Child Psychiatry & Human Development

, Volume 51, Issue 1, pp 59–70 | Cite as

Longitudinal Relationships Between Reflective Functioning, Empathy, and Externalizing Behaviors During Adolescence and Young Adulthood

  • Larisa MorosanEmail author
  • Paolo Ghisletta
  • Deborah Badoud
  • Elodie Toffel
  • Stephan Eliez
  • Martin Debbané
Original Article


Reflective functioning (RF) refers to the understanding of one’s own and others’ behaviors in terms of mental states, whereas empathy entails the abilities to understand (cognitive empathy) and to share (affective empathy) the emotions of others. Low RF and low empathy have been previously related to externalizing behaviors, such as aggression and rule breaking. However, few longitudinal studies have simultaneously examined the relationships between these variables during adolescence. The aim of the present study is to investigate the longitudinal effects of both RF and empathy on potential changes in externalizing behaviors over time, in a group of 103 adolescents and young adults from the general population assessed repeatedly up to four times. We conducted multilevel analysis in order to examine the effects of RF and empathy on the initial levels and the trajectories of externalizing behaviors over time, while accounting for other variables previously associated with externalizing behaviors, such as age, gender, internalizing problems, and cognitive abilities. The results suggest that the ability to reflect on behaviors in terms of mental states predicted a sharper decrease in externalizing behaviors over time. Moreover, externalizing behaviors at the first assessment were associated with RF impairments and low affective empathy. Age, gender, cognitive abilities, and cognitive empathy were not associated with externalizing behaviors. We discuss how our results, based on a typically developing population, might inform primary or indicated prevention strategies for externalizing behaviors by focusing on socio-cognitive processes such as RF and affective empathy.


Adolescence Reflective functioning Externalizing behaviors Longitudinal Mentalizing 



This work was supported by Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant Number 100019_159440).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the Ethical Standards of the Institutional and/or National Research Committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Psychology and Educational SciencesUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  2. 2.Developmental Imaging and Psychopathology LabUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  3. 3.Faculty of PsychologySwiss Distance Learning UniversityBrigSwitzerland
  4. 4.Swiss National Center of Competences in Research LIVES-Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives-University of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  5. 5.Research Department of Clinical, Educational, and Health PsychologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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