Callous and unemotional traits in children (or CU for short) is a disorder that has been studied for some time now but only became an official diagnosis in 2013, when it was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
What is callous & unemotional disorder?
This diagnosis is essentially a label of psychopathy for children, but because specialists have reservations about labeling any child a psychopath (and justifiably so), they came up with the label callous & unemotional traits to describe the type of behavior and symptoms typically associated with psychopathy.
Kids with CU exhibit a lack of empathy, little remorse or guilt over their actions, and an impaired emotional response to others. (Frick et al., 2014) Although they exhibit blunted emotions and very little empathy, and may even have trouble discerning negative facial expressions, they are perfectly capable of assessing another’s point of view. In other words, they may know right from wrong but they don’t feel right from wrong. The mental machinery that allows the rest of us to feel another person’s distress and respond compassionately seems to be faulty.
Older children and adolescents who score high on CU traits are more likely to underestimate their likelihood of being punished for transgressions and are far less likely to respond to punitive attempts to control their behavior. They also tend to be less anxious and more fearless, and are highly motivated by rewards, so they typically engage in more thrill seeking behavior. When it comes to CU in children, the more intelligent kids with higher levels of executive control are the most prone to violence, a pattern opposite to that seen in other disorders. (Baskin-Sommers et al., 2015)
Of all the childhood disorders, callous and unemotional traits is the measure most linked to violence. (Baskin-Sommers et al., 2015) “More than 50 studies have found that kids with callous and unemotional traits are more likely than other kids (three times more likely, in one study) to become criminals or display aggressive, psychopathic traits later in life,” writes Barbara Bradley Hagerty. “And while adult psychopaths constitute only a tiny fraction of the general population, studies suggest that they commit half of all violent crimes.” (Bradley-Hagerty, 2017) So when a child starts exhibiting these tendencies, it’s important to try and steer this ship in a different direction.
How many kids have callous & unemotional traits?
CU traits exist along a spectrum, and are part of the overall repertoire of human behavior. So every child might exhibit CU tendencies on occasion. It only becomes a problem when a child displays consistently callous behavior combined with very little empathy. As many as 30% of all youth score high on tests designed to measure callous & unemotional traits. Yet the actual label of callous & unemotional disorder (applied to those kids who are exhibiting a significant problem) is estimated to be around 1%, or approximately the same number of kids diagnosed with autism or bipolar disorder.
The importance of dealing with callous & unemotional traits Like all childhood disorders, if there truly is a problem, it’s better to address the situation sooner rather than later. As you climb into older age groups, callous unemotional traits seem to become more stable. (Baskin-Sommers et al., 2015) “With each passing year, both nature and nurture conspire to steer a callous child toward psychopathy and block his exits to a normal life,” writes Hagerty. “His brain becomes a little less malleable; his environment grows less forgiving as his exhausted parents reach their limits, and as teachers, social workers, and judges begin to turn away. By his teenage years, he may not be a lost cause, since the rational part of his brain is still under construction. But he can be one scary dude.” (Bradley-Hagerty, 2017)
Additional information on callous & unemotional traits: