Psychology, Department of


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Laifer, L. M., Tomaso, C. C., Chang, O. D., Phillips, E. M., James, T. D., Nelson, J. M., Espy, K. A., Alex Mason, W., & Nelson, T. D. (2023). Early executive control buffers risk for adolescent psychopathology during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Journal of Adolescence, 1–15.


Open access.


Background: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) pandemic has had a global impact on youth mental health, and there is a critical need for research examining individual factors that contribute to increased psychopathology during the pandemic. The current study explored whether executive control (EC) abilities in early childhood interact with COVID‐related stress to attenuate risk for adolescent psychopathology during the first 6 months of the pandemic.

Methods: Participants were 337 youth (49% female) living in a small midwestern city in the United States. Participants completed EC tasks when they were approximately 4.5 years old as part of a longitudinal study investigating cognitive development. At annual laboratory visits during adolescence and before the pandemic, participants (Mage = 14.57) reported on mental health symptoms. In July and August of 2020, participants (Mage = 16.57) reported on COVID‐related stress and depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms.

Results: COVID‐related stress was associated with increased internalizing problems after controlling for prepandemic symptom levels. Further, the impact of COVID-related stress on adolescent internalizing problems was moderated by preschool EC, with higher levels of EC buffering the effects of COVID‐related stress on adolescent internalizing problems.

Conclusions: Findings highlight the importance of promoting EC early in development, as well as screening for EC deficits and implementing targeted intervention strategies across the lifespan to help reduce the impact of stress on adolescent internalizing problems.

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