Thursday, March 14, 2024

Genetic Factors Largely Shape Cold or Callous Child Behaviors at Younger Ages

Symptoms of callousness and emotional coldness in children—which can be risk factors for conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder—are more likely influenced by genetics rather than harsh or poor parenting, according to a report in AJP in Advance.

The findings suggest that one-time interventions aimed at teaching better parenting skills alone may be insufficient, wrote Patrizia Pezzoli, Ph.D., of University College London and colleagues. “Rather than discouraging parenting interventions, these findings suggest that combining parent support with child-focused strategies targeting behaviors that may elicit negative responses represents a promising approach,” the researchers wrote.

Pezzoli and colleagues analyzed data on 9,260 twin pairs (12,029 fraternal twins and 6,491 identical twins) from the Twin Early Development Study, a longitudinal study of twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996 that included assessments when the children were 7, 9, and 12. Twin studies are useful because they can help distinguish genetic and environmental influences on behavior.

The researchers measured callous and unemotional (CU) traits in children using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire and the Antisocial Process Screening Device. They assessed negative parental discipline to deal with child misbehavior, such as hitting and shouting, using a semi-structured interview and negative parental feelings with the Parental Feelings Questionnaire. They explored what may contribute to these outcomes based on the genetic similarity of identical vs. fraternal twins and the shared vs. different experiences of these twins at home, school, or elsewhere.

At age 7, genetic factors accounted for 67% of the difference in CU traits among these children, whereas environmental differences between twins accounted for the remaining 33%. By age 12, the influence of genetic factors on CU traits was still strong but dropped to 55%. Environmental differences accounted for 25% while shared environment that promotes twin similarity accounted for 20% of CU traits at age12.

Similarly, the children’s genetic factors accounted for 58% of the differences in negative parental discipline when children were 7; shared environment accounted for just 15%. However, at age 12 shared environment accounted for 84% of the differences in negative parental discipline among the families.

“An increase in shared environmental influences on negative parenting indicates that parents rated their own parenting as distinct for each of their twins in mid childhood, but less so in late childhood,” Pezzoli and colleagues wrote. “These results suggest that parental discipline may become less tailored to children’s characteristics as they grow older.”

The researchers note that environmental risk factors outside the home—such as exposure to violence at school or in the community—should be addressed in family interventions. “More clinical research is needed to determine the adequate intensity and duration of support for parents of children with varying levels of CU traits,” they conclude. “…[I]nterventions addressing multiple environmental risk factors, rather than parenting alone, are better suited to influence the development of CU traits.”

For related information see the Psychiatric News article, “Early Childhood Behavior Predicts Adult Temperament, 26-Year Study Finds.”

(Image: Getty Images/iStock/Nastco)

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