Can a kid be a psychopath?

The New York Times has a fascinating (and, FYI, kind of disturbing) story about young kids who exhibit psychological symptoms similar to what you see in adult psychopaths. It's a complex subject because, while everybody involved agrees these kids could use some kind of intervention, nobody knows exactly what that intervention should be and definitely don't want to stick the kids with a terrifying label that will follow them for their whole lives. More importantly, what we do know is that half of these kids will grow into normal adults—though we don't know exactly why.

It's an awkward situation where the science hasn't yet caught up to the personal need. In a perfect world, you might not want to mess around too much with this until we can learn more. But on the other hand, you're left with families that clearly need help now—like the family profiled in the story that must navigate how to deal with a nine-year-old who oscillates between violent tantrums and creepy, logical chill.

When I first met Michael, he seemed shy but remarkably well behaved. While his brother Allan ran through the house with a plastic bag held overhead like a parachute, Michael entered the room aloofly, then curled up on the living room sofa, hiding his face in the cushions. “Can you come say hello?” Anne asked him. He glanced at me, then sprang cheerfully to his feet. “Sure!” he said, running to hug her. Reprimanded for bouncing a ball in the kitchen, he rolled his eyes like any 9-year-old, then docilely went outside. A few minutes later, he was back in the house, capering antically in front of Jake, who was bobbing up and down on his sit-and-ride scooter. When the scooter tipped over, Michael gasped theatrically and ran to his brother’s side. “Jake, are you O.K.?” he asked, wide-eyed with concern. Earnestly ruffling his youngest brother’s hair, he flashed me a winning smile.

If the display of brotherly affection felt forced, it was difficult to see it as fundamentally disturbed. Gradually, though, Michael’s behavior began to morph. While queuing up a Pokémon video on the family’s computer upstairs, Michael turned to me and remarked crisply, “As you can see, I don’t really like Allan.” When I asked if that was really true, he said: “Yes. It’s true,” then added tonelessly, “I hate him.”

Glancing down a second later, he noticed my digital tape recorder on the table. “Did you record that?” he asked. I said that I had. He stared at me briefly before turning back to the video. When a sudden noise from the other room caused me to glance away, Michael seized the opportunity to grab the recorder and press the erase button. (Waschbusch later noted that such a calculated reprisal was unusual in a 9-year-old, who would normally go for the recorder immediately or simply whine and sulk.)

Read the full story at the New York Times


  1. I’ve recently met a student who has a very different way of looking at the world than his classmates. It’s a curious mix of a strong motivation to be on top combined with an Asperger’s-like inability to see things from the perspective of the other.  It drives everyone around him crazy.

    Whether this is psychopathic, or just an unusual brain that will need some extra care taken to ensure that he learns how to get along with others, is hard to say.

  2. Yes, some of the things out of Michael’s mouth are quite chilling. Read like “We Should Talk About Kevin”.

  3. Wait, aren’t all kids like this?  Except my own, who are perfect little angels.
    Okay, nine years old is is quite late to still be /completely/ self centered like this. Future executive.

    1. The writer actually more or less says this in the article:

      “Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has argued that psychopathy, like other personality disorders, is almost impossible to diagnose accurately in children, or even in teenagers — both because their brains are still developing and because normal behavior at these ages can be misinterpreted as psychopathic.”

      1. That, and also how treating teenagers as large kids, rather than say inexperienced adults, have a very strong effect on behavior.

        Never mind that i sometimes wonder if the only real difference between a adult and a child is ones ability to hide “inappropriate” behavior.

      1.  It’s all hard to tell, but as described it seemed these kids realize the existence of other people (it’s unavoidable) but only so they can manipulate them.

        As a contrast, very young kids who have just discovered deception are shameless liars as long as they can get away with it – anyone who says children are such honest little angels have just fallen for it. But you still get honest moments of affection and consideration for others once you tease out the manipulative displays (‘Look, I gave Billy the fire truck. Can I have some ice cream?’). Not seeing that here, though we’re a the mercy of the author.

