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The Role of Emotion Understanding in the Development of Aggression and Callous-Unemotional Features across Early Childhood

Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology
David A. Schuberth, Yao Zheng, Dave S. Pasalich, Robert J. McMahon, Dimitra Kamboukos, Spring Dawson-McClure, Laurie Miller Brotman


Although prior research suggests that children show rapid change in socioemotional functioning and aggression throughout early childhood, little is known about how these factors may be associated with the development of callous-unemotional (CU) features. This study investigated the parallel development of, and reciprocal relationships between, emotion understanding (EU) and aggression across early childhood, as well as how they play a role in the development of CU features. Parallel latent growth curve modeling was used to examine longitudinal reciprocal relationships between EU and aggression in a sample of 498 primarily Black (i.e., African-American or Afro-Caribbean) preschoolers (49.5% male, 89.2% Black, Mage = 4.1), followed with six waves over a 45-month period from pre-kindergarten through grade 2. CU features were included as a baseline covariate, as well as an outcome, of EU and aggression growth factors. Children with lower levels of EU at age 4 displayed higher linear increases in aggression over time. EU at age 4 had a significant indirect effect on CU features at age 8 via its association with linear increases in aggression. Findings suggest that EU is influential in the early development of aggression, which may in turn influence the development or exacerbation of CU features. Children’s EU in early childhood, especially concerning others’ distress, may be an important component of preventive intervention efforts for young children at risk for serious antisocial behavior.

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