Parent-child processes in childhood conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits: an observational analysis

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Copyright: Pasalich, Dave
The overall purpose of this thesis was to examine parent-child processes in the families of antisocial children with high compared to low levels of callous-unemotional (CU) traits. Prior research suggests that the conduct problems of children with high levels of CU traits develop somewhat independently of the coercive processes—such as harsh and inconsistent parenting—emphasised in existing theoretical and clinical models of antisocial behaviour. A major goal of this research was to test the alternative conceptualisation that processes involved in defining the affective quality of the parent-child relationship; i.e., relational processes, hold particular value for the socialisation of conduct-problem children elevated on CU traits. To this end, three observational studies were specifically designed to investigate distinct domains of parent-child processes in relation to CU traits and conduct problems. Study 1 examined the moderating role of CU traits on relationships between parental coercion and warmth and conduct problems. Participants were 95 families with conduct-problem boys (aged 4 to 12 years). Coercive parenting was coded from observations of family interaction and parental warmth was coded from Five-Minute Speech Samples. CU traits and conduct problems were rated by multiple informants. In both mothers and fathers, CU traits moderated links between observed parenting and conduct problems. Specifically, coercive parenting was more strongly positively associated with conduct problems in boys with lower levels of CU traits, whereas parental warmth was more strongly negatively associated with conduct problems in boys with higher levels of CU traits. Study 2 investigated the relationship between CU traits and emotion-focused family dynamics in a sample of 59 conduct-problem boys (aged 3 to 9 years) and their parents. Expression of emotion, focus on emotion, and parents’ responding to child affect were coded from direct observation of family interactions involving the discussion of emotional experiences. Unexpectedly, boys higher on CU traits tended to be more expressive of negative emotions in conversation with their caregivers – specifically for sadness and fear. As predicted, mothers of higher CU boys were more dismissing of child emotion. This study also examined whether CU traits moderated the relationship between parents’ focus on emotions and conduct problem severity. Higher levels of maternal focus on negative emotions were found to be associated with lower conduct problems in high CU boys; but related to higher conduct problems in low CU boys. The emotion communication dynamics of fathers were unrelated to either child CU traits or conduct problems. Study 3 examined associations between representations of parent-child attachment relationships and levels of CU traits in antisocial children. Attachment classifications in 55 conduct-problem boys (aged 3 to 9 years) were assessed using the Manchester Child Attachment Story Task. Various child and family variables were examined as potential confounds. Results indicated that boys with higher levels of CU traits had a significantly increased likelihood of insecure attachment; specifically, they were more likely to have disorganised attachment representations; however, CU traits were not associated with avoidant representations. Taken together, the findings demonstrate that antisocial children high on CU traits experience disrupted emotional relationships with their caregivers; and that the conduct problems in children with these traits are strongly linked to relational processes, marked by warm and emotionally expressive parenting. In contrast, coercive parenting showed a stronger relationship with conduct problems in children without elevated CU traits. As such, distinct parent-child processes may characterise the developmental trajectories of antisocial behaviour in children with high compared to low CU traits. The implications of these findings for the development of tailored interventions for antisocial subtypes are discussed.
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Pasalich, Dave
Dadds, Mark
Hawes, David
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PhD Doctorate
UNSW Faculty
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