  4. I have the impression that all kids are adorable psychopats, until they (hopefully) start to empathize with the people around them.

    1. 1% means of the population means there could have been two psychopaths in my senior class. Maybe more.

      That’s a hard, weird thing to consider.

          1. That beats the alternatives. It’s the ones that aren’t stupid enough to beat their head against the system that you really don’t want cropping up…

  5. I’d be happy with simply preventing them from becoming politicians when they get older ;)

    1. I (and certainly many others, from what I’ve read) have thought about this, and I’m not sure mild sociopathy is a problem in politics. Government is about resource allocation, which if not zero sum is at least ‘finite sum’ — someone is going to suffer at the expense of someone else. You don’t want a politician who steals everything for themselves, but a politician who can act toward a goal without fear, regret, or empathy would be a good thing.  Think of all those classic moral dilemmas about whether you send the runaway train into the baby stroller or into the crowd of women. Or decisions like, “how do you balance macroeconomics against individual welfare?”  

      A sociopath would be able to decide quickly, and wouldn’t be hampered by regret, or distracted by complaints from people on the losing side of the trade-off. 

      1. I agree, and note that in this context the derogative label of sociopath or psychopath is almost exclusively reserved by those who use it for those politicians who make a decision or take an action which is contrary to their ideology.

      2. but a politician who can act toward a goal without fear, regret, or empathy would be a good thing.

        Like Stalin?

      3.  So you want someone to have enough empathy to not steal from someone, but lack enough to be willing to let them die.  Are you sure you’ve thought this through?

      4.  “people on the losing side of the trade-off.”

        Which historically has been everyone else other than themselves and their cronies and even they frequently ended up getting it too.

  6. It’s interesting to read an article like this in light of discussions on contra-causal free will. It’s easy for us to look at a child’s behavior and say “it’s not their fault”. And it’s equally as easy to look at someone with a mental disorder and afford them the same leniency. So a child with mental illness really forces us to think about how we can help people who don’t have a choice in how they behave. But what about the rest of us? What does it mean to make a choice when we couldn’t possibly have done otherwise? 

    This isn’t to say we shouldn’t apply corrective punishment when it’s effective in helping prevent negative behavior. But shouldn’t we entirely remove the concept of retributory punishment from our criminal justice system and instead concentrate on causing people to make better decisions?

    1. I didn’t get “it’s not their fault” from the article at all.  In fact, the neurological context that they offer paints a picture of a super-empowered child, as opposed to the ADHD or “oppositional” kids who are powerless to control their behavior.

      It suggests that most people have impulses like this, but they repress them out of fear of negative feelings or social consequences.  But the psychopath kids don’t experience the negative feelings, and they don’t fear the social consequences.  So where the rest of us are stymied, they can go ahead and do what they want.

    2. I have bumped into a neurological presentation that wondered if one should stop focusing on guilt or fault, and start focusing on the chance of repeated action. That if a offender is found to potentially repeat the offense, society should either help the person from doing so. Or if not possible, lock said person away on public safety reasons until such a possibility presents itself via new discoveries.

      At present our whole justice system hinges on the idea of free will. This is especially visible when a crime is considered more severe because of the intent of the perpetrator.

  7. The discussion on this over at Metafilter got weird fast. A lot of parent blaming and accusations of the article being stilted/biased (I never understand how the internet assumes that people who write articles can do so in a complete vacuum). My dad was an elementary school principal for about 30 years. I asked him about one kid that he had mentioned as being considered for the diagnosis of “sociopath.” His take:

    I do not remember his name but I sure do remember his behavior. He had just entered our kindergarten and had never been able to stay at any of the area pre-schools. He was unpredictable. If he was happy he could do independent play for a long time. He would go to interact with others and basically BOSS over them – everything had to be on his terms and there was not give on his part. When he had a sense of conflict ( which was often) he would lash out. He would not think anything of taking his hands and fist and hitting whoever he had conflict with – student or adult. When we tried to correct him he went into a tantrum and I had to physically restrain him on many occasions basically with a bear hug – though it was called a Mandt restrain which I was trained in. After about 15-30 minutes in that restrain, he would calm down and could return to normal. He had no sense of remorse. No sense that he had done something wrong. Whenever he was corrected he never responded to it, he should did what he wanted to do. That is pretty much what I remember. By January we had him removed from our school and placed in a school facilities for emotionally disturbed children.

