+Effortful Control

noted Sunday, July 20, 2008 and March 14, 2010


Relations of Maternal Socialization and Toddlers’ Effortful Control to Children’s Adjustment and Social Competence

Tracy L. Spinrad, Nancy Eisenberg, Bridget Gaertner, Tierney Popp, Cynthia L. Smith, Anne Kupfer, Karissa Greving, Jeffrey Liew, and Claire Hofer

Tracy L. Spinrad, Bridget Gaertner, Tierney Popp, and Karissa Greving, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University; Nancy Eisenberg, Cynthia L. Smith, Anne Kupfer, Jeffrey Liew, and Claire Hofer, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Tracy L. Spinrad, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 3701, Tempe, AZ 85287-3701. E-mail: tspinrad@asu.edu.

Cynthia L. Smith is now at the Department of Human Development, Virginia Tech University. Jeffrey Liew is now at the Department of Educational Psychology, Texas A&M University.

NIH Public Access

Author Manuscript

Dev Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2007 November 27.

Published in final edited form as:

Dev Psychol. 2007 September ; 43(5): 1170–1186.

Effortful Control

“… some researchers have conceptualized emotion regulation in terms of children’s effortful or voluntary control as opposed to more reactive forms of control (Eisenberg & Spinrad, 2004; Rothbart & Bates, 2006).”

Effortful control has been defined as “the efficiency of executive attention, including the ability to inhibit a dominant response and/or to activate a subdominant response, to plan, and to detect errors” (Rothbart & Bates, 2006, p. 129).”

“Effortful control is characterized by the ability to voluntarily focus and shift attention and to voluntarily inhibit or initiate behaviors, and includes behaviors such as delaying; these processes are integral to emotion regulation (Caspi & Shiner, 2006; Kieras, Tobin, Graziano, & Rothbart, 2005; Saarni, Campos, Camras, & Witherington, 2006).

For example, effortful attentional processes can be used to regulate emotions, such as turning away from something distressing (Rothbart, Ziaie, & O’Boyle, 1992).

Empirical work has shown that orienting behaviors serve a regulatory function during an anger inducing task in infancy (Stifter & Braungart, 1995)….”

“… in comparison to emotion regulation, the construct of effortful control is viewed as a broader construct that includes an array of skills that can be used to manage emotion and its expression (Eisenberg, Hofer, & Vaughan, 2007; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Rothbart & Bates, 2006).”

Whereas effortful control is seen as reflecting voluntary behavior, reactive control refers to aspects of functioning such as impulsivity and behavioral inhibition (Eisenberg, Smith, Sadovsky, & Spinrad, 2004; Eisenberg & Spinrad, 2004).

Reactive control refers to behavior in which individuals are undercontrolled and are “pulled” toward rewarding situations (i.e., impulsivity) or behavior in which individuals are overcontrolled and are wary in response to novelty, inflexible, and overconstrained (i.e., behavioral inhibition).

Reactive control is not considered to be part of self-regulation (Eisenberg et al., 2007; Eisenberg & Spinrad, 2004), and reactive undercontrol and effortful control are generally negatively related (Aksan & Kochanska, 2004; Eisenberg, Spinrad, et al., 2004).

Reactive processes seem to originate primarily in subcorticol systems (Gray, 1991), whereas executive attention, the basis of effortful control, is believed to be situated primarily in the cortex (e.g., the anterior cingulated, lateral ventral, and prefrontal cortex; see Posner & Rothbart, 2007).

“… effortful control is thought to emerge in late infancy and to develop rapidly during the toddler years.

Improvements in inhibitory control are exhibited between 6 and 12 months of age (Putnam & Stifter, 2002), and

it is believed that more mature effortful control is partially evident by 18 months of age and continues to improve greatly from 22 to 36 months of age (Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, 2000; Mezzacappa, 2004; Posner & Rothbart, 1998; Reed, Pien, & Rothbart, 1984; Rueda et al., 2004).

Moreover, individual differences in toddlers’ effortful control are relatively stable in the early years (Kochanska et al., 2000) and from early childhood to adolescence and adulthood (Ayduk et al., 2000; Shoda,  Mischel, & Peake, 1990).

On the other hand, reactive control likely develops earlier than effortful control and may be intimately related to emotional reactions, such as fear, seen in infancy (Rothbart & Bates, 2006).

