In Parenting

Callous Behavior in Children

It is natural for children to think of themselves first.  With some exceptions, kids are selfish when it comes to getting what they want and it usually does not occur to them to put others first.  This is not because children are unable to care about others, it is simply because awareness and empathy take time to develop just like other traits. Because of this fact, it is sometimes hard to spot children’s callous behavior. What does “callous” mean, and when should parents be concerned about children demonstrating callous indifference to others?

What Does Callous Mean?

Callous means insensitive, indifferent, and unsympathetic.  Again, it is hard to define callous when it comes to children.Children’s views of the world are so limited to their experiences, which in comparison to adults are very few. Some distinctive traits which may mark callous behavior in children include:

  1. Limited empathy.  Perhaps a child sees another boy trip and fall while playing during recess.  Instead of showing concern for the boy’s welfare, the child may completely ignore the boy who tripped or even laugh at him, showing no worry for whether or not the boy is hurt.
  2. Lack of guilt.  Think of a child who is caught in a lie by his parent, but instead of showing remorse for the lie, or showing anxiety over being punished or parental disappointment, the child seems to not be bothered.  Imagine a principal at an elementary school counseling a group of second grade boys called into his office for fighting at recess.  Out of the six kids called to the office, only one is unconcerned about “being in trouble.”  He is not worried about what the principal thinks and does not feel threatened by consequences of having recess taken away or the limitation of other privileges.
  3. Demonstrating shallowness.  One example of demonstrating shallowness is a child laughing at a teammate for using a hand-me-down equipment, or teasing a child in his class for wearing clothing that is out of style.

Callous behavior might look a lot like bullying, but it might be a bit different. Instead of trying to hurt another person, the callous child simply does not care about the other person.  In this way, the callous behavior is often called callous-unemotional behavior because of the lack of emotion demonstrated.

Does Callous Behavior Mean My Child is a Psychopath?

We all want our children to show kindness towards others, and when they do not, our first reaction is to feel embarrassment and shame on their behalf.  If callous behavior continues and is severe, the deeply disturbing question could pop up:  is my child unable to feel empathy?  Does that mean my child is a psychopath?

Important distinctions need to be made between normal, selfish child behavior and concerning, psychological apathy.  Some tell-tale signs could point out that the callous behavior you are witnessing could be more than just a childish lack of concern for the outside world.

  1. The child constantly shows signs of bullying others, including inflicting verbal and physical harm, playing mean jokes, and even stealing.  Also, most children who have emotional issues beyond callousness show cruelty to animals.
  2. The child shows a lack of respect for major rules, such as running away, abusing drugs or alcohol, or other activities that could put the child in harm’s way.
  3. As mentioned above, the child does not show guilt when being reprimanded for wrong-doing, or when the child’s actions harm another person.
  4. A lack of regard for others’ feelings, even close family members, is consistently shown.
  5. The child seems oblivious to personal goals, like having good grades in school or pleasing parents and teachers.
  6. Kids who are psychopaths may not only demonstrate callous behavior, but may show a surprisingly small amount of emotion overall.  For example, the child seems unaffected at celebrations or somber events, like a funeral.
  7. The child blames those around him for his mistakes, rather than taking responsibility for himself.
  8. Psychopaths often show a lack of fear and engage in dangerous behaviors.
  9. The child does not fear punishment, and when punishment is inflicted, the child does not avoid future punishment by not repeating the action or behavior that led to the punishment.
  10. The child seems to only be motivated by perceived, immediate rewards, rather than pleasing others or doing things that have a positive impact on the child’s future.

How Do I Parent a Callous Child?

Obviously, the traits above can be shown in limited instances without that child being a psychopath.  But it is still important to seek help if you feel your child consistently demonstrates callous, unemotional attitudes and actions.

A study completed by Essi Viding, a professor of developmental psychopathology, looked at callous-unemotional behavior in children and attempted to identify both genetic and behavioral links that may lead to callous-unemotional behavior.  Viding went further to suggest that there were certain efforts that could be made to “treat” callous behavior in children.

Warm Parenting Versus Negative Reinforcement

Studies show that children with psychological issues like callous indifference benefit from parents who use positive reinforcement, affirmation, and support rather than unilaterally enforcing punishment for bad behavior.  That does not mean that callous children should have free reign without fear of punishment, but it does mean that a child who demonstrates callous behavior has a greater chance of overcoming it if he has positive, rather than negative, reasons to do so.

As an example, rather than taking away recess or a treat from a child who pushes another child on the playground, a more positive approach would be to calmly talk to the child about his choices and explain how it is not acceptable to treat others in such a way.  By addressing the action and teaching the child the correct behavior, rather than only enforcing a punishment, the child has a chance to gain emotional literacy while also being shown that certain types of actions are not acceptable.

Emotional Literacy

Children who seem callous may simply not know how to read emotions and concurrently, may not have the ability to demonstrate the right emotion for the right occasion.  Much like some children with autism who need to learn how to read social cues like facial expression, tone of voice and body language, callous-unemotional children can benefit from learning how to read the emotional cues of others.  Through the practice of reading emotional cues, there is a theory that the callous child will begin to actually empathize with the emotions others are demonstrating.

We want our children to be well-adjusted, socially conscious members of society.  At that same time, it can be extremely hard for a parent to see his or her child acting callously and consider the possibility that it could be more than childish selfishness. For parents and caregivers who believe their child’s response to others is the type of callous indifference explained above, it may be beneficial to talk to a psychologist or social worker about any concerns of callousness.

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