    1. Would you mind linking to that discussion? A heated debate by defensive parents sounds illuminating.

    2. Your dad’s experience to me represents a good example of how uncommon psychopaths are, despite all the fun of diagnosing that everyone has these days.

        1. Cite, except you cannot because 1% is ridiculously high. You are likely referring to Hare, who did not conclude that 1% of the population was psychopathic.

          Hare, whose percentage was higher than any other, concluded that 1% of those tested were -Potential- psychopaths. 

          By that measure, assessing individual or multiple traits as evidence of a potential psychopath, I would suggest the number is 100% if extended to childhood traits and conditions.

          100% is the number you should use to drum up support for “doing something” about it.

          Or were you using no citable reference, instead concluding that this person’s dad worked with only 100 children in a 30 year career in scholastics?

          1. No need to be a dick. A potential 1% is still significantly higher than a certain 0%, especially when much less than 1% of the population can come to have great influence over society, and when it intuitively makes sense for those “gifted” in remorseless logic to have an advantage over others.

            I am not certain what your motivation behind this post is but to put someone down.

          2. No need to be a dick. A potential 1% is still significantly higher than a certain 0%, especially when much less than 1% of the population can come to have great influence over society, and when it intuitively makes sense for those “gifted” in remorseless logic to have an advantage over others.

            I am not certain what your motivation behind this post is but to put someone down.

          3. I’m always a dick with fake stats, though I was only barely sarcastic in this instance. 

            As well, a certain 0% is nothing I even hinted or suggested at. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she was aware of Hare’s results, she wouldn’t want to draw a conclusion of 1% when it unlikely anywhere near that with the caveat of “potential”.

            Yes, the article casts a pall on any attempt to do something like actually label children sociopathic or psychopathic, but the inference in many of these posts is the opposite, hence the discussion about that aspect.

          4. I alluded to 0% because you emphasized “potential” as if it meant “rarely” as in “negligible.” Additionally, they pulled the statistics, and the inference that psychopaths inhabit positions of power, directly from the article. So, RTFA, it is in fact an interesting read well worth your time. This conversation is pissing me off way more than it should, so I’ll leave it at that and wish you a good day.

          5. Lighten up Francis. Andrea is referring to a statistic mentioned in TFA. You know, the article that, presumably, people read before commenting here.

          6. I did read the article, the author is no cite and no professional with any credibility would leave the public with such a stat even as an estimate. 

            And stop reading things into my posts that aren’t there. My point stands, that if among children, extreme behaviour could be an accurate indicator of sociopathy, then it’s way closer to 100% than 1%.

    3. Brings to mind the confusion about Aspbergers and Sociopathy that i bumped into a while back. The behavior pattern could happen in both, but the aspie kid may well “get it” if properly explained to once the kid has calmed down.

      1. Brings to mind the confusion about Aspbergers and Sociopathy that i bumped into a while back.

        That’s one of the problems with Dexter. When he’s actually killing people, he’s portrayed as a psychopath. But most of the time, he’s portrayed as a guy with mild Asperger.

        1. Never seen the show, tho now i wonder who exactly someone that called me dexter actually compared me to (i assumed it was the CN character, not the live action character). Anyways, could he considered a psychopath that somehow manages to mask as an aspie?

          1. He’s pretty desperate about trying to give appropriate responses to social cues, so I don’t think that he’s trying to masquerade as having Asperger. It would be a highly effective mask since he seems to constantly fall under suspicion for things like not showing appropriate signs of grief.

