Behavioral Improvements but Limited Change in Callous-Unemotional Traits in Adolescents Treated for Conduct Problems

Dagfinn Mørkrid Thøgersen*, Mette Elmose, Essi Viding, Eamon McCrory, Gunnar Bjørnebekk

*Corresponding author for this work

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Callous-unemotional (CU) traits have been linked to more severe and sustained behavior problems among adolescents. The aims of this study were to examine the treatment impact and malleability of CU traits among adolescents and explore potential moderation effects of treatment condition and CU sub-typology. A sample of 159 adolescents (45.9% girls; M age = 14.7 years, SD = 1.47) and their parents participated in a randomized controlled trial of Functional Family Therapy with three assessments (baseline, 6-months and 18-months) of behavior problems, CU traits, prosocial skills and the parent-youth relationship. Latent growth curve model (LGCM) analyses revealed that children with higher CU traits had greater reductions in aggressive and rule-breaking behavior and greater improvements in social skills (|standardized coefficients| = 0.27–0.32). Similarly, higher CU traits were linked to larger increases in parent-ratings of family cohesion and youth-ratings of maternal support (standardized coefficients = 0.26–0.27). Reliable Change Index summaries showed that CU traits remained unchanged for the majority of participants (73.6% and 72.6% had no reliable short- and long-term change, respectively). Baseline anxiety linked to CU sub-typology moderated some of the study results. Findings show that adolescents with co-occurring behavior problems and elevated CU traits can obtain improvement in behavioral and relational outcomes in out-patient treatment. Strikingly, such improvements can occur notwithstanding a limited reduction in CU traits. Future work should investigate whether the treatment gains would be more substantial and stable if treatment adjuncts modifying the CU traits themselves were concurrently deployed.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Child and Family Studies
Issue number12
Pages (from-to)3342-3358
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • Adolescents
  • Behavior problems
  • Callous-unemotional traits
  • Family therapy
  • Predictor
  • Treatment outcomes


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