This week I have to retract an earlier statement I made. I said there were no studies on sociopaths and their parenting behavior. Well, many of you will be happy to know that I didn’t give up and I have found some, finally. Because many out there need specific references and specific guidance, I am going to give you all the references I have found along with my analysis of the studies. I will also write letters to the authors, and try to form a consensus statement with them that can be used in custody proceedings.
According to a recent paper (Jan, 2007) published in Child Development, Cognitive and Parenting Pathways in the Transmission of Antisocial Behavior From Parents to Adolescents, authors Shannon J. Dogan, Rand D. Conger and their colleagues from The University of California at Davis discuss parenting practices that are more commonly displayed by sociopaths that contribute to the transmission of antisocial behavior patterns from parent to child. These behaviors that I will discuss in the coming weeks are:
1. Coercive family interactions
2. Parental hostility
3. Poor parental monitoring
4. Harsh and inconsistent discipline
5. Child/teen perceptions of parent antisocial behavior and substance abuse
Coercive family interactions
This week I will discuss coercive family interactions. To translate, these are the family interactions that train kids how to be dominant. These interactions also make dominance behavior more pleasurable for children. Since sociopaths and narcissists value dominance, they don’t have a problem with dominance behavior in children, especially when it is directed toward the other parent. These interactions occur in many families where children have excessive dominance behavior. They are more frequent in families where sociopathy, narcissism or mood disorders are present in the parents. Here is an example I observed in a family yesterday.
Dad is seated at the table talking with me about work issues. Four children play with balloons in the large room where our table is. The children’s balloon play gets out of hand and mother tries to set limits on it. She tells Tommy (age 8), “I told you to put those balloons away, I am going to count to five!” She counts to five and Tommy just stands there. He then says I’m keeping this balloon and makes two other very defiant statements to mother. All the while father says nothing. Mother, who had in the meanwhile managed to confiscate the balloon, gave it back to the child, who then sported a big grin. She banished the children to another room but, Tommy went willingly, having won back the balloon. Tommy clearly won the dominance struggle.
When children who are temperamentally dominant keep winning, it reinforces their dominant behavior. The two parts to coercive family interactions are: one, ineffective parental management of child dominance behavior, and two, reinforcement or reward of such behavior. In this situation the child only gains skills in using coercive behavior. Since these kids are so dominant, many instances of these kinds of interactions occur every day.
It is important to note that children who are like Tommy may do well in school, and may appear to have empathy. After I observed this interaction, I did say to Tommy’s father that I am concerned about his power-motivated behavior. Tommy’s father told me that Tommy’s teachers have remarked that Tommy is the first to show concern when others in the class are injured. Interestingly, earlier that morning, Tommy burned his sister’s (she is a little older) hand by opening a hot water faucet on it. I remarked to the father that perhaps he is concerned about pain in others unless he is the one that inflicts it. Our conversation was interrupted so I didn’t get an answer. The point I am making is that children who are dominant and defiant may not be identified as “disturbed.” But we know they are at risk to become sociopaths or narcissists. It is the level of sadism and poor impulse control that determines whether sociopathy or narcissism prevails.
In the next weeks, I will discuss the other parenting practices that are more common in sociopaths and narcissists that contribute to the transmission of these disorders.