Child maltreatment, callous-unemotional traits, and defensive responding in high-risk children: An investigation of emotion-modulated startle response

Melissa N. Dackis, Fred A. Rogosch, Dante Cicchetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Child maltreatment is associated with disruptions in physiological arousal, emotion regulation, and defensive responses to cues of threat and distress, as well as increased risk for callous unemotional (CU) traits and externalizing behavior. Developmental models of CU traits have focused on biological and genetic risk factors that contribute to hypoarousal and antisocial behavior, but have focused less on environmental influences (Blair, 2004; Daversa, 2010; Hare, Frazell, & Cox, 1978; Krueger, 2000; Shirtcliff et al., 2009; Viding, Fontaine, & McCrory, 2012). The aim of the present investigation was to measure the independent and combined effects of child maltreatment and high CU traits on emotion-modulated startle response in children. Participants consisted of 132 low-income maltreated (n = 60) and nonmaltreated (n = 72) children between 8 and 12 years old who attended a summer camp program. Acoustic startle response (ASR) was elicited in response to a 110-dB 50-ms probe while children viewed a slideshow of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant IAPS images. Maltreatment status was assessed through examination of Department of Human Services records. CU traits were measured using counselor reports from the Inventory of Callous and Unemotional Traits (Frick, 2004), and conduct problems were measured using counselor and child self-report. We found no significant differences in emotion-modulated startle in the overall sample. However, significant differences in ASR by maltreatment status, maltreatment subtype, and level of CU traits were apparent. Results indicated differential physiological responses for maltreated and nonmaltreated children based on CU traits, including a pathway of hypoarousal for nonmaltreated/high CU children that differed markedly from a more normative physiological trajectory for maltreated/high CU children. Further, we found heightened ASR for emotionally and physically neglected children with high CU and elevated antisocial behavior in these children. Results provide further support for differential trajectories by which experience and biology may influence the development of antisocial behavior in youth and highlight potential avenues for intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1527-1545
Number of pages19
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
StatePublished - Nov 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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