          2. I think if someone called you Dexter in the past few years, they’re referring to the serial killer character, not the cartoon character.

            I’ve been compared to Dexter. I’ve never seen the show though. I guess if Dexter is portrayed as possibly having Asperger’s, that may be why I was compared to him. I assumed the people who compared me thought I was a secret serial killer. I feel better about it now ;)

          3. @penguinchris:disqus Well i think it was back when the first season was barely getting started, but i am honestly not sure. Also, the comparison was a offhand remark from a teenager so i am tempted to give it a 5050 on what character it was a reference to.

  8. I get the idea people have not read even the quoted section above. The behavior described is absolutely not the self-centered behavior normal in kids. The statement about hating his brother is not anything like the “me, mine” behavior people are used to. That would scare the hell out of me.

    1.  Agreed. And they’re missing out: it’s a great read. Grim, but I wish it’d been longer.

      I found it particularly interesting that, contrary to what I’d read about psychopathy decades ago, we’re now discovering that it’s a nature (brain anat & chem), rather than (lack of) nurture thing. How infinitely more isolating for parents of a kid like this for others to assume, based on apparently now outdated theories, that their hellkid was that way due to lack of infant-parent bonding, AKA parent fail.

    2. To me it sounds like two siblings who are near in age to one another and below the age of 12.

      My sister and I were 15 months apart and while we loved one another you might not know it when we were kids. At various times either of us would have expressed rivalry or resentment as hate, she would have done so more emphatically than me. I would have said it much like the boy in the story. Because I had learned early on that statements of fact, holding more weight with me, would by my internal estimation hold more weight with others. And at that age resentment, anger and rivalry can be indistinguishable from hate or the complete disregard expressed.

      1. Maybe. I don’t know because I have someone else’s impressions. However, this child’s behavior seems different from what I normally expect. “As you can see . . .” disturbs me because the author has given no indication that there is anything to indicate this.

        No telling what is really going on, but the descriptions give me pause.

      2. Maybe. I don’t know because I have someone else’s impressions. However, this child’s behavior seems different from what I normally expect. “As you can see . . .” disturbs me because the author has given no indication that there is anything to indicate this.

        No telling what is really going on, but the descriptions give me pause.

          1. Of my friends and cousins that I know did battle with their siblings at a young age, I doubt that any did so without explicitly threatening death, even when they likely knew just what death was.

            The boy clearly has issues, but diagnosing children as psychopathic is even more problematic than that.

          2. @twitter-212575908:disqus I am not sure why you are so desperately against even the possibility that some of these kids might have issues that are beyond what is typical. From the descriptions, and that’s all we have, the interactions sound different from what is typical. It might still be within a range of normal, but his parents obviously don’t think so . . .

        1. Could Funk Daddy similarly be somewhat psychopathic, and thus he doesn’t see what’s unusual about this story?

          I see a parallel to the Romney assault/bullying thread and the people who were defending Romney there.

          1. Cain and Abel is a the reference I’ll provide you, because sibling rivalry is not petty fighting to the participants and the results can be serious.

            And it is not necessarily an indicator of sociopathic behaviour, which is uncommon, while sibling rivalry is common. I never attacked my sister, I broke her piano on one occasion but I was verbal for the most part, and my sister is no sociopath despite her outbursts.

            My point, which you ably demonstrate, is that labeling people as sociopathic or psychopathic is extremely attractive to some people even with no basis for doing so.

            And children who have childlike behaviour, or conversely adult-like calculation, can too easily be stigmatized if an official designation by a standard diagnostic that too easily assigns an incorrect meaning to that behaviour.

            Do you know how exhaustively researched is, yet even for adults the designation is very rare? There’s reason.

  9. Meh, much of a child’s demonstrated responses feel forced to the observer because to a certain extent, they are forced. Not the response, but the expression of that response. These must be learned after all, and diff kids do so at diff paces.

