What makes a child anti-social?

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The media is full of the rise of anti-social behaviour (e.g. violence, aggression, bullying, fighting, lying, stealing, vandalism, fire-setting, drug and alcohol abuse, cruelty to animals) in children and youth offending, but what is the cause of childhood antisocial behaviour and are all anti-social children the same? What is the role of parenting?

Are all anti-social children the same?

There is evidence that not all children with anti-social behaviour are the same. Some children may show a phase of anti-social behaviour in adolescence but this passes and they settle down in adulthood. Far more concerning are children with a life-long tendency to anti-social behaviour. These children tend to be anti-social from a younger age and behaviour is more extreme (e.g. cruelty to animals at age 5 years), but even amongst these children there is evidence of different subgroups. Much research is focused on differentiating groups of anti-social children to see if we can better understand them.

One differentiating factor found is lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. Psychologically speaking, this requires two different types of processes: a “thinking” part: the ability to see things from another person’s point of view; and secondly a “feeling” part: the ability to recognise emotion in others and to feel it in oneself. People without empathy are described as being callous and unemotional. To be anti-social, violent or aggressive is easy if you do not empathise with the victim, so it is no surprise that >90% of children with callous-unemotional traits are involved in some form of anti-social behaviour.

How does empathy affect anti-social behaviour?

Researchers have been interested in children that lack empathy for a while now because of its links to extreme anti-social behaviour, and the definition of “psychopathy/ sociopathy” (this is a criminal justice not mental health term) includes having this lack of empathy. The childhood precursor to this psychopathy label is “callous-unemotional traits” (as it is pretty harsh and pessimistic to label kids as psychopaths), and even this terminology has recently been rebranded as “limited prosocial intent” so that it sounds less pejorative; but this is just semantics, we are essentially talking about the same thing: people that have shallow feelings with lack of empathy and guilt.

My colleague, Essi Viding does research into these traits and wrote a great summary paper (2012), the findings of which I wanted to share as I thought it was fascinating. It turns out that if you study ASBO kids (kids with anti-social behaviour), you will find that 50% of them have these callous-unemotional traits. These children don’t really care about others’ feelings and tend to show no remorse for wrong-doing. It is this group of kids that have the most serious and long lasting problems.

What is the difference then psychologically and biologically between children that commit antisocial behaviour with and without empathy?

In experiments where anti-social kids are hooked up to show responses (for instance heart, skin and eye-tracking monitors or brain scans) to photos/ voice recordings of other people in pain or grief, the children with callous-unemotional traits showed no or reduced physical or brain response. Most people will wince in shared pain if shown pictures or exposed to sounds of others in pain, but these children don’t. When these children were asked to play a game where not following the rules led to punishment, they continued to flaunt the rules and did not seem to learn from punishment. There is biological support for these findings with differences in brain scans in areas of the brain linked to emotion processing and reinforcement learning pathways in callous anti-social children.

In contrast, the anti-social children with empathy showed the same aversive responses as children not involved in anti-social behaviour to pictures and sounds of pain and grief, and learnt quickly from punishment. However when they are shown threatening faces, they over-respond with emotion and when they are shown neutral and ambiguous facial expressions, they identified them as being threatening. Brain scans back up these differences. The anti-social children with empathy tended to have abnormal amygdala development. This is the area of the brain involved in fear and anxiety processing. These anti-social children have normal empathy but have a heightened awareness of threat, which explains why they perceive neutral faces as threatening. In a world where everyone is viewed as threatening, hostile or an enemy, it can make sense to be combative, aggressive and violent. This is that bully in the playground that says “Are you looking at me?” – when you weren’t even looking at them.

Genetic studies have also supported this divide, finding that there is strong inheritance of callous nature, whereas anti-social behaviour without callousness was not inherited but generated by environmental factors such as harsh or inadequate parenting, or an interplay between these environmental factors and genes associated with anxiety or heightened emotion.

Finally, it has also been found that the children in the different groups respond differently to parenting strategies. Punishment and traditional sanction-based strategies (time-out, withdrawal of privileges) works well for empathic anti-social children, but has no effect on callous children. Callous children only respond to positive reinforcement (praise) and rewards.

What causes anti-social behaviour?

This type of evidence has led to different theoretical models for two groups of children involved in anti-social behaviour.

Group 1: Genetic predisposition. Antisocial and callous kids: these children are thought to lack empathy as they do not find other people’s distress aversive and because they fail to be able to learn from punishment. It is easy to be aggressive and cruel if you are unable to feel guilt and if the suffering of others doesn’t bother you. It is easy to continue to behave in this way life-long if you are unable to learn from punishment. These difficulties are often inherited in brain structure.

Group 2: Environmental Causation: Anti-social but not callous kids: these children have abnormal socialisation because they have a heightened sense of threat, and view the world as hostile towards them. They exhibit aggression and cruelty as a result of living in unstable and threatening environments which has shaped their brains and psychology to respond in this way as a means of coping and survival. Their anti-social behaviour is often in the context of a peer group within which there is support and empathy.

What has this got to do with parenting?

Whether we like it or not, parents are the first line defence against anti-social behaviour in society. By better understanding the causes of anti-social behaviour and by understanding our children, we can best adapt our parenting to prevent our children becoming anti-social. Although children in group 1 with genetic predisposition are the more difficult to help, they can be supported by fostering self-esteem. They will respond better to motivation to act in a pro-social way, rather than harsh punishment which will not deter them. Anti-social behaviour in children with empathy can be prevented by strong loving families that place appropriate boundaries and sanctions. For these children, wider society has a great role to play in generating or preventing anti-social behaviour, as tolerant, peaceful and accepting societies can offer protection whilst violent, unstable and alienating societies can fuel them.

Reference:
Anti-social behaviour in children with and without callous-unemotional traits. Viding et al. (2012) Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 195-200.

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