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.
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.
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 ? = 0.306, p = 0.020) and PEP (standardized ? = ?0.323, p = 0.031), though not for RSA. Furthermore, no relation—whether direct or indirect—could be determined from post-trauma symptoms.
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.