    Oft times it seems to me that children who are predominantly introverted learn how to express responses much later than extroverted children. I am introverted myself and know despite the danger of memory reconstruction that I did not understand many things that seemed natural to many of those my age and younger around me, including how and why to express emotional responses to external stimuli. The older the child the more complex the harder to integrate such understanding with outward display. I was as empathic as I ever was, but I had no idea what to do with it. Still have trouble sometimes. Outwardly I often seemed cold, logical & calculating, and that freaks people out at any age, but is especially noticeable in kids who have so little experience in expressing themselves.

    Due to the seemingly slow development of -demonstrated- empathic behaviour, I freaked people out as a kid/child. I also related (as I believed) to adults more readily than to most children. The children seemed to me overly dramatic and entirely unreserved where adults, who usually behave in a reserved manner compared to small children or kids made me quite comfortable and their manner o conversing appealed, where kids pissed me off.

    Rather than fear these kids are demonstrating psychopathic traits I would try and determine how adept and comfortable they are with the expressions of what they feel. I believe they would show to be somewhat less developed than many peers, that as a body they would have a greater number of introverted traits than the average among their peers, and that most of them are perfectly fine if understood.

    Some concerns I would have for them in relation to their personal development would include a greater inclination to IED, separation anxiety, and depressive disorders. IMO these  are challenges that introverts may face in greater numbers than an average of their peers and certainly extroverted kids. 

    1. Trying to bash in your  brother’s head with a chair for accidentally unpausing a video is ‘normal if introverted’ behaviour for you?  Remind me never to bug you when you’re tired.

      1. LOL, my sister, the extroverted of the two of us, attacked me with knives on several occasions while enraged, thankfully I only ever disarmed her, except on the occasion that I used the haft of the knife to strike her in the kidney (she got close on that occasion, real close) She was older than me but I had self-defense training and regular martial arts instruction from the summer I turned 7 on. 

        Extreme behaviour is always extreme, but normal people or people who have problems but are not necessarily sociopathic engage in extreme behaviour. 

        IED is one explanation that I mentioned above that would include that sort of behaviour, precisely that sort in fact. It’s also not limited to introverts. If I knew then what I know now, the way that my sister could go from zero to murder when she was a child/early teen would cause me to think of IED, though I’d never go so far as to call her sociopathic even though similar behaviour to IED could be  a possibility with a sociopath.

        What I noticed is that Michael doesn’t often try to kill anyone else, although he certainly acts out in contexts that don’t include his brother. Why would a true sociopath reserve behaviour they clearly cannot contain with one individual to that individual? 

        1. Your sense of what is “normal” is not common. Attacking with a knife is a big problem. Even if she outgrew the problem, having a young adult attacking people with a knife because she is enraged is a problem, and is not normal or acceptable.

          1. She was preteen and that kind of thing does happen between siblings. Also I in no way related it as normal, rather I labelled it extreme. 

            Sibling rivalry is often quite dramatic, I’m surprised you find my experience novel at all, I surmise you don’t have relative experience. 

          2. I agree.  I was also attacked repeatedly with a knife by a sibling, and I have children now so I can see what “normal” sibling rivalry is like.  They’re not on the same continuum.

            Funk Daddy, extreme is a very lenient way of putting it.   What is your sister’s adulthood like?

            (The sibling in question for me has never been able to live on his own or hold down a full time job.  The uncontrollable rage subsided over the decades, though.)

          3. chgoliz My sister is married and a successful art teacher, and sibling rivalry has a spectrum like any behaviour, but is no indication of sociopathic behaviour or future adult behavour. First-child syndrome, mentioned in the article, can also be extreme, but does not necessarily indicate anything of how the child may relate to others.

          4. Glad to hear it worked out in your family, Funk Daddy.  But make no mistake about it: repeatedly threatening someone with a lethal weapon while still a child is a definite red flag. I don’t know why you’re being so blase about it.

