Research Report

Psychopathic traits in parents:

Relations with disciplining and the quality of the parent-child interactions

Lien Geukens (Master Student K.U.Leuven, Belgium)

Prof. Dr. Katarzyna Uzieblo (Thomas More, UGent, Belgium)

Prof. Dr. Patricia Bijttebier (K.U.Leuven, Belgium)

With assistance of Prof. Dr. Craig Neumann (University of North Texas, USA)

Psychopathic individuals are characterized by callousness/unemotionality, a manipulative and deceitful interpersonal style, and an antisocial, impulsive lifestyle. The current knowledge regarding the manifestation of psychopathy within an interpersonal context is mainly, if not only, restricted to information obtained from case studies. These case studies suggest that psychopathic individuals exploit others, manipulate others for their own benefit, and neglect the needs of others. In addition, psychopathy is considered to be an important risk factor for a wide range of antisocial behaviors, like aggression. Although it may be assumed that these types of behaviors in psychopathic individuals will also manifest within the family context of psychopathic individuals, little is known about the social interactions of psychopathic individuals with for instance their family members.

The present study aimed to expand current scientific knowledge on the manifestation of psychopathic traits within the family context by investigating the manner in which parents with higher psychopathy scores (1) discipline their child, and (2) interact with their child. Based on theory and previous research it was hypothesized that psychopathic traits in parents would mainly be associated with (1) violent forms of disciplining, and (2) lower levels of warmth and protective behavior. These research questions were investigated in 209 parent-child (12-15y) dyads. The sample consisted of 45% mothers (M=44 years, SD=4.20). The parents were asked to fill in the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale III (SRP-III; Paulhus, Neumann, & Hare, in press), the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale (CTSPC; Straus et al., 1998) and the Parent-Child Interaction Scale (PACHIQ-R; Lange et al., 2002). With the use of structural equation modeling-techniques, the unique associations between psychopathic traits in parents and the two parental processes were analyzed. To investigate possible gender effects, two additional analyses were conducted in the mother and father samples.

Self-reported psychopathy scores in parent sample were associated with more negative parent-child interactions. More specifically, parents (i.e. both fathers and mothers) with higher SRP-III-scores exhibited a less approving attitude towards their children and reported having more conflicts with their children. In addition, higher SRP-III-scores were related to more aggressive parenting styles. However, the latter effect could only be established in the father sample.

In line with our hypotheses, psychopathic traits in parents were related to a lower quality of parent-child relation. Both mothers and fathers with higher scores on psychopathy exhibited a less approving attitude towards their child and more conflictive parent-child interactions. Negative attitudes from the mother towards the child have been found to be predictive for problematic behavior (e.g. physical and social aggressive behavior) in the child (Glowacz, Véronneau, Boët, & Born, 2013). Future research should explore the consequences of this diminished relational quality for the well-being of the child. Furthermore, fathers who obtained higher SRP-III-scores tended to use physically aggressive disciplining styles, whereas in the mother sample no relation was found between SRP-III-scores and the use of aggressive disciplining styles. The relation between psychopathy and violence has indeed been mainly established in male populations (see e.g., Camp et al., 2013). The present study offers a unique view on the relation between psychopathic traits in the parent and parent-child dynamics. But of course, these intriguing and innovative findings should be interpreted in the context of the study’s limitations. First, despite the initial efforts, our sample was not randomly selected or rigorously matched on characteristics such as gender, SES, and education level. Second, we only used self-report measures. Third, the current data remain of a correlational nature. Hence, no causal inferences can be made based on present results.

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