Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 523–533 | Cite as

Aggressive Behaviors in Young Siblings: Associations with Executive Functions and Maternal Characteristics

  • Catherine A. Spann
  • Jeffrey R. Gagne


Aggressive behaviors in early childhood are associated with multiple undesirable outcomes, including juvenile delinquency, academic failure, and substance abuse. This investigation employed a family study design to examine child, mother and sibling predictors of early-emerging aggressive behaviors. These predictors included several indices of executive functioning within children, depression symptoms and education level of mothers, and inhibitory control (IC) of siblings. The sample consisted of 95 families (191 children; boys = 100) with at least two, typically developing children between 30 and 66 months of age (M age = 45.93 months, SD = 12.40). Measures included laboratory-assessed working memory and IC, parent-reported aggressive behaviors, as well as self-reported maternal depression symptoms and education. Results revealed that children showed substantial sibling similarity in aggressive behaviors. Using multilevel regression analyses, low child IC and greater maternal depression symptoms were associated with increased child aggressive behaviors. Child working memory, maternal education, and sibling IC did not uniquely predict child aggressive behaviors. Moderation analyses revealed an interaction between maternal depression symptoms and maternal education, such that the effect of depression symptoms on child aggressive behaviors was particularly evident amongst highly educated mothers. The current analysis moved beyond a main effects model of maternal depression and extended previous findings on the importance of child IC to aggressive behaviors by using a multiple-child-per-family framework. A promising direction for future research includes assessing whether efforts to increase child IC are successful in reducing child aggressive behaviors.


Children Aggressive behaviors Externalizing problems Executive function Mothers Depression 



