Low Motivation for Social Bonding May Signal Behavior Problems in Early Childhood
Children who show callous, uncaring, remorseless behaviors are more likely to have severe conduct problems in later childhood, which can lead to antisocial behavior and poor mental health in adulthood. In a study supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), researchers found that low social affiliation—low motivation for social engagement and bonding—may be a precursor that identifies children as early as age 2 who are likely to develop callous-unemotional behaviors.
These findings could inform targeted interventions that promote prosocial behaviors and set children on a more positive developmental trajectory.
As part of an ongoing research study of twins, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University assessed the behavior of 608 children at age 2 and again at age 3. Using items from standardized laboratory measures (Bayley Scales of Infant Development, Bayley’s Behavior Rating Scale, and Bayley’s Infant Behavior Record), the researchers created a combined measure of social affiliation. They also measured parents’ feelings of positivity toward their children using a self-report questionnaire.
First, the researchers examined how their social affiliation measure mapped on to various aspects of behavior and temperament. Their analyses showed that children who showed high social affiliation tended to be more sociable and less shy at ages 2 and 3. Children’s levels of social affiliation were not associated with other aspects of their behavior and temperament, such as level of activity or emotionality. These findings confirm that the social affiliation measure provides a specific, accurate, and reliable method for assessing social affiliation and engagement in early childhood.
Children who showed low social affiliation at age 2 tended to have higher levels of callous-unemotional behaviors at age 3, but this was only true for children who experienced low parental positivity. Children who experienced high parental positivity showed no association between social affiliation and callous-unemotional behaviors. This finding suggests that parental positivity may act as a protective factor, buffering against the increased risk typically associated with low social affiliation.
In addition, the analyses showed that the relationship between low social affiliation and callous-unemotional behaviors was unidirectional. That is, callous-unemotional behaviors at age 2 were not associated with social affiliation at age 3. In addition, there was no evidence for a relationship between low social affiliation at age 2 and oppositional-defiant behaviors at age 3. Together, these findings lend weight to the idea that low social affiliation is a specific precursor to callous-unemotional behaviors but not other types of behavior problems in early childhood.
This study establishes social affiliation as an early marker of callous-unemotional behaviors and shows that existing, standardized measures of child behavior can be used to measure this marker objectively as early as age 2. Additional, larger studies are needed to confirm that these findings would remain the same at the population level. If so, they may help inform criteria that clinicians and other providers can use to identify children with low social affiliation.
The researchers note that low social affiliation may also be associated with other mental health conditions, such as social anxiety. Studies that examine the interplay between social affiliation, temperament, and environment could clarify how these factors contribute to a range of developmental trajectories. Further research exploring how different aspects of positive parenting affect children’s social affiliation could also reveal promising targets for intervention.
Perlstein, S., Waller, R., Wagner, N. J., & Saudino, K. J. (2022). Low social affiliation predicts increases in callous-unemotional behaviors in early childhood. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 63, 109-117. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13466.