Callous-Unemotional Traits and Impulsivity: Distinct Longitudinal Relations With Mind-Mindedness and Understanding of Others

Luna C Muñoz Centifanti, Elizabeth Meins, Charles Fernyhough

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background Problems in understanding other people's mental states may relate to distinct personality traits that are associated with early externalizing behavior. A distinction between theory of mind (ToM) and empathy has proven important in shedding light on the problems in understanding other minds encountered by children high on callous-unemotional (CU) traits and exhibiting impulsivity. The aim of this study was to investigate whether children's early ToM and emotion understanding abilities predicted CU traits and impulsivity at age 10. A further aim was to explore whether the quality of the parent-child relationship very early in the development indirectly or directly predicted the children's CU traits and impulsivity. Method We examined whether ToM and empathy skills might differentially relate to personality traits associated with externalizing behaviors (i.e., impulsivity and CU traits). We examined these relations over time in a longitudinal cohort of 96 boys and girls using follow-back analyses, incorporating measures of maternal mind-mindedness (appropriate mind-related talk) to examine the possible role of parent-child interaction quality. Results Appropriate mind-related talk indirectly predicted CU traits (at age 10 years) via its effect on children's emotion understanding. ToM predicted impulsive/irresponsible traits, but ceased to be significant when controlling for externalizing behaviors. Conclusion The present findings demonstrate that parents who remark appropriately on their infant's mental states may help the child to understand emotions and may mold an empathic understanding of others, thereby preventing CU traits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)84-92
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry
Issue number1
Early online date14 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016

Bibliographical note

© 2015 The Authors. This is an author produced version of a paper published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher's self-archiving policy.


  • Emotion understanding
  • callous-unemotional traits
  • longitudinal
  • mind-mindedness
  • theory of mind

Cite this