  10. I suspect these kids would benefit from some kind of MDMA augmented therapy designed around inducing moments of extreme empathy.   

    1. I was wondering this as well. Would small, regular doses, coupled with some quality snuggling, help in the formation of proper emotional circuitry?

      These kids should definitely be given oxytocin. Surprised it wasn’t mentioned in the article.

      1. I was thinking more along the lines of a multi-day therapy session once per month with a large dose of MDMA combined with regularly therapy sessions once per week. I believe it would be more effective to focus on creating intense emotional experiences during the MDMA sessions and then working to integrate those experiences during the regular sessions.

        1. Long term studies in rats show that MDMA can cause permanent damage to serotonergic pathways in the brain. I like the general idea of inducing an emotional reaction, but this specific method might cause permanent damage to the ability of this child to, basically, be happy.  Not to mention you’d be using the child as a lab rat to test long term effects of MDMA in humans (obviously not including anecdotal data from people who took ecstasy back in the day). 

          ~Rives who just finished a BS in neuroscience

          1.  The Vets who are taking MDMA in therapy for PTSD probably have a different cost/benefit outcome than kids with these kinds of problems. A developing mind is something we understand so little about.

      2. Wouldn’t that have an adverse effect in pre-pubescent kids? (I am neither a doctor nor a pharmacist)

  11. Not a particularly comforting article. My son is 15, and can throw pretty wild fits when he’s told to do something he doesn’t want. We’ve made an association between his mood swings and his not eating – getting him something to eat snaps him back to his “normal” self, but he’s an astoundingly picky eater. He shows genuine empathy for others (and was in fact over-empathetic as a toddler), and I can’t say I’ve ever seen him manipulate a situation to his benefit over the needs of others. But still, there’s too much of him in this article for my taste.

    1.  Have you tried to figure out what it is about eating that does it? Is it just satiating his hunger, or is there something specific his body is getting that changes his mood?
      I ask because I would often get into foul moods when I needed to eat before I discovered that my brain just doesn’t normally have a sufficient amount of dopamine.
      You should consider asking your son to experiment with supplements. Things like B6, tyrosine, and magnesium are a good starting point but do your research before asking him and tell him to do his research before he decides to try anything.

      1. Hypoglycemia. Since I’ve dumped starches, I hardly ever have episodes anymore, but when I did, I just wanted to bite people. Your IQ drops by about 75% and the universe suddenly seems very hostile.

    2. Like ultranut, I’m wondering if there are some metabolism issues at work? I have diabetes, and when my blood sugar drops too low, I get extremely angry, but I’m not capable of realizing that my anger is irrational.

  12. For those who read the article – I wonder how helpful the camp was, or instead how much it actually served to teach the kids new techniques of psychopathy – how to hide it, and new ways to get back at people, or rebel.

    1.  In other words, how to climb the corporate/political ladder. The same though had occurred to me – that being able to mask the psychopathy is an essential skill to world domination.

    2.  well, they say that therapy is pointless for sociopaths, as they will just become better bullshitters

    3. Pointless is subjective. If someone is truly a sociopath or a psychopath and learns how to cope in the world using just the evidence they have and harming no one anymore or less than someone who is not a sociopath or psychopath, then the net cost to society for their presence being tolerated is nil. 

      Since the other option is removing the person from society by imprisonment or by killing them, and there is a risk of misdiagnosis, teaching people about themselves and others is likely the best solution.

      1.  I once encountered a forum for sociopaths. Most of them just wanted to get along to get along, and traded tips on how to manage in a non-sociopathic world. A very few, however, were disturbingly creepy and were proud of their ability to manipulate others.

    4.  You could always shove them into an fMRI to see whether or not they are faking it.

      You can beat a polygraph with enough training, but I don’t think it’s possible to fake a neurological process as it’s happening.

