A team of researchers have found new clues about which toddlers may be at risk for the worst antisocial outcomes, and what may be the source of early problems.
In a new study, investigators from the University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Oregon, and several other universities studied “callous-unemotional” behaviors in the toddler years.
These behaviors included a lack of empathy, lying, and little emotion in children who would likely have the worst behavior problems years later. For example, this may be a child who bullies others despite the consequences or how the victim feels.
“These are signs for parents and doctors to watch out for, as they may signal more than just the ‘terrible twos,'” said Dr. Luke Hyde, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and lead author on the study.
Parents should paying attention to the behavior and not expect that a child will naturally grow out of behavioral difficulties, say researchers.
In fact, when these behaviors are not corrected, children could get into trouble with the law later in life. While most children do grow out of the terrible twos to become well adjusted, research has shown that most career criminals started their antisocial behavior during their toddler years.
The current findings appear online in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
Callous-unemotional (CU) behaviors are very distinct from other behavior problems, said Dr. Jenae Neiderhiser, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State who was part of the research team and co-led the collection of data informing this study.
“If we can identify these kids early we may have a better chance of intervening in a child’s development,” she said.
Beyond identifying these behaviors as early signs of trouble, the researchers’ newest work sheds light on the origins of the behaviors. Decades of research have shown that harsh and negative parenting is linked to the development of antisocial behavior.
“The challenge in this research has been knowing the true origins of these behaviors because parents both take care of their child and provide their child’s genes. So it’s been difficult to know if we’re seeing that parenting causes CU behaviors, or is just a sign of the genes being passed to the child,” said Hyde, who is also affiliated with the Center for Human Growth and Development and the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
This is the first known study to focus on the causes of early CU behaviors.
To examine the role of nature versus nurture, the team followed 561 families in the Early Growth and Development Study, an adoption study which documented biological mothers’ history of severe antisocial behavior, as well as adoptive parent and child behaviors. Observations of adoptive mother positive reinforcement took place when the child was 18 months of age, and at 27 months, researchers examined the child’s behavior.
The team found that the biological mothers’ antisocial behavior predicted CU behaviors in their children who were adopted as infants, despite having limited or no contact with them. That is, CU behaviors were inherited.
But researchers found high levels of positive reinforcement by adoptive mothers helped to mitigate CU behaviors in their adopted children.
“These findings are important because they mean that treatment programs that help parents learn to be more positive can help to stem the development of CU behaviors,” said Dr. Rebecca Waller, a University of Michigan research fellow who contributed to the study.
The team will be following this group of children through early adolescence to determine if these behaviors still persist from toddlerhood.
“The really exciting take-home message from this study is that small, day-to-day positive interactions that parents have with their young children can make a huge difference in children’s development,” said Dr. Leslie Leve, a professor at the University of Oregon who co-led the collection of the data for this study.
“Even when a child has inherited a very challenging set of behaviors, hearing ‘good job’ or receiving a pat on the back can help protect that child from developing serious problems stemming from their inherited difficulties.”