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Sociopathic children and psychopathic traits during childhood

This is a very tragic story left by one of our readers:

My daughter was misdiagnosed with ADHD. Then bipolar disorder, then Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I stormed out of her psychologist office when she told me that she saw something “dark” in my child. That was when she was 7. When she was 8, her sociopathy increased and she purposely drowned my poodle. She also tried to smother my baby by my second husband. The strain of her and my carrying the baggage from my last relationship has driven he and I apart and we currently trying to file for divorce.

She steals daily, has even stolen as much as $500 from my wallet. I lock things away, and she will simply pry open the lock, break the lock or disable locked windows so she can climb in for access to everything. My son sleeps with his father at night at his own home, while I sit here at night, catching her lurking through the dark, stealing whatever she can get her hands on (i.e., money, jewelry, food, perfume). If I try to discipline her, she simply runs off and screams to the top of her lungs “don’t kill me”, which causes the neighbors to call the police. Just this morning, I discovered money missing and brand new snacks I bought last night for the baby and all of us to share GONE. Every single day she steals. I have to sleep at night and when I do, she lurks in the dark, prying open things, destroying things.

It’s like if she is alone for a moment, she does something way over the edge. Like this morning, I caught her chopping blooms from cacti I planted with a mini shovel, I mean she looked like the LAST SAMARI. I am being victimized everyday and feel like she is the hunter in my home and I am the hunted. I have arranged for an IEP at her school and it is my goal to get her placed in a facility in Utah where they house and treat child psychopaths or excuse me, Oppositional Defiant children because liberal America will not allow her to be called what she truly is until she turns 18.

The issue of likely outcome is more difficult in child psychiatry than it is in any other aspect of medicine. Think for a moment, if a child has cancer and we know that 65% of children with this cancer die, what does that tell us about our particular child? I chose the number 65% because that is the percentage of conduct disordered teens that went on to develop antisocial personality as adults in one study.

When we consider studies of conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and symptoms of psychopathy in children we have to consider that most of these studies are done on a special population of children that are being treated at University based clinics. So the information about prognoses we get is likely pessimistic. Sill not even these studies show that 100% of children with these symptoms have them into mid adulthood.

I would like to tell you about three children, I watched grow up. These children show us that we have to be careful about trying to predict adult personality function on the basis of what we see in a child.

The first child is a neighbor of mine. When she was 7 she was so fearful and shy that she refused to go on play dates. I spoke to her mother about this and her mother indicated that symptoms of anxiety tended to run in their families. Well, I saw that girl again at 14 and I can tell you she is “popular” and not at all shy. I asked her mother about what happened. Her reply was, “Yeh, she grew out of it.”

The second child is a boy who was a sibling of one of my daughter’s friends. At 7 he was a mess, very impulsive and easily angered. So much so he got into trouble in religious school. At 13 this boy is controlled and polite, a fine young man.

The last child is a boy I grew up with. I was always an animal lover. This boy’s behavior disgusted me because at 7 he captured lizards, stuck sticks through their mouths and killed them. He then put his kills in the street for cars to run them over. I hated that kid! Well, he did not grow up to be a psychopath. He is a loving husband, responsible father and business owner.

Video of 7 year-old Latarian

After introducing this background, I would like you to watch the video of Latarian Milton, a 7 year old who stole his mother’s car. (This video was recommended in one of our reader’s comments and I appreciate that.)

Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itgcNy3L_Xc
This boy demonstrates for us what psychopathic personality traits look like in children. He shows no remorse and says he enjoys doing bad things. He doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions because for him the fact that he gets enjoyment justifies everything. The comments left on Youtube reveal that many people have one of two incorrect views of psychopathy in children. The first is that it can be cured by beating the child. The second is that it invariably leads to a disordered adult.

If there was only a 10 percent chance that a child’s cancer could be cured, most people would still advocate that the child get aggressive cancer treatment. The odds for disordered kids are at least that and yet many people say they should be written off and secretly believe they should either be euthanized or imprisoned for life.

What should be done to help psychopathic children?

Psychopathic children do have the same issues as psychopathic adults. Namely, their pleasure system is warped and their impulse control system is defective. The difference is that these two systems are more changeable in a child than they are in an adult.

