ADHD News & Research

Emotion Competence Difficulties in Children May Point to Mental and Behavioral Disorders Later in Life

Frustration, emotion lability, and negative affect in children with hyperactive and/or impulsive symptoms of ADHD predicted later signs of depression, aggression, and anxiety in a new study that ties emotional competence difficulties with psychopathology later in life.

March 5, 2020

Behavioral and neural markers of emotional competence contribute to symptoms of psychopathy (mental or behavioral disorders), particularly in children at risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is the finding of a new study1 published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, which found that emotional competence challenges are common among children with ADHD. Emotional competence, or the ability to understand and regulate emotions, was defined by three components:

  • emotion understanding: knowledge of emotions, including the causes and effects of emotions
  • emotion reactivity: arousal, observable expression of emotions, and emotion intensity; and
  • emotion regulation: employing physical, cognitive, or behavioral strategies to respond to emotional situations

In this study, 49 children with and without hyperactive and impulsive symptoms, ages 4-7, completed the affective Posner task to measure responses to frustration. They also completed the 48-item Emotion Matching Task designed to assess emotion understanding. At this time, parents conducted an emotion regulation checklist about their child. After 18 months, symptoms of psychopathology were assessed using the Parent Rating Scale and the Self-Report of Personality version of the Behavior Assessment System for Children.

Early emotion lability, frustration, observed negative affect, and difficulties allocating neural resources both during and after frustration foretold later symptoms related to depression, aggression, and anxiety. One neural component (the P3) mediated the relation between early hyperactivity or impulsivity and later symptoms of mood disorder. Greater hyperactivity or impulsivity was also linked to greater frustration when children were asked to regulate emotion expression, which in turn foretold later symptoms of aggression and depression.

These findings led researchers to conclude that emotion competence skills may be useful intervention targets, especially for children at risk for ADHD.

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1Brown, H. R., Hareli, M., Breaux, R., Lugo-Candelas, C. I., Gair, S. L., Harvey, E. A., & McDermott, J. M. (2020). Behavioral and Neural Markers of Emotion Competence as Predictors of Later Psychopathology in Children With and Without Hyperactive/Impulsive Symptoms. Journal of Attention Disorders