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

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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