Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 597–609 | Cite as

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

  • Rebecca Waller
  • Luke W. Hyde
  • Arielle R. Baskin-Sommers
  • Sheryl L. Olson


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.


Antisocial behavior Callous unemotional Conduct problems Executive function Prevention 



callous unemotional



This research was supported by Grant R01MH57489 from the National Institute of Mental Health to Olson. Hyde was supported by Grant L40MH108392. We thank the children, parents, and teachers who shared their time and many individuals who helped with data collection, particularly Meribeth Gandy Pezda, David Kerr, Kevin Callender, and Nestor Lopez-Duran. We also thank administrators from the UM Children’s Center.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

No conflicts declared.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.”

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. Achenbach, T. M. (1992). Manual for the child behavior checklist/2–3 and 1992 Profile. Burlington: University of Vermont.Google Scholar
  2. Achenbach, T. M. (1997). Guide for the caregiver-teacher report for ages 2–5. Burlington: University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry.Google Scholar
  3. Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. (2000). ASEBA preschool forms & profiles: an integrated system of multi-informant assessment. Burlington: University of Vermont Department of Psychiatry.Google Scholar
  4. Aiken, L. S., & West, S. G. (1991). Multiple regression: testing and interpreting interactions. Newbuary Park: Sage.Google Scholar
  5. Baskin-Sommers, A. R., Waller, R., Fish, A. M., & Hyde, L. W. (2015). Callous-unemotional traits trajectories interact with earlier conduct problems and executive control to predict violence and substance use among high risk male adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43, 1529–1541.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Camodeca, M., Goossens, F. A., Terwogt, M. M., & Schuengel, C. (2002). Bullying and victimization among school-age children: stability and links to proactive and reactive aggression. Social Development, 11, 332–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Campbell, S. B. (1995). Behavior problems in preschool children: a review of recent research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 113–149.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Christian, R., Frick, P., Hill, N., Tyler, L., & Frazer, D. (1997). Psychopathy and conduct problems in children: II. Implications for subtyping children with conduct problems. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 233–241.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Côté, S., Vaillancourt, T., LeBlanc, J. C., Nagin, D. S., & Tremblay, R. E. (2006). The development of physical aggression from toddlerhood to pre-adolescence: a nation wide longitudinal study of Canadian children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34, 68–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 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
  11. Dishion, T. J., Patterson, G. R., Stoolmiller, M., & Skinner, M. L. (1991). Family, school, and behavioral antecedents to early adolescent involvement with antisocial peers. Developmental Psychology, 27, 172–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dishion, T., Shaw, D., Connell, A., Gardner, F., Weaver, C., & Wilson, M. (2008). The Family Check Up with high risk indigent families: preventing problem behavior by increasing parents’ positive behavior support in early childhood. Child Development, 79, 1395–1414.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Dodge, K. A., & Coie, J. D. (1987). Social-information-processing factors in reactive and proactive aggression in children’s peer groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 1146–1158.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. A. (1990). Empathy: conceptualization, measurement, and relation to prosocial behavior. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 131–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., & Eggum, N. D. (2010). Emotion-related self-regulation and its relation to children’s maladjustment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6, 495–525.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  16. Enders, C. K., & Bandalos, D. L. (2001). The relative performance of full information maximum likelihood estimation for missing data in structural equation models. Structural Equation Modeling, 8, 430–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fanti, K. A., & Kimonis, E. R. (2012). Bullying and victimization: the role of conduct problems and psychopathic traits. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22, 617–631.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454, 1079–1083.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Frick, P. J. (2004). The Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Traits. Unpublished rating scale.Google Scholar
  20. Frick, P. J., & Hare, R. D. (2001). Antisocial process screening device: APSD: Multi-Health Systems Toronto.Google Scholar
