By Kathryn L. Humphreys, Lucy McGoron, Margaret A. Sheridan, Katie A. McLaughlin, Nathan A. Fox, Charles A. Nelson III, and Charles H. Zeanah | Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry | October 9, 2015
Callous-unemotional (CU) traits in childhood are a developmental precursor to psychopathy, yet the origins and etiology of CU traits are not known. We examined CU traits among 12-year-old children exposed to severe early deprivation and evaluated whether a high-quality foster care intervention mitigated the development of high levels of CU traits.
Participants were from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a randomized controlled trial of foster care for children in institutions. Children were recruited from institutions in Bucharest, Romania, along with age- and sex-matched children who were never institutionalized. Children raised in institutional settings were randomized (Mage=22 months) to either a foster-care group (n=68) or a care-as-usual group (n=68). CU traits were assessed at age 12.75 years in available participants from the randomized trial (n=95) and children who were never institutionalized (n=50).
Children who experienced institutional rearing as young children had significantly higher levels of CU traits in early adolescence compared to children who were never institutionalized. Intent-to-treat analysis indicated that, among boys, CU traits were significantly lower among those who received the foster care intervention compared to those randomized to care as usual. Caregiver responsiveness to distress, but not caregiver warmth, mediated the intervention effect on CU traits in boys.
These findings provide the first evidence to date that psychosocial intervention can prevent the onset of CU traits. Although severe early deprivation predicted increased levels of CU traits, high-quality foster care that emphasized responsive caregiving reduced the impact of deprivation on CU trait development for boys.