Positive Parenting Thwarts Kids' Heritable Callous Behaviors

Nancy A. Melville

September 22, 2016

In what appears to be a case of nurture trumping nature, callousness in children at high genetic risk for antisocial behavior can be thwarted by the positive influence of an adoptive parent, new research suggests.

"The results emphasize that positive reinforcement from parents can help buffer existing genetic risk, even in children at high risk for persistent antisocial behavior," state the authors, led by Luke W. Hyde, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The study was published in the September issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Early Presentation

Substantial research has shown that trajectories toward antisocial behavior can begin in early childhood – as early as 3 to 5 years of age – and the presence of callous-unemotional traits has gained increasing recognition in recent years as being correlated with antisocial behaviors later in life.

Callous-unemotional traits were added to the diagnosis of conduct disorder in DSM-5 as a specifier of early-onset antisocial behavior. Specific traits include low empathy, callousness, and low interpersonal emotions, the authors note.

The authors also note that previous research has shown that antisocial behaviors are highly heritable, but little research has examined specific heritable pathways into such behaviors. They point out that positive parenting has been shown to protect against the development of callous-unemotional traits.

To test novel heritable and nonheritable pathways to preschool callous-emotional behaviors, the investigators examined an adoption cohort of 561 children and their families from the prospective Early Growth and Development Study (EGDS), which included data on biological and adoptive parents and longitudinal measures of early child behavior.

In evaluating data on the children and parents when the children were 18 months and 27 months of age, the researchers found that a history of antisocial behavior in the biological mother was a significant predictor of early callous-unemotional behaviors in offspring at 27 months, despite the child's being adopted and having no contact with the biological mother from birth.

Having an adoptive mother who provides strong positive reinforcement and warmth had a protective effect in preventing the inherited risk.

"Early callous-unemotional behaviors, which may signal risk for increasing behavior problems over time, were predicted both by birth parents' history of antisocial behavior and by adoptive parents' parenting behaviors," Dr Hyde told Medscape Medical News.

"So there was clearly a heritable genetic component to callous-unemotional behaviors, but there was also clearly an effect of parenting. This is important because it means that parents can help children, even those with genetic risk, to behave better. It also suggests that parenting interventions, the kind that clinical psychologists do with parents, are likely to be good for children with early callous-unemotional behaviors," he added.

Heritable Pathway Identified

In assessing children's behaviors in the study, the researchers used reports by the adoptive mother on items from the preschool Child Behavior Checklist for children at 27 months of age. The checklist includes measures of callous-unemotional, oppositional, and attention-deficit behaviors.

Antisocial behavior of biological mothers was assessed with self-reported responses on the Diagnostic Interview Schedule when the children were 3 to 6 months of age.

Adoptive-mother behaviors were also assessed when the children were 18 months of age in video observations coded for positive reinforcement interactions, such as the extent of praise offered to the child in a 3-minute clean-up task.

After adjusting for covariates that included sex, adoption openness, and perinatal risk, the results showed a significant association between severe antisocial behavior among biological mothers and callous-unemotional behaviors in offspring at 27 months (P <.01).

At 18 months, higher levels of positive reinforcement of an adoptive mother uniquely and significantly predicted lower levels of callous-unemotional behaviors at 27 months (P < .001).

Low levels of observed positive reinforcement among adoptive mothers and high levels of antisocial behavior in the biological mothers significantly predicted child callousness and unemotional behaviors (P < .05).

The sample was racially and ethnically diverse, with 55.6% white, 19.3% multiracial, 13% African American, and 10.9% Latino.

"This study is the first, to our knowledge, that identifies a specific heritable pathway to early callous-unemotional behaviors," the authors write.

"This pathway was particularly strong when we focused on the most serious maternal antisocial behavior, implying that serious antisocial behavior is a more precise phenotype for understanding heritable risk for early callous-unemotional behaviors," they add.

Dr Hyde notes that although the age of 27 months may seem young for predicting future behaviors, research has shown important links.

"I don't think behaviors at age 27 months are destiny. However, we have other work showing that by age 3, early callous-unemotional behavior predicts later callous-unemotional behaviors and worse behavior problems at age 10. So it's certainly not destiny, but is an early warning sign and a good way to identify children who may need more help early on," he said.

Power of Positive Parenting

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Essi Viding, PhD, of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London, United Kingdom, said the study offers encouraging evidence that good parenting can indeed offset the genetic influence on antisocial behaviors.

"This study very neatly showed that there are genetically driven individual differences in risk of problem behaviors, but such genetic differences are not a destiny," said Dr Viding.

"Twin and adoption studies show very clearly that genes are important, but not a destiny. Here we have a specific parenting strategy that has been identified as potentially helpful," she added.

Dr Viding, who was coauthor, along with and Jean-Baptiste Pingault, PhD, of an accompanying editorial, added that the adoptive parent model helps to clarify the feasibility of buffering some heritable traits even in biological families with supportive parenting.

"This study is a very important demonstration that parenting matters, even for children who have not got the best hand at the biological lottery," she said.

"However, we must remember that most children are parented by individuals who share their genetic vulnerabilities. These biological mothers and fathers often care deeply about their children, but may find it difficult to be consistent and reliable.

"The challenge for scientists and practitioners is to think of ways of supporting and promoting good parent-child relationships in biological families where the resources and capabilities for parenting may not always match those found in often wealthy and highly motivated adoptive families," she added.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, National Institutes of Health. Dr Hyde and Dr Viding have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Am J Psychiatry. 2016;173:903-910, 862-863. Abstract, Editorial


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.