Psychopathic children enjoy “being bad” (to quote Latarian in the video above) more than they enjoy anything else. What they need is to be taught how to enjoy loving human connections. If they can learn to enjoy loving, then they have a chance at developing a modicum of empathy and conscience. This is where our pessimistic view of psychopathic children can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Studies show that the parents of such children often dislike them. The people who advocate writing off these kids do not help these parents. Parenting an at-risk child is the most difficult task many will ever have to face.

We have to support the parents of psychopathic children and encourage them to try to find something in the child they do like and can connect with. Psychopathic children require constant adult supervision and affectionate adult companionship.

Psychopathic children also need to be taught about the nature of impulses and morality. They need verbal lessons as well as real life lessons in the form of consequences. Studies show that when parents of psychopathic children dislike them, they often pull back and do not provide the consistent teaching of impulse control these kids need.

There is also another side to the prognosis coin. That is that many children who appear to be “normal” grow up to be psychopathic. I know this from two sources, scientific studies and people who write me. Dr. Hare has said the antisocial behavior that leads to sociopathy/psychopathy begins during childhood and adolescence. I agree with him, but the problem is that this antisocial behavior can take many forms. For example, lying, stealing and being aggressive toward a sibling are all behaviors that many sociopaths showed during childhood. Many children engage in these behaviors and so again we may consider them “normal.”

How can we prevent sociopathy in adults?

Behavioral science has revealed a great deal about what we can do to give all children the best chance. I was at a conference this week and one of the speakers noted that the State of California bases its estimate on the future need for prison space on the reading scores of children in 3rd grade! In addition to effective parenting, at-risk children need to have quality education. Right now our practice is to take troubled children and group them together for school. Not only do they all then get a substandard education, but they get to teach each other more antisocial behavior!

As a society, we are far from doing our best for psychopathic kids. Some children will develop disordered in spite of the best parenting and professional help. YOU WILL NOT KNOW IF YOUR CHILD IS IN THAT GROUP UNTIL YOU HAVE GIVEN HIM THE BEST PARENTING AND PROFESSIONAL HELP AVAILABLE. Medication may be necessary for some children. If you have done your best as parent and your child still has problems, forgive yourself. Rest assured that his problems would be much worse if you had not done your best.

I want to end with what I believe are the 10 attributes of effective parents:

Summary of Effective Parenting

  • Effective parents are warm and empathetic.
  • Effective parents reward good behavior.
  • Effective parents establish clear rules and enforce them through limit setting.
  • Effective parents model good behavior.
  • Effective parents teach impulse control, respect and values.
  • Effective parents surround their children with positive influences.
  • Effective parents protect their children from entering into situations they won’t be able to handle.
  • Effective parents teach age appropriate life skills.
  • Effective parents have fun with their children.

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Tood

I can relate to the story by one of your readers more than almost anything else posted on this blog.

I know what she is going through. Right now, one of my children who unfortunately inherited both the inclination to sociopathy, and the intelligence to fool almost everyone, is temporarily living in my home. Why? Because this child is physically ill, penniless and is needed by siblings to testify against my ex, the abuser of them all.

At night I lock up my purse with all my checks, money and prescription drugs in my vehicle, then I sleep with the keys in the pillowcase under my head. I have sold or hidden all the firearms in the house.

And I count the days until the testimony is over. I did my best. I tried with this child. But I failed. Nothing I tried worked. Nothing.

In endure this latest encounter with my sociopathic child and hope that I am not in too much personal danger. Because it is something I can do for my other children–this determination to see that my ex comes to justice for all his crimes against them.

I can sympathize with anyone in a similar situation but offer no good advice, no happy solution. You endure–you endure and endure and endure– raising a child like this. You try–and you hope and you hope and you hope–but most of the time you fail and you experience bitter disappointment. The pull of evil is just too strong for someone genetically inclined to go that way.

I raised a large family–and although I know that each child is different and each parent-child interaction is different–still, there was not a great enough difference in my own actions and attitudes toward this child to account for the vast difference in behavior. Sometimes it just happens AND EVEN WHEN YOU RECOGNIZE IT early and do your best to counteract it, sometimes it still wins.

