Some kids’ remorseless road to later conduct problems

Regular misbehavior mixed with a lack of guilt and empathy bodes poorly for 7-year-olds

WASHINGTON — When an unrelenting penchant for misbehaving joins forces with lack of emotion, guilt and empathy, 7-year-olds are headed for years of severe conduct problems, a long-term study of English youngsters suggests.

Youngsters who regularly misbehave and get into trouble at age 7, and who also display so-called callous-unemotional traits, frequently stay on a troubled course until at least age 12, according to a new investigation described February 20 in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancenent of Science.

“I’m not suggesting that these children are psychopaths, but callous-unemotional traits can be used to identify kids at risk of persistent, severe antisocial behavior,” said psychologist Nathalie Fontaine of Indiana University in Bloomington, who directed the study. Adult psychopaths similarly show no remorse for crimes and blunted emotional reactions, although they often possess considerable empathy that they use to prey on others.

These findings indicate that callous-unemotional traits should be factored into the definition of a particularly virulent form of childhood conduct disorder in the next manual of psychiatric disorders, Fontaine said. Chronic misbehavior alone defines conduct disorder in the current fourth edition of the psychiatric manual used by doctors to define mental ailments, now being revised.

Researchers know that 5 to 10 percent of schoolchildren persistently engage in antisocial behaviors such as fighting, lying and stealing. But few prospective studies have examined characteristics that distinguish kids who grow out of this antisocial pattern from those who stay wedded to it through adolescence.

“The seeds of sin are sown quite early life,” remarked psychologist Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

In another new study, Raine and his colleagues find that 3-year-olds who have difficulties learning to fear impending punishments in lab experiments — a key facet of callous-unemotional traits — commit criminal offenses at much higher rates than their peers by age 23.

Fontaine’s team studied 9,578 children who were born in England and Wales from 1994 to 1996. Teachers and parents evaluated each child on surveys of behavior problems and callous-unemotional traits at ages 7, 9 and 12.

A total of 4.4 percent of these children, mostly boys, exhibited high levels of both misbehavior and callous-unemotional traits throughout the study. Compared with their peers, this group of youngsters came from particularly chaotic families that used harsh forms of punishment. These kids also displayed many hyperactive symptoms and got along poorly with peers.

Another 4 percent of kids in the study displayed consistent conduct problems with either increasing or decreasing levels of callous-unemotional traits from age 7 to 12.

Fontaine emphasized that children with high levels of callous-unemotional traits almost always misbehaved regularly. In contrast, only about half of the kids who constantly misbehaved also lacked remorse, guilt and empathy, indicating that a variety of influences play into conduct problems.

Longer studies are needed to evaluate whether children with high levels of callous-unemotional traits and conduct problems will become psychopaths, Fontaine said.

Evidence indicates, though, that callous-unemotional children respond best to interventions that reward them for good behavior rather than punishing them for misdeeds, she noted.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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