The quality of the parent–child relationship is one of the most important factors in shaping a child’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Early psychosocial adversities, such as child maltreatment, abuse, and neglect have long been recognized as major risk factors for psychiatric and physical health problems throughout life. Adequate parenting, on the other hand, may ameliorate the effects of psychosocial adversity. Intimate relations to peers become increasingly important as the child grows older. This Issue focuses on different facets of the developmental interplay between the quality of family and peer relations, and the individual’s emotional and social skills and problems.

In the Practitioner Review, Leve and colleagues1 summarize the vulnerabilities of children living in foster care and review eight evidence-based intervention programs for supporting foster families that have been evaluated using randomized trial designs. Children in foster care due to family breakdown or maltreatment show a high prevalence of both disruptive behavioral and emotional problems and are at elevated risk for negative outcomes concerning their emotional, behavioral, neurobiological, and social development. The authors highlight that the children’s externalizing behaviors are closely associated with placement disruptions and that these associations are likely to be bidirectional. Placement disruptions have negative consequences for children’s emotional and behavioral development, with each change in foster home involving repeated discontinuity in social relations further compromising the child’s capacity to develop adaptive social relationships with caregivers and peers. Thus, placement disruptions are at the same time an important risk factor for, and a possible consequence of, elevated levels of behavioral problems among foster children. The stability of a foster placement as well as the development of positive relationships with caregivers and peers are, on the other hand, can make important contributions towards better outcomes. Caregiver support and training designed to improve behavior management skills has been identified as a key strategy. The interventions reviewed by the authors, who have been conducting their own research and intervention work with children in foster care for the past 30 years, have been shown to be effective in decreasing placement disruptions, reducing child behavioral and emotional problems, and improving outcomes for those children.

Three further articles also address the developmental interplay between the quality of family and peer relations, and the individual’s emotional and social skills focusing on different longitudinal trajectories of aggressive behavior. Keijsers and colleagues investigate the developmental course of both the nature and quality of parent-child relationships from childhood into adolescence for different types of offenders. Findings demonstrate that developmental changes in child reports of parent-child relationship quality are linked to children’s and adolescents’ distinct trajectories in delinquent behaviour. In their article, Chen and colleagues study the relationships between aggression, peer relationships, and depression from middle childhood to early adolescence in a large sample of Chinese children. This longitudinal study again suggests a bi-directional causality with poor peer relations both, occurring as a consequence of, and leading to, aggressive behavior. Aggressive behaviour reduced the development of positive peer relationships, and contributed to depression in late childhood. Positive peer relationships, on the other hand, are associated with resilience to later aggression and depression. The article adds to previous evidence that children with early conduct problems are more likely to have poor relations with typically developing peers, and that poor peer relations put children at risk for a variety of outcomes, including later aggressive behavior, and that both early conduct problems and poor social relationships convey risk for later mood disorders. The children’s early behavioral characteristics, reflecting family functioning and genetic predispositions, such as temperamental factors, may serve to either facilitate the development of social competence or exacerbate the development of social problems. As adolescents and young adults, children with early conduct problems are more likely to enter partner relationships with intimate partner violence. Using prospective longitudinal data over a 40-year time interval from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, Theobald and Farrington investigate the predictability of adult male intimate partner violence. Intriguingly, they found the most important predictive factors at ages 8–10, primarily in the domain of family relationships (such as having a criminal father, a disrupted family, poor supervision and relationship problems with parents) and individual characteristics (unpopularity, daring, impulsivity, aggressiveness and low verbal IQ). These latter individual characteristics closely resemble the features of conduct disordered children with an early-onset life-course-persistent developmental course of their disorder (Moffitt et al., 2008). Intimate partner violence appears to be an important risk factor contributing to an intergenerational cycle of violence because children exposed to domestic violence between adults are subsequently more likely to become aggressive themselves.

Emotion regulation problems are not limited to aggressive behavior against others, but are frequently directed against the self. Deliberate self-harm in children and adolescents is a highly prevalent international problem of immense importance. Self-harm is one of the strongest predictors of suicide, which is one of the leading causes of adolescent deaths in most developed countries. In their article Hawton and colleagues report results from the prospective epidemiological Multicentre Study of Self-harm in England on the long-term outcomes of children and adolescents presenting with self-harm to Accident and Emergency departments. The study shows that self-injury by cutting, prior psychiatric treatment and previous self-harm are strong and independent predictors of repetition of self-harm and suicide. As pointed out by Ougrin in his accompanying commentary, self-harm does not always involve suicidal intentions; it is clinically important to differentiate between self-harm associated with suicidal intentions and non-suicidal self-injurious behavior which is commonly used as a mood regulation strategy. These patients may differ in the severity of their psychopathology, cognitive characteristics, and their underlying neurobiology. However, establishing the intent or motives of self-harm can be difficult and often not possible, and using the method of self-harm as a proxy for intent can be misleading. These articles underline the need for psychosocial assessment in all cases and that more research on effective interventions to reduce self-harm and suicide in adolescents is strongly required.

Emotion regulation difficulties are also a frequent concern in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The article by Jahromi and colleagues examines the efficacy of emotion regulation strategies in young children with high functioning autism in the context of frustration. Results point to important differences to typically developing children. Children with ASD showed more resignation behaviors, used fewer constructive emotion regulation strategies, and used more avoidance and venting strategies. Social support strategies, vocal venting, and distraction were effective strategies for typically developing children’s regulation of frustration, but not for children with autism.

Emotion recognition skills, for example the ability to recognize and interpret facial expressions of emotions in a social context, are critical to normal social functioning, and may contribute to the emotion regulation difficulties observed in children with ASD. Tanaka and colleagues investigated the perceptual and cognitive skills underlying the identification of facial expressed emotions in a large sample of individuals with ASD using a newly developed computer-based assessment, the Let’s Face It! Emotion Skills battery. Results suggest that children with ASD recognize the basic facial expressions of emotions with the exception of anger as well as age- and IQ-matched control children, but that they are impaired in their ability to generalize facial emotions across different identities. Interestingly, the authors found a robust correlation between IQ and task performance for individuals with ASD, indicating that for individuals with ASD in contrast to typically developing individuals, recognizing emotions may tap into higher-level, intellectual processes.

This issue ends with two trials of intervention programs. Using a randomized clinical trial design, Williams and colleagues investigate the efficacy of the Transporters training program to improve emotion recognition skills in young children with ASD with a lower cognitive range. Their results provide limited support for the efficacy of this training program in teaching basic emotion recognition skills to young children with autism of a lower cognitive range. Improvements were limited to the recognition of expressions of anger, with poor maintenance of these skills at 3-month follow-up, and no generalisation of skills to theory of mind or social skills. Gray and colleagues report findings from a randomized controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of a computerized working memory training program in adolescents with severe specific learning disabilities and comorbid ADHD. Working memory impairments are common in these youth and are a strong predictor of academic achievement. The training, which was provided and monitored by a licensed psychologist in a community agency and supervised by school staff, resulted in modest and circumscribed improvements in working memory. Unfortunately transfer effects to other domains of functioning were not observed and long-term follow up data is not yet available. These last two articles outline the central importance to carefully tailor interventions according to the specific needs and strengths of the individual to be treated.

I hope that this issue will stimulate interest, debate and further research into the developmental interplay between emotion regulation, social relations and psychopathology.



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