UNSW program helps children with aggressive and destructive behaviours
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > UNSW program helps children with aggressive and destructive behaviours

UNSW program helps children with aggressive and destructive behaviours

by Freya Lucas

September 08, 2022

A new behavioural therapy, which works with parents and children, is making inroads for children who display aggressive, destructive and non-compliant behaviour, a study by psychologists at UNSW Sydney’s Parent Child Research Clinic has revealed.


Additionally, the study found that the improvements made by the children were more likely to stick well after the treatment program ceased, compared with standard treatment.


In a paper published recently in the journal Behavior Therapy, researchers described how 43 families of children with ‘callous unemotional’ traits (CU) and their parents participated in a randomised control trial that measured the effectiveness of two different therapy programs on the children’s behaviour.


The children, who ranged in ages between three and seven years, were placed randomly in either an existing behavioural treatment program – Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) – or a version of this same therapy that was modified by the researchers to target the different needs of children with callous-unemotional traits (PCIT-CU).


They found that both of these programs had a positive effect on the disruptive behaviour problems and callous unemotional traits of the children in each group for the duration of the training. This meant less aggression and fewer violent outbursts, more compliant behaviour, and better ability to show and feel empathy for others.


But when the researchers checked in with the families 12 weeks after the training had ended, there was a stark and noticeable difference between the two groups in how much they retained from the treatment course.


“For the children who got the new treatment that we developed, we saw a sustained improvement,” lead author Dr Georgie Fleming explained, “and at the same time, we saw a pattern of deterioration of the children who got the standard treatment.”


Enhanced treatment focuses more strongly on callous-unemotional traits


Dr Fleming said this suggests that the modifications to the PCIT in the enhanced version seems to have brought about more long-lasting and positive changes in behaviour, something that past therapeutic strategies have struggled to maintain up until now.


She said the enhanced treatment (PCIT-CU) differed from the standard treatment (PCIT) in three main areas which were designed to focus more strongly on the needs of children with callous-unemotional traits.


Firstly, parents in the CU group were coached to use parenting behaviours that aimed to strengthen the relationship and attachment between parent and child by expressing warmth and affection.


“We explicitly coached parents to be more warm and affectionate when interacting with their children,” Dr Fleming said.


“Things like sitting closer to their child during play, putting the ‘smile’ into their voice when they praise the child, and doing things that are specifically intended to make the child laugh.”


The second modification was in the area of discipline. In standard treatment, there is an emphasis on delivering consistent discipline strategies. But in the case of children with CU traits, this could be counterproductive.


“There’s some evidence that children who have callous unemotional traits learn less well from typical consequences compared to children who have conduct problems or children in general,” she explained.


To guard against “making bad behaviour potentially worse”, the researchers integrated what they called a “structured and individualised token economy system” into the disciplinary part of the training.


“Basically we identify behaviours that we want these children to do more of. So, things like ‘listen to your parents when they ask you to do something, use gentle hands with your siblings and your friends’.


“And for all the instances where children are showing what we would call ‘prosocial behaviours’, they get a token – some sort of small reward – which they accrue over time and are able to trade in for a whole menu of different rewards.”


The last modification in the enhanced PCIT-CU treatment was to actively train the children in their emotional skills.


“There is really robust evidence that children with callous-unemotional traits are underdeveloped in being able to recognise particular facial expressions, they’re not as good at picking up when someone is feeling scared or sad. And so we trained them in the micro expressions that we universally show as humans and then built up these skills to get them to a place where they see somebody who’s in distress, and they’re able to respond prosocially.”


Modifications based on previous research


The modifications of the PCIT treatment were based on previous research led by senior author, Professor Eva Kimonis, from her pioneering work on the treatment of callous-unemotional traits and aggressive behaviour in young children. The therapy is delivered in a unique environment where parent and child are observed behind a one-way mirror.


“The way it works is you’ve got a one-way mirror, and you’ve got your parent and your child playing together, while the parent is using the skills that we’ve taught them with the child,” Professor Kimonis said.


“And then you’ve got a therapist behind the one way mirror, using a microphone to give real-time feedback to the parent via a wireless earpiece the parent is wearing.”


Professor Kimonis said it’s important to treat children in this subgroup early, as callous unemotional traits can develop into psychopathy later in life for some children.


“Callous unemotional traits are the childhood precursor to psychopathy, but it doesn’t mean every child that shows callous unemotional traits will go on to be a psychopath,” Professor Kimonis said.


“There’s this long-standing perspective that the trajectory from callous-unemotional traits to psychopathy is really hard to get kids off, and that once on the path to psychopathy, you’re not amenable to treatment,” she continued.


“But I think what this treatment does is offer hope that actually we can adjust this trajectory, and these traits are responsive potentially to intervention when we do it young enough. So we don’t believe biology is necessarily destiny.”


After years of researching this sub-group of children, Prof. Kimonis is excited about the results of the latest research and what it could mean for improving the lives of both the parents and the children in families where these early-behavioural problems are causing such heartache.


“This is really novel research, this is the first study where we only recruited this subgroup of kids with callous traits and found that a targeted treatment works better than standard treatment. It’s the first trial that takes this group of kids and says, ‘we can make things better for them and keep them off that pathway down the track’.”


Learn more about the research here

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