Punishment insensitivity in early childhood: A developmental, dimensional approach

Sara R. Nichols, Margaret J. Briggs-Gowan, Ryne Estabrook, James L. Burns, Jacqueline Kestler, Grace Berman, David B. Henry, Lauren S. Wakschlag*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations

Abstract

Impairment in learning from punishment (“punishment insensitivity”) is an established feature of severe antisocial behavior in adults and youth but it has not been well studied as a developmental phenomenon. In early childhood, differentiating a normal: abnormal spectrum of punishment insensitivity is key for distinguishing normative misbehavior from atypical manifestations. This study employed a novel measure, the Multidimensional Assessment Profile of Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB), to examine the distribution, dimensionality, and external validity of punishment insensitivity in a large, demographically diverse community sample of preschoolers (3–5 years) recruited from pediatric clinics (N=1,855). Caregivers completed surveys from which a seven-item Punishment Insensitivity scale was derived. Findings indicated that Punishment Insensitivity behaviors are relatively common in young children, with at least 50 % of preschoolers exhibiting them sometimes. Item response theory analyses revealed a Punishment Insensitivity spectrum. Items varied along a severity continuum:most items needed to occur “Often” in order to be severe and behaviors that were qualitatively atypical or intense were more severe. Although there were item-level differences across sociodemographic groups, these were small. Construct, convergent, and divergent validity were demonstrated via association to low concern for others and noncompliance, motivational regulation, and a disruptive family context. Incremental clinical utility was demonstrated in relation to impairment. Early childhood punishment insensitivity varies along a severity continuum and is atypical when it predominates. Implications for understanding the phenomenology of emergent disruptive behavior are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberA001
Pages (from-to)1011-1023
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology
Volume43
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 1 2015

Keywords

  • Callousness
  • Developmentallysensitivemeasurement
  • Dimensional
  • Item response theory
  • Preschool disruptive behavior
  • Punishment insensitivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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