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    Maternal sensitivity to distress, attachment and the development of callous-unemotional traits in young children

    Wright, N ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3285-2051, Hill, J, Sharp, H and Pickles, A (2018) Maternal sensitivity to distress, attachment and the development of callous-unemotional traits in young children. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 59 (7). pp. 790-800. ISSN 0021-9630

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    © 2018 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Background: Callous-unemotional (CU) traits are characterized by a lack of responsiveness to the emotions of others, particularly negative emotions. A parenting environment where the child's own distress emotions are sensitively responded to may help foster the child's ability to respond to the emotions of others. We tested whether maternal sensitivity to distress, and other parenting characteristics, were associated with CU traits over the preschool period, and examined whether this was mediated via infant attachment status. Method: In an epidemiological cohort, CU traits were assessed at age 2.5, 3.5, and 5.0 years by mother report. Dimensions of parenting were assessed in free play at age 29 weeks in a stratified subsample of 272, and attachment status at 14 months (n = 265). Structural equation modelling with maximum likelihood estimation was used to examine predictions from parenting dimensions and attachment status. Results: A parenting factor comprised of sensitivity to distress (n = 207), sensitivity to non-distress, positive regard toward the infant (or warmth), and intrusiveness, predicted child CU traits (p =.023). This effect was accounted for mainly by sensitivity to distress (p =.008) and positive regard (p =.023) which showed a synergistic effect as evidenced by a significant interaction (p =.01). This arose because the combination of low sensitivity to distress and low positive regard created the risk for elevated CU traits. Although sensitivity and positive regard predicted attachment security and disorganization, there were no associations between attachment status and CU traits. Conclusions: The finding of contributions from both sensitivity to distress and positive regard to reduced CU traits suggests that children's responsiveness to others’ emotions may be increased by their own mothers’ responsiveness to them and their mothers’ warmth. There was no evidence that this was mediated via attachment status. Implications for intervention and future directions are discussed.

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