New research from a collaborative effort of several U.S. universities suggests that parents who are less warm and employ ‘harsh parenting’ may have children who are less empathetic and more aggressive.
Researchers from The University of Pennsylvania, The University of Michigan and Michigan State looked together at 227 pairs of identical twins and found that parenting differences in each twin may predict the likelihood of the children being antisocial as adults.
The study was led by Dr. Rebecca Waller with The University of Pennsylvania, and looked at whether children lacked empathy and a ‘moral compass,’ traits that in a set are known as callous-unemotional (CU) traits. The teams found that in the twin pairs, the twin who had more strict or harshparenting and/or less emotional warmth from his/her parent had a greater likelihood of showing less empathy and even aggression.
Waller said that previous work done on callous-unemotional traits has looked at the genetics of the brain and biological bases, and maintains that parenting doesn’t matter much in that genes are going to behave as they’ve been genetically designed to do, regardless. But Waller’s team believed that environmental changes, including in parenting style, may help a child who was headed down an antisocial path less likely to do so.
The various teams used observation to look at the different aspects of parenting, and looked at the role of ‘parental warmth’ and ‘harsh parenting’ in the development of CU traits. Interestingly, a follow-up study of similar scope that looked at children who were adopted and therefore not biologically related to their parents also had similar findings. Waller says in that study, gene connection could play no part in the role of the development of the CU traits, though they were quick to note that genetic characteristics may have been what brought specific reactions from adoptive parents about. For instance, children who were not ‘naturally’ warm and affectionate may find their parents less so with them as well because it’s hard to maintain those behaviors when they aren’t often reciprocated.
Parents of the 454 studied children answered 50 questions about their home environments and the research teams rated harshness/warmth statements, and also asked mothers to report about 35 traits that were associated as aggressive or CU traits. They found that because identical twins have the same DNA and genes, the finding that parenting contributes to the possible development of callous-unemotional traits is more valid.
Waller believes that taking these findings and putting them into family intervention applications can help children who may be more likely to develop antisocial traits, or to help when they’ve already started to develop.
The team also is quick to note that parents are not to ‘blame’ for a child’s CU or antisocial behaviors, but the recognition that some children are difficult to parent may lead to interventions that will make relationships and behaviors better for all family members.
Though there are limitations to the study, the scientists believe that this gives a bigger idea of how antisocial behaviors may come about, and stresses the importance of helping parents feel confident and competent in their parenting so they can give extra support to children who may need it.
All the more reason to stress the benefits of attachment parenting and gentle parenting techniques as we can.