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?
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.