Washington DC: According to a recent study, the nature of parenting tends to affect the social behaviours of a child.
Less parental warmth and a harsher environment at home tend to determine how aggressive children become and whether they lack empathy and a moral compass.
In a study of 227 identical twin pairs lead by Penn psychologist Rebecca Waller, the research team analyzed small differences in the parenting that each twin experienced to determine whether these differences predicted the likelihood of antisocial behaviours emerging. They learned that the twin who experienced stricter or harsher treatment and less emotional warmth from parents had a greater chance of showing aggression and callous-unemotional (CU) traits.
"Some of the early work on callous-unemotional traits focused on their biological bases, like genetics and the brain, making the argument that these traits develop regardless of what is happening in a child's environment, that parenting doesn't matter," said Waller, an assistant professor in Penn's Department of Psychology.
"We felt there must be something we could change in the environment that might prevent a susceptible child from going down the pathway to more severe antisocial behavior," he added.
The work is the latest in a series of studies from Waller and colleagues using observation to assess a variety of aspects of parenting. The initial research, which considered a biological parent and child, confirmed that parental warmth plays a significant role in whether CU traits materialize.
A subsequent adoption study, of parents and children who were not biologically related, turned up consistent results. "We couldn't blame that on genetics because these children don't share genes with their parents," Waller said. "But it still didn't rule out the possibility that something about the child's genetic characteristics was evoking certain reactions from the adoptive parent."
In other words, a parent who is warm and positive may have a hard time maintaining those behaviors if the child never reciprocates.
As part of the study, parents of the identical twins completed a 50-item questionnaire about the home environment. They also established their harshness and warmth levels by rating 24 statements such as "I often lose my temper with my child" and "My child knows I love him/her." The researchers assessed child behavior by asking the mother to report on 35 traits related to aggression and CU traits.
"The study convincingly shows that parenting, and not just genes, contributes to the development of risky callous-unemotional traits," said Hyde, an associate professor in Michigan's Department of Psychology. "Because identical twins have the same DNA, we can be surer that the differences in parenting the twins received affect the development of these traits."
According to the researchers, the study and its results broaden the understanding of how different forms of antisocial behavior, like aggression and callous-unemotional traits, emerge. "This provides strong evidence that parenting is also important in the development of callous-unemotional traits," Hyde said. "The good news is we know that treatments can help parents who may need extra support with children struggling with these dangerous behaviors."
The full findings appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.