The Relations of Effortful Control to Children’s Social Functioning

– attentional regulation (one component of effortful control)

– inhibitory control (another component of effortful control).

– internalizing problems in toddlers (separation distress)

– reactive overcontrol (inhibition to novelty).

– separation distress probably involves the inability to control negative emotions such as anxiety or sadness/depression

Children who are able to control their attention and behavior are expected to manage their emotions, plan their behavior, and develop and utilize skills needed to get along with others and to engage in socially appropriate behavior (Eisenberg et al., 2007).

Indeed, effortful control has been related to higher levels of emotion regulation (Rothbart et al., 1992), sympathy and prosocial behavior (Diener & Kim, 2004; Rothbart, Ahadi, & Hershey, 1994), internalized conscience (Kochanska & Knaack, 2003), committed compliance (Kochanska, Coy, & Murray, 2001), and social competence (Calkins, Gill, Johnson, & Smith, 1999).

The Relations of Maternal Emotion-Related Socialization to Children’s Effortful Control and Social Functioning

Although children’s effortful control reflects constitutionally based individual differences in temperament, the environment also plays a role in the development of these characteristics (Goldsmith, Buss, & Lemery, 1997; Rothbart & Bates, 2006).

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“…maternal sensitivity has been linked with infants’ and young children’s self-regulation and a reduction in negative emotion (Fish, Stifter, & Belsky, 1991; Spinrad, Stifter, et al., 2004). In toddlerhood, children with more responsive mothers have been found to display higher effortful control (Kochanska et al., 2000).”

“… maternal warmth/support observed in the early years has predicted children’s ability to shift attention at 3.5 years of age (Gilliom, Shaw, Beck, Schonberg, & Lukon, 2002), and parental warmth has been linked to children’s appropriate affect expression (Isley, O’Neil, Clatfelter, & Parke, 1999) and regulation of positive affect (Davidov & Grusec, 2006).”

“The main goal of the current study was to examine whether toddlers’ effortful control mediates the relation between mothers’ supportive socialization strategies and four constructs reflecting the quality of toddlers’ socioemotional functioning (i.e., separation distress, inhibition to novelty, externalizing, and social competence).”

In summary, in this study, we examined the relations of maternal supportive parenting to toddlers’ effortful control and social functioning at 18 months of age and 1 year later. We began the study when children were quite young because effortful control is thought to make significant improvements in the 2nd year of life, and toddlers’ problem behaviors have been found to predict maladjustment years later. We chose to measure children’s internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors because these problems often reflect children’s deficiencies in controlling emotions and behavior. In addition, children’s effortful control likely facilitates social competence. Finally, we used multiple reporters and included observational measures of toddlers’ effortful control and maternal supportive parenting.



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Mothers’ responses to negative emotion—At both T1 and T2, mothers’ responses to their toddlers’ negative emotions were assessed with the Coping With Toddlers’ Negative Emotions Scale (Spinrad, Eisenberg, Kupfer, Gaertner, & Michalik, 2004).

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adapted from the Coping With Children’s Negative Emotions Scale (Eisenberg, Fabes, & Murphy, 1996).

This instrument presents parents with 12 hypothetical situations in which their toddler is upset, distressed, or angry, and mothers’ rated the likelihood of responding to the scenario in each of seven possible ways.

Maternal observed sensitivity and warmth—

At both T1 and T2, maternal sensitivity was assessed during two mother–toddler interactions in the laboratory. First, a free-play interaction was observed in which mothers were presented with a basket of toys and asked to play as they normally would at home for 3 min. Second, a teaching paradigm was used in which mothers and toddlers were presented with a difficult puzzle (animal and geometric shapes at T1 and pegs/geometric shapes at T2).

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Effortful control—

Adjustment and social competence—

The Externalizing

scale consisted of two subscales including Activity/Impulsivity (6 items) and Aggression/ Defiance (12 items). We also assessed Toddlers’ Peer Aggression (6 items) at the T2 assessment Spinrad et al. Page 8

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support the notion that the relation between supportive parenting practices and toddlers’ developmental outcomes is mediated by toddlers’ effortful control (at least within time). First, the findings from this study demonstrate that effortful control is acquired within the context of the social environment (Gottman et al., 1997).

