Risk-taking and sensation-seeking propensity in postinstitutionalized early adolescents

Michelle M. Loman, Anna E. Johnson, Karina Quevedo, Theresa L. Lafavor, Megan R. Gunnar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Background: Youth with histories of institutional/orphanage care are at increased risk for externalizing and internalizing problems during childhood and adolescence. Although these problems have been well described, the related adolescent behaviors of risk-taking and sensation-seeking have not yet been explored in this population. This study examined risk-taking and sensation-seeking propensity, and associations with conduct problems and depressive symptoms, in early adolescents who were adopted as young children from institutional care. Methods: Risk-taking and sensation-seeking propensities of 12-and 13-year-old postinstitutionalized (PI; n = 54) adolescents were compared with two groups: youth who were internationally adopted early from foster care (PFC; n = 44) and nonadopted youth (NA; n = 58). Participants were recruited to equally represent pre/early-and mid/late-pubertal stages within each group. Participants completed the youth version of the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (Lejuez et al., 2007) and the Sensation-Seeking Scale for Children (Russo et al., 1991). Parents completed clinical ratings of participants' conduct problems and depressive symptoms. Results: PI adolescents demonstrated lower risk-taking than PFC and NA peers. Pre/early-pubertal PI youth showed lower sensation-seeking, while mid/late-pubertal PI youth did not differ from other groups. PI adolescents had higher levels of conduct problems but did not differ from the other youth in depressive symptoms. In PI youth only, conduct problems were negatively correlated with risk-taking and positively correlated with sensation-seeking, while depressive symptoms were negatively correlated with both risk-taking and sensation-seeking. Conclusions: Early institutional care is associated with less risk-taking and sensation-seeking during adolescence. The deprived environment of an institution likely contributes to PI youth having a preference for safe choices, which may only be partially reversed with puberty. Whether this reflects hyporesponsiveness to rewards and how it relates to psychopathology are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1145-1152
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.


  • Adolescence
  • Institutional care
  • International adoption
  • Risk-taking
  • Sensation-seeking


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