We Need to Talk About Kevin... and Harry and Aaron

Are some teens diagnosable psychopaths?

Posted May 21, 2019

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

If you haven't seen the movie We Need to Talk About Kevin, I highly recommend it; it's an interesting perspective on the development of a child with callous, unemotional traits to a juvenile psychopath. It's not based on a true story. But, unfortunately, Harry's and Aaron's and Joshua's stories are.

Harry Leigh’s criminal career started when he was 13; since then, he has racked up quite a list of felony charges, including inciting four girls aged under 16 to engage in sexual activity over a three-year period, making seven girls between ages 12 and 15 watch a sexual act and making indecent images of children. At 16, Aaron Campbell abducted, raped and murdered 6-year-old Alesha MacPhail. On April 9, 2018, 16-year-old Joshua Brian Davis, filmed himself snapping live raccoon’s leg with bolt cutters, strangling a cat, and crucifying opossums and removing their internal organs while they were still alive. 

What do we do with teenagers like this?

The Controversy Around Juvenile Psychopathy

Harry Leigh, Aaron Campbell, and Joshua Davis are dangerous young men. And, based on the nature of their criminal behavior as well as their alleged demeanor after an arrest, they do not appear to feel any remorse for what they have done or any empathy for their victims. If they were adults, few mental health professionals would have qualms about diagnosing them as psychopaths, recommending lengthy prison terms, and arguing against parole when they are eligible. 

But what about teenagers who have this exact same history? Should we make an exception to the general rule that a personality disorder is restricted to adults over the age of 18 and call it like we see it? Should they be tried as adults? If not, should there be stricter supervision or a lengthier parole once released?   

These are tough questions. On the one hand, we should be cautious about labeling youthful offenders as psychopaths. The teen years are a time of personal and emotional change and, in comparison to adults, adolescent psychopathy scores are less stable. As teenagers mature, their scores on psychopathy tests often decrease. Better to avoid labeling someone with a pretty grim diagnosis than run the risk of stigmatizing someone who is going through a tumultuous adolescence that she or he will grow out of.       

On the other hand, psychopathy doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere once a person reaches voting age. Some research suggests that callous-unemotional personality traits appear in childhood and are relatively stable throughout adolescence and adulthood. In fact, if we ignore the delinquent behaviors that are common to both to psychopathy and adolescence and just count the personality traits (lack of empathy and remorse, irresponsibility, impulsivity, manipulative interpersonal style) that are associated with psychopathy, some of them are pretty stable across time, even during the tumultuous teen years. 

Here’s an example. Swedish researcher Selma Salihovoc spent four years following 1,068 7th- to 9th-grade Swedish boys and girls to see how much their psychopathic traits would change over time. Most of the teenagers started out with low to moderate levels of psychopathy which decreased even further as they got older. In other words, relatively few teens had psychopathic traits to begin with and, among those who did, they appeared to be temporarily inflated by developmental immaturity and improved over time.

This was not true, though, for a small group of teenagers. These adolescents had psychopathic traits at the start of the study and they didn’t lessen over time. These were also the adolescents with the highest levels of misconduct, criminal behavior and most problematic relationships with their parents. Given the link between adult psychopathy and violence, shouldn’t we also assess it in teenagers as well? Clearly, these are youths we need to worry about.

Assessing Psychopathy for the Right Reasons

Perhaps it’s not whether or not we should evaluate juveniles for psychopathic traits but what we should do with that information. Adolescence is a time of change, before a person’s identity is set in stone. Evaluating juvenile offenders for psychopathy can help us identify offenders who need more intense or specialized treatment at a time when we have the best chance of reaching them.  Intensive treatment facilities like the Mendota Juvenile Center have shown promising results in treating callous and unemotional teens who have cycled in and out of the juvenile justice system. 

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

In terms of how the legal system might effectively — and fairly — see a juvenile psychopathy assessment, research has shown that psychopathic traits in adolescents ups the odds of short-term violence. As such, assessment results can provide valuable information when making short-term placement decisions, such as whether or not to place a juvenile offender in a secure vs. nonsecure setting for six months.  

The jury is still out, however, on whether or not psychopathy in juveniles can predict violence over the long haul. Most forensic psychologists believe that, until we have clearer evidence that it can, it should not be used to make long-term decisions about juvenile offenders, such as whether or not a teenager should be tried as an adult.  Juvenile offenders need to pay for their crimes but they also need a chance at redemption.


If you are interested in forensic psychology, check out Dr. Johnston's forensic radio show and true crime youtube channel.