Early pubertal maturation and externalizing behaviors: Examination of peer delinquency as mediator and cognitive flexibility as a moderator

Sofia T. Stepanyan, Misaki N. Natsuaki, Yeram Cheong, Paul D. Hastings, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Bonnie Klimes-Dougan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Introduction: While peer delinquency is a known mediator between early pubertal timing and externalizing behaviors, little is known about factors that could protect against the adverse influence of peer delinquency. This study assesses the possible moderating role of cognitive flexibility, which is one index of executive functioning that facilitates flexible and adaptive responses to challenging situations. We assessed the interactive influence of peer delinquency and cognitive flexibility in the association between pubertal maturation and externalizing behaviors in boys and girls. Method: Participants were 220 adolescents (111 boys) from the United States, between the ages of 11 and 16 years (M = 13.2, SD = 1.53) who participated in the Adolescent Emotion Study (AES). Results: Findings from the cross-sectional path modeling analyses provided evidence for the mediating role of peer delinquency for boys and girls, indicating that early maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with delinquent peers, which in turn exacerbates externalizing problems. Additionally, the moderating role of cognitive flexibility was also demonstrated for both boys and girls. Region of significance tests revealed that relatively well-developed cognitive flexibility skills could protect against the adverse influences of peer delinquency, whereas lower levels could exacerbate those negative influences. Conclusion: These findings suggest that involvement with deviant peers increases vulnerability for both early maturing boys and girls. Additionally, cognitive flexibility was an important moderating factor for adolescents, such that youths with less developed skills would be at a higher risk for psychopathology, whereas those with better development could be protected.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-55
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Adolescence
StatePublished - Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study is part of a larger study titled the Role of Emotion in the Development of Psychopathology ( 97-M-0116 ) supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Mental Health . We thank all the adolescents and their parents who participated in this study. We also extend our gratitude to Dr. Keith F. Widaman for his feedback and help with statistical analyses. Lastly, we are also thankful to Jorge Monroy for his contribution on the earlier versions of this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Foundation for Professionals in Services for Adolescents

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Adolescence
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Externalizing behaviors
  • Peer delinquency
  • Pubertal timing


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