My Ph.D. thesis is comprised of two studies aimed at (1) examining subgroups of youth who demonstrate particularly severe and aggressive antisocial behaviour as well as (2) determining specific personality and contextual variables that explain the process that leads to criminal offending among these highly antisocial subgroups. One characteristic that has shown promise in delineating a subgroup of youth who demonstrate severe, persistent, and aggressive antisocial behaviour is callous-unemotional (CU) traits (Frick, Ray, Thornton, & Kahn, 2014). CU traits are believed to be a childhood precursor to adult psychopathy and are defined by a set of affective features, which include a lack of remorse or guilt, callousness–lack of empathy, lack of concern about performance, and shallow or deficient affect (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that youth with CU traits are not a homogenous group. Given that the presence of CU traits are being used to inform risk assessment and treatment recommendations, the existence of subgroups may carry important implications for clinical practice (Kimonis, Fanti, Goulter, & Hall, 2016). For study one I propose to replicate Cecil and colleagues (2017) research which focused on differentiating subgroups of youth with CU traits based on the presence or absence of concurrent anxiety. They aimed to determine if CU+Anxiety (high CU/high Anxiety) and CU-Anxiety (high CU/low Anxiety) subgroups differ across maltreatment history, psychiatric symptoms, aggression and attachment style. Additionally, they expanded on current research by adding two clinically relevant comparison groups: a Low group (low CU/Anxiety) and an Anxiety group (low CU/high Anxiety). By adding the Anxiety comparison group, it allows for clarification of whether CU+Anxiety youth experience a ‘double hit’ of negative outcomes. This focus on concurrent anxiety is based on Karpman (1955) and Porter’s (1996) original theory as well as new empirical research indicating that how CU traits develop can distinguish different profiles of youth. More specifically, the CU –Anxiety combination is thought to be associated with developmental genetic risk and an absence of maltreatment (i.e., born with these traits), whereas the CU +Anxiety combination is thought to be associated primarily with exposure to maltreatment or other traumatic experiences (i.e., developed these traits; Kahn et al., 2013). These subgroups of youth with CU traits have been shown to significantly differ from each other across a variety of domains, including psychiatric symptomology, personality traits, aggression, and impulsivity (Cecil, McCrory, Barker, Guiney, Viding, 2017). This study will be replicated using a youth justice sample rather than a community sample and will utilize a clinician rated scale of CU traits as opposed to the self-report scale.
Study two will focus on examining variables that explain the process that leads to criminal offending in youth with CU traits. More specifically, the current study will attempt to advance knowledge on the well-established connection between CU traits and criminal offending by testing the potential meditating and moderating roles of peer delinquency and the parent-child relationship (i.e., parental monitoring and warmth). There is evidence that youth with CU traits seek out deviant peers at a high rate (Van Zalk & Van Zalk, 2015) and are more likely to commit crimes in groups (Thornton, et al., 2015). Thus, associating with deviant peers may act as an instigator of deviant behaviour for youth with CU traits. Additionally, warm and structured parenting has been established as the optimal parenting style to reduce risk for criminal offending (Hoeve et al., 2012). Therefore, I wish to test whether the link between CU traits and criminal offending would be at least partially mediated by association with delinquent peers as well as whether the mediating role of deviant peers is moderated by the parental warmth and monitoring. Secondly, I wish to test whether these mediating and moderating relationships are the same across CU+Anxiety and CU-Anxiety subgroups.
This novel research will be carried out in partnership with the Community Mental Health Association of Toronto within their multidisciplinary criminal justice department.