Identifying psychopathy in children is often the first step in predicting or preventing the development of further psychological and behavioral problems. Research has linked psychopathy to aggression, impulsivity and externalization in children. “Such findings suggest that interventions that ameliorate child psychopathic features, in addition to child conduct problems, would offer a significant public health benefit,” said Renee McDonald of Southern Methodist University in Texas, and lead author of a recent study examining the effects of positive parenting on child psychopathy. “Consistent with this, some reviewers have concluded—primarily from results of research with adults and adolescents—that interventions can indeed exert positive effects on psychopathic features.”
Previous studies have shown that the symptoms of psychopathy increase with age. “This implies that psychopathic features gradually emerge and that their trajectory over time can be influenced by environmental factors,” said McDonald. “If so, intervening on the child’s environment early in the course of the development of psychopathy may alter its developmental trajectory.” McDonald noted that interventions that focus on positive parenting have proven effective for reducing problem behavior in children, and therefore theorized that similar interventions could help decrease symptoms of psychopathy.
McDonald and her colleagues evaluated 66 mother-child families from domestic abuse shelters after they underwent either the Project Support intervention or treatment as usual. The mothers in the Project Support program were taught 12 specific parenting skills and received two months of extended emotional support. After evaluating the families every four months for nearly two years, McDonald saw a significant difference in the groups. “We found that the features of psychopathy among children in the Project Support condition diminished steadily during the intervention period, and the declines were maintained stably through the follow-up period. In contrast, scores among children in the comparison condition did not change substantially during the intervention period, and they worsened over the course of the follow-up period.” She added, “The extent to which a parenting intervention helps parents tailor their discipline to an individual child’s characteristics may be crucial in reducing child psychopathic features. In addition, parenting interventions that teach parents to respond empathically (rather than harshly) to children’s upsets and misbehaviors may be especially important when features of psychopathy are present.”
McDonald, Renee, Mary Catherine Dodson, David Rosenfield, and Ernest N. Jouriles. “Effects of a Parenting Intervention on Features of Psychopathy in Children.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 39.8 (2011): 1013-023. Print.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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