Psychopathy in Children

Every adult psychopath was once a child. But was every adult psychopath once a child psychopath? The verdict is still out on how and when psychopathy emerges, but it does appear that certain traits can suggest that a given child will go on to become an adult with psychopathy.

One such trait, according to researchers from University College London, appears to be laughing less. In a study published this month, the researchers found that boys at higher risk for psychopathy have weaker responses to the laughter of others in a certain part of the brain. Moreover, these boys report having less desire to join in when others are laughing.

Not all the signs that hint at possible psychopathy to come are so specific.

Most commonly, when psychologists assess children’s risk for psychopathy, they look at what are called callous-unemotional traits. These are more or less what they sound like, and they include classic psychopathic traits like emotional shallowness and a lack of empathy or remorse.

Like adults, children vary in how they score on callous-unemotional traits. According to a 2017 paper, callous-unemotional traits seem to arise from an interaction between both genetic and environmental causes (including parenting). Although callous-unemotional traits often remain stable through adolescence, it appears that at least in some cases, they can be reduced with the right kind of therapy.

This latter finding highlights an important point: when we talk about identifying psychopathic traits in children, the goal is not to label certain children as “psychopaths.” It’s to give them access to therapy that will benefit both them and society in the long-run.

Callous-unemotional traits aren’t the only traits that have been proposed for figuring out which children are at higher risk for psychopathy. Two other kinds of traits that have also been explored: a tendency to be grandiose and deceitful, and a tendency to be impulsive and seek stimulation.

All three of these traits have both a genetic and an environmental component. A study of 1189 five-year-old twins found that for children this age, the genetic influence on grandiose-deceitful, callous-unemotional, and impulsive-need for stimulation traits was 57, 25 and 74 percent respectively.

Of course, not every child who is deceitful or impulsive is on track to become a psychopath! However, children at higher risk for psychopathy do tend to have all three of these kinds of traits, so high scores on all three dimensions may be telling.

In the end, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how psychopathy develops or even what exactly it is. But the current research suggests that signs of psychopathy can emerge during childhood and that for children who show these traits, therapy can be helpful.

Image: Flickr/BrownZelip