  21. Frick, P. J., O’Brien, B. S., Wootton, J. M., & McBurnett, K. (1994). Psychopathy and conduct problems in children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 700–707.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Frick, P. J., Cornell, A. H., Barry, C. T., Bodin, S. D., & Dane, H. E. (2003). Callous-unemotional traits and conduct problems in the prediction of conduct problem severity, aggression, and self-report of delinquency. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31, 457–470.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Frick, P. J., Ray, J. V., Thornton, L. C., & Kahn, R. E. (2014). Can callousunemotional traits enhance the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of serious conduct problems in children and adolescents? A comprehensive review. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 1–57.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Hawley, P. H. (2003). Prosocial and coercive configurations of resource control in early adolescence: a case for the well-adapted Machiavellian. Merrill-Palmer Q (1982-), 279–309.Google Scholar
  25. Hay, D. F., Payne, A., & Chadwick, A. (2004). Peer relations in childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 84–108.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Hughes, C., White, A., Sharpen, J., & Dunn, J. (2000). Antisocial, angry, and unsympathetic: Bhard-to-manage^ preschoolers’ peer problems and possible cognitive influences. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41, 169–179.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Hyde, L. W., Shaw, D. S., Gardner, F., Cheong, J., Dishion, T. J., & Wilson, M. (2013). Dimensions of callousness in early childhood: links to problem behavior and family intervention effectiveness. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 347–363.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  28. Hyde, L. W., Waller, R., Trentacosta, C. J., Shaw, D. S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Ganiban, J. M., & Leve, L. D. (2016). Heritable and nonheritable pathways to early callous-unemotional behaviors. The American Journal of Psychiatry. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.15111381.Google Scholar
  29. Jacques, S., & Zelazo, P. D. (2001). The flexible item selection task (FIST): a measure of executive function in preschoolers. Developmental Neuropsychology, 20, 573–591.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Kerig, P. K., & Stellwagen, K. K. (2010). Roles of callous-unemotional traits, narcissism, and Machiavellianism in childhood aggression. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 32, 343–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kimonis, E. R., Frick, P. J., & Barry, C. T. (2004). Callous-unemotional traits and delinquent peer affiliation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 956–966.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Kimonis, E. R., Bagner, D. M., Linares, D., Blake, C. A., & Rodriguez, G. (2014). Parent training outcomes among young children with callous–unemotional conduct problems with or at risk for developmental delay. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23, 437–448.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Kochanska, G. (1997). Multiple pathways to conscience for children with different temperaments: fromtoddlerhood to age 5. Developmental Psychology, 33, 228–240.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Kochanska, G., Murray, K., Jacques, T. Y., Koenig, A. L., & Vandegeest, K. A. (1996). Inhibitory control in young children and its role in emerging internalization. Child Development, 67, 490–507.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Kochanska, G., Murray, K. T., & Harlan, E. T. (2000). Effortful control in early childhood: continuity and change, antecedents, and implications for social development. Developmental Psychology, 36, 220–232.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Longman, T., Hawes, D. J., & Kohlhoff, J. (2016). Callous–unemotional traits as markers for conduct problem severity in early childhood: a meta-analysis. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 47, 326–334.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Miyake, A., & Friedman, N. P. (2012). The nature and organization of individual differences in executive functions four general conclusions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 8–14.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  38. Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: a developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674–701.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Moffitt, E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 2693–2698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Morgan, A. B., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2000). A meta-analytic review of the relation between antisocial behavior and neuropsychological measures of executive function. Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 113–136.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Muñoz, L. C., Frick, P. J., Kimonis, E. R., & Aucoin, K. J. (2008). Verbal ability and delinquency: testing the moderating role of psychopathic traits. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49, 414–421.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. O. (2012). Mplus user ‘s guide (7th ed.). Los Angeles: Muthén and Muthén.Google Scholar
  43. Olson, S. L., Sameroff, A. J., Kerr, D. C., Lopez, N. L., & Wellman, H. M. (2005). Developmental foundations of externalizing problems in young children: the role of effortful control. Development and Psychopathology, 17, 25–45.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Patrick, C. J., Hicks, B. M., Nichol, P. E., & Krueger, R. F. (2007). A bifactor approach to modeling the structure of the psychopathy checklist-revised. Journal of Personality Disorders, 21, 118–141.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  45. Patrick, C. J., Fowles, D. C., & Krueger, R. F. (2009). Triarchic conceptualization of psychopathy: developmental origins of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 913–938.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Poehlmann-Tynan, J., Vigna, A. B., Weymouth, L. A., Gerstein, E. D., Burnson, C., Zabransky, M., et al. (2016). A pilot study of contemplative practices with economically disadvantaged preschoolers: children’s empathic and self-regulatory behaviors. Mindfulness, 7, 46–58.Google Scholar
