European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

, Volume 23, Issue 9, pp 729–741 | Cite as

From positive emotionality to internalizing problems: the role of executive functioning in preschoolers

  • Akhgar Ghassabian
  • Eszter Székely
  • Catherine M. Herba
  • Vincent W. Jaddoe
  • Albert Hofman
  • Albertine J. Oldehinkel
  • Frank C. Verhulst
  • Henning Tiemeier
Original Contribution


Temperament and psychopathology are intimately related; however, research on the prospective associations between positive emotionality, defined as a child’s positive mood states and high engagement with the environment, and psychopathology is inconclusive. We examined the longitudinal relation between positive emotionality and internalizing problems in young children from the general population. Furthermore, we explored whether executive functioning mediates any observed association. Within a population-based Dutch birth cohort, we observed positive emotionality in 802 children using the laboratory temperament assessment battery at age 3 years. Child behavior checklist (CBCL) internalizing problems (consisting of Emotionally Reactive, Anxious/Depressed, and Withdrawn scales) were assessed at age 6 years. Parents rated their children’s executive functioning at ages 4 years. Children with a lower positive emotionality at age 3 had a higher risk of withdrawn problems at age 6 years (OR = 1.20 per SD decrease in positive emotionality score, 95 % CI: 1.01, 1.42). This effect was not explained by preexisting internalizing problems. This association was partly mediated by more problems in the shifting domain of executive functioning (p < 0.001). We did not find any relation between positive emotionality and the CBCL emotionally reactive or anxious/depressed scales. Although the effect sizes were moderate, our results suggest that low levels of positive emotionality at preschool age can result in children’s inflexibility and rigidity later in life. The inflexibility and rigidity are likely to affect the child’s drive to engage with the environment, and thereby lead to withdrawn problems. Further research is needed to replicate these findings.


Temperament Positive emotionality Executive function Shifting Withdrawn Internalizing 



The Generation R Study is conducted by the Erasmus Medical Center in close collaboration with the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Erasmus University, the Municipal Health Service Rotterdam area, the Rotterdam Homecare Foundation and the Stichting Trombosedienst & Artsenlaboratorium Rijnmond (STAR). We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of general practitioners, hospitals, midwives and pharmacies in Rotterdam. The first phase of Generation R was supported by Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam, the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMw 10.000.1003). The work of E. Székely was supported by a grant from the Sophia Children’s Hospital Foundation (SWO-2007-514). H. Tiemeier was supported by the VIDI Grant of ZonMw (2009–017.106.370).

Conflict of interest

Dr. Frank C. Verhulst is the contributing editor of the Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment, from which he receives remuneration. For the other authors, no conflict of interest exists.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Akhgar Ghassabian
    • 1
    • 2
  • Eszter Székely
    • 1
    • 2
  • Catherine M. Herba
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  • Vincent W. Jaddoe
    • 5
    • 6
  • Albert Hofman
    • 6
  • Albertine J. Oldehinkel
    • 7
  • Frank C. Verhulst
    • 2
  • Henning Tiemeier
    • 2
    • 6
    • 8
  1. 1.The Generation R Study GroupErasmus Medical CenterRotterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry/PsychologyErasmus Medical Center-Sophia Children’s HospitalRotterdamThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversité du Québec à MontréalMontrealCanada
  4. 4.Centre de Recherche du CHU Sainte-JustineMontréalCanada
  5. 5.Department of PediatricsErasmus Medical Center-Sophia Children’s HospitalRotterdamThe Netherlands
  6. 6.Department of EpidemiologyErasmus Medical CenterRotterdamThe Netherlands
  7. 7.Interdisciplinary Center for Pathology of EmotionUniversity Medical Center GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands
  8. 8.Department of PsychiatryErasmus Medical CenterRotterdamThe Netherlands

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