The callous and unemotional (CU) traits associated with psychopathy in adults can now be detected in toddlers and infants, new studies have shown.
Indications of psychopathic traits can be reliably observed in children as young as three, allowing children at risk of becoming antisocial adults to undergo treatment earlier, a new study has suggested.
Dr Eva Kimonis, a psychologist from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), led the international research team.
The researchers used a new tool set made up of parent and teacher questionnaires, and computer programs specially designed for young children, to evaluate more than 200 children between three and six-years-old for CU traits.
The results, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, revealed that 10 per cent of children tested showed signs of CU traits including lack of empathy, affection and remorse.
This type of testing has previously been found effective in assessing older children and teenagers. The new method combined the questionnaire with other tests to ensure it was valid for younger subjects.
According to a statement from UNSW, Dr Kimonis said: "We essentially found that preschoolers that show impaired development of conscience are deficient in how they process emotions, similar to what we find in older adolescent and adult populations with the same problems."
"These children are poorer at recognising other people’s emotional expressions, and images depicting others in distress don’t capture their attention like it does for typically developing children as young as age three," she said.
The new combinined testing method could be key in assessing at-risk children from a young age. However, the aim in not to treat the toddlers through pharmacological intervention but rather by encouraging them to develop better emotional skills.
"We coach the parents how to be very warm, involved and loving with them to see if that reduces those callous traits over time," Dr Kimonis said.
The psychologists plan to show in future research whether or not these traits are stable all the way from nursery to adulthood.
Psychologists at King’s College London recently published a study in the Biological Psychiatry journal in which they used tests to identify antisocial behaviour in even younger children.
The researchers tracked the visual preferences of five-week-old babies to see whether they preferred to look at a red ball or a human face. Then when the babies were two-and-a-half-years-old they were tested for CU traits.
The study used a similar questionnaire to the UNSW study which asked the parents for example if their children were concerned about the feelings of others, selfish or sharing, cruel to animals, felt guilty when they did something wrong, or responded to affection.
The results found that the babies who had shown a preference for interacting with the object over the person were more likely to exhibit CU traits as toddlers, a potential precursor for severe antisocial behaviour in later life.
It was noted that a visual preference for objects could also be an indicator of developmental issues such as autism.
"Even as young as five weeks of age, children are already individuals with their own preferences, abilities and emotional styles," the lead author Dr Rachael Bedford told The Huffington Post.
The study also found that supportive and warm parenting significantly reduced the chances of the infants developing problematic traits.
In the long term this could help to understand how parenting can promote healthy emotional development in children, Dr Bedford said.
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