Yanna Lee

Researchers discovered that parenting has the strong potential to counteract a child’s biological propensity for callous-unemotional behaviors.

In an April 8 Yale co-authored psychiatric study titled “Heritable and Nonheritable Pathways to Early Callous-Unemotional Behaviors,” researchers found that despite limited or no contact with their children, a biological mother’s antisocial behavior strongly predicted early callous-unemotional behaviors. Despite this genetic correlation, the study also found that adoptive mothers’ “positive reinforcement” — any method of positively encouraging or praising a child for good behavior — protected children against early callous-unemotional behaviors.

High levels of this environmental factor of positive reinforcement buffered the effects of the genetic risk for demonstrating callous-unemotional behaviors, posed by the exhibited antisocial behavior in biological parents. According to the co-authors, the study demonstrated that even strong genetic pathways to antisocial behavior can be mitigated by preventive treatment. Research partners include parties from the University of Michigan, Yale University, Wayne State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University, George Washington University and the University of Oregon.

“This study helps change the mindset around genetics,” said Leslie Leve, senior author and counseling psychology professor at the Prevention Science Institute at the University of Oregon. “Just because [the risk] is genetic, it does not mean it’s not changeable. There’s still a lot we can do.”

All researchers interviewed said that antisocial behavior is a broad term referring to both violent and nonviolent behavior as well as conduct disorder. Antisocial behavior includes verbal and physical aggression, and minor crimes like theft. Callous-unemotional behavior, however, is a subset of antisocial behavior wherein individuals engage in antisocial behavior as a result of lack of empathy, lack of remorse or guilt and lack of fear. These low traits were used in the study as measures for identifying callous-unemotional behavior in toddlers aged 18 to 27 months.

Leve said she conducts research with a focus on informing and improving preventative interventions. She also leads national research grants that focus on developmental pathways and intervention outcomes for at-risk youth and families — including analyzing trial treatments to prevent risk behaviors and examining the relationship between genetic, hormonal and psychological factors and behavioral development. Because drug abuse is one sign of antisocial behavior, Leve said the study has important implications for at-risk youth and drug prevention.

Psychology professor Arielle Baskin-Sommers, who did not work on this study but researches antisocial behavior and other aspects of psychopathology, including callous-unemotional behavior, said the study’s findings can open a wide doorway to improving treatment and understanding the relationship between genetics and environment.

Baskin-Sommers said it was “unlikely that there is one single factor” contributing to the callous-unemotional behavior of a child.

“[The] component of positive reinforcement is a valuable feature that can improve a child’s outcome,” she said. “This research helps us build profiles from which we can better diagnose and treat these conditions early on.”

Rebecca Waller, study co-author and post-doctoral research fellow from University of Michigan, said that measuring callous-unemotional behavior in early childhood predicts who is most at risk later in life. However, she said, it is important to note that genetics indicate a heightened risk and were not a guarantee, as indicated by this study.

Waller, Baskin-Sommers and Leve all said that this research can provide targets for future research, as well as targets for future treatment later in life.

While effective intervention depends on various circumstances, involving parents in child rearing has been proven very effective, Baskin-Sommers said. She said that researchers can use knowledge from the study to test different positive-reinforcement treatments. She added that one likely effective program involves training parents to effectively interact with their children. She emphasized that if children display antisocial behaviors early on, then parents and children should be worked with in a dual-treatment program.

This study was funded by grants and awards from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health.