February 3, 2023

Bullying: Contingent Self-Worth and Callous-Unemotional Traits

What does contingent self-worth (CS) and callous-unemotional (CU) traits have to do with each other and how are they related to bullying and parenting? Let’s explore these two concepts and their relationship. When individuals’ self-worth and esteem is primarily based on external factors and other people’s perceptions they are said to have “contingent self-worth.” Think of CS as being on a continuum or gradient…from low to high. When an individual’s CS is high it is also associated with socialized anxiety, generalized anxiety and depression which increases one’s vulnerability to the negative.

A recent study out of Rutgers University, published in the Journal of Adolescence, looked at the relationship between CS and bullying (peer victimization) in a high school population. As was expected, both CS and being bullied were associated with high levels of internalizing problems―like anxiety and depression. What they also found was that high CS had a significant worsening effect on the bullied child. In other words, the child with high CS who was also being victimized by their peers experienced significantly greater social and generalized anxiety and depression. The relationship held true for both boys and girls, but girls reported greater internalizing symptoms than boys.

What is the practical benefit of these findings for parents, teachers and policy makers? When our children’s sense of worth and value comes primarily from the “outside” they tend to have more problems with illness, body complaints, social problems, anxiety and depression. This makes them highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of bullying and other victimizations. Healthy development and living requires some internal control of one’s worth and value which fortifies and inoculates against external threats.

A recent study conducted at the University of Oxford evaluated 30 studies that examined relationships between parenting, antisocial behavior and CU traits. Callous-unemotional traits are characteristics like deceitfulness, having very little emotional connectedness, being manipulative and having very little guilt or remorse. These traits are strongly associated with antisocial behavior. Across all studies parenting styles predicted CU traits and CU traits of children predicted parenting styles. For example, high CU traits were predicted by harsh parenting, inconsistent discipline, corporal punishment and poor parent-child communication. On the other hand, when parents had a style of warmth and used ample positive reinforcement…child CU traits were low. Also, when children had higher CU traits there was a decrease in parental involvement and increased corporal punishment, which led to the development of antisocial behavior. The studies that examined treatment outcomes suggest that CU traits decreased with treatment. Hmmm…I think we get the connection.

Here’s the “take-away” parents: First, claim your power as the one who teaches your child how to develop an internal reference for self-worth…this empowers them and makes them less vulnerable to the negative impacts of victimization and increases their well-being. Second, be warm and nurturing with your children. Remain available and involved. Use ample positive reinforcement of healthy behaviors. And if your child has high CU, by all means, seek treatment.

For more on effective parenting…check out my new book, Becoming a Power Parent: Seven Guiding Principles for Creating a Healthy Family. Until next time…Claim your power and expand your dreams! ~Dr. B

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