Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

A roundup of psychoanalytic points of view

Can a Child Be a Psychopath?

Parental fantasies, expectations can influence a child’s personality development

By Tiffany McLain, M.S.

Our culture is fascinated by the concept of child psychopaths. From Damien in “The Omen” to the chilling antagonist in “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” the idea that some infants are born with an evil disposition is explored repeatedly in popular media. But does this notion hold water, psychoanalytically speaking? Actually, parental fantasies and expectations can contribute substantially to a child’s personality development.

I gave much thought to this issue when reading a New York Times article, “Can you call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?” written by Jennifer Khan. Her question of whether evil is “born” or “made” is very compelling.  Khan’s snapshot of this family concludes that everything seems “exceedingly normal,” and thus the inference is that evil is “born.”

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Khan's conclusions about the child at the center of this article fail to consider family history and the situation into which he was born. Instead she asserts that a child's personality is fixed from conception, a genetically determined roll of the dice.

But what about the role of parental fantasies and expectations in the development of the child’s personality? Psychoanalysis tells us that what a parent anticipates with respect to their child—“he was such a fussy baby, no doubt he’ll be a troublemaker”—can influence the child’s personality and behavior.

Khan applies what seems like in-depth sleuthing to determine whether there might be something amiss in this family that would lead to the son’s “psychopathic” behavior. Her outcome? Nope - everything looked fine!

After spending an evening with the family observing parents Anne and Miguel’s behavior, and also interacting with their son Michael, Khan concludes, “It was tempting to scrutinize Anne and Miguel for signs of dysfunctional dynamics that might be the source of Michael’s odd behavior. But the family seemed, if anything, exceedingly normal.”

Michael’s strange behavior began around three years of age. He would “shriek inconsolably,” and have massive tantrums when asked to perform ordinary tasks. By five, his parents report, “Michael had developed an uncanny ability to switch from full-blown anger to moments of pure rationality or calculated charm,” to get his way.

Children cannot technically be diagnosed with Psychopathy. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) V, psychopathic individuals are those who have a pervasive pattern of violating the rights of others. Specific traits accompany the diagnosis, including impulsivity, lack of remorse, and deceitfulness. Researchers who study the roots of psychopathy in children report the behaviors as subtler, describing them as unemotional, callous and highly manipulative.

Was 9-year-old Michael, indeed, born evil? Khan pointed out that initially, Michael seemed to demonstrate a kindly interest in her and empathy for his younger siblings. Yet she later observed that this façade eroded as Michael’s calculated motivations were uncovered.

Though Michael initially performed brotherly tasks like comforting his younger sibling, Alan, when he fell off his scooter, Khan describes these behaviors as appearing “forced.”  Khan’s suspicions were validated when, minutes later, she observed the following scene:

Michael turned to me and remarked crisply, "As you can see, I don’t really like Alan." When I asked if that was really true, he said: "Yes. It’s true,” then added tonelessly, “I hate him.”

Citing expert opinions, tearful revelations from Michael’s mother, and scientific data, Khan “proved” that, indeed, psychopaths are born, not made. She reported on research that concluded children who display “callous-unemotional” behavior have lower levels of cortisol and decreased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and shame. She described another study (for which she provided no citation) that determined “the heritability of callous-unemotional traits is at 80 percent.”

Ah, yes, all signs point to this conclusion. In this very article, we see two highly functioning parents struggling to put the pieces together, two younger siblings bouncing around the home as normal kids do, and then Michael – a cruelly deceptive wunderkind. Psychopaths are born – case closed!

Yet, about halfway through the article, I noticed something amiss in Khan’s reasoning.

One particularly disturbing moment was a scene in which the young Michael cried out, facing his dad’s reprimands after attempting to “do violence” against his little brother.

“Daddy! Daddy! Why are you doing this to me?” he begged, as Miguel carried him to his room. “No, Daddy! I have a greater bond with you than I do with Mommy!”

The wording of Michael’s plea suggests years of involvement with psychologists, parental interventions and chronic engagement with the mental health system. It was this plea coupled with his mother’s admission that, “I’ve always said that Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer,” which leads us towards a different set of questions altogether.

A psychoanalytic exploration would expand the dialogue and consider another avenue of inquiry: what is our investment in, and what are the consequences of believing that people can be born evil?

What impact does it have on Michael to see terror, hatred and suspicion in his mother’s eyes when they come to rest on him? What implications will this have as he attempts to build relationships with others?

What about the family history going back several generations, including Michael’s parents, grandparents, and the legacy of trauma that might seek voice in the current generation?

If we take up these larger questions, there is a shift in our notion of responsibility. We could conceive of new solutions for Michael’s family – perhaps individual treatment for Michael's mother to address her anxieties about Michael, treatment for the family in order to re-establish the parental authority, or couples therapy to look at potential rifts between Michael's parents that could be contributing to Michael’s behavior.

I am not denying that heredity might play a role in Michael’s behavior. But before jumping to the conclusion that he was “born evil,” I suggest we examine the role of parental expectation and fantasy, as well as considering an expanded view of family history; these are all factors that might contribute to the development of “psychopathic” tendencies in a child.

Tiffany McLain, M.S., is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern and division chair for the largest local chapter of Div. 39, NCSPP. She has a private practice under the supervision of Julie Leavitt, MD in San Francisco. Tiffany’s mission is to bring psychoanalytic theory and practice into popular discourse through her website: www.psychoanalysisissexy.com.

Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, edited by Susan Kolod, Ph.D., and Melissa Ritter, Ph.D, is under the auspices of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, the journal of the William Alanson White Institute.

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