This weekend I am reporting from the 3rd meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy, where I also presented the results of the research Sandra Brown, M.A. and I did. In the next few weeks I will summarize the highlights of the meeting for you. One of the reasons I attended this meeting was to be sure the information we present to you on this website is up-to-date and accurate. Happily, I came away from the meeting confident, having had conversations with all the leaders in the field.
The problems of at-risk children were a major focus of the meeting. Many research teams are working on trying to measure problems with emotional processing in antisocial children. Before we can help children we have to come up with reliable ways to assess them.
At this point there is good evidence that “callous unemotional” traits can be identified in children above the age of 7. It is thought that these traits most predict who is at-risk for sociopathy/psychopathy in adulthood.
Researchers have shown what you parents already know. That is children with “callous unemotional” traits are very difficult to parent. They do not respond as well to the usual parenting. The major criticism I have of this work though, is their measures do not really capture what is going on in the private relationships between parents and at-risk children.
Research regarding the genetics of psychopathy was also presented. Dr. Essi Viding of University College London has an ongoing longitudinal study of twins, and is looking in detail at the genetics of antisocial behavior and “callous unemotional” traits. I spoke with her about her work. She wanted me to let you parents know that although there is evidence antisocial behavior and “callous unemotional” traits are genetic, “Environment is still important, don’t lose hope.”
Dr. Viding was aware prior to our conversation that the popular press and fringe groups have misconstrued her research as declaring that psychopathy is 100 percent genetic. She was emphatic in her assertion that the evidence points to genes and gene environment interactions in the development of the disorder and in the expression of behavioral problems during childhood.
Dr. Viding also wants parents “not to blame themselves.” Since the genes which place a child at-risk make him or her resistant to the usual parenting techniques. Many parents of at-risk kids aren’t parenting any different than anyone else.
There are still no solid answers about what will best immunize at-risk children against the development of sociopathy/psychopathy. But, having been at this meeting, I stand behind what I wrote in Just Like His Father? Focus on helping your child learn to love, have impulse control and moral values. There was no argument that these are the areas that at-risk children need to work on.