Studying the Effects of Emotions on Child Aggression

Children and adolescents with behavior problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), oppositional defiance (ODD), and conduct disorder (CD) often have emotion or cognitive problems as well. In fact, in the DSM-V, the classification of CD has been modified to include a specification for callous-unemotional (CU), which has been shown to lead to longer inpatient hospital stays and poorer treatment outcomes for children with CD. Although there have been a large number of studies demonstrating the negative effect of CU on CD, few have addressed multiple questions relating to CU and CD.

Laura C. Thornton of the Department of Psychology at the University of New Orleans wanted to find out how CU affected anger regulation and aggressive behavior in children with CD. She also wanted to know if UC was a contributor to bullying behavior if it affected bystanders’ willingness to defend victims of bullying. Thornton conducted a study involving 284 participants between the ages of 9 and 14 years old. She gathered data from self-reports and other assessments and measured proactive and reactive aggression and looked for variances by gender. She found that CU did not affect levels of reactive aggression, but did affect proactive aggression. “There were, however, some differences in the interaction between CU traits and conduct problem severity across sex,” said Thornton.

In particular, the findings revealed that participants high in CU had much higher levels of proactive aggression than those with little or no CU. This was especially evident in the girls and was exhibited through bullying behaviors. Another interesting finding was that CU weakened the relationship between anger control and CD. Participants with low levels of CU had more difficulty controlling their anger than those with high levels of CU. Thornton also noticed that bystanders, the people that witness bullying, were also affected by CU. Those with CU, regardless of whether they had CD or not, were less likely to help a victim of bullying than those without CU. This result has important clinical implications and could motivate schools and organizations to include CU as an important focal point of bullying prevention and intervention programs.

Thornton, L. C., Frick, P. J., Crapanzano, A. M., and Terranova, A. M. (2012). The incremental utility of callous-unemotional traits and conduct problems in predicting aggression and bullying in a community sample of boys and girls. Psychological Assessment. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031153

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  • shane


    January 6th, 2013 at 5:24 AM

    I just don’t get having so little emotion and feeling for another human being that you would not feel the need to step in and help if you see that he or she is being the victim of a bully. I guess I can see it from a child’s standpoint of not wanting to have the bullying behavior turned around and directed towards him. But that is about the only explanation or reasoning that I could accept. I have a hard time with the fact that you would just be willing to stand back and do nothing even when someone is so obviously in trouble and in need of a friend. Even kids are typically very sympathetic to this, so to not have this is very confusing to me,

  • laura


    January 6th, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    oh emotions can have an effect on aggression among other aspects.they can dictate your willingness to be aggressive (including the levels) as well as your willingness to step into a situation to protect another.

    I have seen children even cheering on a bully in school.its hard to understand why they do that but in mostly has to do with emotions.maybe they idolize the bully or maybe they feel powerful themselves doing that but yes all kinds of behavior happen and it is mostly due to emotions and feelings.

  • vinnie


    January 7th, 2013 at 4:04 AM

    conduct disorder by itself can be a major issue.and to have CU with it would certainly make things difficult.and the fact that CU means longer stays at health facilities only underlines that it is clearly seen that CU can negatively impact the already existing symptoms of conduct disorder,they need specific targeted methods for CU and conduct disorder so as to enable the children with CD and CU to lead better lives while spending lesser time at the medical health facilities.

  • Dean M

    Dean M

    January 7th, 2013 at 4:05 AM

    I have a son with ADHD but that doesn’t mean that he is callous toward others or has little feeling about others and the way that they are treated.

    In fact he is almost the opposite, in that it hurts him so bad when he sees a peer in trouble who he feels like he can’t reach or help.

    I know that mental health diagnoses are all over the board and we are always looking for answers. And that’s great, because there is a whole lot of great work being done out there.

    But it is not an excuse for everything, nor should it be. Good or bad, these are people just like the rest of us whose voices deserve to be heard and not be blamed for anythign and everything that goes wrong in society.

  • Bill


    January 7th, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    Dean M, I’m not even sure why ADHD was even mentioned at the beginning of this article as it seemed to have absolutely no relevance. They switched to talking about Conduct Disorders and how they interact with CU pretty quickly. I would have to agree that the vast majority of ADHD kids don’t exhibit CD or CU at all.

  • L.M.


    January 7th, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    CD and in particular CU kids are the scariest ones to me. Very hard to treat indeed.

  • Suzanne


    January 7th, 2013 at 8:16 AM

    Of course CU people are going to sit by and watch someone be bullied without helping. That’s the very nature of CU, right??!! Hello, Captain Obvious!

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