8 Early Signs Of Psychopathy In Children: Causes & Treatment

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Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatriciThe field of medicine that focuses on mental disorders associated with nervous system diseases. disorder that is considered a type of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20% of children encounter a mental disorder within a given year, and psychopathy is one such disorder. It 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). Psychopathic children tend to exhibit repeated behaviors of apathy and a lack of social awareness in certain situations.

Read on to learn about the causes, signs, diagnosis, and treatment options for psychopathy in children.

In This Article

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 thrill-seeking and risky behavior.

Studies suggest that a combination of both genetic and environmental factors can lead to psychopathic personality in children (3) (4).

The following are some common environmental factors.

  • Parenting
Negative parenting can cause antisocial behavior in children

Image: Shutterstock

Studies have shown a strong link between the type of parenting and the development of childhood-onset psychopathy. 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).

Certain studies also highlighted how genetic and environmental factors influence the co-occurrence of multiple types of child victimization.

One study concluded that children who undergo one form of victimization are more susceptible to experiencing additional forms, possibly due to shared genetic and environmental factors. Additionally, males tend to experience less emotional and sexual abuse but more physical abuse than females. Furthermore, family-specific victimizations are also more frequent than family-unspecific victimizations.

Average child-victimization scores in two subsamples by gender

Source: Genetic Vulnerability to Experiencing Child Maltreatment; Frontiers in Genetics

protip_icon Did you know?
Research suggests that brain areas involved in emotion processing, empathizing, and decision-making show reduced activity in people with psychopathic attributes (18).

Signs Of Psychopathy In Children

Children with psychopathic traits tend to show a few typical signs. These signs may include

1. Lack of empathy

Children with psychopathic traits tend to lack empathy and often show hyposensitivity to other’s distress and pain (3) (7).

2. Aggression

Some children display uncontrollable hypersensitivityiExcessive or improper immunological responses to an antigen or allergy to anger meted out to them (7).

3. Extreme tantrums

Frequently throwing extreme tantrums may be a sign of psychopathy

Image: IStock

Some children tend to be unruly and highly aggressive often throwing tantrums that are extremely violent (8).

4. Chronic lying

Dishonesty and chronic lying are signs of psychopathy in children (9).

5. Indifference to punishment

Children with psychopathic tendencies may show an unpredictable indifference to punishments (10).

6. Superficially charming

Children with psychopathic traits can be superficially charming, with excellent manipulative abilities (3).

7. Animal cruelty

Cruelty to animals may be an early sign of antisocial behaviors in children

Image: Shutterstock

Unhinged cruelty to animals is often an early manifestation of conduct disorder and antisocial behavior in a child characterized by a lack of empathy and indifference.

8. Criminal behavior

Children with psychopathic traits tend to show delinquent-like or antisocial behaviors (10).

Joshua Webb, a psychologist and counselor, says, “People with psychopathy tend to have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their behavior. They often cannot recognize their actions’ consequences, leading to reckless or impulsive decision-making. Additionally, they may lack empathy and find it challenging to form meaningful connections with people.”

protip_icon Quick fact
Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder that can manifest in each child differently. Some children may show signs as early as three years of age, whereas some do not exhibit any noticeable signs until they are older (19).

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
  • Grandiosity
  • Lying
  • Manipulation
  • Remorselessness
  • Unemotionality
  • CallousnessiThe trait of being insensitive, uncaring, or unsympathetic
  • Thrill-seeking
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility

When To Call The Doctor?

If you notice your child lying or hiding something, it does not necessarily mean they have psychopathic traits. The behavior of a child may seem erratic at times, but it could also be a natural aspect of their development. However, if you notice your child repeatedly showing a lack of empathy and remorse, callous behavior that is not expected of them, bullying other people, or being cruel to animals, it is advisable to speak to their pediatrician. If you receive any complaint from the 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 tend to be deviant in their behavior and actions and do not respond to punishments (due to their callous-unemotional traits) well. Time out as a form of punishment might help.

One of the most effective methods is using rewards when they show good behavior (12).

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).

Relocating troubled children, whose psychopathic traits stem from an unsafe or unhappy family environment, to a safer and more loving one can help address their tendencies towards psychopathy.

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.

