types, namely the stability and the acting out perspective. The no problems—and to a lesser extent the anxious—type proved to be stable across time. Acting out was found in early-to-middle adolescents, males, and adolescents with poorer-quality friendships. In all three groups, there were substantial transitions from the anxious type to the aggressive type during 4 years (between 20 and 41 %).

Remarkably, acting out was most prevalent in subgroups that, generally speaking, are more vulnerable for aggressive behavior, namely early-to-middle adolescents and males. We interpret acting out as the attempt of adolescents to switch from anxiety to instrumental aggression, in order to become more visible and obtain an autonomous position in the adolescent world. Acting out contributed to the explanation of accelerated development and gender differentiation. We also observed an increase of adolescents with no problems.

These findings highlight that the co-occurrence of aggression and anxiety changes considerably during adolescence, but also that the anxious and no problems types are quite stable in this period.

Meeus, W., Van de Schoot, R., Hawk, S. T., Hale III, W. W., & Branje, S. (2016). Direct Aggression and Generalized Anxiety in Adolescence: Heterogeneity in Development and Intra-Individual Change. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(2), 361-375.

Wim Meeus
Professor Adolescent Psychology
Wim specializes in longitudinal adolescent studies, particularly regarding the development of personality and identity, personal relations and problematic behavior.
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