  13. I used to work in a special needs school. While I don’t think any kids there were psychopaths, there were many with severe behavioral problems. The people blaming the parents or saying that this is normal kid behavior have no clue about how kids like this can act. Their bad behavior is orders of magnitude more severe than what you will find in a normal kid, and reasoning, rewards, or punishments rarely have any sort of effect.

    1. Yeah… I like to explain it as them being kids, not aliens. Of course they (mostly) behave like a kid their age (or below or above their age level, depending on the maturity), they are not going to be sprouting tentacles. But it’s a matter of degree… how severe and how often (a kids tantruming on the floor vs. a kid in a full blown rage).

      But it’s amazing how people want to “normalize” everything when it comes to children’s behavioral or mental problems, explain every thing away as “totally normal” (like in this thread). How their neighbor’s uncle’s best buddy’s bar tender used to have a kid just like that (soooo… did they get help? Oh… you mean to imply “don’t worry… it’s totally normal”?), or how their kids acted just like that when they were that age (yeah… sure…). And it doesn’t help at all, not in any way. But I guess it helps the “other” people, because they can continue their lives with rose tinted glasses on… or something, I haven’t quite figured it out myself yet.

    2. Frankly, as someone with ADHD, it reminds me of how people try to normalize that. “Oh, everybody gets distracted. It’s just evil doctors making up a problem where none exists.” 

      With neural diversity we have to accept that “dose makes the poison”. What is common and no problem when it happens occasionally can be debilitating (or, in this case, dangerous) when it’s happening all the time. 

  14. Michael sounds gifted. He is fully aware of the situations around him and navigating them on a different level. He just needs encouragement to use his special powers for good.

    1. THey missed an opportunity at the camp to use Michael as an example “to encourage the others.”

  15. I would say “Of course!”. Why couldn’t a 9yo be a psychopath. Well, unless we assume that some random adult wakes up some morning as a psychopath.

    From the article:
    John Edens, a clinical psychologist at Texas A&M University, has cautioned against spending money on research to identify children at risk of psychopathy. “This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”     

    Um, yeah… and not having children who are displaying psychopathic tendensies diagnosed is helping the parents exactly how? The parents’ need answers and help. Just sweeping the issue under the rug is not going to help them or their child in any way. The undiagnosed child is most probably not going to get any symphaties, and instead the parents are getting the blame and guilt for “being bad parents” for not getting their child under control.

    1. Yes. And, as soon as other people see some of the disturbing behavior they are going to socially isolate the family. If there is a diagnosis and “something going on” you at least have the chance to get support. If your kid just scares people, you and your child will be utterly alone.

      Also, and I realize this is a side note here, but maybe the *kid* could be happier as well . . .

      1. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

        Every experiment in being humane toward dangerous people is also an experiment in exposing innocent peers(in school or elsewhere) to those people. Ostracism can be the result of mere bigotry; but it can also be a valuable defensive strategy. Some people are misunderstood and mistreated. Some really are Just Bad News to be around.

        Compassion and tolerance and whatnot are cute and all, until you consider the cost borne by the poor bastards who get exposed to the behavioral case during whatever humanitarian experiment in redemptive therapy is being attempted. Even clinically ‘normal’ kids can be vicious little animals. If team shrink is seriously considering a sociopathy diagnosis, it is dubiously ethical to not protect others from exposure to them.

        1. Isolation may be the best strategy for society (see, e.g. prisons). However, before we go to that outcome, it’d be interesting to see if the child can be helped so that others are not endangered.

    2. I would accept Edens advice as cautionary due to the likelihood of inaccurate diagnosis and the potential harm to many of inaccurate diagnosis. 

      ‘If you build it they will come’ is a phrase that applies here. 

      The very real concerns of over-diagnosis need not be extended to methodology that purportedly identifies child psychopaths when there is support available for most if not all identifiable traits and/or symptoms. The label is dangerous, and if edified in that manner will certainly be abused by some to the detriment of all, and certainly to the detriment of a huge number diagnosed given how rare actual psychopaths occur.