    Therapy sessions may help children with psychopathic tendencies

    Image: IStock

  • 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 psychostimulantsiPsychotropic chemicals with the ability to stimulate the central nervous system such as methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine, antipsychoticsiA type of medication used to treat the symptoms of psychosis such as risperidone, and mood stabilizers such as lithium and divalproate (14).

protip_icon Quick fact
Psychopathy treatment in children also involves family-focused therapies that help affected children develop emotional and behavioral management skills (20). These therapies also help parents learn skills to manage their child’s challenging behavior.

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 atmosphere at home is unstable, work on working on relationships within the family to make the environment positive and safe for the child.

    Make the home environment positive for the child

    Image: Shutterstock

  • Allow the child to work on their strengths.
  • To prevent causing harm to a maladjusted child, it is important to refrain from belittling, shaming, or scolding them publicly.
  • 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 a lifelong impact on children. Hence, you should choose your words carefully. Some psychologically damaging phrases you should not say to your child are listed are, “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), and “You are acting like a spoiled child” (shaming) (16) (17):

3. Do children with psychopathy have friends?

Webb opines, “They can have friends, but maintaining meaningful and lasting relationships is often difficult. This is because children with psychopathy lack empathy, making it hard for them to connect with others on an emotional level. Additionally, their willingness to manipulate and take advantage of people can lead to mistrust among potential friends.”

4. At what age does a psychopath develop?

“The psychopathic traits of primary and secondary psychopathy usually manifest during adolescence. Juvenile psychopathy, however, is typically seen in children under 12 who display impulsive and oppositional behavior. It is essential to understand that these traits are not necessarily indicative of a mental disorder, as many people with psychopathic tendencies do not go on to develop a diagnosable mental illness,” Webb observes.

Psychopathy in children is a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes behavioral problems and emotional dysregulation. 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.

Infographic: New Treatment For Children With Psychopathy

As parents, dealing with a child with dangerous and psychopathic behavior may be difficult, and you may feel hopeless sometimes. This infographic can be your light at the end of the tunnel. We provide you details of a new successful treatment and a true, inspirational story of a person who once was also dealing with a similar condition.

child with psychopathy (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • 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.
Psychopathic Children_illustration

Image: Stable Diffusion/MomJunction Design Team

References

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

1. Nathaniel E. Anderson and Kent A. Kiehl;Psychopathy: Developmental Perspectives and their Implications for Treatment Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience (2014).
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
18. Why do some people become psychopaths?; The Royal Society
19. Learn the Signs; PsychotherapyIs
20. Family-Focused Therapies; PsychotherapyIs

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Shreshtha Dhar
Shreshtha DharM.A, M.Phil
Shreshtha Dhar is a licensed Clinical Psychologist with a professional experience of around seven years. Presently, she operates her private practice, Thought Craft, based out of Kolkata. She has special interest in the emotional and behavioral issues of both children and adults.

Read full bio of Shreshtha Dhar
  • Joshua Webb
    Joshua WebbPsy. D Joshua Webb is a psychologist and has over eight years of clinical experience. He did his PsyD from Northeastern University College of Science. He specializes in psychology and counseling and is also a homeless shelter volunteer.
    Joshua Webb is a psychologist and has over eight years of clinical experience. He did his PsyD from Northeastern University College of Science. He specializes in psychology and counseling and is also a homeless shelter volunteer.
Apoorva K
Apoorva KMSc (Counseling Psychology)
Apoorva is a certified psychological counselor and NLP practitioner. The assistant professor-turned-writer believes that her experience as a teacher, psychologist, and researcher enables her to guide MomJunction readers on child development and mental health.

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Dr. Ritika Shah is a certified lactation counsellor (CLC) from iNational Health Care Academy, Singapore and a dental surgeon with more than seven years of clinical experience across various cities in India. She did her graduation in Dentistry from KM Shah Dental College.

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Vidya TadapatriMSc (Biotechnology)
Vidya did her post-graduation in Biotechnology from Osmania University, Hyderabad. Her interest in scientific research and writing made her pursue a career in writing, in which she now has over five years of experience. She has done certified biotechnology-related training programs under renowned organizations such as Centre For Cellular & Molecular Biology and Department of Biotechnology.

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