Many youth with neurodevelopmental disorders experience mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or anger and these are often associated with impairments of cognition and emotion regulation. The mechanisms that may be linking cognitive difficulties, emotion regulation, and mental health are not known.
The current study examined whether adaptive and maladaptive (dysregulated) emotion regulation mediated the link between different cognitive control processes (working memory, inhibition, and shifting) and internalizing/externalizing symptoms in children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
Participants included 48 children (8-13 years of age) with one or more diagnoses of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, and learning disability, who were enrolled in a larger study of cognitive behaviour therapy targeting emotion regulation. Multiple mediation analyses were implemented using the PROCESS macro. The mediation effects of adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation were examined on the relationships between (1) working memory and internalizing/externalizing symptoms, (2) inhibition and internalizing/externalizing symptoms, and (3) shifting and internalizing/externalizing symptoms. All data was collected prior to intervention, at baseline.
Shifting, inhibitory control, and working memory predicted increased emotion dysregulation, which functioned as a full mediator to both internalizing and externalizing problems in children with NDD.
In the presence of emotionally triggering situations, children with greater cognitive challenges experience greater maladaptive emotion regulation, which results in both internalizing and externalizing problems. For youth with neurodevelopmental disorders, therapeutic plans that include strengthening of working memory, inhibition, and shifting abilities in addition to emotion regulation skills training may be helpful in alleviating externalizing and internalizing behaviour.

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