External Validity of a Hierarchical Dimensional Model of Child and Adolescent Psychopathology: Tests Using Confirmatory Factor Analyses and Multivariate Behavior Genetic Analyses

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Several recent studies of the hierarchical phenotypic structure of psychopathology have identified a General psychopathology factor in addition to the more expected specific Externalizing and Internalizing dimensions in both youth and adult samples and some have found relevant unique external correlates of this General factor. We used data from 1,568 twin pairs (599 MZ & 969 DZ) age 9 to 17 to test hypotheses for the underlying structure of youth psychopathology and the external validity of the higher-order factors. Psychopathology symptoms were assessed via structured interviews of caretakers and youth. We conducted phenotypic analyses of competing structural models using Confirmatory Factor Analysis and used Structural Equation Modeling and multivariate behavior genetic analyses to understand the etiology of the higher-order factors and their external validity. We found that both a General factor and specific Externalizing and Internalizing dimensions are necessary for characterizing youth psychopathology at both the phenotypic and etiologic levels, and that the 3 higher-order factors differed substantially in the magnitudes of their underlying genetic and environmental influences. Phenotypically, the specific Externalizing and Internalizing dimensions were slightly negatively correlated when a General factor was included, which reflected a significant inverse correlation between the nonshared environmental (but not genetic) influences on Internalizing and Externalizing. We estimated heritability of the general factor of psychopathology for the first time. Its moderate heritability suggests that it is not merely an artifact of measurement error but a valid construct. The General, Externalizing, and Internalizing factors differed in their relations with 3 external validity criteria: mother’s smoking during pregnancy, parent’s harsh discipline, and the youth’s association with delinquent peers. Multivariate behavior genetic analyses supported the external validity of the 3 higher-order factors by suggesting that the General, Externalizing, and Internalizing factors were correlated with peer delinquency and parent’s harsh discipline for different etiologic reasons.

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