Thursday 10 November 2011

Research on the psychobiological basis of antisocial behaviour in children

by Stephanie van Goozen, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

My main interest has been the neurobiological basis of antisocial behaviour in children. It is from this perspective which I approach We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Children who display antisocial behaviour have a range of emotional and cognitive problems that help to explain the way they behave. They have a tendency to interpret and respond inappropriately to the social signals emitted by others and have problems with decision making and emotion regulation in emotionally arousing circumstances. Being able to regulate one’s emotions successfully is critical for rational decision-making and social adaptation, and a failure to do so is likely to lead to problems in forming or maintaining relationships.

In terms of emotional functioning we study the ability to recognise emotions in other people’s faces. Being able to recognize distress cues in others serves to inhibit antisocial behaviour. Fearful and sad expressions act as aversive stimuli, and as such play a key role in socialization processes. Antisocial individuals fail to process expressions of fear and sadness appropriately, resulting in ineffective socialization and a greater propensity to cause harm to others. At the moment we study whether we can improve emotion recognition ability in young offenders, and if so, whether this has a positive effect on their behaviour.

Another area of our research is the stress response systems. Having a deficit in experiencing stress is particularly crucial in the development of antisocial behaviour. Neurobiological responses to stress act as a form of ‘warning signal’ to restrain ongoing behaviour in situations of psychological or physical danger. Children who fail to activate these systems are likely to behave in a more dis-inhibited fashion. This could arise from genetic factors or from exposure to uncontrollable stress or maltreatment in early childhood.

Our research shows that antisocial children’s appraisal of situations is not accompanied by contextually-appropriate patterns of emotional arousal and does not lead to activation of autonomic or endocrine stress response systems. Moreover, antisocial children who, as a result of their risky or impulsive behaviour, place themselves in threatening or dangerous situations gradually become further desensitized to stress due to habituation. This leads to a negative cycle in which the child becomes increasingly resistant to stress and is therefore likely to place him- or herself in increasingly threatening situations.

We also study in our department the development of aggressive behaviour up to the age of 3. In very young children the origin of antisocial behaviour is likely to be a combination of difficult temperament and a non-optimal environment in which ineffective socialization plays a key role. Individual differences in aggressiveness are clearly present before the age of 3. In the early years, emotional factors associated with aggressive outcomes include fearlessness in the face of novelty and challenge, and problems in regulating negative emotionality. Our group has shown that maternal prenatal and postnatal emotional state is related to later aggressive behaviour. The affective quality of the parent-child relationship (harsh-rejecting vs. warm-responsive) can also influence the sort of adult a child becomes. The role of parenting as a mechanism through which variation in children’s normal and abnormal development may be explained is an important issue in developmental psychobiology. In my research the question of how such influences become long lasting is addressed by examining the neurobiological underpinnings of stress and coping in infants. The prediction is that women who experience greater stress transfer this to their child via disruptions in the affective quality of the mother-infant relationship, which in turn has implications for children’s long-term behavioural well-being.

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