The role of infants’ mother-directed gaze, maternal sensitivity, and emotion recognition in childhood callous unemotional behaviours

Rachael Bedford, N. J. Wagner, P. D. Rehder, Cathi B. Propper, M. T. Willoughby, R. W. Mills-Koonce

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While some children with callous unemotional (CU) behaviours show difficulty recognizing emotional expressions, the underlying developmental pathways are not well understood. Reduced infant attention to the caregiver’s face and a lack of sensitive parenting have previously been associated with emerging CU features. The current study examined whether facial emotion recognition mediates the association between infants’ mother-directed gaze, maternal sensitivity, and later CU behaviours. Participants were 206 full-term infants and their families from a prospective longitudinal study, the Durham Child Health and Development Study (DCHDS). Measures of infants’ mother-directed gaze, and maternal sensitivity were collected at 6 months, facial emotion recognition performance at 6 years, and CU behaviours at 7 years. A path analysis showed a significant effect of emotion recognition predicting CU behaviours (β = −0.275, S.E. = 0.084, p = 0.001). While the main effects of infants' mother-directed gaze and maternal sensitivity were not significant, their interaction significantly predicted CU behaviours (β = 0.194, S.E. = 0.081, p = 0.016) with region of significance analysis showing a significant negative relationship between infant gaze and later CU behaviours only for those with low maternal sensitivity. There were no indirect effects of infants’ mother-directed gaze, maternal sensitivity or the mother-directed gaze by maternal sensitivity interaction via emotion recognition. Emotion recognition appears to act as an independent predictor of CU behaviours, rather than mediating the relationship between infants’ mother-directed gaze and maternal sensitivity with later CU behaviours. This supports the idea of multiple risk factors for CU behaviours.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)947-956
Number of pages10
JournalEuropean Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number8
Early online date28 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2017


  • Callous unemotional behaviours
  • Emotion recognition
  • Face
  • Infant
  • Sensitive parenting

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