Callous-Unemotional Behaviors and Harsh Parenting: Reciprocal Associations across Early Childhood and Moderation by Inherited Risk
Callous-unemotional (CU) behaviors increase children’s risk for subsequent antisocial behavior. This risk process may begin in early childhood with reciprocal pathways between CU behaviors and harsh parenting. In a sample of 561 linked triads of biological mothers, adoptive parents, and adopted children, the present study examined bidirectional links between CU behaviors and harsh parenting across three time points from 18 to 54 months and investigated moderation by inherited risk for psychopathic traits. Child CU behaviors and harsh parenting were measured using adoptive mother and adoptive father reports, and biological mothers provided reports of their personality characteristics. Findings supported reciprocal associations between harsh parenting and CU behaviors during early childhood, especially during the transition from toddlerhood (27 months) to the preschool period (54 months). Moreover, multiple-group analyses showed that level of inherited risk moderated associations between CU behaviors and harsh parenting. Specifically, there were statistically reliable associations between CU behaviors at 27 months and adoptive mothers’ harsh parenting at 54 months, and between adoptive fathers’ harsh parenting at 27 months and CU behaviors at 54 months among children at higher inherited risk, but not among those at lower inherited risk. The findings illustrate the dynamic interplay between parenting, CU behaviors, and heritable risk.
KeywordsCallous-unemotional behaviors Parenting Early childhood Genetic risk
The Early Growth and Development Study was supported by grants R01 HD042608 from NICHD, NIDA, and OBSSR, NIH, U.S. PHS (PI Years 1-5: David Reiss; PI Years 6-10: Leslie Leve), R01 DA020585 from NIDA, NIMH, and OBSSR, NIH, U.S. PHS (PI: Jenae Neiderhiser), R01 MH092118 from NIMH, NIH, U. S. PHS (PIs: Jenae Neiderhiser and Leslie Leve), and UG3 OD023389 from the Office of the Director, NIH, U.S. PHS (PIs: Leslie Leve, Jody Ganiban, and Jenae Neiderhiser). Christopher Trentacosta was supported by K01 MH082926 from NIMH, NIH, U.S. PHS. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. The authors thank the biological parents and adoptive families who participated in this study and the adoption agencies who helped with the recruitment of study participants. They also gratefully acknowledge Rand Conger, John Reid, Xiaojia Ge, and Laura Scaramella for their contributions to the larger project.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
The Early Growth and Development Study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards of George Washington University, the Oregon Social Learning Center, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of California, Davis, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Oregon.
Biological mothers and adoptive parents provided written informed consent. Adoptive parents also provided written informed consent for the adopted child.
- Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2000). Manual for the ASEBA preschool forms and profiles. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry.Google Scholar
- Dunn, J. (2013). Moral development in early childhood and social interaction in the family. In M. Killen & J. G. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (2nd ed., pp. 135–159). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Frick, P. J., & White, S. F. (2008). Research review: The importance of callous-unemotional traits for developmental models of aggressive and antisocial behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 359–375. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610-2007-01862.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Frick, P. J., Ray, J. V., Thornton, L. C., & Kahn, R. E. (2014). Annual research review: A developmental psychopathology approach to understanding callous-unemotional traits in children and adolescents with serious conduct problems. Journal Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55, 532–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Ge, X., Conger, R. D., Cadoret, R. J., Neiderhiser, J. M., Yates, W., Troughton, E., & Stewart, M. A. (1996). The developmental interface between nature and nurture: A mutual influence model of child antisocial behavior and parent behaviors. Developmental Psychology, 32, 574–589.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Gray, J. A. (1981). A critique of Eysenck's theory of personality. In H. J. Eysenck (Ed.), A model for personality. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
- Laible, D., Thompson, R. A., & Froimson, J. (2014). Early socialization: The influence of close relationships. In J. E. Grusec & P. D. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of socialization (2nd ed., pp. 35–59). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
- Lansford, J. E., Criss, M. M., Laird, R. D., Shaw, D. S., Petit, G. S., Bates, J. E., & Dodge, K. A. (2011). Reciprocal relations between parents’ physical discipline and children’s externalizing behavior during middle childhood and adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 225–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- McCord, W., & McCord, J. (1964). The psychopath: An essay on the criminal mind. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.Google Scholar
- Messer, B., & Harter, S. (1986). Manual for the adult self-perception profile. Denver: University of Denver.Google Scholar
- Mills-Koonce, W. R., Willoughby, M. T., Garrett-Peters, P., Wagner, N., & Vernon-Feagans, L. (2016). The interplay among socioeconomic status, household chaos, and parenting in the prediction of child conduct problems and callous-unemotional behaviors. Development and Psychopathology, 28, 757–771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Muthen, L., & Muthen, B. (2015). Mplus 7.31 (Statistical Program).Google Scholar
- Pardini, D. A., Fite, P. J., & Burke, J. D. (2008). Bidirectional associations between parenting practices and conduct problems in boys from childhood to adolescence: The moderating effect of age and African-American ethnicity. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 647–662.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Patterson, G. R. (1982). A social learning approach: Vol. 3 coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia.Google Scholar
- Waller, R., Hyde, L. W., Grabell, A. S., Alves, M. L., & Olson, S. L. (2015). Differential associations of early callous-unemotional, oppositional, and ADHD behaviors: Multiple domains within early-starting conduct problems? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 56, 657–666.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Willoughby, M. T., Mills-Koonce, R., Propper, C. B., & Waschbusch, D. A. (2013). Observed parenting behaviors interact with a polymorphism of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene to predict the emergence of oppositional defiant and callous-unemotional behaviors at age 3 years. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 903–917.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Willoughby, M. T., Mills-Koonce, W. R., Gottfredson, N. C., & Wagner, N. J. (2014). Measuring callous unemotional behaviors in early childhood: Factor structure and the prediction of stable aggression in middle childhood. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 36, 30–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar