New Research Identifies Biological Markers for Kids’ Misbehavior

When it comes to our kids, we need to be just as meticulous about guarding and protecting their mental health as physical.

Violence, bullying, being disruptive or destructive; these are traits plainly seen on kids who have a penchant for them. The impact they have on their parents, siblings, classmates, teachers and others may be immeasurable, but is certainly visible. If you’re a parent of such a child you know that watching them inflict cruelty or act aggressively adds stress into the home and attracts unwanted attention. Of course, it also breaks your heart. Most of all, we cry out for a reason why and hope for an answer to come along with a curative.

Especially with so much recent attention to adults and young adults committing violent crimes, people are asking the hard questions. Are these violent outbursts a result of our neglect? Is society failing them? Can their potential be identified early and the individual given treatment? Is it possible to intervene and prevent destructive, even murderous behavior?

Neurological Marker for Conduct Problems

Until now, very little has been known about the inner-happenings connected to these behavioral traits. A report this month (May 2013) detailed a study on children with conduct problems (CP) to identify significant brain activity, or lack thereof, that may be associated with their behavior. What they found is important, though may not be shocking. What we’ve seen on the outside appears to have a distinct, measurable correlation on the inside.

Test groups of kids with CP were compared with controls to measure their neural responses to images of others in pain. Using an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) researchers took a good look at the brain areas associated with empathy. Kids with CP showed comparatively less brain activity in response. They simply weren’t sensitive to others’ plight, and experts believe this pattern of brain inactivity may be a vital neurobiological marker to predict risk for adult psychopathy.

The study doesn’t detail the cause of what they’ve dubbed “callous traits,” as in too much sugar or Yellow #5, the wrong TV shows and video games, but they do urge that this “marker” first of all be identified, and secondly, not be seen as a genetic destiny, but an “indicator of early vulnerability.”

Once the need is identified, interventions are known to be effective in increasing a child’s sensitivity and reversing aggressive or un-empathic behaviors.

Intervention That Works

A study in 2004 looked at kids with behavioral problems, specifically with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Test groups were assigned to one of several types of “training” interventions. Children with ODD received 6 months of intervention treatment with one of these trainer groups:

  • Parent
  • Parent plus teacher
  • Child
  • Child plus teacher
  • Parent, child plus teacher

Results of their behaviors after the trial period were compared to a control group of kids with ODD receiving no intervention. They found that “all treatments resulted in significantly fewer conduct problems with mothers, teachers, and peers compared to controls.” Most improvement with response to fathers occurred with the parent intervention conditions, reinforcing the importance of parental involvement. Kids with treatment also showed better social skills when compared with the control.

Children weren’t the only ones affected. In addition, researchers found that parents were changed after being a part of the process. Whereas the child and child-teacher groups did see results, the parent treatments had the highest response in mom and dad, showing “less negative and more positive parenting for mothers and less negative parenting for fathers than in the control.” When parents were added to the teacher groups, the teachers were also more effective. This seems to point to some basic, primary factors in turning around conduct problems in kids; namely:

  • Time, attention, intervention
  • Direct involvement with the parent/guardian

Intervention Strategies

Specific methods have been studied and identified. In the book Interventions for Children With or At-Risk for Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, the authors list several empirically supported strategies. These were selected “based on the Chambless and Hollon criteria (1998), a standard that is generally accepted in the scientific community (APA Task Force on Psychological Intervention Guidelines, 1995).” In summary, they include:

  • Tailored Intervention. Training tailored to the specific needs of parent and child. While there are general principles to engage, there is no general or “cookie cutter” process to build the foundations of the child’s relationship with parent and help resolve callous traits.
  • 20+ Hours. Training for parent and child should exceed 20 hours, generally up to 50 hours, for long term effects.
  • Play, Fun and Discipline. Build the parent-child relationship through positive interactions and “child-directed play,” allowing for time of recreation and reward, in addition to disciplinary action.
  • Parent-Teacher Cooperation. Involving teachers in any parental training brings consistency to the child’s life and makes the intervention more potent.
  • Principles of Behavior. Parents working from principles rather than one-off strategies responding to incidents are more effective. Understanding the principles operating behind both bad and good behavior empowers parents to see a fuller picture and respond to the core issues rather than react to bad conduct.
  • Be Personable and Approachable. Better results are seen when parents act as “coach” rather than “expert,” being warm, supportive, cooperative, nonhierarchical, nonblaming.

More studies are underway to determine the biological markers and neurological effects of intervention treatments. In the meantime, the first key is to identify and acknowledge a potential risk factor, and take early steps to intervene.



Patricia L. Lockwood, Catherine L. Sebastian, Eamon J. McCrory, Zoe H. Hyde, Xiaosi Gu, Stéphane A. De Brito, Essi Viding. “Association of Callous Traits with Reduced Neural Response to Others’ Pain in Children with Conduct Problems.” Current Biology, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.018

Webster-Stratton C, Reid MJ, Hammond M. “Treating children with early-onset conduct problems: intervention outcomes for parent, child, and teacher training.” (2004) PMID:15028546

Excerpt from Interventions for Children With or At-Risk for Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, by K.L. Lane, F.M. Gresham, T.E. O’Shaughnessy, 2002 edition, p. 264-270. © ______ 2002, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc.

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