Which behavioral, emotional and school problems in middle-childhood predict early sexual behavior?


Mental health and school adjustment problems are thought to distinguish early sexual behavior from normative timing (16-18 years), but little is known about how early sexual behavior originates from these problems in middle-childhood. Existing studies do not allow for co-occurring problems, differences in onset and persistence, and there is no information on middle-childhood school adjustment in relationship to early sexual activity. This study examined associations between several middle-childhood problems and early sexual behavior, using a subsample (N = 4,739, 53 % female, 98 % white, mean age 15 years 6 months) from a birth cohort study, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Adolescents provided information at age 15 on early sexual behavior (oral sex and/or intercourse) and sexual risk-taking, and at age 13 on prior risk involvement (sexual behavior, antisocial behavior and substance use). Information on hyperactivity/inattention, conduct problems, depressive symptoms, peer relationship problems, school dislike and school performance was collected in middle-childhood at Time 1 (6-8 years) and Time 2 (10-11 years). In agreement with previous research, conduct problems predicted early sexual behavior, although this was found only for persistent early problems. In addition, Time 2 school dislike predicted early sexual behavior, while peer relationship problems were protective. Persistent early school dislike further characterized higher-risk groups (early sexual behavior preceded by age 13 risk, or accompanied by higher sexual risk-taking). The study establishes middle-childhood school dislike as a novel risk factor for early sexual behavior and higher-risk groups, and the importance of persistent conduct problems. Implications for the identification of children at risk and targeted intervention are discussed, as well as suggestions for further research.