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ournal of Nervous & Mental Disease:

December 2003 - Volume 191 - Issue 12 - pp 771-780

Original Articles
Defense Styles, Personality Traits, and Psychopathological
Symptoms in Nonclinical Adolescents
Muris, Peter PhD*; Winands, Danny BSc; Horselenberg, Robert MSc

The purpose of the present study was to examine relationships between defense styles, personality
traits, and psychopathological symptoms in nonclinical youths. A large sample of adolescents (n =
437) completed the Defense Style Questionnaire for Adolescents, the Junior version of the Eysenck
Personality Questionnaire, and a scale measuring symptoms of DSM-defined disorders. Results
showed that there were clear relationships between personality traits (neuroticism and psychoticism)
and defense styles (neurotic and immature defense) on the one hand and psychopathological
symptoms on the other hand. Most importantly, regression analyses indicated that personality traits
and defense styles both accounted for unique proportions of the variance in psychopathological
Recently, there has been a revival of the psychodynamic concept of defense. For example, the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) lists a
number of defense mechanisms that are taken from the psychodynamic tradition (e.g., denial,
projection, and sublimation). As another example, an increasing number of empirical studies have
made serious attempts to develop psychometrically reliable instruments that measure the extent to
which people rely on certain defense mechanisms (Cramer, 1991).
Vaillants (1977) longitudinal research has shown that defense style can be regarded as an enduring
facet of personality, with its mature components facilitating good adjustment and mental health and its
neurotic and immature aspects promoting maladaptation and psychopathology. Empirical studies
have indeed demonstrated that defense styles differ between patients and nonpatients (Andrews et
al., 1993) and among various axis I disorders (Andrews et al., 1993;Bond and Sagala Vaillant,
1986;Pollock and Andrews, 1989) and axis II personality disorders (Bond et al., 1994;Vaillant, 1994).
Additionally, maturity of defense style appears to be related to general level of functioning (Vaillant,
Few studies have examined the connection between defense style and psychopathology in youths,
notwithstanding the fact that adolescence is a developmental transition stage posing a lot of
psychological challenges (Wenar and Kerig, 2000). One exception is a study by Erickson et al. (1996)
who examined relationships between scores on an adolescent version of the Defense Style
Questionnaire (DSQ;Bond et al., 1983), a self-report scale for measuring defense mechanisms as
well as general adjustment as indexed by clinicians ratings on a DSM-based Global Assessment of
Functioning scale. Results showed that defense style and adjustment were significantly related. More
precisely, greater maturity of defense style was associated with better general adjustment and,
conversely, greater immaturity of defense style was associated with a lower level of functioning
(Erickson et al., 1997). Another example is a study by Steiner and Feldman (1995), who evaluated the
discriminant validity of the Weinberger Adjustment Inventory (WAI;Weinberger and Schwartz, 1990)
that assesses distress, restraint, denial, and repression, and the DSQ for adolescents in a mixed
sample of normal and clinical youths. Results showed that the DSQ successfully discriminated normal
from pathological youths for both genders, whereas the WAI only did so for girls.
While it can be assumed that defense mechanisms shape psychopathological symptoms, there is
also support for the notion that personality traits account for a substantial proportion of the variance in
such symptoms. For example, Eysenck and Eysenck (1985) hypothesized two personality dimensions
that may be highly relevant in this regard (Claridge, 1997). The first dimension is neuroticism, which
pertains to the ease and frequency with which an individual becomes upset and distressed and hence
would reflect a predisposition to a broad range of neurotic problems including anxiety and mood
disorders. The second dimension is psychoticism, which refers to the tendency to be hostile,
manipulative, and impulsive, which would represent a liability to psychosis and antisocial behaviors
(e.g., disruptive behavior disorders and substance-related disorders).
Although defense style and personality traits are both thought to play a role in the pathogenesis of
mental disorders, little is known about the relative contributions of these constructs to various types of
psychopathology (Muris and Merckelbach, 1996), and this is particularly true for youth populations.
With this in mind, the current study was undertaken. A large sample of nonclinical adolescents aged
between 12 and 17 years completed 1) the adolescent version of the 40-item DSQ (Andrews et al.,
1993), which is a self-report inventory measuring defense mechanisms in three defense style
categories viz. mature, neurotic, and immature; 2) the Junior version of the Eysenck Personality
Questionnaire (JEPQ;Eysenck and Eysenck, 1975), which measures three important dimensions of
personality, namely neuroticism, extraversion, and psychoticism; and 3) the DSM-IV Psychopathology
Questionnaire for Youths (PQY;Hartman et al., 2001), which assesses a broad range of
psychopathological symptoms that according to the DSM may occur in children and adolescents. The
following issues were investigated: 1) the relationship between personality traits and defense styles, 2)
the connections between personality traits and defense styles on the one hand and
psychopathological symptoms on the other hand, and 3) the unique contributions of personality traits
and defense styles to psychopathological symptoms.

Although the development of appropriate coping strategies has been understood as an essential element of
healthy adjustment, few studies have demonstrated the link between coping and psychological development.
Similarly, research on adolescents with behavioral problems has neglected coping as an important variable in
understanding and treating these conditions. This study examines the relationships between psychological
development, coping strategies and symptoms in a sample of 302 psychiatrically hospitalized adolescents, ages
1216. Subjects completed the Adolescent Coping Orientation for Problem Strategies Questionnaire, (A-COPE),
the Youth Self Report symptom checklist (YSR), and Loevinger's measure of ego development. Results showed
that Avoidance and Ventilation were associated with increased behavior problems and lower levels of ego
development. Problem solving and interpersonal strategies were associated with fewer symptoms and higher
levels of development. Significant gender differences were found with girls using more interpersonal coping and
boys using more physically active strategies. Gender differences were also found in the relationship of coping
strategies to both symptomatic behavior and development. The results are discussed in the context of a
developmental approach to adolescent psychopathology.