• Anger;
  • attention;
  • regulation;
  • externalizing problems;
  • internalizing problems;
  • latent difference score analysis

Background:  Low levels of dispositional anger and a good attention span are critical to healthy social emotional development, with attention control reflecting effective cognitive self-regulation of negative emotions such as anger. Using a longitudinal design, we examined attention span as a moderator of reciprocal links between changes in anger and changes in externalizing and internalizing problems from 4.5 to 11 years of age.

Method:  Participants were children from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), assessed four times between 4.5 and 11 years. Composite scores for anger and attention were computed using indicators from multiple informants. Externalizing and internalizing problems were reported by mothers.

Results:  Latent difference score analysis showed reciprocal lagged effects between increased anger and elevated levels of externalizing or internalizing problems. Significant moderating effects of attention indicated more persistent effects of anger on externalizing problems in the poor attention group. Although the poor and the good attention groups did not differ regarding the effects of anger on internalizing problems, significant moderating effects of attention indicated stronger and more persistent reciprocal effects of internalizing problems on anger in the poor attention group.

Conclusions:  Attention control mechanisms are involved in self-regulation of anger and its connections with changes in behavioral and emotional problems. Strong attention regulation may serve to protect children with higher levels of dispositional anger from developing behavioral and emotional problems in middle childhood.