(This is why my betrayal by the ex, and the subsequent revelations about his own particular brand of sociopathy and evil, were so devastating to me. I already KNEW about sociopathy. I had already STUDIED the literature, as I tried in vain to find some way to reach my “at-risk” child. I was utterly dumbfounded when I discovered not just the one I knew about, but the other one who had me totally fooled, right next to me.)

May God be with the parents of at-risk children, because any solution created by human brains MAY NOT BE ENOUGH. You truly are fighting for their souls, and you don’t always win.

In the ideal situation the child who is acting out anti socially should stay in home, if too dangerous to do so – they should interact with parents everyday.

I wholeheartedly agree- children are malleable. I feel sorry for that little girl, she is a little girl. A broken home is a cross and to have a nature that is impulsive to begin with makes that difficult.

I would never give up on a seven-year-old child…ever.

Ox Drover

I too raised a psychopath, who has murdered once and tried to murder me. I also raised two young men who are fine men. One biological and one adopted, and have had foster kids in my home from time to time.

I feel for this mother very very much. To have a child SO YOUNG that is so problematic is horrible—that’s the only word I can think of.

I have seen children like this in an inpatient setting, and while many of them may “grow out of it” many don’t. I wish I had a magic wand or a crystal ball but I don’t. I have had experiences with children who were so determined to do the “bad” thing that they were dangerous to go to sleep with in the same house.

I do know one thing though, when the PARENTS are so stressed that they “can’t see the trees for the forest” there needs to be SOME INTERVENTION IN THE FAMILY before the entire thing self destructs. The parent, and the child too, need respite from each other as the situation is OUT OF CONTROL. Not placing blame on the parent at all.

This past year when my P son and his cronnies were trying to kill me (at least, but probably other members of the family would have been targeted after I was gone and when I fled and they couldn’t find me, they tried to kill my son C) in any case, I WAS FREAKING OUT, TOTALLY INSANE, UNABLE TO THINK OR FUNCTION. I can only imagine how the mother of this child must feel after years of living with such a situation.

I second Tood’s prayer that God be with the parents of at-risk children.

I understand the pain of realizing (finally) that your child, the child you planned for, gave birth to, nursed and loved is a monster beyond redemption. I understand the emotional and yes, PHYSICAL PAIN, of turning your back on that child (even though they are now an adult) and emotionally burying that child in your heart, as if they were dead, to at least preserve the memories you had of when the child was an infant, a toddler, and a young child that was the shining light of your life. I sort of feel like my child died and his organs were donated, but the MAN who has his organs is a monster, and not my son, any more than it would be if his kidneys or his eyes had been donated instead of his whole body.

The memories of the “morphiing” years when he quit being the shining child and became the monsterous adolsescent, then murdering man, those were the most difficult years of my life and I held on to toxic hope for 20 years after I should have “let go”—but I guess I thought the letting go was so painful I couldn’t handle it, but I know that the NOT LETTING GO was MORE PAINFUL and became so painful it was LET GO OR DIE. I chose, finally, to let go and live. It was so hard, harder than anything I have ever done.

Unlike Tood, I have my own monster out of my house, but I keep the guns CLOSE because I never know as long as he is alive when he might send another of his friends to try to kill me, for revenge, if no other reason. Both of my other sons and I are armed, or within reach of a gun at all times, day and night, unless we are inside a federal building or some other facility in which it is illegal to have a weapon, which isn’t very often.

After my son killed the 17 year old girl he was involved with in some criminal activity (I’m to this day not sure of all of the extent of it) but from what history I know of her it sounds to me like she was most likely Borderline Personality Disorder or Conduct disorder herself, he had a long history of petty theft from her family, stealing the family car, stealing credit cards from her family members and running up big bills and then when she was caught being “oh, so sorry” and the rinse and repeat. She had no idea that her “ratting out” my son would result in her death. But when he did kill her and was arrested, if I could have, I would have traded places with her mother, and had my child dead and hers in prison for the murder. Yet, I feared if they executed him (which was a possibility since it was premeditated) that I could not stand the pain of his execution, yet, now, I don’t think it would bother me. I know that may sound harsh, but my “child” is already dead, and the “man” with his organs isn’t my son, but a monster like Bundy, or Manson, and the only reason he hasn’t become a serial killer is he was caught after the first murder.

God bless you Tood, and I hope you are able to get the justice your X-P deserves.

