First- we need to examine what a psychopath actually is…
According to Dr. Robert Hare in his highly acclaimed book, Without Conscience, not all psychopaths are the blood-thirsty ghouls we expect them to be. They don’t conduct themselves in ways that are obvious, like breathing fire out of their arm-pits. While they are evil at their core, for the most part, there are no blatant, tell-tale, physical signs.
I’ve heard people say they can tell a psychopath by their stare. But in the exposure I’ve had to individuals I believe are psychopathic, there was no fixed gaze to give them away.
Simply put, a psychopath is a person with the character disorder in which they lack emotional empathy, and therefore, they don’t develop a conscience. As a result, they can commit harmful acts against others with no degree of caring, concern, or remorse.
The Hare Psychopathy Checklist measures their level of harmfullness. But just because they don’t score at the top of the range, does not mean they’re not a psychopath.
Upbringing, not conscience, can deter them from ghoulish behavior. A character disordered child who is abused is more likely to become a heinous deviant than one who is raised in a more supportive environment. A child from an otherwise normal upbringing, is more likely to become a white-collar criminal who lies and cheats, rather than one who conducts unspeakable violence.
Psychopaths often go undetected because their early family life provided them sufficient knowledge about societal expectations to enable them to fit-in. But they are not guided by morality, virtue, or concern for their fellow man. Instead, they are only reigned-in by their fear of discovery or consequences.
How did they get that way?
Since prison settings provide access to a seemingly large volume of psychopaths, their populations are often the subjects for research. But this approach gives us a skewed sense of the frequency of encountering psychopaths in our daily lives.
The rough estimate of the ratio of psychopaths is approximately 4% of the population. But they conduct themselves in a serial fashion and; therefore, harm far more than 4% of mankind.
Modern mental health professionals suspect a genetic link to a pre-disposition to psychopathy. Its existence does not equate to every child of a psychopath becoming a psychopath. Rather, the child of a psychopath is “at-risk” for becoming a psychopath.
What passes along in DNA?
Our brain chemistry makes mankind trusting and caring. The principal neurotransmitter that serves as a foundation for conscience is thought to be, (according to Dr. Paul Zak in The Moral Molecule,) oxytocin. Our genes control our levels of oxytocin and our reaction to it can be shaped through early childhood development.
With normally functioning oxytocin receptors, we experience early bonding and develop emotional empathy, the knee-jerk reaction to the welfare of others. Without oxytocin, or with early developed negativity toward oxytocin, our ability to bond and feel concern for another person’s welfare becomes compromised.
How can we tell whether our child has empathy or not?
If your six year old or older child:
- is indifferent to the pain or problems another person exhibits, including their siblings, or you,
- throws tantrums when they don’t get their way
- puts the safety of others or animals at risk,
- is a bully,
- is continuously bullied,
- exhibits oppositional/defiant behavior
- is excessively impulsive,
- experiences phobias,
- has a love affair with weapons
- commits bodily harm against themselves or others
…..they may be showing early signs of character disorder.
Mental health professionals don’t label children “psychopathic.” Instead, they use the terms, “conduct disorder,” “behavior disorder,” or “emotionally disturbed.” Any of these diagnoses could signal development into character disorder as an adult.
What can I do to correct the problem?
Look seriously at the signs you see from your toddler. Don’t overlook them! They are unlikely to go away on their own! At this stage, you could make a difference.
Are they responsive to cuddling, caring and warmth? Are your attempts at boundary setting conveying love or making them fearful?
According to Dr. Liane Leedom in her ground-breaking book, Just Like His Father, children who are at-risk of becoming psychopaths need an extremely nurturing environment with significant levels of parental warmth. Devote time laughing and being joyous with your at-risk child. Keep as much acrimony from affecting them as possible, and try to reduce the level of stress in your home environment. Abandonment of an at-risk child, by either parent, can have a devastating affect on their development.
