Early callous-unemotional (CU) behaviors identify children at risk for severe and persistent aggression and antisocial behavior. Recent work suggests that fearlessness and low social affiliation are implicated in the etiology of CU behaviors, although more research is needed to clarify these etiological pathways, as well as the role of parenting.
Using a sample of preschoolers ( N = 620), we examined pathways between observed fear in response to social and non-social stimuli and observed social affiliation during social interactions at age 3 and increases child CU behaviors and oppositional-defiant behaviors from ages 3 to 5. To elucidate the role of parenting in exacerbating or buffering the relationships between low fear and social affiliation and CU behaviors, we tested whether parental harshness or low warmth moderated these pathways.
Fearlessness and low social affiliation uniquely predicted increases in CU behaviors, but not oppositional-defiant behaviors, from ages 3 to 5. Moreover, there was evidence for differential moderation of the fear pathway by harsh parenting, such that harsh parenting predicted increases in CU behaviors in fearless children but increases in oppositional-defiant behaviors in fearful children.
Fearlessness and low social affiliation contribute to the development of CU behaviors. Harsh parenting can exacerbate the risky fearlessness pathway. Preventative interventions aimed at reducing risk for CU behaviors and persistent aggression and antisocial behavior should target socioaffiliative processes and provide parents with strategies and training to manage and scaffold rule-compliant behavior when children show low fearful arousal.