Interactions between Callous Unemotional Behaviors and Executive Function in Early Childhood Predict later Aggression and Lower Peer-liking in Late-childhood

J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2017 Apr;45(3):597-609. doi: 10.1007/s10802-016-0184-2.


Callous unemotional (CU) behaviors are linked to aggression, behavior problems, and difficulties in peer relationships in children and adolescents. However, few studies have examined whether early childhood CU behaviors predict aggression or peer-rejection during late-childhood or potential moderation of this relationship by executive function. The current study examined whether the interaction of CU behaviors and executive function in early childhood predicted different forms of aggression in late-childhood, including proactive, reactive, and relational aggression, as well as how much children were liked by their peers. Data from cross-informant reports and multiple observational tasks were collected from a high-risk sample (N = 240; female = 118) at ages 3 and 10 years old. Parent reports of CU behaviors at age 3 predicted teacher reports of reactive, proactive, and relational aggression, as well as lower peer-liking at age 10. Moderation analysis showed that specifically at high levels of CU behaviors and low levels of observed executive function, children were reported by teachers as showing greater reactive and proactive aggression, and were less-liked by peers. Findings demonstrate that early childhood CU behaviors and executive function have unique main and interactive effects on both later aggression and lower peer-liking even when taking into account stability in behavior problems over time. By elucidating how CU behaviors and deficits in executive function potentiate each other during early childhood, we can better characterize the emergence of severe and persistent behavior and interpersonal difficulties across development.

Keywords: Antisocial behavior; Callous unemotional; Conduct problems; Executive function; Prevention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Child
  • Child Behavior / physiology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Conduct Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Peer Group*