Less parental warmth and more harshness in the home environment affect how aggressive children become and whether they lack empathy and a moral compass, a set of characteristics known as callous-unemotional (CU) traits, according to findings from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University. The work was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

In a study of 227 identical twin pairs lead by Penn psychologist Rebecca Waller, the research team analyzed small differences in the parenting that each twin experienced to determine whether these differences predicted the likelihood of antisocial behaviors emerging. They learned that the twin who experienced stricter or harsher treatment and less emotional warmth from parents had a greater chance of showing aggression and CU traits.

“Some of the early work on callous-unemotional traits focused on their biological bases, like genetics and the brain, making the argument that these traits develop regardless of what is happening in a child’s environment, that parenting doesn’t matter,” says Waller, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of Psychology. “We felt there must be something we could change in the environment that might prevent a susceptible child from going down the pathway to more severe antisocial behavior.”

The work is the latest in a series of studies from Waller and colleagues using observation to assess a variety of aspects of parenting. The initial research, which considered a biological parent and child, confirmed that parental warmth plays a significant role in whether CU traits materialize.

A subsequent adoption study, of parents and children who were not biologically related, turned up consistent results. “We couldn’t blame that on genetics because these children don’t share genes with their parents,” Waller says. “But it still didn’t rule out the possibility that something about the child’s genetic characteristics was evoking certain reactions from the adoptive parent.” In other words, a parent who is warm and positive may have a hard time maintaining those behaviors if the child never reciprocates.

Knowing this led Waller and University of Michigan psychologist Luke Hyde to team with S. Alexandra Burt, co-director of the Michigan State University Twin Registry. Using 6-…

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