Characterising youth with callous-unemotional traits and concurrent anxiety: Evidence for a high-risk clinical group

Charlotte A. M. Cecil, Eamon J. McCrory, Edward D. Barker, Jo Guiney, Essi Viding

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Growing evidence supports the existence of two variants of youth with high callous–unemotional (CU) traits who present with markedly different risk profiles and outcomes, with potential implications for risk assessment and treatment formulation. So far, studies have identified variants of CU youth mainly using data-driven cluster approaches based on levels of CU traits and co-occurring anxiety. Yet, the extent to which this knowledge may be translated into clinical practice is unclear. To this end, the present study employed a severity-based, cut-off approach to systematically characterise CU groups across a range of clinically informative domains, including trauma history, psychiatric symptomatology, affective functioning, attachment style and behavioural risk. Analyses were based on multi-rated data from a community sample of high-risk youths (n = 155, M = 18 years). Consistent with previous studies, we found that, whereas variants show comparable levels of antisocial behaviour, those who present with both high CU and high anxiety report more severe childhood maltreatment, psychological distress, ADHD symptomatology and behavioural risk—including substance use, suicidal ideation and unsafe sex. In addition, these youth show greater attachment insecurity and affective dysregulation, as indexed by levels of irritability and alexithymia. Together, findings indicate that (1) trauma history is a key factor that differentiates variants of CU youth high vs. low on anxiety, and (2) differences in individual functioning across variants point to the need for tailored clinical assessment tools and intervention strategies. Importantly, the present findings indicate that variants of CU youth can be meaningfully differentiated using cut-off based approaches that parallel methods used in clinical assessments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
JournalEuropean child & adolescent psychiatry
Early online date8 Dec 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Dec 2017


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