Parenting practices appear to act as a pathway between parental psychopathy and callous-unemotional traits in adolescents, according to a new study published in Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology that examined hundreds of twins. The findings provide evidence that callous-unemotional traits among youth are not entirely attributable to genetic risk factors.
Callous-unemotional traits include characteristics such as limited guilt, reduced empathic concern, and reduced displays of appropriate emotion. Callous-unemotional traits have been associated with the development of more serious antisocial behavior, such as gun violence.
“Our lab is interested in the emergence of child callous-unemotional traits, which have been found to predict more severe and chronic aggression and rule-breaking. We wanted to look more closely at the extent to which callous-unemotional traits are a product of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ — that is, the genetic versus environmental contributions of callous-unemotional traits,” said study author Hailey L. Dotterer, a psychology intern at the Washington DC VA Medical Center and member of the MIND Lab at the University of Michigan.
“Previous research has highlighted the role of parenting in the emergence of callous-unemotional traits, but we were interested in looking further at the role of parent personality, and whether parent’s own callous traits may influence their parenting styles and/or be directly linked to their children’s callous-unemotional traits.”
For their study, the researchers examined data from 550 twins and their parents who are part of the ongoing Michigan Twin Neurogenetics Study. A variety of assessments were conducted when the twins were approximately 14 years old on average, including assessments of parental psychopathic traits and parenting practices.
Dotterer and her colleagues found that higher levels of parental psychopathy were associated with higher levels of callous-unemotional traits in the twins. In addition, lower levels of parental warmth and higher levels of harsh parenting were associated with callous-unemotional traits. Parental psychopathy was both directly related to adolescent callous-unemotional traits and indirectly related via parenting practices.
“Our results emphasize that ‘nature’ (genetics) does not entirely explain the development of callous-unemotional traits, and that ‘nurture’ plays a significant role,” Dotterer told PsyPost. “Parenting is strongly associated with child outcomes. Importantly, however, our study found that parent’s own personality traits predicted their parenting. That is, parents who were more callous were also more harsh and less warm with their children.”
“In turn, when parents were harsher and less warm with their children, their children ended up being higher on callous-unemotional traits. Importantly, we used a twin design and compared the parenting that identical twins received. The twin that was treated harsher or with less warmth was also the one higher on callous-unemotional traits. Since the twins have the same DNA, we know that some of the influence of parenting on callous-unemotional traits must be due to ‘nurture,’ not just genes shared by more callous parents.”
“The upshot is that parenting does matter and is a good place for treatment of youth with callous-unemotional traits,” Dotterer explained. “But it is also important to consider that parents themselves might be higher on callousness, and so treatment providers need to keep parent’s personality in mind when supporting their parenting skills.”
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“First, we examined associations in a community sample. Thus, our results may not be generalizable to families involved in the justice system or those coming to a clinic and with potentially more severe levels of callous-unemotional traits,” Dotterer said. “Additionally, we used a cross-sectional design, child callous-unemotional traits could influence parenting or parenting could influence child callous-unemotional traits; longitudinal designs are needed to better understand the directionality of the associations.”
The study, “Associations Between Parental Psychopathic Traits, Parenting, and Adolescent Callous‑Unemotional Traits“, was authored by Hailey L. Dotterer, S. Alexandra Burt, Kelly L. Klump, and Luke W. Hyde.