Callous-Unemotional Behaviors and Harsh Parenting: Reciprocal Associations across Early Childhood and Moderation by Inherited Risk

  • Christopher J. TrentacostaEmail author
  • Rebecca Waller
  • Jenae M. Neiderhiser
  • Daniel S. Shaw
  • Misaki N. Natsuaki
  • Jody M. Ganiban
  • David Reiss
  • Leslie D. Leve
  • Luke W. Hyde


Callous-unemotional (CU) behaviors increase children’s risk for subsequent antisocial behavior. This risk process may begin in early childhood with reciprocal pathways between CU behaviors and harsh parenting. In a sample of 561 linked triads of biological mothers, adoptive parents, and adopted children, the present study examined bidirectional links between CU behaviors and harsh parenting across three time points from 18 to 54 months and investigated moderation by inherited risk for psychopathic traits. Child CU behaviors and harsh parenting were measured using adoptive mother and adoptive father reports, and biological mothers provided reports of their personality characteristics. Findings supported reciprocal associations between harsh parenting and CU behaviors during early childhood, especially during the transition from toddlerhood (27 months) to the preschool period (54 months). Moreover, multiple-group analyses showed that level of inherited risk moderated associations between CU behaviors and harsh parenting. Specifically, there were statistically reliable associations between CU behaviors at 27 months and adoptive mothers’ harsh parenting at 54 months, and between adoptive fathers’ harsh parenting at 27 months and CU behaviors at 54 months among children at higher inherited risk, but not among those at lower inherited risk. The findings illustrate the dynamic interplay between parenting, CU behaviors, and heritable risk.


Callous-unemotional behaviors Parenting Early childhood Genetic risk 






The Early Growth and Development Study was supported by grants R01 HD042608 from NICHD, NIDA, and OBSSR, NIH, U.S. PHS (PI Years 1-5: David Reiss; PI Years 6-10: Leslie Leve), R01 DA020585 from NIDA, NIMH, and OBSSR, NIH, U.S. PHS (PI: Jenae Neiderhiser), R01 MH092118 from NIMH, NIH, U. S. PHS (PIs: Jenae Neiderhiser and Leslie Leve), and UG3 OD023389 from the Office of the Director, NIH, U.S. PHS (PIs: Leslie Leve, Jody Ganiban, and Jenae Neiderhiser). Christopher Trentacosta was supported by K01 MH082926 from NIMH, NIH, U.S. PHS. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. The authors thank the biological parents and adoptive families who participated in this study and the adoption agencies who helped with the recruitment of study participants. They also gratefully acknowledge Rand Conger, John Reid, Xiaojia Ge, and Laura Scaramella for their contributions to the larger project.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

The Early Growth and Development Study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards of George Washington University, the Oregon Social Learning Center, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of California, Davis, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Oregon.

Informed Consent

Biological mothers and adoptive parents provided written informed consent. Adoptive parents also provided written informed consent for the adopted child.


