The present study examined whether psychopathic traits in children moderate the typically robust relationships between positive and negative parenting with child reactive and proactive aggression. Independently, both childhood psychopathy and negative parental affect were positively correlated with aggression, while positive parental affect inversely correlated with aggression. However, as expected we found that level of child psychopathic traits significantly moderated the relationships between parental affect and aggression.
For reactive aggression, the association between parental negative affect and aggression was stronger for children with average or below-average levels of psychopathy. These results are consistent with prior studies showing that children high on psychopathy are less responsive to harsh and inconsistent discipline strategies.13,15,16
Because most prior studies have used clinically-based samples, our replication of these results in a large community-based sample indicates that the same mechanisms may underlie individual differences in aggression and psychopathic traits across a continuum of clinically-disordered and non-disordered behaviors. In addition, the present study was the first to specifically examine whether child psychopathic traits significantly moderated the protective effects of positive parenting
on aggression. As hypothesized, levels of reactive aggression among children low on psychopathic traits decreased with increasing positive parental affect, consistent with a large body of literature on family processes.19,20,23
In the presence of elevated psychopathic traits, however, positive parenting did not confer the same protective effects; children high on these traits had more similar levels of reactive aggression, regardless of how much positive parenting they reported.
Etiological theories of psychopathy posit that a lack of sensitivity to punishment cues and aversive stimuli facilitate the development of antisocial behavior in youth with psychopathic traits. Our finding that psychopathic traits also interacted with positive
parental affect implies that youth with psychopathic traits may be less affected by emotional cues in general, and not simply negative or punishment situations. This is consistent with the widely-held belief that abnormal semantic and affective processing and functioning is at the center of the psychopathy construct.24
A growing body of research demonstrates that psychopathic individuals have difficulty processing emotional stimuli. For example, psychopathic individuals perform more poorly than non-psychopathic individuals on tasks determining whether a string of letters is a word or a non-word, but only when the words are affectively valenced,52,53
and event-related potential (ERP) activity in response to either positively or
negatively affect-laden words is lower in psychopaths than normal participants. Studies employing facial expression stimuli demonstrate that psychopaths have difficulty identifying both
positive and negative emotions, and are less physiologically responsive to affect-laden cues.54,55
Neuroscience studies show deficits in neural circuitry surrounding emotion recognition and regulation in psychopaths. Results from startle-blink studies indicate that psychopathic individuals show deviant response patterns to both pleasant and unpleasant affective stimuli.56–58
In comparison to non-psychopathic individuals, psychopaths are more likely to exhibit abnormal brain activation patterns while viewing facial expressions or affectively valenced pictures.54,59,60
While these studies have been done primarily with adult populations, the results of the present study may suggest that deficits in neural processing of both positive and negative emotions associated with psychopathy begin in childhood. If children with psychopathic traits have difficulty discerning emotions and are not neurologically primed to interpret and utilize affective cues in the same way non-psychopathic individuals are, it is logical that reactive aggression, which is triggered by inappropriate affective response to social stimuli, is largely unaffected by variations in either parental warmth/affection or parental coldness/criticism.
In contrast to results for reactive aggression, the present study found that parental negative affect had a stronger association with proactive aggression for children high
on psychopathy. Moreover, there was no interaction between psychopathy and parental positive affect for proactive aggression. While we note that at least one prior study has reported increased sensitivity to harsh/inconsistent parenting among children high on psychopathy,17
our results regarding the interaction between psychopathy and negative affect for proactive aggression are in contrast to the majority of prior studies,13,15,16
and are also in the opposite direction of our results for reactive aggression. As such, we cannot rule out the possibility of a stochastic effect, especially given the low prevalence of proactive aggression in this community-based sample of preadolescents. However, the dissimilar pattern of results may also be related to etiological differences these two forms of aggression. Theoretical work distinguishing proactive and reactive aggression29
suggests that reactive aggression originates from the frustration-aggression model,61
while proactive aggression arises primarily through mechanisms based on social learning theory.62
It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that caregivers who demonstrate higher levels of negative affect are more likely to model aggressive behavior. As proactive aggression may be a learned behavior, it is possible that children high on psychopathic traits have a greater likelihood to model aggressive behavior than children low on psychopathic traits, resulting in higher levels of proactive aggression. Nevertheless, the different patterns of interactions between psychopathy and parenting for different forms of aggressive behavior should be interpreted with caution, and our results, especially for proactive aggression, need to be replicated in other samples.
There are several limitations to this study. First, as expected,63,64
regression coefficients for interactions between parental affect and psychopathy were small. However, the impact of these interactions was relatively large. For example, when examining differences in proactive aggression as a function of both negative parental affect and child psychopathy (), there is little difference (~0.20 sd) in aggression across psychopathy groups when levels of negative affect are low. When levels of negative affect are high, however, there is a difference in aggression of >0.90 sd units for children at low versus high levels of psychopathy. Second, participants fell within a narrow age-range, allowing us to draw specific conclusions about associations of parenting, child psychopathy, and aggression in pre-adolescent children, but limiting generalizability to other ages. Third, data were cross-sectional and do not speak to developmental processes over time. Longitudinal data are needed to definitively establish causality between parental affect, psychopathy, and aggression. Fourth, we have shown in prior publications using this sample that aggression and psychopathy are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.65,66
Whether genetic and environmental factors differentially influence associations
between parenting and aggression for children high and low on psychopathic traits has yet to be explored. Lastly, although this study is the first to investigate interactions between child psychopathic traits and both positive and negative parental affect, only one dimension of positive parenting was examined. Future work should explore interactions with other dimensions of positive parenting (e.g., parental involvement). We intentionally focused on negative affect, rather than a composite measure of parental affect and behavior (e.g., harsh/inconsistent parenting). Our negative affect measure consisted of 5 items, and scale reliability was low. While this could have introduced bias into our results, the interaction between negative affect and CPS was in the expected direction for reactive aggression, and correlations between negative affect and other predictor variables were consistent with prior research. Nevertheless, future studies with different measures could determine whether interactions between child psychopathy and negative parenting are more strongly driven by affectional or behavioral aspects of parenting
This is the first study in juvenile psychopathy to examine associations among parental affect, child psychopathic traits, and aggression in a large, community-based sample, using measures of both positive and negative parental affect. Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model emphasizes the role of proximal processes, i.e., the ways in which children interact with their environment, in development, but also predicts that the magnitude of associations between proximal processes and child outcomes may vary for children with different individual characteristics.67
Thus, different parenting styles may result in similar outcomes for different children, and different children may respond differently to the same parenting style. Our findings provide support for this hypothesis, showing that parents' expressions of both positive and negative affect are less strongly associated with reactive aggression for children high on psychopathic traits, although these patterns were not found for proactive aggression. Our results suggest that clinicians working with certain types of behavioral problems in children with psychopathic traits need to consider not only altering parent-child dynamics, but may also need to help children develop more appropriate recognition and response to social and emotional stimuli.