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So what does callous & unemotional behavior in children look like?

Signs & Symptoms

Children with CU typically exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Lack of guilt
  • Fearlessness
  • An insensitivity to punishment or lack of regard for consequences
  • Manipulation of others with callous disregard
  • Lack of empathy
  • Overly focused on rewards
  • Only seems to show guilt in order to avoid the likelihood of being punished.


In early childhood, even as early as two, three, or four, caregivers may notice that something seems a little off when it comes to their emotional responses. “Whereas normally developing children at that age grow agitated when they see other children cry – and either try to comfort them or bolt the scene – these kids show a chilly detachment,” writes Barbara Bradley Hagerty (2017).

“When someone reported that someone had hurt themselves,” says Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “these children would kind of laugh at them or even kind of swipe at them and say, ‘You’re not hurt,’ or ‘You should be more careful’ – saying it in a tone of voice that was judgmental.” (Bhattacharjee, 2018, p. 130)

Children with callous unemotional traits have been found to have poor recognition of certain emotions in facial empathy tests, especially fear and distress. (Blair et al., 2006) One young adult with psychopathic traits looked at a picture of a frightened facial expression and remarked, “I don’t know what you call this emotion, but it’s what people look like just before you stab them.” (Bradley-Hagerty, 2017)

A pattern of early violence is another harbinger of callous unemotional traits: frequent fights at school, unprovoked aggression against siblings, or attacking parents and teachers. Another leading indicator is committing a criminal act while alone (as opposed to with peers) which suggests a more profoundly antisocial disposition. A pattern of criminal behavior, especially committing multiple types of transgressions in different settings, is a strong sign that a child is headed for future trouble.

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