  1. Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2000). Manual for the ASEBA preschool forms and profiles. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry.Google Scholar
  2. Arnold, D. S., O'Leary, S. G., Wolff, L. S., & Acker, M. M. (1993). The parenting scale: A measure of dysfunctional parenting in discipline situations. Psychological Assessment, 5, 137–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bell, R. Q. (1968). A reinterpretation of the direction of effects in studies of socialization. Psychological Review, 75, 81–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Blair, R. J. R. (2003). Neurobiological basis of psychopathy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, 5–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blair, R. J. R. (2013). The neurobiology of psychopathic traits in youths. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14, 786–799.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burke, J. D., Pardini, D. A., & Loeber, R. (2008). Reciprocal relationships between parenting behavior and disruptive psychopathology from childhood through adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 679–692.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Button, T. M. M., Lau, J. Y. F., Maughan, B., & Eley, T. C. (2008). Parental punitive discipline, negative life events and gene-environment interplay in the development of externalizing behavior. Psychological Medicine, 38, 29–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carver, C. S., & White, T. L. (1994). Behavioral inhibtion, behavioral activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: The BIS/BAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 319–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dadds, M. R., Allen, J. L., McGregor, K., Woolgar, M., Viding, E., & Scott, S. (2014). Callous-unemotional traits in children and mechanisms of impaired eye contact during expressions of love: A treatment target? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 55, 771–780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dunn, J. (2013). Moral development in early childhood and social interaction in the family. In M. Killen & J. G. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (2nd ed., pp. 135–159). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Enders, C. K. (2013). Dealing with missing data in developmental research. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 27–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Flom, M., & Saudino, K. J. (2017). Callous-unemotional behaviors in early childhood: Genetic and environmmental contributions to stability and change. Development and Psychopathology, 29, 1227–1234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Frick, P. J., & White, S. F. (2008). Research review: The importance of callous-unemotional traits for developmental models of aggressive and antisocial behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 359–375. Scholar
  14. Frick, P. J., Ray, J. V., Thornton, L. C., & Kahn, R. E. (2014). Annual research review: A developmental psychopathology approach to understanding callous-unemotional traits in children and adolescents with serious conduct problems. Journal Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55, 532–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ge, X., Conger, R. D., Cadoret, R. J., Neiderhiser, J. M., Yates, W., Troughton, E., & Stewart, M. A. (1996). The developmental interface between nature and nurture: A mutual influence model of child antisocial behavior and parent behaviors. Developmental Psychology, 32, 574–589.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gray, J. A. (1981). A critique of Eysenck's theory of personality. In H. J. Eysenck (Ed.), A model for personality. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  17. Hu, L., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cutoff criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: Conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modeling, 6, 1–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hyde, L. W., Waller, R., Trentacosta, C. J., Shaw, D. S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Ganiban, J. M., . . . Leve, L. D. (2016). Heritable and nonheritable pathways to early callous-unemotional behaviors. American Journal of Psychiatry, 173, 903–910.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kochanska, G. (1997). Multiple pathways to conscience for children with different temperaments: From toddlerhood to age five. Developmental Psychology, 33, 228–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Laible, D., Thompson, R. A., & Froimson, J. (2014). Early socialization: The influence of close relationships. In J. E. Grusec & P. D. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of socialization (2nd ed., pp. 35–59). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  21. Lansford, J. E., Criss, M. M., Laird, R. D., Shaw, D. S., Petit, G. S., Bates, J. E., & Dodge, K. A. (2011). Reciprocal relations between parents’ physical discipline and children’s externalizing behavior during middle childhood and adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 225–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Leve, L. D., Neiderhiser, J. M., Shaw, D. S., Ganiban, J., Natsuaki, M. N., & Reiss, D. (2013). The early growth and development study: A prospective adoption study from birth through middle childhood. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 16, 412–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lorber, M. F., & Smith Slep, A. M. (2015). Are persistent early onset child conduct problems predicted by the trajectories and initial levels of discipline practices? Developmental Psychology, 51, 1048–1061.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lytton, H. (1990). Child and parent effects in boys' conduct disorder: A reinterpretation. Developmental Psychology, 26, 683–697.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McCord, W., & McCord, J. (1964). The psychopath: An essay on the criminal mind. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.Google Scholar
  26. McNeil, T. F., Cantor-Graae, E., & Sjostrom, K. (1994). Obstetric complications as antecedents of schizophrenia: Empirical effects of using different obstetric complication scales. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 28, 519–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Messer, B., & Harter, S. (1986). Manual for the adult self-perception profile. Denver: University of Denver.Google Scholar
  28. Mills-Koonce, W. R., Willoughby, M. T., Garrett-Peters, P., Wagner, N., & Vernon-Feagans, L. (2016). The interplay among socioeconomic status, household chaos, and parenting in the prediction of child conduct problems and callous-unemotional behaviors. Development and Psychopathology, 28, 757–771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Harrington, H., & Milne, B. J. (2002). Males on the life-course-persistent and adolescence-limited antisocial pathways: Follow-up at age 26 years. Development and Psychopathology, 14, 179–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Muthen, L., & Muthen, B. (2015). Mplus 7.31 (Statistical Program).Google Scholar
