A Unique Path to Callous-Unemotional Traits for Children who are Temperamentally Fearless and Unconcerned about Transgressions: a Longitudinal Study of Typically Developing Children from age 2 to 12

Abstract

Despite the acknowledged significance of callous-unemotional (CU) traits in developmental psychopathology, few studies have examined their early antecedents in typically developing children, in long-term longitudinal designs, using observational measures. In 102 community mothers, fathers, and children (N = 51 girls), we examined main and interactive effects of children’s fearless temperament and low concern about transgressions from toddler to early school age as predictors of CU traits in middle childhood and early preadolescence. In laboratory paradigms, we observed children’s concern about breaking valuable objects (twice at each age of 2, 3, 4.5, 5.5, and 6.5 years) and about hurting the parent (twice at each age of 2, 3, and 4.5 years). We observed fearless temperament during scripted exposure to novel and mildly threatening objects and events (twice at each age of 2, 3, 4.5, and 5.5 years). Mothers and fathers rated children’s CU traits and externalizing behavior problems at ages 8, 10, and 12. Children’s low concern about both types of transgressions predicted CU traits, but those effects were qualified by the expected interactions with fearless temperament: Among relatively fearless children, those who were unconcerned about transgressions were at the highest risk for CU traits, even after controlling for the strong overlap between CU traits and externalizing problems. For fearful children, variation in concern about transgressions was unrelated to CU traits. Those interactions were not significant in the prediction of externalizing problems. The study highlights a potentially unique etiology of CU traits in early development.

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Notes

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    We also conducted all analyses using multiple imputation; all the effects in regression analyses were essentially identical to those obtained with single imputation. However, we report the results for single imputation because SPSS does not provide pooled statistics necessary for the simple slopes analyses.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, grants R01 MH63096 and K02 MH01446, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, grant R01 HD069171, and a Stuit Professorship (to G.K.). We thank many colleagues, students and staff members for their help with data collection, coding, and file management, and parents and children in Family Study for their commitment to this research. We also thank Annie Bernier for her very helpful input.

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Correspondence to Kathryn C. Goffin.

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Goffin, K.C., Boldt, L.J., Kim, S. et al. A Unique Path to Callous-Unemotional Traits for Children who are Temperamentally Fearless and Unconcerned about Transgressions: a Longitudinal Study of Typically Developing Children from age 2 to 12. J Abnorm Child Psychol 46, 769–780 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-017-0317-2

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Keywords

  • Callous-unemotional traits
  • Fearless temperament
  • Concern about transgressions