If your child reaches the age of six, and their morality is stuck at self-centered, get professional help for them. Involve them in activities that promote sharing and caring like volunteering, helping others, and by providing religious supports. If you are single, spend time with couples who embody cooperation, respect and a loving relationship.
When will I know the results?
Most parents find the teen years trying. But even teenagers will express respect for their parents. Character disordered kids will believe that rules are made to be broken. Teenaged impulsivity can take the form of drugs or alcohol abuse, fighting, truancy, promiscuity and juvenile delinquency. Usually, by their mid twenties, with independence, permanent character becomes obvious.
Your child’s development into psychopathy is impacted by genetics and experiences that can be totally out of your control. But knowing that a child is at-risk, understanding the genetic link to the disorder, can help you create the most supportive environment to deter them from violence. Nothing will impart a conscience to a psychopath.
If you are the unfortunate parent of a character disordered son or daughter, hopefully, you can find peace in knowing you did the best you could with the resources and knowledge you had at the time.
16 thoughts on “When are kids “at-risk” for becoming psychopaths?”
Robert Hare is a fraud. Psychopaths are born, not created. He’s thinking of the sociopath. Dude used to claim they wet their bed, started fires and obviously tortured animals. All this fear over so many kids becoming psychopaths is incidental. Blame the iPhones, youtube culture that post videos of people dying, doing horrible things, beating up people of another race in protest to a cop shooting a person, and the fact that society is dead unless you are connected to the internet. People, while always flawed and violent, are now cruel and laugh at horrible things. It’s just going to get worse while the govt gains more power over everyone. They’re run by ACTUAL psychopaths who have always been psychopaths which will just bring upon more chaos.
Thanks for your comment. I’ve responded to it with today’s post: The Color Wheel of Conscience
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This is a very thought-provoking article!
I’m on the fence as to whether or not a psychopathic child can be ‘changed.’
Reducing the level of destruction sounds good — but is it really reduced or is the mode of destruction simply changed from violence and other punishable crimes, to the moral crimes (and resultant emotional devastation) so many have perpetrated as “sub-criminal” psychopaths?
I hope that treatment for psychopathic (“callous-unemotional”) children is possible and will be developed. Some experts say if these kids are missing the hardware for empathy, it can’t be taught. Others say the brain can be re-wired. We’ve certainly learned a lot about neuroplasticity in recent years, and I think we’ll learn a lot more.
Another interesting article on the subject is “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?” It presents both schools of thought.
Thanks for your input. The article you linked to underscores what still is a major unknown in psychopathic development. I thought the following statement was especially noteworthy:
“In the 1970s, the psychiatry researcher Lee Robins conducted a series of studies on children with behavioral problems, following them into adulthood. Those studies revealed two things. The first was that nearly every psychopathic adult was deeply antisocial as a child. The second was that almost 50 percent of children who scored high on measures of antisocial qualities did not go on to become psychopathic adults. Early test scores, in other words, were necessary but not sufficient in predicting who ultimately became a violent criminal.”
I’m wondering what could have been determined if they had tracked the amount of empathy each child displayed. I’d predict that the 50% that did not become psychopaths, while unruly and impulsive as children, were empathetic.
I’ve seen other writings that focus on the concept that the social supports and boundaries of family life, for developing children, will have an impact on how far afield they might go as psychopathic adults. So while I don’t think it’s possible to instill basic empathy into the brain of a child who lacks it, I hope that their environment could mitigate their end result…. preventing selfish, cruel behavior from escalating into ghoulish behavior. That is not to say, however, that every heinously behaving adult sociopath had a lesser upbringing than a non-violent one.
Steps a parent can take to deter the formation of psychopathy is a conundrum that has yet to be figured out by the mental health community. But it’s important for society to know that psychopaths exist, walk around us with no distinctive physical characteristics that set them apart, will harm you, and will not change.
Reblogged this on Listen Through My Heart.
