Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder that is considered a type of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Psychopathic children tend to exhibit repeated behaviors of apathy and a lack of social awareness in certain situations.
Psychopathy is characterized by a deficiency of emotional responses, poor social skills, and lack of empathy, resulting in an antisocial personality and a tendency for criminal behavior (1).
Read on to learn about the causes, signs, diagnosis, and treatment options for psychopathy in children.
Causes Of Psychopathy In Children
It was only after the 1990s that the concept called child psychopathy gained prominence. Earlier, psychopathy was associated primarily with adult psychopathy.
Researchers in the 1990s categorized psychopathy into three dimensions, namely callous-unemotional (CU) traits, Grandiose-manipulative (GM) traits, and daring-impulsive (DI) traits. They found that these were not unique to adults but could be spotted early in childhood too (2) (3).
- CU traits are a type of persistent behavior in which a person shows disregard for others and has low empathy and remorse.
- GM traits, also called narcissism, include exaggerated self-importance, feeling of superiority, preoccupation with fantasies about success and power, and urge to charm people and manipulate them.
- DI traits include risk-taking and thrill-seeking behavior.
The following are some common environmental factors.
Studies have shown a strong link between the type of parenting and the development of psychopathy in children. Both ends of the spectrum — harsh, cold parenting and supportive parenting — can cause a child to develop GM Traits (2). However, a stronger link is seen between negative parenting and the development of a child’s antisocial behavior (5).
- Early life experiences
A few studies have established a connection between adverse early life experiences and psychopathic traits in children. For example, a child who has experienced physical or sexual abuse or is a victim of emotional neglect can become callous and unemotional (6).
Signs Of Psychopathy In Children
Children with psychopathic traits tend to show a few typical signs. These signs may include
1. Lack of empathy
Some children show hypersensitivity to anger meted out to them (7).
3. Extreme tantrums
4. Chronic lying
Dishonesty and chronic lying are signs of psychopathy in children (9).
5. Indifference to punishment
6. Superficially charming
Children with psychopathic traits can be superficially charming, with excellent manipulative abilities (3).
7. Animal cruelty
Cruelty to animals is often an early manifestation of conduct problems and antisocial behavior in a child characterized by a lack of empathy and indifference.
8. Criminal behavior
Children with psychopathic traits tend to show criminal or antisocial behaviors (10).
Diagnosis Of Psychopathy In Children
The diagnostic tools for psychopathy in children are limited and self-report assessments such as Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory (YPI) are more commonly used (9).
The YPI test is essentially a questionnaire that helps assess symptoms in children and adolescents suspected to have psychopathic traits (9). This questionnaire assesses symptoms under ten subscales, which are combined into the three psychopathic personality components, namely interpersonal, affective, and behavior (9).
The symptoms assessed under the ten subscales include (11)
- Dishonest charm
When To Call The Doctor?
If you notice your child lying or hiding something, it does not necessarily mean they have psychopathic traits. However, if you notice your child repeatedly showing a lack of empathy and remorse, cruelty towards other people or animals, or callous behavior that is not expected of them, it is advisable to speak to their pediatrician. If you receive any complaint from school or parent of other children, do take a note.
Treatment For Psychopathy In Children
Studies have shown that psychopathy increases with age, and so, prompt treatment in childhood is encouraged. The treatment for psychopathy in children is multimodal and complex. Earlier, psychopathy was thought to be untreatable; however, there have been recent advances in the field.
Children with psychopathic traits do not respond to punishments (due to their callous-unemotional traits) well. Time out as a form of punishment might help.
Since morality and empathy are not observed in children with psychopathy, rewarding them helps build their cognitive empathy (knowing what the other person feels or thinks).
In children whose psychopathic traits stem from living in an unsafe environment or an unhappy family, relocating them to a safe and more loving environment can help resolve their psychopathic tendencies.
Other treatment options for psychopathy in children include (13)
- Personalized and focussed therapies: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Risk-Need- Responsivity (RNR), Schema-Focussed Therapy (SFT), Transference-Focused Psychotherapy (TFP) are some examples.