  47. Polman, H., de Castro, B. O., Koops, W., van Boxtel, H. W., & Merk, W. W. (2007). A meta-analysis of the distinction between reactive and proactive aggression in children and adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 35, 522–535.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Preacher, K. J., Curran, P. J., & Bauer, D. J. (2006). Computational tools for probing interactions in multiple linear regression, multilevel modeling, and latent curve analysis. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 31, 437–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Reid, M. J., Webster-Stratton, C., & Baydar, N. (2004). Halting the development of conduct problems in head start children: the effects of parent training. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33, 279–291.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Salmivalli, C., & Nieminen, E. (2002). Proactive and reactive aggression among school bullies, victims, and bully-victims. Aggressive Behavior, 28, 30–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Shaw, D. S., & Shelleby, E. C. (2014). Early-Starting Conduct Problems: Intersection of Conduct Problems and Poverty. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 10, 503–528.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  52. Shaw, D. S., Gilliom, M., Ingoldsby, E. M., & Nagin, D. S. (2003). Trajectories leading to school-age conduct problems. Developmental Psychology, 39, 189–200.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Shields, A., & Cicchetti, D. (1998). Reactive aggression among maltreated children: The contributions of attention and emotion dysregulation. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 27, 381–395.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Song, J. S., Waller, R., Hyde, L. W., & Olson, S. L. (2015). Early callousunemotional behavior, theory-of-mind, and a fearful/inhibited temperament predict externalizing problems in middle and late childhood. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s10802-015-0099-3.Google Scholar
  55. Spinrad, T. L., Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., Fabes, R. A., Valiente, C., Shepard, S. A., et al. (2006). Relation of emotion-related regulation to children’s social competence: a longitudinal study. Emotion, 6, 498–510.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  56. Waller, R., Gardner, F., & Hyde, L. W. (2013). What are the associations between parenting, callous–unemotional traits, and antisocial behavior in youth? A systematic review of evidence. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 593–608.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Waller, R., Hyde, L. W., Grabell, A. S., Alves, M. L., & Olson, S. L. (2015a). Differential associations of early callous unemotional, oppositional, and ADHD behaviors: multiple domains within early starting conduct problems? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 56, 657–666.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Waller, R., Shaw, D. S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Ganiban, J. M., Natsuaki,M. N.,Reiss, D., ... Hyde, L. W. (2015b). Towards an understanding of the role of the environment in the development of early callous behavior. Journal of Personality, doi: 10.1111/jopy.12221
  59. Waller, R., Dishion, T. J., Shaw, D. S., Gardner, F., Wilson, M., & Hyde, L.W. (2016). Does early childhood callous-unemotional behavior uniquely predict behavior problems or callous-unemotional behavior in late childhood? Developmental Psychology, in press.Google Scholar
  60. Wechsler, D. (1989). WPPSI-R, manual:Wechsler preschool and primary scale of intelligence, revised. New York: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  61. Wilkinson, S., Waller, R., & Viding, E. (2015). Practitioner review: involving young people with callous unemotional traits in treatment–does it work? A systematic review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57, 552–565.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Willcutt, E. G., Doyle, A. E., Nigg, J. T., Faraone, S. V., & Pennington, B. F. (2005). Validity of the executive function theory of attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analytic review. Biological Psychiatry, 57, 1336–1346.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Willoughby, M. T., Waschbusch, D. A., Moore, G. A., & Propper, C. B. (2011). Using the ASEBA to screen for callous unemotional traits in early childhood: factor structure, temporal stability, and utility. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33, 19–30.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  64. Willoughby, M. T., Mills-Koonce, R. W., Gottfredson, N. C., & Wagner, N. J. (2014). Measuring callous unemotional behaviors in early childhood: factor structure and the prediction of stable aggression in middle childhood. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 36, 30–42.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Institute for Social ResearchUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.Center for Human Growth and DevelopmentUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

Personalised recommendations