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The longevity and severity of “bad” behaviour for children with behavioural issues may be linked to their ability to maintain eye contact with their parents and others, according to a new survey published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London measured the level of eye contact between young children and their mothers to distinguish those children who display expected levels of emotion and empathy from those who do not.

As in previous studies, the new research divides children with behavioural issues into those with “hot” emotional levels, who are impulsive and reactively aggressive but have normal levels of emotion and empathy, and those with “cold” emotional levels, who are less likely to be able to read emotions in others and therefore lack normal levels of empathy.

The study suggests that those in the “cold” category may be relatively “blind” to the feelings of others because they rarely look into the eyes of other people, especially important attachment figures, such as parents.

Using a sample of 24 children aged between four and eight years, half of whom were diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), with the other half serving as a control group, mothers were instructed to display emotion to their children whilst researchers monitored the level of reciprocated eye contact as well as verbal and physical affection.

“Children with low empathy levels showed specific impairments in eye contact with mothers”, says Professor Mark Dadds, lead author of the study. “Importantly, we also found that these results were independent of the quality of emotion or eye gaze coming from the mothers.”

The findings may help explain why some children are difficult to parent and are less responsive to evidence-based parent training programs. The team are now evaluating how to help these children overcome this impairment.


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