This week, I met a man in his early 20s, who approached me to ask about sociopathy. He is in search of answers regarding his former girl friend and BOTH his mother and his father. He stated he had just ended a relationship with a woman who was physically and psychologically abusive to him. He said it was hard to end the relationship because he still loved her.
The man was raised by his father after his alcoholic mother abandoned the family. His father was an abusive character who also drank alcohol and paid little attention to the kids. He asked if I would explain why people are abusive psychologically and physically and why this is related to alcoholism.
In answering his question, I explained the Inner Triangle. The Inner Triangle has helped me to understand both sociopathy and addiction. It is made up of our Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning. These three qualities develop in together in concert during childhood. Damage to one side of the triangle, leads to damage to the other two sides.
I also explained that of the three qualities that make up the Inner Triangle, impulse control has a strong biologic and genetic basis. Impulse control means how we manage our drives and emotions. Our drives are for sex, power, affection, food, entertainment and possessions. People with sociopathy, alcoholism and addiction have difficulty managing the impulses that come from their drives and emotions. This difficulty arises as an interaction between genetics and early environment.
Two studies have just been reported that show the importance of impulse control in the development of sociopathy. It is well established that boys who have ADHD are at risk for sociopathy and criminal arrest. The reason is that poor impulse control is a central feature of ADHD. This finding has now been extended to girls.
In a paper, Predictors, clinical characteristics, and outcome of conduct disorder in girls with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a longitudinal study, Harvard researchers reported that girls with ADHD were 6 times more likely than controls to develop conduct disorder. Conduct disorder (CD) is the adolescent precursor to sociopathy. Furthermore, childhood onset CD was predicted by father’s sociopathy.
In a second study, Serotonergic function in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: relationship to later antisocial personality disorder, CUNY researchers reported on the biologic basis of poor impulse control. These researchers studied the function of the brain serotonin system in boys and girls with ADHD when they were 7-11 years of age. (Brain serotonin has been shown to be important for impulse control.) 9 years later, the same kids were assessed for sociopathy. Lower activity of the brain serotonin system in childhood predicted sociopathy in both boys and girls.
Having read this, you might be wondering about the young man who asked the question. How is he doing given that he has the genes from two affected parents and had a very difficult childhood? At the start of our conversation, I was immediately impressed by this man’s resilience and good heart in spite of all he has been through. It turned out he had a loving relationship with his grand parents. But, his response to my explanation was, “Yeh, I can relate to that, I have a really bad anger problem!”
I will share with you the message of hope I also gave to him. The studies relating brain function to behavior tell us something truly amazing about ourselves. That is, we can change the make up of our brains if we want to. Adults who realize they are struggling with poor impulse control can make a decision to train themselves to improve. With training, the brain serotonin system will function better!
Likewise for parents, if your child struggles with poor impulse control, improving has to be a top priority. Regardless of whether your child is a boy or a girl, or has the diagnosis of ADHD, if he/she has poor impulse control, effective parenting will change his/her brain.
Addressing impulse control problems in children is the first step toward reducing the number of sociopaths among us.