Just the ‘terrible twos’ or signs of real trouble?

Callous-unemotional behaviors are very distinct from other behavior problems, says Jenae Neiderhiser. "If we can identify these kids early, we may have a better chance of intervening in a child's development." (Credit: iStockphoto)

Some parents worry about whether their child’s early behavior is just the “terrible twos” or actions that will escalate to aggression, stealing, and fighting over time.

Now, researchers have found new clues identifying which children may be at risk for the worst antisocial outcomes and the source of these early problems.

The scientists focused on “callous-unemotional” (CU) behaviors, which include lack of empathy, lying, and little emotion. For example, a child who bullies others despite the consequences or how the victim feels.

“These are signs for parents and doctors to watch out for, as they may signal more than just the terrible twos,” says Luke Hyde, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

[How to stop kids from becoming little bullies]

When these kinds of behaviors aren’t corrected, children could get into trouble with the law later in life. While most children grow out of the terrible twos to become well adjusted, research has shown that most career criminals started their antisocial behavior during their toddler years.

Callous-unemotional behaviors are very distinct from other behavior problems, says Jenae Neiderhiser, professor of psychology at Penn State. “If we can identify these kids early, we may have a better chance of intervening in a child’s development.”

Beyond identifying behaviors as early signs of trouble, the new study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, sheds light on the origins of the behaviors. Decades of research have shown that harsh and negative parenting is linked to the development of antisocial behavior.

“The challenge in this research has been knowing the true origins of these behaviors because parents both take care of their child and provide their child’s genes. So it’s been difficult to know if we’re seeing that parenting causes CU behaviors, or is just a sign of the genes being passed to the child,” Hyde says.

Nature vs. nurture

To examine the role of nature versus nurture, researchers followed 561 families in the Early Growth and Development Study, an adoption study which documented biological mothers’ history of severe antisocial behavior, as well as adoptive parent and child behaviors. Observations of adoptive mother positive reinforcement took place when the child was 18 months of age, and at 27 months, researchers examined the child’s behavior.

The team found that the biological mothers’ antisocial behavior predicted callous-unemotional behaviors in their children who were adopted as infants, despite having limited or no contact with them. That is, the behaviors were inherited.

However, researchers found high levels of positive reinforcement by adoptive mothers helped to mitigate callous-unemotional behaviors in their adopted children.

“These findings are important because they mean that treatment programs that help parents learn to be more positive can help to stem the development of CU behaviors,” says Rebecca Waller, a research fellow at the University of Michigan.

[Callous little kids may have behavior trouble later]

The team will be following this group of children through early adolescence to determine if these behaviors still persist from toddlerhood.

“The really exciting take-home message from this study is that small, day-to-day positive interactions that parents have with their young children can make a huge difference in children’s development,” says Leslie Leve, a professor at the University of Oregon.

“Even when a child has inherited a very challenging set of behaviors, hearing ‘good job’ or receiving a pat on the back can help protect that child from developing serious problems stemming from their inherited difficulties.”

The National Institutes of Health supported the work. Researchers from University of Pittsburgh, Yale University, George Washington University, and Wayne State University are study coauthors.

Source: University of Michigan