Research on Warmth and Antisocial Behavior

Parental warmth and rejection are associated with conduct problems and delinquency in many studies (e.g., Akse et al. 2004; Barnow, Lucht, & Freyberger, 2005; Caspi et al., 2004; Fletcher, Steinberg, & Williams-Wheeler, 2004; Hale, VanderValk, Akse, & Meeus, 2008; Hale, Van Der Valk, Engels, & Meeus, 2005; Hipwell et al., 2008; Patrick, Snyder, Schrepferman, & Snyder, 2005; Simons, Robertson, & Downs, 1989). Patterson et al. (1989) found that acting out behavior was highest, by far, among children categorized as rejected, or from “low warmth” families. (The mean was 22.0 compared to the next highest group which was 12.6.)

Pardini et al. (2007) found that antisocial behavior in 6th grade was significantly, negatively associated with child-reported parental warmth and involvement in 5th grade, controlling for a host of other factors, and in trajectory studies, warmth has been associated with a decline in children’s behavior problems over time (Jones, Forehand, Rakow, Colletti, McKee, & Zalot, 2008). In a study of school-aged children, maternal rejection was the highest in the group characterized by chronic overt physical conduct problems (Shaw, Gilliom, Ingoldsby, & Nagin, 2003).

Some authors have made a strong case for the importance of warmth in the development of antisocial behavior. McKee, Colletti, and Rakow (2008) found that parental warmth dominated as a predictor of externalizing problems in children of depressed parents, over measures of behavioral control and discipline, frequently thought to be crucial by researchers. McCord (1991) believed that parental rejection was more criminogenic than abuse or neglect. She reported that quality parenting negatively correlates with aggressive behavior, prevents alcoholism, and mediates whether sons follow in the footsteps of criminal fathers. Her analysis suggests that 5% of boys reared in families where parenting quality was high (competent mothers, good paternal interaction, high expectations) became delinquents; in families where parenting quality was low (incompetent mother, poor paternal interaction, low expectations), that figure was 47%.

Taken together, these findings lead us to a series of propositions, linking low parental warmth with the etiology of violence. The connection the youth feels to the warm parent makes him or her (1) wish to model behavior after the parent and to follow the parent’s rules, (2) feel less anxiety and negative emotionality from a lifetime of warm feelings as opposed to fear and frustration, and (3) learn that positive reinforcements await warm interactions with other people. We expect that modeling chilly interactions, learned from a parent, could influence all forms of antisocial behavior, but the latter two outcomes—long-term negative affect and a lack of positive expectations about human interaction—make us most uneasy because we believe that they may lead to violence.

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