In the last 30 years, researchers have identified a particular set of characteristics in 2- to 3-year-olds that are associated with extreme antisocial behavior later in life. The association is not with disruptive behavior—badly behaved toddlers don’t necessarily end up exhibiting antisocial behavior. Rather, the early predictors seem to be low empathy, low guilt and emotional sensitivity and uncaring behavior. This group of characteristics has been called “callous unemotional behaviour,” or CU behavior.

Researchers studying this problem in young children have found three factors that can interact to exacerbate CU behavior or buffer it.

  • Harsh and low-affection parenting. One thing that is associated with CU behavior in a child is lack of parent-child eye contact.
  • Adopted children of antisocial mothers are more likely to show CU behavior even if they have had no contact with their mother.
  • The child’s own characteristics. “Fearlessness” on the part of the child is linked to CU behavior.

Some research, though not yet very much, has looked at how positive parenting programs can be adapted to target early CU behavior, for example, by encouraging parent-child eye contact or by training the child to recognize emotions.

Header photo: Mindaugas Danys. Creative Commons.


Waller R & Hyde LW (2017), Callous-unemotional behaviors in early childhood: measurement, meaning, and the influence of parenting, Child Development Perspectives