The Human Equation

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Scary Children

Child Psychopathy and When it's More Than Just a Phase

Siblings fight, sometimes ferociously.  Children tease animals or treat them like toys.  It's not that uncommon for children to lie, steal, or laugh when a schoolmate skins his knee.  So how do we know when a child is so outside the spectrum of normal misbehavior that it should be a cause for alarm?  

A Tough Call for Parents

Childcare workers know.  Teachers know.  A lot of times other children do too.

For parents, though, it can be a lot harder.  You have first-time parents who don't have any experience or norms to compare their child's behavior to.  You have anxious parents who worry about everything, making it harder for them to sort out the things they really should worry about.   You have moms and dads who are so invested in their role as parent that any hint that a child is disturbed is viewed as a personal assault; this can be a pretty strong motivator for denial.

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You have concerned parents who call their pediatrician, only to be told that the child will grow out of it.  Or worse, you take your out-of-control child to a therapist, only to find out he's manipulated the mental health professional into believing nothing is wrong.  Deciding whether or not a child has a problem, and getting the right help for it, is a tough road for parents to hoe.

Something's Not Right

When I was 19, I worked in a day care and at a summer camp.  I got to be around a lot of children from age 18 months to 12.  I saw a lot of different personalities, attitudes, behaviors; in fact, it was pretty easy to develop an informal set of norms for how most children of a certain age acted.

There was this one 10 year old child, R. who was different.  This wasn't a kid who not only disliked his little brother; this was a kid determined to hurt him.  Any chance he got to knock him down on the playground he took.

While his 4 year old brother was his primary target, he was mean to anyone who got in his way.  And mean not in an "I lost my temper and lashed out" kind of way.  No, this kid would plot his revenge on anyone who told on him, who didn't give him what he wanted, or who attempted to minimize the damage he wanted to do to his sibling.  It might be the next day or the next week; he never forgot a perceived insult or injury and he never failed to steal a lunch, plant false evidence of theft, or find a way to trip the kid when he thought no one was looking.  By the end of the summer, not only were the kids afraid of him; the staff seemed to be, too.

The Child Psychopath

recent article in the New York Times raised the question of whether or not a child can be a psychopath.  This is currently a matter of intense debate among mental health professionals.  On the one hand is the group that says "yes."  This group essentially makes three points; 1) recent research suggests that we can detect early signs of psychopathy by age 3; 2) since we can't do a darn thing to successfully treat adult psychopaths, diagnosing these traits in children opens the door for earlier intervention, and 3) if left to their own devices, these children can do a lot of harm.

On the flip side, mental health professionals argue that 1) it is impossible to diagnose a child with what is essentially a permanent condition (a personality disorder) when s/he is still developing physically; 2) most children who exhibit symptoms of psychopathy, such as a lack of empathy for others, do not become full-fledged psychopaths as adults and at least a third lose their symptoms altogether and 3) the stigma associated with psychopathy far outweighs any potential treatment advantage.

Forget the Diagnosis

Forget the diagnosis and focus on the deeds.  Perhaps it's possible to get the best of both worlds.  Preliminary research suggests that even children who exhibit alarming behaviors from an early age aren't necessarily doomed to a life of crime.  Nor are they always untreatable.

It's not as important that these children be diagnosed as it is that they be recognized - and referred.  Children who lack empathy, ignore rules, and routinely hurt others create a vicious cycle that only serves to reinforce the problems; peers hate them, teachers give up on them, and parents often resort to inconsistent and harsh disciplinary measures because they feel so frustrated and helpless.   The earlier that cycle gets interrupted, the better the odds a monster won't be created - and we won't have to deal with one.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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