My profession involves being on a first line of support when a child is suspected to have a disability…in the public education system. As a co-parent with a psychopath, this is something that crosses my mind when I hear of things like, shooting animals for fun (not hunting-just shooting). It’s nature vs nurture in action…so far, our shared children demonstrate empathy, but it gets polluted on a regular basis. Thank you for continuing to put light into the darkness💜
Kudos for your efforts on behalf of kids!
“But knowing that a child is at-risk, understanding that there is a genetic link to the disorder, can help you provide the most supportive environment possible to build morality in your child.” — This statement contradicts the science that oxytocin and gray matter abnormalities are behind psychopathy. I grew up in a family of psychopaths and have seen the entire range of misconduct that accompanies a lack of conscience.
There is no way to build morality in a people who are born without it. A healthy environment only provides a means to encourage good conduct in a psychopath. It provides a way for them to hide better, if that’s important to you. Psychopaths who behave properly in social situations are much nicer to be around.
“But they are not guided by morality, virtue, or concern for their fellow man. Instead, they are only reigned-in by their fear of discovery or consequences.”
You are going in 2 different directions in this post.
(As an aside, psychopaths do not go around normally with the stare. If that were the case, they would be easily identified. The stare is a rare occurrence when the mask is slipping, and a quick glimpse their empty souls.)
Nature and nurture can expand or shut down oxytocin receptors. When oxytocin’s warmth is associated with harm, as in early childhood abuse, even the baby who began life with no risk factor can become disordered.
Agreed that oxytocin and grey matter abnormalities are a large factor in psychopathy, but the jury is still out on whether they tell the entire story in each and every case. While it would seem reasonable that specific deficits could not be overridden by parental input, some children could benefit from positive remediation during their very early stages of development.
The psychopath who is raised in a nurturing environment is statistically less likely to become a Ted Bundy than the disordered child who is abused. So even if the only benefit gained from heightened nurturing and warmth is to reduce the level of destruction that may ultimately develop, it seems well worth the effort.
I think any parent of a psychopath would agree that in a choice between raising an offspring that cheats and lies, vs raising one who walks into a school with a shotgun, there is no contest as to their preference. So while, as parents, we may not be able to influence a disordered child to be loving and moral, we can do everything possible to prevent them from becoming a ghoul.
Dr. Liane Leedom, in her book, “Just Like His Father,” focuses on developing the triangle of impulse control, moral reasoning and ability to love.
The majority of psychopaths get away with the emotional destruction of people, as well as the environmental destruction of the planet. I personally prefer psychopaths to be obvious about their disorder so they are not mistaken as normal.
Unfortunately, their disorder would prevent them from either admitting that they are harmful or disclosing who they are. So it’s unlikely that we could ever count on their being obvious.
What we can do, however, is raise society’s awareness that psychopaths come in all shapes and sizes. On average, if you’re standing in a room filled with 100 people, there are likely to be 4 psychopaths among them. They have no morality. There is no cure. They will harm you because they see you as an object to be used and abused rather than a human being to be respected and cared about.
I know you’re trying to spread the word, and encourage you to keep up the good work!
having a grandson who is bipolar at age 11 was an eye-opener. There was a history of Schizophrenia in his mom’s family. He acted out a lot as a child and had noticeable problems, but it was hard getting him diagnosed, even harder to get him treatment!
I’m sorry to hear about your grandson’s disorder. Mental health professionals are resistant to “labeling” children, even though doing so will aid in getting a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Fortunately, today we have mood stabilizers that can help manage people who suffer with bipolar conditions. And even though their affect can have wide swings, a child with a bipolar condition can be firmly rooted in morality. Not so for kids who fail to develop a conscience. And there are still no medications that create empathy, either permanently or temporarily.
He is a loving child who knows grandpa is hurt and tries to help and plays with his younger brothers and is as frustrated by his mood swings as much as we are. They are slowly getting his medications straight. I have consulted with his mother frequently over meds; as I know it is a balancing act with a developing child!
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