New research indicates that parental warmth may protect against development of psychopathic traits in troubled adolescents, which may lower the risk of future criminal activity. The new study has recently been published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.
“I have been interested in protective factors for psychopathy as they have been overlooked before,” said study author Heidi Backman, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki. “Parenting plays a crucial role in development of children and adolescents and their psychosocial health. For these reasons, I became interested in this topic.”
The researchers examined data from the Pathways to Desistance study, a longitudinal study of juvenile offenders. The study included 1,354 youths who were charged with serious crimes in Maricopa County, Arizona and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. The mostly male youth completed various psychological assessments eight times over the course of four and a half years, including the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory.
Participants who reported having relatively more supportive and nurturing parents tended to have less psychopathic traits. Similarly, those who reported experiencing more hostility from their parents tended to have more psychopathic traits. Heightened parental hostility and lower maternal warmth also predicted more violent behavior and illegal acts among the adolescents.
The findings indicate that “parental behaviors matter not only in childhood but also in adolescence,” Backman told PsyPost. “Although the adolescents’ development had gone in an unfavorable direction, parental warmth may still protect them from psychopathic features and antisocial behavior.”
The researchers also examined whether adolescents with psychopathic traits provoked hostile responses from their parents, rather than parents’ hostile responses leading to an increase in psychopathic traits.
“To better understand potential causal associations, we used a within-individual method in our study. It adjusts for all confounding factors that do not change within individuals, thereby taking into account all time-invariant, between-individual differences,” Backman said.
But their findings indicate that “parental practices are not a reaction to psychopathic traits in adolescence, because the reverse relationship of psychopathic traits predicting later parental warmth and hostility was not supported in this study at an individual level.”
The results are in line with some previous research, which has found that low levels of maternal warmth are associated with the development of callous personality traits.
Still, Backman told PsyPost that the findings should be “interpreted carefully.” Even though certain parenting practices predict the development of psychopathic traits, the researchers cannot say for sure whether hostile parenting causes criminality — and it if is a cause, it is certainly not the only one.
“There are many pathways, causes and contributing factors to antisociality and psychopathy,” Backman explained. “In the future, studies should examine different developmental trajectories, risk and protective factors, treatment and prevention mechanisms, and genetic and neurocognitive contributions to the development of psychopathy.”
The study, “Parental Warmth and Hostility and the Development of Psychopathic Behaviors: A Longitudinal Study of Young Offenders“, was authored by Heidi Backman, Taina Laajasalo, Markus Jokela, and Eeva T. Aronen.