Is your child evil? Study reveals love is the answer

Tilda Swinton stars as the mother of troubled son Kevin in <i>We Need to Talk About Kevin </i>.
Tilda Swinton stars as the mother of troubled son Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin

The teenage mass murderer in Lionel Shriver's best-selling novel We Need To Talk About Kevin has shaped how many think of the evil child: they are born that way and parents are powerless to change what is written in the genes.

It is not only readers of popular fiction who felt that way; the researchers who studied deviant children have also held that the quality of parenting seemed to have no impact on this particular group.

But a new Australian study is challenging the view that parents can make no difference. It shows that nurturing can win out. What works is exactly what exasperated parents find hardest to provide: emotional warmth. The findings of a three-year study of 113 boys aged two to four will be presented at a conference of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions in Paris next week.

Actor Ezra Miller portrays the troubled Kevin as a teenager.
Actor Ezra Miller portrays the troubled Kevin as a teenager. 

A University of Sydney psychologist, David Hawes, will tell the conference that contrary to earlier studies which found that the quality of parenting had no bearing on the behavioural problems of deviant children, parents who maintained a warm and emotionally engaged parenting style could protect their children from developing aggressive and anti-social behaviour.

''The children's callous and unemotional traits cause parents to become harsher in their discipline and to emotionally disengage,'' Dr Hawes said. ''This is the opposite of what parents should be doing.''

The children's callous and unemotional traits cause parents to become harsher in their discipline and to emotionally disengage ...This is the opposite of what parents should be doing.

The children in Dr Hawes's study show signs from a very early age of becoming psychopathic adults. They are at risk of becoming the children who stone birds to death, and beat their siblings till they bleed. ''Most strikingly, they will show no guilt, remorse or empathy. They are different from badly behaved, hot-headed children who lash out in reaction to events.

''They are manipulative and calculating. They use aggression in order to get their own way. They are different from children with autism.

''These children can read other people's emotions; they're just not moved by them,'' Dr Hawes said. ''They don't care.''

They are described as having a ''callous-unemotional temperament''. And they can be identified before they start school.

The usual discipline techniques that work with aggressive hot-headed children, such as time-out for bad behaviour, are much less effective with this harder-to-reach group.

Hoping they will grow out of their problematic traits and behaviour - as is frequently the case with the hot-heads - is also a gamble not worth taking.

''Adults with similar characteristics are disproportionately responsible for violent crime,'' Dr Hawes said.

International research with twins has shown genes play a strong role in predisposing children to these traits that rob them of a capacity for empathy.

It was important for parents to curb overreactions and harsh discipline.

But they would probably need professional help to learn how to stay emotionally engaged with children to whom they might not feel connected. The research raises the question of whether a label is being misapplied to very young children.

Dr Hawes said parents knew when something was wrong, when their child was an outlier on the continuum of normal empathy.