Callous-unemotional children at risk for later behavioral problems

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
CU children

New research shows children who are callous and unemotional are likely to have persistent conduct problems.

The findings, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are important for identifying children with callous-unemotional (CU) traits at risk for antisocial behavior and peer problems later in life who could benefit from early intervention.

Indiana University Bloomington faculty member Nathalie M.G. Fontaine says 5 to 10 percent of children display lack of emotion and empathy and guilt that occur from a combination of genes and environmental factors that are also linked to persistent behavioral problems.

Fontaine explains a research study that is the first longitudinal analysis conducted, found the link between CU traits and family and behavioral problems at age 4 that predicted conduct problems at age 12.

"The children with high levels of both CU traits and conduct problems between ages 7 to 12 were likely to present negative predictors and outcomes, including hyperactivity problems and living in a chaotic home environment," said Fontaine, assistant professor of criminal justice in the College of Arts and Sciences. "If we could identify those children early enough, we could help them as well as their families."


The research study looked at 9,000 twins from the Twins Early Development Study who were born between 1994 and 1996 in England and Wales. Teacher questionnaires provided information about childhood conduct problems at age 7, 9 and 12. Information about behaviors at age 4 came from parents.

The study then divided the children up into trajectories, depending on the level of callous-unemotional traits displayed - low, stable high, increasing and decreasing. They further divided the children into high and low conduct problem groups.

Because the study was done on twins, researchers were able to measure environmental influences versus genetic tendency toward CU traits. For boys, callous-unemotional traits were stronger from genetic tendencies. For girls, environment had the biggest influence on behavior traits of CU.

Behavior problems were not always paired with CU traits, and children who displayed callous-unemotional characteristics were not always behavior problems.

Characteristics at age 4, such as hyperactivity, negative parental discipline and chaos in the home showed the highest association between conduct problems and callousness.

Fontaine says the findings don't mean every child with CU traits at age 4 will have peer problems, become antisocial or develop other conduct problems. Rather, the findings can help guide interventions for children at risk by identifying callous-unemotional traits at a young age that may mean later adjustment problems.