Understanding the terrible twos: a longitudinal investigation of the impact of early executive function and parent-child interactions

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • University of Cambridge
  • Leiden University
  • New York University


Impairments in both executive function and parent-child interactions are associated with child externalizing behavior, but few studies have tested the uniqueness of these associations in the first years of life. Addressing these gaps, the current study involved an international sample (N = 438; 218 boys) who, at 14 and 24 months, completed an innovative battery of executive function tasks and were filmed at home in dyadic interaction with their mothers, enabling detailed observational ratings of maternal support. In addition, parents rated infant temperament at 4 months and externalizing behavior at 14 and 24 months. Cross-lagged longitudinal analysis showed a unidirectional developmental association between executive function at 14 months and externalizing behavior at 24 months. In addition, infant negative affect moderated the inverse association between maternal support at 14 months and externalizing behavior at 24 months. The benefits of maternal support were only evident for children with low levels of negative affect in infancy. We discuss this finding in relation to theoretical models that highlight child effects (e.g., models of vantage sensitivity).

Bibliographic note

© 2020 The Authors. Developmental Science published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12979
Pages (from-to)e12979
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopmental Science
Early online date30 Apr 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Apr 2020


  • executive function, externalizing behavior, infant, longitudinal, parenting, toddler