The Emergence of Callous and Unemotional Traits in the Developing Child
Exposure to Animal Abuse as a Form of Psychological Violence
by Professor Philip Tedeschi - Over 14 years ago, researcher Arnold Arluke suggested that children’s exposure to violence had the potential to further the “generalization of deviance", whereby the abuse of animals can be internalized by children as one of a range of anti-social behaviors learned by children. Since that time, in academic and research initiatives around the world and with a broad consensus among child development specialists, there is agreement that exposure to animal abuse is significant in teaching children a deviant and pathological interaction pattern that may manifest within a behavioral and psychosocial spectrum of associated with violence and antisocial functioning in the developing anti social adolescent and adult.
One of the current agendas in responding to trends of human generated violence, is to define the origins and the development trajectory of Psychopathy. In work done in both the US and elsewhere there is incontrovertible evidence that early exposure to animal abuse has the outcome of establishing the psychological environment for the early on set of what is often referenced as “Callous and Unemotional Traits”. For youth who in early developmental terms get exposed to substantial suffering, cruelty and violence are at increased risk of developing a mental status that makes them less sensitive to other's feelings and function in a less empathic manner. It also appears to contribute to impulsive, aggressive and antisocial patterns, with increased risk for the development of, and eventual diagnosis of conduct disorder.
Youths who present with both lower impulse control and also minimal empathic regard for others are at greater risk of the development of adult antisocial functioning and adult psychopathic personality traits. In studies that have examined this developmental trajectory it appears that the development of callous aggression are at significantly increased risk of engaging in cruel behaviors. In 1987, researchers, Felthous and Kellert concluded that exposure to animal abuse in children posed a substantial risk factor for the development of disruptive behavior disorders, the childhood diagnostic precursor, to anti-social characteristics in adults. At that time they defined this exposure to animal abuse as “A pattern of deliberately, repeatedly and unnecessarily hurting vertebrate animals in a manner likely to cause serious injury". Of significance in this early definition was that the cruelty was inflicted on animals in “deliberate” ways and “knowingly”. These definitions should alert us to the significant mental health implications of the institutionalized extermination laws and even social normative activity of animal cruelty. This should particularly be of concern when youth are repeatedly exposed to cruelty. This type of cruelty has been found to be distinct from a psychological standpoint from accidental and emphasize the deliberate nature of the cruel action.
As we further explore this issue and attempt to establish prevention models that would ensure that youths are not developing under circumstances shaping them with a low empathy, callousness and unemotional traits, we consistently find that these behaviors are generally learned. The learning can be within a family context, situational and broader social exposure. From this empirical conclusion it is clear that we must be vigilant to the experience and exposure to cruelty that occur, especially while children are in formative developmental stages. There are many other dimensions related to how animal cruelty can contribute to increased risk factors in children. This idea has very important implication for public health mandates, community intervention policies to support the health and wellbeing of children and the treatment and response to animals we all live among.