Behavioural problems in 2-year-olds: links with individual differences in theory of mind, executive function and harsh parenting

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Cognitive and family factors are implicated in the origins of behavioural problems, but little is known about their independence or interplay.


We present data from 127 two-year-olds from predominantly disadvantaged families who completed tests of ‘theory of mind’ (ToM), executive function (EF) and verbal ability. Researchers' home-visit ratings and detailed video-based coding of mother-child interactions were combined to give an aggregate measure of harsh parenting, while behavioural problems were indexed by a multi-informant, multi-setting, multi-measure aggregate.


Harsh parenting and deficits in ToM and verbal ability each predicted unique variance in behavioural problems; independent effects of EF were only marginally significant. Harsh parenting and ToM interacted significantly in their effects on behavioural problems.


Child and family influences on behavioural problems should be considered in tandem, as they show significant interplay; in particular, advanced ToM skills appear to buffer young children against effects of harsh parenting.

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