God bless the parents of all children, but especially those at risk. Peace.

I agree. The toddler should not be victimized orput in any contact-but the parents can be and should be.

I guess- to me every life has an inalienable value. A child that age is not evil, is vulnerable. If my child had cancer, I’d have to sacrifice more time for them.
It’s unfortunate, but yes…the at risk child would take more of everything.

Jen2008

The originial poster said her possible P child is now 10 years old. Ok, she not only killed the poodle, but when she was 8 she tried to smother her baby brother. The poster said the baby, who would now be toddler, is sleeping each night at the Father’s house.

I agree with everything Dr. Leedom said about trying your best with parenting, trying to find things you like about the child and do postive reinforcement etc, and think it was an excellent article. But on the other hand, I can also understand why some parents who have children as extreme as the one described in the original post, might have a really difficult time liking the child.

The original poster indicates she has the child in therapy, and she is also in therapy, she’s working with the schools, trying to get the child in some treatment program for little P’s etc. I wouldn’t want to “give up” on the child either and would want to try everything possible.

But my question, and one which I wish Dr. L had addressed is, “What about the OTHER at risk child?” The toddler can’t live in the same home with the Mother because it is in danger (based on the little 10 year old trying to smother it two years earlier, and doing things like drowning poodles). If the toddler lives in the home, then IMO it is clearly in danger from the little girl. So, the toddler IMO is an at risk child also because the Mother is having to spend most of her time coping with the 10 year old, and the toddler can’t even live in the same home with its own Mother.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, other than it seems to me that yeah, everything possible should be done to help the little 10 year old, but it also seems to me that there has to be some sort of balance and limits and it shouldn’t be done to the extent or sacrifice of everyone else, like the toddler.

Jen2008

Yes, I agree, Holywatersalt, I definitely agree with you about the parents needing to be in constant contact with the little girl. I suppose the point I was trying to get at is that although you want to devote as much time as possible parenting the little P, should it be to the point that you sacrifice a marriage and your other child who also needs you and should have a fair shot at life, in order to keep the P in the home with you.

Jen2008

Although, thank God, I’m not in a situation where I would have to make that decision, I “think” I would be also consider the effect on the other child and his rights, and his emotional health of not being with me and any future emotional/mental health repercussions that might have for him, in addition to consideration of the psychopathic child”s needs . I mean, I would do everything possible to get help for the psychopathic child and to be there for her and devote as much extra time as I could, but I’m not too sure I would carry it to the extent of no one else even being able to live in the household because of her and the danger she would be to them.

It probably sounds horrible for me to say, but I think I would try to find the psychopathic child a residential facility to live in, then spend as much time as possible with her, unless she got to a point where she wasn’t a danger to the rest of the household.

Ox Drover

Dear Jen,

I think I agree with you and I think at this point the child has demonstrated enough problematic behavior and violence that she needs a residental facility at least for a while so the mother can have some respite if nothing else before her marriage collapses too which will leave her (the mother) with less resources with which to cope.

I’ve had two children who had competing needs and I know how frustrating that can be. In this case, she has to “abandon” one child in order to parent the other adequately. Which one?

I think the child has successfully demonstrated that she is not cooperative with the mother at all, and the mother does not have control of the child (this is not blaming the mother either, let me say) but what is happening now, IS NOT WORKING, for whatever reason, and I think a professional intervention and some separation of the mother and 10 yr old for a period of time would be beneficial for BOTH the mother and the child, as well as for the mother’s marriage and the time to nurture her other child.

I feel great empathy for the mother and I think she is at her wit’s end feeling trapped between the “devil andthe deep blue se” or between “a rock and a hard place”—I hear her frustration and I pray for her and her entire family.

I have been thinking about this little girl a lot today. Thinking about what she has endured in her short life. She has no father as far as I can tell, a mother who cites her behavior as tearing her marriage apart and a mother who believes she is the reason all is in ruin.

Not sure what happened to first husband, father of girl, and now her second dad as far as I can tell gives up, moves on and takes her sibling.

And mom does not like her.

Yes, she is acting anti social…but she can’t articulate. Regardless of why this woman divorced, this child’s life was disrupted radically.

This girl seems like a child who could be helped, a child who has reasons not just genes for acting out.

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