The TEXAS Family Study is supported by a Research Enhancement Program grant from the University of Texas at Arlington (P.I.: J. R. Gagne). Special thanks to the students, staff, parents, and children who contributed to the study.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2000). Manual for the ASEBA preschool forms & profiles. Burlington: University of Vermont, Research Center for Children, Youth, & Families.Google Scholar
  2. Ainsworth, M. S. (1979). Infant–mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34, 932–937.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Ando, J., Ono, Y., & Wright, M. J. (2001). Genetic structure of spatial and verbal working memory. Behavior Genetics, 31, 615–624.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Archibald, S. J., & Kerns, K. A. (1999). Identification and description of new tests of executive functioning in children. Child Neuropsychology, 5, 115–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1994). Developments in the concept of working memory. Neuropsychology, 8, 485–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baillargeon, R. H., Morisset, A., Keenan, K., Normand, C. L., Séguin, J. R., Japel, C., & Cao, G. (2012). Development of disruptive behaviors in young children: a prospective population‐based cohort study. Infant Mental Health Journal, 33, 633–650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barkley, R. A. (1997). Behavioral inhibition, sustained attention, and executive functions: constructing a unifying theory of ADHD. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 65–94.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Beck, D. M., Schaefer, C., Pang, K., & Carlson, S. M. (2011). Executive function in preschool children: test-retest reliability. Journal of Cognition and Development, 12, 169–193.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  9. Brocki, K. C., Eninger, L., Thorell, L. B., & Bohlin, G. (2010). Interrelations between executive function and symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention in preschoolers: a two-year longitudinal study. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 163–171.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Campbell, S. B. (1995). Behavior problems in preschool children: a review of recent research. Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 36, 113–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Campbell, L., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Estimating actor, partner, and interaction effects for dyadic data using PROC MIXED and HLM: a user-friendly guide. Personal Relationships, 9, 327–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Carlson, S. M., & Wang, T. S. (2007). Inhibitory control and emotion regulation in preschool children. Cognitive Development, 22, 489–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Carlson, S. M., Moses, L. J., & Breton, C. (2002). How specific is the relation between executive function and theory of mind? Contributions of inhibitory control and working memory. Infant and Child Development, 11, 73–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Caspi, A., Moffitt, T.E., Morgan, J., Rutter, M., Taylor, A., Arseneault, L., & … Polo-Tomas, M. (2004). Maternal expressed emotion predicts children’s antisocial behavior problems: Using monozygotic-twin differences to identify environmental effects on behavioral development. Developmental Psychology, 40, 149–161.Google Scholar
  15. Chasiotis, A., Kiessling, F., Hofer, J., & Campos, D. (2006). Theory of mind and inhibitory control in three cultures: conflict inhibition predicts false belief understanding in Germany, Costa Rica and Cameroon. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 30(3), 249–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Connell, A. M., & Goodman, S. H. (2002). The association between psychopathology in fathers versus mothers and children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior problems: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 746–773.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Crick, N. R., Casas, J. F., & Mosher, M. (1997). Relational and overt aggression in preschool. Developmental Psychology, 33, 579–588.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  19. Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959–964.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, D. M. (2007). Peabody picture vocabulary test (4th ed.). Minneapolis: Pearson Education.Google Scholar
  21. Edelbrock, C., Rende, R., Plomin, R., & Thompson, L. (1995). A twin study of competence and problem behavior in childhood and early adolescence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 775–785.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Fergusson, D. M., & Horwood, L. (1998). Early conduct problems and later life opportunities. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 1097–1108.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Fergusson, D. M., & Lynskey, M. T. (1998). Conduct problems in childhood and psychosocial outcomes in young adulthood: a prospective study. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 6, 2–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fergusson, D., Lynskey, M., & Horwood, J. (1993). The effects of maternal depression on maternal ratings of child behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 21, 245–269.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Gerstadt, C. L., Hong, Y. J., & Diamond, A. (1994). The relationship between cognition and action: Performance of children 3 1/2-7 years old on a stroop-like day-night test. Cognition, 53, 129–153.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Goodman, S. H., Rouse, M. H., Connell, A. M., Broth, M., Hall, C. M., & Heyward, D. (2011). Maternal depression and child psychopathology: a meta-analytic review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14, 1–27.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Hay, D. F. (2005). The beginnings of aggression in infancy. In R. E. Tremblay, W. W. Hartup, & J. Archer (Eds.), Developmental origins of aggression (pp. 107–132). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  28. Hughes, C. (1998). Executive function in preschoolers: links with theory of mind and verbal ability. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 16, 233–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hughes, C., & Ensor, R. (2005). Executive function and theory of mind in 2 year olds: a family affair? Developmental Neuropsychology, 28, 645–668.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Hughes, C., & Ensor, R. (2008). Does executive function matter for preschoolers’ problem behaviors? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 1–14.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Hughes, C., & Ensor, R. (2009). Independence and interplay between maternal and child risk factors for preschool problem behaviors? International Journal of Behavioral Development, 33, 312–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Keenan, K., & Wakschlag, L. S. (2002). Can a valid diagnosis of disruptive behavior disorder be made in preschool children? American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 351–358.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Kenny, D. A. (1996). Models of nonindependence in dyadic research. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 13, 279–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kenny, D. A., Kashy, D. A., & Cook, W. L. (2006). Dyadic data analysis. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  35. Kim, J., McHale, S. M., Crouter, A. C., & Osgood, D. (2007). Longitudinal linkages between sibling relationships and adjustment from middle childhood through adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 43, 960–973.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Knox, M., Burkhart, K., & Khuder, S. A. (2011). Parental hostility and depression as predictors of young children’s aggression and conduct problems. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 20, 800–811.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Krull, J. L. (2007). Using multilevel analyses with sibling data to increase analytic power: an illustration and simulation study. Developmental Psychology, 43, 602–619.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Lalonde, K., & Holt, R. F. (2014). Cognitive and linguistic sources of variance in 2-year-olds’ speech-sound discrimination: a preliminary investigation. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57(1), 308–326.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Lee, T., Mosing, M. A., Henry, J. D., Trollor, J. N., Ames, D., Martin, N. G., & … Sachdev, P. S. (2012). Genetic influences on four measures of executive functions and their covariation with general cognitive ability: The Older Australian Twins Study. Behavior Genetics, 42, 528–538.Google Scholar
  40. Lynam, D. R. (1996). Early identification of chronic offenders: who is the fledgling psychopath? Psychological Bulletin, 120, 209–234.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Miner, J. L., & Clarke-Stewart, K. (2008). Trajectories of externalizing behavior from age 2 to age 9: relations with gender, temperament, ethnicity, parenting, and rater. Developmental Psychology, 44, 771–786.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., & … Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108, 2693–2698.Google Scholar
  43. Mulder, H., Hoofs, H., Verhagen, J., van der Veen, I., & Leseman, P. M. (2014). Psychometric properties and convergent and predictive validity of an executive function test battery for two-year-olds. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 733.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  44. Nagin, D. S., & Tremblay, R. E. (2001). Prenatal and early childhood predictors of persistent physical aggression in boys form kindergarten to high school. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58, 389–394.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2004). Trajectories of physical aggression from toddlerhood to middle childhood: predictors, correlates, and outcomes. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 69, 1–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Pasalich, D. S., Livesey, D. J., & Livesey, E. J. (2010). Performance on stroop-like assessments of inhibitory control by 4- and 5-year-old children. Infant and Child Development, 19, 252–263.Google Scholar
  47. Petterson, S. M., & Albers, A. B. (2001). Effects of poverty and maternal depression on early child development. Child Development, 72, 1794–1813.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Polderman, T. C., Gosso, M. F., Posthuma, D., Van Beijsterveldt, T. M., Heutink, P., Verhulst, F. C., & Boomsma, D. I. (2006). A longitudinal twin study on IQ, executive functioning, and attention problems during childhood and early adolescence. Acta Neurologica Belgica, 106, 191–207.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Raaijmakers, M. A., Smidts, D. P., Seargeant, J. A., Maasen, G. H., Posthumus, J. A., van Engeland, H., & Matthys, W. (2008). Executive functions in preschool children with aggressive behavior: Impairments in inhibitory control. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 1097–1107.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale: a self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Ramchandani, P., Stein, A., Evans, J., & O’Connor, T. G. (2005). Paternal depression in the postnatal period and child development: a prospective population study. The Lancet, 365, 2201–2205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Raudenbush, S. W., Bryk, A. S., Cheong, Y. F., Congdon, R. T., & du Toit, M. (2011). HLM7: Hierarchical Linear and Nonlinear Modeling. Lincolnwood: Scientific Software International, Inc.Google Scholar
  53. Rende, R., Slomkowski, C., Lloyd-Richardson, E., & Niaura, R. (2005). Sibling effects on substance use in adolescence: social contagion and genetic relatedness. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 611–618.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Rhoades, B. L., Greenberg, M. T., & Domitrovich, C. E. (2009). The contribution of inhibitory control to preschoolers’ social-emotional competence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30(3), 310–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Riccio, C. A., Hewitt, L. L., & Blake, J. J. (2011). Relation of measures of executive function to aggressive behavior in children. Applied Neuropsychology, 18, 1–10.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. Riggs, N. R., Blair, C. B., & Greenberg, M. T. (2003). Concurrent and 2-year longitudinal relations between executive function and the behavior of 1st and 2nd grade children. Child Neuropsychology, 9, 267–276.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Saudino, K. J., Carter, A. S., Purper-Ouakil, D., & Gorwood, P. (2008). Etiology of behavioral problems and competencies in very young twins. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 117, 48–62.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  58. Séguin, J., & Zelazo, P. (2005). Executive function in early physical aggression. In R. E. Tremblay, W. W. Hartup, & J. Archer (Eds.), Developmental origins of aggression (pp. 307–329). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  59. Snyder, J., Bank, L., & Burraston, B. (2005). The consequences of antisocial behavior in older male siblings for younger brothers and sisters. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 643–653.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. Thorell, L. B., & Wåhlstedt, C. (2006). Executive Functioning Deficits in Relation to Symptoms of ADHD and/or ODD in Preschool Children. Infant and Child Development, 15(5), 503–518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Turney, K. (2012). Pathways of disadvantage: explaining the relationship between maternal depression and children’s problem behaviors. Social Science Research, 41, 1546–1564.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Utendale, W. T., & Hastings, P. D. (2011). Developmental changes in the relations between inhibitory control and externalizing problems during early childhood. Infant & Child Development, 20, 181–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. von Stauffenberg, C., & Campbell, S. B. (2007). Predicting the early developmental course of symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28(5-6), 536–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Zelazo, P., Carter, A., Reznick, J., & Frye, D. (1997). Early development of executive function: a problem-solving framework. Review of General Psychology, 1, 198–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Texas at ArlingtonArlingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations