Callous kids face antisocial futures

INDIANA U. (US) — Children who are at high risk of antisocial behavior demonstrate an alarming lack of emotion, empathy, and guilt, while displaying persistent conduct problems.

Those “callous-unemotional (CU) traits, experienced by about 5 to 10 percent of children, are for the most part influenced by genetic factors in boys but by environmental factors in girls.

A new study finds that high levels of both CU traits and conduct problems were associated with negative child and family factors at age 4 and with behavioral problems at age 12.

“The children with high levels of both CU traits and conduct problems between ages 7 to 12 were likely to present negative predictors and outcomes, including hyperactivity problems and living in a chaotic home environment,” says Nathalie aid Fontaine, assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University.

“If we could identify those children early enough, we could help them as well as their families.”

The research is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Data for more than 9,000 twins from the Twins Early Development Study, a data set of twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996 was examined with assessments of CU traits and conduct problems based on teacher questionnaires when the children were 7, 9 and 12.

Family-level predictors at age 4 were based on information from parents, and behavioral outcomes at age 12 were based on information from teachers.

Participants were grouped in four trajectories for CU traits: stable low, stable high, increasing and decreasing. While most exhibited stable and low levels of CU traits, about one-fourth had stable high, increasing or decreasing CU traits. Participants were grouped in two trajectories for conduct problems, high and low.

Because the data set included both identical and non-identical twins, the researchers were able to examine the extent to which each trajectory of CU traits was related to genetic and environmental factors.

They found that, for boys in all four trajectories, genetic factors had the strongest influence. But for girls with stable high or increasing levels of CU traits, a shared environment had the strongest influence.

An asymmetrical relationship between CU traits and persistent conduct problems was present. Children with high levels of CU traits were likely to also display high levels of conduct problems. But children with high levels of conduct problems did not necessarily exhibit high levels of CU traits.

Children with a high trajectory of CU traits and conduct problems were more likely than others to have experienced negative predictors at age 4, such as hyperactivity, negative parental discipline, and chaos in the home. They also were more likely to experience negative outcomes at age 12, including problems with peers, emotional problems, and negative parental feelings.

The findings do not mean that some children are or necessarily will become delinquents or psychopathic individuals—or that heritability of CU traits equals destiny.

Rather, the research suggests that CU traits may be used to identify children who are at risk for persistent and severe antisocial behavior and to implement appropriate interventions to support and help these children and their families.

Researchers from Duke University, King’s College London, University College London, and Laval University contributed to the study.

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