The Mediating Role of Language in Relations between Social Cognition and Externalizing Psychopathology: Findings for Children Seen in Canadian Clinics

Previous studies have shown that interventions designed to improve social problem solving may be followed by reductions in externalizing behavior problems. However, to be helped by these interventions, children need to understand verbal communication and to express themselves verbally.

Canadian researchers sought to test the following hypotheses regarding relations between syntactic language, social cognitive development, and externalizing psychopathology: Hypothesis 1 was that syntactic language mediates the effects of social cognitive maturity on externalizing psychopathology. Hypothesis 2 was that syntactic language and social cognitive development independently affect externalizing psychopathology (Zadeh, Im-Bolter, & Cohen, 2007).

Tests of syntactic language and of social cognition were administered to 354 English-speaking but ethnically diverse 7- to 14-year-olds who were referred to mental health clinics in the Toronto area. The CBCL was completed by parents and the TRF by teachers. Controlling for age and working memory scores, structural equation modeling (SEM) yielded better fit for the mediation model specified by Hypothesis 1 than for the direct effects model specified by Hypothesis 2: With both CBCL and TRF Externalizing scores included, the best-fitting model showed that associations of social cognition with Externalizing scores were mediated by language functions.

However, the authors cautioned against drawing causal conclusions, as the study was cross-sectional. They concluded that “Although the model fit indices indicated a very good fit to the data, the current study represents the first to examine language as a mediator of the association between social cognition and externalizing psychopathology, and as such, the model needs to be cross-validated with different samples” (p. 150).

Reference: Zadeh, Z. Y., Im-Bolter, N., & Cohen, N. J. (2007). Social cognition and externalizing psychopathology: An investigation of the mediating role of language. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 35, 141-152.