CONTEXT: Research on the association between socioemotional problems and early sexual initiation has not evaluated differences across types of problems, by gender, or by race or ethnicity.

METHODS: Data were analyzed for a sample derived from the Children of the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth: 1,836 youth who were 10–11 years old at the 1992, 1994 and 1996 waves. Mothers’ reports of their child’s socioemotional problems at age 10–11 were assessed; sexual initiation before age 15 was assessed using youth self-reports. Logistic regression analyses estimated associations between socioemotional problems and early initiation; predicted probabilities and group differences were calculated using various regression techniques.

RESULTS: Twenty-six percent of youth had had intercourse before turning 15, and their average level of each problem was higher than the level of those who had not. Both internalizing problems (e.g., depression and dependency) and externalizing problems (e.g., hyperactivity and antisocial behavior) were associated with early sexual initiation (odds ratios, 1.1 and 1.2, respectively), but only externalizing problems retained significance when both types were included in the model (1.2). Among specific problems, only hyperactivity and antisocial behavior were associated with early initiation (1.2 for each). Youth with a high level of externalizing problems had a higher predicted probability of having early sex than did those with a low level (0.28 vs. 0.21). Associations between socioemotional problems and early initiation did not differ by gender or by race or ethnicity.

CONCLUSIONS: Interventions should be targeted at youth with externalizing problems, especially those who engage in antisocial or hyperactive behavior, in an effort to promote positive social interactions.