Executive Functions, Emotion Regulation and Mental Health Problems in Children and Adolescents

  • Blossom Fernandes

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Executive functions (EF) are crucial for creativity, flexibility, self-control and discipline. A growing body of research distinguish EF by two processes; these include cool EF (abstract and decontextualised processes) and hot EF (affective and motivational decision making). Emotion regulation (ER) is important for maintaining internal arousal, allowing for flexible affective expression where necessary. Research shows that EF and ER are closely related, yet literature measuring the relationship between EF and specific ER strategies is limited.

The first study therefore sought to determine the distinct nature of cool and hot EF and its relationship to ER using a cross sectional design approach. Children (7-11 years), adolescents (12-17 years) and young adults (18-24 years) participated in the first study (n = 250). This study also examined how EF and ER are associated to behavioural and emotional difficulties. The results from this study show that hot EF scores were poor for adolescents compared to young adults. These findings were similar for emotion regulation strategies, where adolescents were less likely to employ adaptive emotion regulation skills compared to older participants. Moreover cool EF was found to be positively correlated with adaptive ER in adolescence, whereas hot EF positively correlated with adaptive ER strategies in young adults.

For the final study, the impact of a cognitive behavioural therapy based intervention programme ("Super Skills for Life"; Essau et al., 2014) was tested in a sample of 41 children with behavioural and emotional difficulties to assess whether EF and emotion regulation strategies could be improved, and reduce emotional and behavioural problems. Results revealed a reduction in emotional difficulties, and maladaptive ER strategies catastrophising and other blame; however no significant improvements were found for hot EF and behavioural difficulties, suggesting that an alternative or rigorous programme would be beneficial in improving hot EF.

Overall the present studies indicate that there is a relationship between EF and distinct emotion regulation strategies in different age groups and how this is implicated in behavioural and emotional problems. Secondly the intervention study showed that the Super Skills Programme was successful in reducing maladaptive ER and improving cool EF. This research highlights the need for examining EF and ER further in clinical populations and the effectiveness of this intervention in a larger sample.
Date of Award13 Jun 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton
SupervisorCecilia Essau (Supervisor) & Mark Wright (Supervisor)

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