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Research reveals why certain children are difficult to parent

By measuring the level of eye-contact between young children and their mothers, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London, have been able to distinguish between children with behavioural problems who display normal levels of emotion and empathy from those who do not. The findings may help explain why certain children are difficult to parent and are less responsive to evidence-based parent training programs.
Professor Mark Dadds, lead author of the study at the IoP says: ‘High levels of aggressive and disruptive behaviour in childhood are important warning signs of mental health and social problems. Children showing these problems are quite a mixed group and whilst some children will grow out of these problems, many will not. Our research aims to help identify the different characteristics displayed by these children, in order to predict ongoing problems. We also hope that identifying those at risk could help us provide the attention they need if they are to avoid a lifetime of problems.’
The study looked at 24 children aged 4-8 years, half of whom were diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and the other half serving as a healthy comparison group. Children with ODD are constantly defiant, hostile and disobedient, particularly towards authority figures such as parents or teachers.
The research, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, distinguishes between children with behavioural problems as having ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ emotional levels. The former are impulsive and reactively aggressive but have normal levels of emotion and empathy. The latter however, tend to have trouble reading emotions in other people and thus lack normal levels of empathy.
The research reveals an important reason why these children are relatively ‘blind’ to other people’s feelings: they rarely look into the eyes of other people, especially attachment figures, in this case their biological mothers.
In the study, the mothers were instructed to display emotion to their children whilst researchers monitored the level of reciprocated eye contact as well as verbal and physical affection.
Professor Dadds explains: ‘We worked with the mothers in the study, and asked them to express love to their child. We then monitored the level of interaction between the two, namely whether the children initiated or rejected eye contact with their mothers. We found that children with low empathy levels showed specific impairments in eye contact with mothers. Importantly, we also found that these results were independent of the quality of emotion or eye gaze coming from the mothers.’
Previous research has shown that behaviour problems in the ‘cold’ subgroup of children are relatively insensitive to the quality of parenting they receive, often making these children very difficult to parent successfully. Furthermore, evidence-based parent training programs are the treatment-of-choice for children with behaviour problems; however these programs appear to be less effective with the subgroup who lack empathy.
Professor Dadds concludes: ‘Eye gaze to other people is a fundamental pre-requisite for the formation of human attachments, empathy and morality. Any impairment in children’s drive to pay attention to other people’s emotions, through their eyes for example, could lead to cascading problems in the child’s social development. We are now evaluating innovative ways to help these children over this impairment and develop successful empathic relationships with attachment figures.’
The research was funded by the Department of Children, Schools and Families through the National Academy for Parenting research, the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, and by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.
For full paper: Dadds, MR. et al. ‘Love, eye contact and the developmental origins of empathy v. psychopathy’, The British Journal of Psychiatry doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085720

For more information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, email: tel: 0207 848 5377

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