  31. Newman, D. A. (2003). Longitudinal modeling with randomly and systematically missing data: A simulation of ad hoc, maximum likelihood, and multiple imputation techniques. Organizational Research Methods, 6, 328–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. O'Leary, S. G., Slep, A. M. S., & Reid, M. J. (1999). A longitudinal study of mothers' overreactive discpline and toddlers' externalizing behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 27, 331–341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Oliver, B. R., Trzaskowski, M., & Plomin, R. (2014). Genetics of parenting: The power of the dark side. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1233–1240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Pardini, D. A., Fite, P. J., & Burke, J. D. (2008). Bidirectional associations between parenting practices and conduct problems in boys from childhood to adolescence: The moderating effect of age and African-American ethnicity. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 647–662.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Patterson, G. R. (1982). A social learning approach: Vol. 3 coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia.Google Scholar
  36. Plamondon, A., Browne, D. T., Madigan, S., & Jenkins, J. M. (2018). Disentangling child-specific and family-wide processes underlying negative mother-child transactions. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 46, 437–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rhee, S. H., & Waldman, I. D. (2002). Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 490–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sameroff, A. J. (2009). The transactional model of development: How children and contexts shape each other. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Scaramella, L. V., & Leve, L. D. (2004). Clarifying parent-child reciprocities during early childhood: The early childhood coercion model. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 7, 89–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Scarr, S., & McCartney, K. (1983). How people make their own environments: A theory of genotype- environment effects. Child Development, 54, 424–435.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Schafer, J. L., & Graham, J. W. (2002). Missing data: Our view of the state of the art. Psychological Methods, 7, 147–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Shaw, D. S., & Bell, R. Q. (1993). Developmental theories of parental contributors to antisocial behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 21, 493–518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Shaw, D. S., Winslow, E. B., Owens, E. B., Vondra, J. I., Cohn, J. F., & Bell, R. Q. (1998). The development of early externalizing problems among children from low-income families: A transformational perspective. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 26, 95–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Trentacosta, C. J., & Shaw, D. S. (2008). Maternal predictors of rejecting parenting and early adolescent antisocial behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 247–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Viding, E., & McCrory, E. J. (2012). Genetic and neurocognitive contributions to the development of psychopathy. Development and Psychopathology, 24, 969–983.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Waller, R., & Hyde, L. W. (2017). Callous–unemotional behaviors in early childhood: Measurement, meaning, and the influence of parenting. Child Development Perspectives, 11, 120–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Waller, R., & Hyde, L. W. (2018). Callous-unemotional behaviors in early childhood: The development of empathy and prosociality gone awry. Current Opinion in Psychology, 20, 11–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Waller, R., Gardner, F., Hyde, L. W., Shaw, D. S., Dishion, T. J., & Wilson, M. N. (2012). Do harsh and positive parenting predict parent reports of deceitful-callous behavior in early childhood? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53, 946–953.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Waller, R., Hyde, L. W., Grabell, A. S., Alves, M. L., & Olson, S. L. (2015). Differential associations of early callous-unemotional, oppositional, and ADHD behaviors: Multiple domains within early-starting conduct problems? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 56, 657–666.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Waller, R., Trentacosta, C. J., Shaw, D. S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Ganiban, J. M., Reiss, D., . . . Hyde, L. H. (2016). Heritable temperament pathways to early callous-unemotional behavior. British Journal of Psychiatry, 209, 475–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Waller, R., Shaw, D. S., & Hyde, L. W. (2017a). Observed fearlessness and positive parenting interact to predict childhood callous-unemotional behaviors among low-income boys. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 58, 282–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Waller, R., Shaw, D. S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Ganiban, J. M., Natsuaki, M. N., Reiss, D., . . . Hyde, L. W. (2017b). Toward an understanding of the role of the environment in the development of early callous behavior. Journal of Personality, 85, 90–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Willoughby, M. T., Waschbusch, D. A., Moore, G. A., & Propper, C. B. (2011). Using the ASEBA to screen for callous unemotional traits in early childhood: Factor structure, temporal stability, and utility. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33, 19–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Willoughby, M. T., Mills-Koonce, R., Propper, C. B., & Waschbusch, D. A. (2013). Observed parenting behaviors interact with a polymorphism of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene to predict the emergence of oppositional defiant and callous-unemotional behaviors at age 3 years. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 903–917.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Willoughby, M. T., Mills-Koonce, W. R., Gottfredson, N. C., & Wagner, N. J. (2014). Measuring callous unemotional behaviors in early childhood: Factor structure and the prediction of stable aggression in middle childhood. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 36, 30–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., Wagner, E., & Chapman, M. (1992). Development of concern for others. Developmental Psychology, 28, 126–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher J. Trentacosta
    • 1
    Email author
  • Rebecca Waller
    • 2
    • 3
  • Jenae M. Neiderhiser
    • 4
  • Daniel S. Shaw
    • 5
  • Misaki N. Natsuaki
    • 6
  • Jody M. Ganiban
    • 7
  • David Reiss
    • 8
  • Leslie D. Leve
    • 9
  • Luke W. Hyde
    • 2
  1. 1.Wayne State UniversityDetroitUSA
  2. 2.University of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  4. 4.The Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  5. 5.University of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  6. 6.University of California RiversideRiversideUSA
  7. 7.George Washington UniversityWashingtonUSA
  8. 8.Yale UniversityNew HavenUSA
  9. 9.University of OregonEugeneUSA

Personalised recommendations