- Medications: Medications are usually prescribed to patients who do not respond to any other form of therapy mentioned above. Although medications do not cure psychotherapy, they may help reduce the symptoms.
Some commonly used medications in these conditions include psychostimulants such as methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine, antipsychotics such as risperidone, and mood stabilizers such as lithium and divalproate (14).
How To Deal With Kids Showing Psychopathic Tendencies?
Dealing with a child who shows psychopathic tendencies might be challenging and requires a good balance of tact, love, and therapy. While they need professional intervention, parents have a critical role in managing the condition.
Here is what you can do.
- Work on your relationship with the child.
- Boost the child’s self-esteem.
- If the home is not cordial, work on working on relationships within the family to make the environment positive and safe for the child.
- Allow the child to work on their strengths.
- Avoid putting down the child, embarrassing them, or reprimanding them in front of others.
- Focus on positivity and be encouraging of them.
- Do not mete out harsh punishments.
- Gain the trust of the child.
- Reinforce positive emotions, and make them feel you are on the same side as them.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can a child be born with psychopathy?
Children are not born with psychopathy. However, some may have a higher risk of developing it due to their genetic inheritance (15).
2. What are some psychologically damaging phrases I should not say to a child?
Hurtful words from parents can have lifelong impact on children. Hence, you should choose your words carefully. Some psychologically damaging phrases you should not say to your child are listed below (16) (17):
- You are a bad child (negative labeling).
- I wish you were never born (withdrawing love).
- I don’t want to talk to you (frowning).
- Your elder sibling is smarter than you (comparing).
- You are acting like a spoiled child (shaming).
- Stop acting like a baby (shaming).
Psychopathy in children is a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes poor behavioral and emotional control. Genetics, poor parenting, and negative early life experiences are factors that can cause psychopathic traits in children. Early identification of the signs and prompt treatment initiation are essential to manage the disorder and help the child live their life. Boosting the child’s confidence, encouraging the child to work on their strengths, and reinforcing positive emotions are simple ways to deal with a child having psychopathic behavior.
- Indifference towards others, narcissism, and risky or thrill-seeking behaviors that arise from early experiences or parenting may cause psychopathy in children.
- Aggression, lying, and tantrums are some signs indicating psychopathy. It can be diagnosed with the help of the YPI test questionnaire.
- Personalized therapy and medication can help treat the issue, avoid harsh punishments, and boost the child’s self-esteem.
2. Reconstructing Child Psychopathy; The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health
3. Simone Pisano et al.;Conduct disorders and psychopathy in children and adolescents: aetiology, clinical presentation and treatment strategies of callous-unemotional traits;Italian Journal of Pediatrics (2017).
4. S. Bezdjian et al.;Psychopathic personality in children: genetic and environmental contributions;HHS Author Manuscripts (2011).
5. Catherine Tuvblad et al.;Psychopathic Personality and Negative Parent-to-Child Affect: A Longitudinal Cross-lag Twin Study;Journal of Criminal Justice (2013).
6. Leah E. Daigle and Brent Teasdale;Psychopathic Traits and Recurring Victimization: An Examination Using a Community and Clinic Sample;Criminal Justice and Behavior (2018).
7.Alice Jones Bartoll and Essi Viding; Psychopathic Traits in Young Children;Netherlands Journal of Psychology (2007).
8. Rebecca Waller and Luke Hyde;Callous-Unemotional Behaviors in Early Childhood: Measurement, Meaning, and the Influence of Parenting;Child Development Perspectives (2017).
9. Wendeng Yang et al.;Factor Structure and Construct Validity of the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory and Its Shorten Version in Chinese Detained Boys;Frontiers in Psychology (2019).
10. Mairead Dolan;Psychopathic Personality in Young People,Cambridge University Press (2018).
11. Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory (YPI);Pathways to Resistance
12. Scientists Develop New Strategies for Child Psychopaths;NPR
13. Treating Psychopathy;PsychopathyIs
14. Medication; PsychotherapyIs
15. What Causes Psychopathy; PsychotherapyIs
16. Words And Actions Can Hurt; Bringing Up Great Kids
17. “Good” Children – at What Price? The Natural Child Project