Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

parenting.jpg

(Photo: 93500404@N02/Flickr)

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

• August 01, 2014 • 2:22 PM

(Photo: 93500404@N02/Flickr)

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

When parents act warmly and responsively toward young children who exhibit antisocial behavior, the children begin acting more warmly too.

That’s according to a new study in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, in which researchers examined whether there are differences in response to parental harshness and warmth among three-year-olds who exhibit “callously unemotional” behavior.

These findings “highlight the toddler years as a key intervention period to reduce the likelihood that children with callously unemotional behavior will develop more entrenched and severe conduct problems.”

To parents of little ones, this outcome might seem obvious, but the study’s results contradicted the prevailing thinking on the matter. Until now, it has been widely believed that children whose behavior problems include high levels of “callous-unemotional” behavior, characterized by a “lack of empathic concern, punishment insensitivity, and lack of emotional responsivity,” are that way regardless of parenting style. Now, however, there’s evidence that colder parenting may worsen this type of behavior, while warmer parenting might coax out a child’s empathy.

The researchers, led by University of Michigan psychology post-doc Rebecca Waller, defined “warm” parenting as that which is responsive, positive, and affirming. Children whose primary caregivers are warm, they found, are much less likely to be insensitive to others, implying that we can reduce toddlers’ misbehavior just by being kinder to them.

Early behavior problems can evolve into lifelong issues with aggression and isolation, the researchers note. And it’s more difficult to change the “callously unemotional” behavior of older children because they are already desensitized to punishments. These findings, then, “highlight the toddler years as a key intervention period to reduce the likelihood that children with CU behavior will develop more entrenched and severe conduct problems.”

Similar studies have been conducted, but they’ve been demographically limited with a focus on a wider age range with mostly male subjects. This one, by contrast, used a multi-ethnic sample group of about 350 children ages two to four, half of which were female. They chose subjects at risk for “callously unemotional” behavior by looking at how the children behaved, how their primary caregiver acted, and demographic factors.

Every year from age two to four, the researchers checked in on the parent-child pairs at home. To assess whether a toddler’s behavior was improving, the researchers relied on parent reports. They coded parental warmth and harshness, in turn, by observing parent-child interactions, including five-minute speech samples.

In a follow-up paper, the researchers found that a parent’s level of warmth and a child’s callous behavior are reciprocally related, according to University of Michigan psychologist Luke Hyde. “Specifically, if children had high callous-unemotional behavior at age 2, this was related to a decrease in parental warmth at age 3,” Hyde, who worked on both studies, explains in an email. “Likewise, if parents showed low levels of warmth at age 2, children’s levels of callous unemotional behavior had increased by age 3…. This is important because it shows that it is more difficult to parent some children but also that parenting can have an effect on these early severe behaviors.”

“Parental harshness seems to be bad for all children,” Hyde says, “but parental warmth may be particularly important for kids with these risky callous-unemotional traits.”


Rosie Spinks contributed reporting.

Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews writes about thought leaders, environmental issues, food, and travel. She also reports for Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @avitalb.

More From Avital Andrews

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.