Are you worried about your child? Have you noticed a disturbing mean streak in them? Are they not fazed by punishment? Have you ever been so frightened of your child’s behaviour that you start to ask yourself, ‘Is my child a psychopath?

‘Is My Child a Psychopath?’ – How to Recognize the Signs

Adult psychopaths fascinate us, but they must have come from somewhere. So, would you be able to recognise psychopathic traits in your child?

Historically, studies into child psychopathy have been carried out retrospectively. In other words, we take the adult psychopath and look into his or her childhood. Adult psychopaths can share several traits common in childhood. The MacDonald Triad suggested three such significant traits:

  1. Bed-wetting
  2. Cruelty to animals
  3. Fire-setting

However, subsequent research has criticised the MacDonald Triad. Instead, studies have shown that traits such as ‘callous disregard’ are more common in children who go onto exhibit psychopathy as adults.

“I remember when I bit my mom really hard, and she was bleeding and crying. I remember feeling so happy, so overjoyed—completely fulfilled and satisfied.” Carl*

Adult Psychopathic Traits vs Child Psychopathy

Speaking of adults, adult psychopathic traits are well-documented. We know that psychopaths tend to exhibit certain behaviours.

Adult Psychopathic Traits

The Mayo Clinic defines psychopathy as:

“A mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others.”

Psychopaths make up about 1% of the population. Around 75% are male and 25% female.

Psychopaths share many characteristics. In fact, the Hare Checklist is a specific list of psychopathic traits. The most common adult psychopathic traits are:

  • Lying and manipulation
  • Lack of morals
  • No empathy
  • Superficial charm
  • Narcissism
  • Superiority complex
  • Gaslighting
  • Lack of conscience

So do children share these same traits as their adult counterparts?

“I wanted the whole world to myself. So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people. I want to kill all of you.” Samantha*

Child Psychopathy

Well, society does not label children as psychopaths. Instead, children with ‘dark traits’ are described as ‘callous and unemotional’. Experts use this callous-unemotional behaviour (CU behaviour) to form a diagnosis.

Examples of Callous Unemotional Behaviour in Children:

Studies into antisocial behaviour in children have captured several common traits in children as young as 2 years old:

  1. A lack of guilt after misbehaving
  2. No difference in behaviour after punishment
  3. Constant lying
  4. Sneaky behaviour designed to mislead you
  5. Selfish and aggressive behaviour when they don’t get what they want

Further research has led to the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory (YPI), which is similar to the Hare Checklist. Adolescents answer a series of questions which are then scored to measure the following personality traits:

  • Sense of grandiosity
  • Lying
  • Manipulation
  • Callous nature
  • No remorse
  • Insincere charm
  • Unemotionality
  • Thrill-seeking
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsible nature

Children and adolescents that exhibit many of the above CU traits are more likely to commit anti-social behaviour as young adults and end up in prison.

“Don’t let me hurt you, Mom.” Kevin*

Is a Child Psychopath a Product of Nature or Nurture?

There are some experts that believe child psychopaths are born this way. However, others think it is more likely to be a mixture of genes and environment.

Philosopher John Locke first suggested that children are ‘blank slates‘, filled with experiences from their parents and interactions with their environment. But children are more than that. They come with their own readymade personality. This core personality then interacts with family, friends, and society. The environment shapes this core personality into the adults we become.

So what can cause a child to become a psychopath?

What Are the Causes of Child Psychopathy?

Early childhood abuse

One of the strongest indications of child psychopathy is early abuse in childhood. In fact, neglected, abused, or children that grew up in dysfunctional environments are more likely to show psychopathic tendencies later on.

Attachment issues

Separation from a parent or primary caregiver can have devastating effects on a child. We know that it is essential to form an attachment with our parents. However, the parent in question could suffer from addiction or mental health problems.

In fact, studies show that young female psychopaths are likely to have come from dysfunctional home lives.

Victimisation

On the other hand, young male psychopaths are more likely to have been victimised at an early age. The perpetrator carrying out the victimisation can be a parent or the child’s peers. This reasoning confirms what we already know, in that victims of bullying will often become bullies themselves.

Different brain structure

Other studies propose that children who show CU behaviours have differences in their brain structure. This supports the theory that suggests adult psychopaths have different brains to the rest of us.

Children with CU traits have less grey matter in the limbic system. This system is responsible for processing emotions. They also have an underactive amygdala. Someone with an undersized amygdala has problems recognising emotions in others. Therefore, they lack empathy.

“Kill John and Mommy with them (knives). And Daddy.” Beth*

5 Signs Your Child Might Be a Psychopath

So we can understand some of the causes behind child psychopathy. But if you ask yourself, ‘Is my child a psychopath?’, what signs should you be looking out for?

1. Superficial charm

These children can appear charming but they are mimicking what they’ve seen other people do. The only reason they appear to be charming is to get what they want.

One way you can identify superficial charm in children is to watch their reactions when someone else is upset or distressed. In normal circumstances, seeing someone upset will be in itself upsetting to a child. They will try and comfort whoever is upset. If your child is a psychopath, they won’t care and it certainly won’t upset them.

2. Lack of guilt or remorse

Children with CU behaviour use their charm to manipulate others. If they want something, they will do anything in their power to get it. If this happens to hurt another person in the process, so be it. They don’t understand that their actions have consequences. All they know is that the world is there for them. Therefore, they can do whatever they want.

So look out for selfishness in your child, one that is not prepared to share with others and one that acts aggressively if their needs are not met.

3. Prone to aggressive outbursts

Most parents are used to toddler tantrums, but the aggressive outbursts from child psychopaths are much more than tantrums. If you feel frightened of your own child’s capabilities, it’s a sign of psychopathy.

One other thing to point out is that these outbursts will come from nowhere. For instance, one minute, everything is fine, the next, your child is threatening you with a knife if you don’t get them a new puppy. The outburst is a massive overreaction to the situation.

4. Immune to punishment

Brain scans have shown that reward systems in callous children are overactive, but they are unable to recognise the usual signs of punishment. This leads them to focus doggedly on their own pleasure without being able to stop, even if it means hurting someone. Moreover, they know that if they get caught, they’ll be reprimanded.

We usually temper our behaviour to match the consequences of our actions. If your child is a psychopath, they know the consequences – they just don’t care.

5. No empathy for others

Does your child seem flat behind the eyes? Do you look at them and wonder if they are capable of loving you? It’s not that they don’t know what love is, they just don’t experience it.

Child experts believe that inactivity in the amygdala is to blame. More interestingly, we know that babies, when given the choice, would rather look at human faces than something like a red ball. Studies reveal that children who exhibit CU behaviour prefer the red ball to a face.

“I choked my little brother.” Samantha*

Can a Child Psychopath Be Cured?

So can child psychopaths ever be cured? Probably not. But their behaviour can be modified.

Research has shown that children with CU behaviour do not respond to punishment. However, because their reward centre in the brain is overactive, they do respond to incentives. This is cognitive morality. So while the child may never recognise emotions or understand empathy, they do have a system that rewards them for good behaviour.

Final Thoughts

Nature or nurture, brain abnormalities, or neglect in childhood. Whatever the reason, seeing callous disregard in children is particularly horrifying. But it doesn’t have to mean a life sentence. So if you suspect that your child is a psychopath, you should know that with proper therapy, even the coldest of children can live a relatively normal life.

References:

  1. www.psychologytoday.com
  2. www.theatlantic.com
  3. www.telegraph.co.uk
  4. nypost.com

*Names changed.

Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

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the power of misfits

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    Pierre

    How would the author advise transitioning from another career into psychology?

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