Emotional processing in children with conduct problems and callous/unemotional traits


Mike Woodworth, PhD, UBC Okanagan, Unit of Psychology and Computer Science, 3333 University Way, Kelowna, B.C., V1V1V7, Canada
E-mail: Michael.Woodworth@ubc.ca


Background  A considerable body of evidence now suggests that conduct problem (CP) children with callous/unemotional (CU) traits differ in many ways from CP children without these characteristics. Previous research has suggested that there are important differences for youth with CP and CU characteristics in their ability to process emotional information. The current study investigated the ability of children with disruptive behaviour disorders to label emotional faces and stories.

Methods  Participants (aged 7–12) were involved in a summer day treatment and research programme for children with disruptive behaviour problems. Two tasks were administered that were designed to measure participant's ability to recognize and label facial expressions of emotion, as well as their ability to label emotions in hypothetical situations.

Results  Results indicated that children with higher levels of CU traits, regardless of whether they had elevated CP scores, were less accurate in identifying sad facial expressions. Interestingly, children with higher CU scores were more accurate in labelling fear than were children with lower CU scores, while children with high CP but low CU traits were less accurate than other children in interpreting fearful facial emotions. Further, children's recognition of various emotional vignettes was not associated with CP, CU traits or their interaction.

Conclusions  The current study demonstrated that it was the combination of CP and a high number of CU traits that differentiated emotional attributions. Consistent with previous research, youth with CU traits had more difficulty in identifying sad facial expressions. However, contrasting with some previous studies, higher CU traits were associated with more accurate perceptions of fearful expressions. It is possible that there is something specific to fear recognition for individuals with more psychopathic, CU traits that actually make them more successful for observing or recognizing fearful expressions. Additional research is needed to clarify both the recognition and processing of fear expression in CP children with and without CU.