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Toddlers with Low Empathy at Risk for Future Behavior Problems

Toddlers with Low Empathy at Risk for Future Behavior Problems

Toddlers who don’t feel guilty after bad behavior or who are less affectionate or less responsive to affection may be at risk for greater behavior problems by the time they enter first grade, according to a new study by the University of Michigan (UM).

Furthermore, when these behavior problems still aren’t resolved in elementary school, children are more likely to become aggressive and violent as teens and adults.

“Little analysis had been done among preschoolers, who undergo rapid physical and psychological development, making this a difficult time for parents to manage behaviors and an important time to help children improve their behavior,” said lead author Rebecca Waller, Ph.D., a UM psychology research fellow.

“Adults who are aggressive or violent have often shown early-starting behavior problems as young children. Thus, a focus on understanding the emergence and development of behavior problems before they become severe is important for creating new treatments that could help prevent children following a lifetime of violence or crime.”

Researchers evaluated 240 children and their parents who were part of the Michigan Longitudinal Study, a continuing study of young children at risk for behavior problems.

Information was gathered from parents when the children were three years old and again by teachers at six years old.

Parents completed questionnaires about their children’s behavior, while the children completed six tasks that were videotaped and analyzed by researchers.

The researchers identified three types of early behavior problems at age three: oppositional behaviors, ADHD behaviors, and callous and unemotional behaviors.

For oppositional behavior, parents reported that their children were often angry, frustrated and had difficulty controlling their emotions. Children with a high rating on ADHD behaviors had difficulty paying attention and staying focused during tasks.

Finally, if children were reported as having “callous and unemotional behavior,” they were found to experience less empathy, guilt and moral regulation of their behavior. Children with the highest ratings of these kinds of behaviors were more likely to show this behavior during first grade and were also more likely to have continued behavior problems according to their teachers.

“A key thing for parents and educators to take from this work is that many children during the preschool years show normative levels of behavior problems and aggression, but there may be different types of behavior problems that may need different interventions if the behavior is not declining as children get towards school age,” said study co-author Luke Hyde, Ph.D., UM assistant professor of psychology.

“For example, children with callous and unemotional behavior may be the most at risk and need therapy that teaches empathy,” he said.

“The good news is that we know from other work that early interventions are very successful and helpful with early child behavior problems,” Hyde said.

“If parents or teachers are concerned about a child’s behavior, they should seek out a mental health provider such as a clinical psychologist, who is trained in a treatment called Parent Management Training. This treatment is very effective and can help a child learn better behavior, particularly early in childhood.”

Source: University of Michigan


Toddler choking a cat photo by shutterstock.

Toddlers with Low Empathy at Risk for Future Behavior Problems

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Toddlers with Low Empathy at Risk for Future Behavior Problems. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.