Parents who punish antisocial kids penalize themselves

August 21, 2006

An evaluation of a child-management training program for parents reveals that four to eight year-old boys who have a "callous-unemotional" temperament are less responsive to discipline, such as time-out, compared to children without these traits.

Children with a CU-temperament tend to show a lack of empathy and guilt about the impact of their actions on others, according to the study's co-author, UNSW psychologist Dr David Hawes.

"Behavioural problems are often more extreme among children who have CU traits, which can include deliberate or predatory aggression, deliberate rule-breaking, stealing, lying and disobedience," says Dr Hawes.

"They exhibit a low level of emotionality and are unresponsive to emotions in others, especially when it comes to aggression. The finding means that these children may require different approaches to discipline than those that work for most children," Dr Hawes says.

"Parents who punish kids who show 'callous-unemotional' temperament could be just punishing themselves. One of the worst mistakes parents make when a child doesn't respond to punishment is to increase the severity of punishment.

"These children appear to respond poorly to punishment, yet they respond well to incentives and rewards for good behaviour, such as praise and quality-time with parents," says Hawes, who is recruiting parents and children into a three-year clinical trial to treat severe behaviour problems in children aged between three and a half and nine years of age.

"Our research reveals for the first time that these child-characteristics appear to limit the extent to which behaviour can be changed, even when parents develop the appropriate child management skills. Child-management training programs are generally effective in the preschool years, however we know relatively little about why some children don't respond to these programs," Dr Hawes says.

"Most explanations have focused on stressors in the family that affect parenting, however research is only starting to look at characteristics of the child may influence the effectiveness of current treatments.

"The next step is to understand exactly how these traits limit the improvements that we usually achieve in treatment by looking at factors such as how these traits may cause parents to treat to their children differently. By understanding more about these child traits, we can help parents to deal with this dilemma more effectively."
The University of New South Wales is recruiting families into a trial that will examine the effectiveness of a parent-training intervention in treating conduct problems in children, and the way these children respond to the various components of this treatment and the potential to improve treatment gains in children. For more information: contact Dr David Hawes at UNSW on +612 9385 3591.

University of New South Wales

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