When mothers respond to their toddler’s emotions by validating their child’s feelings and offering ways to cope with negative emotions, as well as by interacting with their toddlers in warm and child-centered ways, toddlers may learn effective regulation strategies through processes such as modeling and the development of a secure attachment relationship.

On the other hand, unsupportive parenting (such as punitive responding to negative emotions) may exacerbate children’s negative arousal and may disrupt children’s ability to learn effective strategies to cope with their negative arousal. Children with unsupportive mothers are likely to feel overaroused in distressing situations and are unlikely to have developed effective strategies (such as shifting attention or controlling behavior) to cope with this arousal.

In addition, we found a positive link between maternal supportiveness and effortful control over time, even when controlling for earlier levels of maternal behavior and toddlers’ effortful control, a finding that is consistent with other work (Kochanska et al., 2000). Thus, the role of socialization practices may be particularly important in toddlerhood because mothers likely serve an essential function in toddlers’ regulation because of limited self-regulation capabilities (Kopp, 1989; Spinrad, Stifter, et al., 2004).

These findings also illustrate the potential importance of effortful control to young children’s social adjustment and functioning. Specifically, we found that children who were high in effortful control were lower in externalizing problems and separation distress and higher in social competence.

Thus, children who can manage their attention and behavior also may have the skills necessary to control their negative emotions, such as anxiety and anger (relevant to externalizing and separation distress) and manage to get along with others and to adhere to social standards. These findings support previous research with older children (Eisenberg, Cumberland, et al., 2001; Kochanska et al., 2001; Kochanska & Knaack, 2003), and it is noteworthy that we included both positive and negative aspects of social functioning in our models.

Central to the goals of this study, we also found evidence for the notion that effortful control mediates the relation between parenting and children’s developmental outcomes.

This pattern was found at both 18 and 30 months of age. This study adds to existing evidence of the mediational role of effortful control to children’s outcomes (Eisenberg, Gershoff, et al., 2001; Eisenberg et al., 2003; Kochanska & Knaack, 2003) and indicates that these relations can be found in very young children. In addition, there was evidence of a direct effect of maternal support on toddlers’ externalizing problems.

Toddlers with warm, supportive mothers may be more emotionally secure and therefore less likely to act out and behave aggressively (NICHD Early Childcare Research Network, 2003). It is possible that maternal supportive strategies directly predict externalizing problems in early toddlerhood because effortful control is more rudimentary at this age. In this study, the direct relation between maternal behaviors and externalizing became weaker with age (the effect was marginal at T2). Thus, as children’s regulation skills become more sophisticated, the relations between parenting and externalizing problems may become more fully mediated through toddlers’ effortful control. The longitudinal findings also proved to be informative.

First, when we computed models that did not control for the stability in constructs over time, we found that effortful control at T2 mediated the relations between maternal supportive strategies at T1 and externalizing [Spinrad et al. Page 13 Dev Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2007 November 27. NIH-PA Author Manuscript NIH-PA Author Manuscript NIH-PA Author Manuscript] problems, separation distress, and social competence. However, using the stronger test of mediation (controlling for prior levels of the constructs; Cole & Maxwell, 2003), early effortful control did not contribute to later adjustment/social competence.

These findings should be understood in light of the moderate stability in all of the constructs over the 1-year period. In fact, correlational analyses supported the relations between effortful control and children’s later developmental outcomes, albeit some relations were relatively weak. Thus, the unique relations between effortful control and the outcome variables were lost once consistency in the outcomes was taken into account. The implication of these findings is that the relations of maternal supportive parenting, effortful control, and adjustment/social competence may be set in the very early years and that later relations between these variables may be due to these earlier relations between the variables. Alternatively, although effortful control was somewhat stable across our two assessment points, it is still viewed as rather immature in the 2nd year of life.

Thus, it is possible that as effortful control becomes more stable and mature, mediation above and beyond the autoregressive effects may be found. Future research should study the impact of effortful control over longer periods of time when the stability of variables is less and in the preschool years when effortful control is more sophisticated. One strength of this study was that we utilized more pure measures of problem behaviors. In order to examine relations to externalizing problems, we removed subscales of Impulsivity and Activity Level from the Externalizing scale because these sub-scales may reflect temperamental differences more than problematic symptoms.

