March 2, 2011

Kids without remorse

Sometimes the intuitive answer is the right one. Study: 'Callous-unemotional' children often grow up to lie, fight, and bully, study finds:

Remorseless children often develop severe behavioral problems, study finds

Children who display a lack of emotions such as guilt and remorse often go on to develop severe behavioral problems such as fighting, lying and stealing, a first-of-its-kind, long-term study has found.

"We're not suggesting these children are psychopaths," said Nathalie Fontaine, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University in Bloomington. "But these [emotional] traits can identify children at risk for persistent and severe antisocial behavior."

The study, which appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, drew on reports from the parents and teachers of roughly 9,500 twins born in England in the mid-1990s, tracking them at ages 7, 9 and 12.

The most worrisome group of children identified in the study - about 5 percent - rated high on a scale of what psychologists call "callous-unemotional traits" at age 7, then continued to exhibit a disturbing lack of normal emotions through age 12.

These children were also at highest risk for destructive, antisocial behavior, including bullying and having trouble making friends. About 80 percent of these high-risk kids were boys.

However, another group of 7-year-olds - 13 percent of those in the study - who initially rated high on the scale of emotional problems improved significantly. By age 12, they displayed a wider range of normal emotions, including remorse.

Fontaine said child psychologists are now eager to understand what factors - which may include improved parenting - led to the emotional health gains seen in this group.

Other research has shown that children who display a lack of guilt and remorse do not improve their behavior when punished. However, there is intriguing evidence that such children respond well - even better than children with more normal emotions - to positive reinforcement. 

"Instead of saying, 'You behaved badly today, it's time for a timeout,' it's probably better to say, 'Here's what you did well today,' " Fontaine said.
Let's translate that last part from behaviorist-speak: Instead of rejecting, shaming, or shunning the child, show him love and care the old fashioned way -- hugging, listening, paying attention. "Reinforcement" is for pigeons.

The kind of time-out in which the child is sentenced to solitary confinement doesn't work, anyway. What I wrote a while back on this:
The “time-out,” a surprisingly ineffective tactic given its near-universal use, will get longer or more frequent when the child isn't compliant. And if [a boy's] parents believe he's spending his alone time deeply regretting that whack he gave his brother, and making a firm purpose of amendment for the future . . . well, it's possible, I suppose. But the likelier scenario is that he's stewing in his resentment toward those who have, in his eyes, wronged him. Under different circumstances he might have arrived at some contrition on his own. As it is, he may now see himself as a victim, and dwell on ways to get even. Ironically, his time in solitary is teaching him a lesson which is the polar opposite of the one his parents had in mind: the importance of personal responsibility and the golden rule.
80% of the 'callous-unemotional' kids in the study were boys. Perhaps boys, with their masculine tendency to be more physical and rambunctious, trigger harsh  parenting more often than little girls do. 

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1 comment:

  1. I have all kinds of issues with this study. First, I get tired with the "negative re-enforcement doesn't work" stuff. We've seen what happens to entire generations when we spoil the child (the sixties generation and later). Further, the study identifies what I've been saying for a long time. Some children are born without all the normal switches flipped on. They are sociopaths. One of their capabilities is to learn how they are supposed to act (not really feel but act) so they appear normal. I'm here to tell you, after living through Ted Bundy's era, good sociopaths are better suited for life in a civilized society than normal people exactly because emotions don't trip them up- until the rage occurs.

    Those twelve year olds were either just stubborn children and willful that learned not to be, or they were sociopaths who learned what people expected of them. I don't give these studies much credit because the bias of the authors leak through.

    Here is a slate article with the same problem

    Note this is a liberal magazine but I was surprised on the clearness of the comments and the conservative nature.

    The point is this. Balance is the key. Punishment must always be meted out with an explanation and the separation between the crime and the perpetrator. The kid isn't bad, his acts are bad. Or as it was put by a better man than I.

    Hate the sin, love the sinner.

    Huggy feely stuff is fine if the kids responds to it. Be flexible. My daughter would cringe if you looked at her wrong and she was a pleaser. She is a focused, brilliant loving strong young lady. My son was Two half men's Jake (really his name is Jake too!) and for a long time I thought he was brain damaged. Turned out he was very smart, and very observant and learned how to cut corners and play the edges early. I was tough on him when I caught him lying, stealing and such. It took two major events in his life to turn him around. He'll be fine now, but he'll cut that corner if you don't stand right there.

    He is who is is. And I had to be flexible to make the adjustments necessary. Had I raised him like his sister, I'd be down at Juvie, again, bailing his butt out.


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