By the same token, we chose to separate the scales used to measure toddlers’ internalizing problems because it is likely that inhibition to novelty may reflect temperament more than problem behaviors. Indeed, our findings showed that the relations with effortful control differed for these two constructs: effortful control negatively predicted separation distress but was unrelated to inhibition to novelty in the models. In fact, inspection of the correlational analyses shows that in some cases, at 30 months of age, inhibition to novelty was positively related to inhibitory control and the ability to delay, although it was unrelated to attentional control. Thus, as toddlers develop, those who may be inhibited or overcontrolled may appear relatively behaviorally wellregulated. [bold type is mine]

These data also provide insight into the measurement of effortful control in young children. We assessed effortful control using mothers’ and caregivers’ reports and a behavioral measure of regulation (delay). Because the delay task involved a reward, it is thought that it may tap both effortful and reactive control. However, this measure loaded significantly on the effortful control factor, even though most children did not perform well on this task at 18 months of age. This demonstrates that toddlers who are able to control their behavior, at least somewhat, in the context of waiting for something they want are also rated as high in attentional and behavioral control by adults.

Prior work has often used a composite of behavioral measures to assess toddlers’ effortful control (Kochanska & Knaack, 2003); thus, it is often unclear how the individual measures may perform. The results of our measurement models suggest that the ability to delay (at least at young ages) may be a good measure of effortful control in young children. Other strengths of this study include the use of structural equation modeling, the use of multiple measures and reporters, the use of observational measures of toddlers’ effortful control and maternal supportiveness, and the longitudinal design.

A number of limitations of this study should be considered. First, significant attrition occurred from T1 to T2 (33 families who participated at T1 did not remain in the study at T2). Mothers who continued in the study at T2 were more educated, reported higher income, and reported less nonsupportive reactions to toddlers’ negative emotions. Despite the fact that our sample at T2 was somewhat biased, it is interesting that the same pattern of findings was demonstrated at both time points. Second, caution should be taken in generalizing these findings to minority children, children in different cultures, or children in poverty. Adult socialization and parenting Spinrad et al. [Page 14] behaviors may be associated with different outcomes for children of varying cultures or races.

Culture plays a crucial role in the socialization of emotion and its developmental outcomes (Cole & Dennis, 1998; Saarni, 1998). For example, in Asian cultures, a high priority is placed on relationships, and the expression of anger is discouraged (Kitayama & Markus, 1995). Thus, Asian parents might display more nonsupportive responses to negative emotions, such as anger, and these strategies may have no adverse consequences for children growing up in Asian societies.  Moreover, this study focused on maternal socialization practices; however, there is evidence that fathers and other socializers (i.e., caregivers, peers) also play an important role in the development of social competence.  Fathers likely play a unique role in socializing children’s emotions and regulation (Parke & McDowell, 1998). Moreover, fathers not only play a direct role in the development of toddlers’ regulation but may also have an indirect function by influencing mothers’ parenting strategies or marital satisfaction (Cummings & Davies, 2002).

Finally, because our study involved only two time points, we could not use the strongest test of mediation, which requires three time points (Cole & Maxwell, 2003). Despite its limitations, this study establishes the importance of studying effortful control in very young children when examining children’s adjustment and social competence.

The findings suggest that maternal supportive parenting and toddlers’ effortful regulation relate to the quality of social functioning.

The findings from this study are important for intervention work because they suggest that very early parenting can play an important role in toddlers’ early ability to regulate attention and behavior and that these skills may set the stage for children’s later adjustment and social competence. [bold type is mine]  Interventions should be designed to promote maternal supportive parenting and to teach strategies to parents that will promote toddlers’ effortful control. Especially important are parental supportive strategies in response to negative emotions, sensitivity, and warmth. Such parenting practices are likely to help children learn to manage their emotions and behaviors.

Moreover, teaching parents to respond to their toddlers supportively should protect toddlers from declines in effortful control and will likely have implications for toddlers’ adjustment and maladjustment.


Support for this study was provided in part by National Institute of Mental Health Grant 5 R01 MH060838 to Nancy Eisenberg and Tracy L. Spinrad. We express our appreciation to the parents, caregivers, and toddlers who participated in the study and to the many research assistants who contributed to this project.


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Dev Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2007 November 27.

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