      Essentially we’re talking about finding a needle in a haystack by redefining needles to something that more readily resembles a stalk of hay.

      1. Yes, the label is dangerous, and yes it can be misused. But do you think not putting money into researching a proper diagnosis would mean that the label would not be given out left and right? Seems like nowadays everybody has a “psychopathic” or “narcissistic” boss. The point would be to have a _proper_ diagnosis.

        And “when there is support available for most if not all identifiable traits and/or symptoms. ”
        Oh, now you are just being funny!

        1. Clinical psychopathic diagnosis is a diagnosis of multiple traits. 

          Please provide any human trait included in that definition where no means of addressing the trait exists. Behaviour is exhaustively researched and I know of no individual behaviour that remains unaddressed in study, which is most often undertaken in an effort to treat the behaviour, if it is harmful.

          As for everyone having a narcissistic or psychopathic boss, those are two different things and the assessment of an aggrieved co-worker or subordinate is meaningless and most persons hearing that assessment are well aware that the person “diagnosing” their boss or coworker are not qualified to do so and are probably venting.

          “Seems like” we would have a serious societal problem if every person said to be psychopathic were seriously considered to be -dangerous- psychopaths, which is what an official diagnosis means to most people. You’ve gone much further than I in making my point.

          1. Seems like we HAVE a serious societal problem because almost no persons thought to be psychopathic are officially diagnosed or considered to be dangerous (until they end up in prison).

    3. Support for the family is great, but preventing the child from killing the neighbors or burning down the house is great too.

      1. That is support for the family, too. I know of families (though not personally) where they have had to put their child into treatment centers or in foster care where there are no other children due to the child being a threat to the other children in the family. Or who are sleeping with the bedroom doors locked and an alarm on the child’s bedroom door. None of these children are psychopaths, though, they come from a background of abuse and/or neglect.

        Unfortunately families often get help, even after years of begging for it, only after something actually happens. Early treatment, like the article says, can make a huge difference… getting proper help is often not as easy as it sounds.

    4. I agree, although “psychopath” and “sociopath” are probably too loaded to use. But the article uses the clinical label “callous-unemotional” or “C.U.”, which is probably a whole lot easier to take.

  16. exhausting read , But the short answer is YES ,absolutely!  
     I find Psychotic children to be much more chilling than their adult counterparts – 
    S C A R Y.
     The statistic I would like to see is if the number increased after the fist person shooting games with apocalyptic or war like scenarios were hot on the market

    1. “The statistic I would like to see is if the number increased after the fist person shooting games with apocalyptic or war like scenarios were hot on the market”
      I very much doubt it. My guess would be it being an actual neurological issue, like in the amygdala (like the article mentioned). As pervasive abuse in childhood can cause damage to the amygdala, I would guess there would unfortunately be more cases of childhood abuse and/or neglect among psychopaths or adults showing psychopathic tendensies, though.

      1. just wondering if there is a coloration between these war games and desensitization for some children – not these children specifically- Just wondering the true effects of The hours of killing in a virtual world where eliminate the enemy is the object of the game and in some cases the virtual reality that is created during game play is astoundingly realistic- just saying…..

    2. Interesting point. Is it possible to be *temporarily* psychopathic? Because those games, and some movies and books, sure do have that effect on me, until they wear off, which is thankfully pretty quick.

    3. Most diagnosed sociopaths never commit a violent act. As for war-games, before video games my friends and I as children used our toy guns and imaginations in ways that would rival any of the scenarios in those games.

  17. I’m glad the parents are aware that Michael has some problems and monitoring his behavior. I have dealt with someone who didn’t grow out of this behavior and his parents were in complete denial of the whole thing. Even with his diagnosis and a short trip to the mental hospital he still managed to charm and manipulate his way into the military. It just boggles my mind and scares me to death. This guy has a gun and is mentally unstable.

    I hope for his family’s sake that Michael grows out of his issues because being an adult with these problems is absolute torture, and trying to care for someone with these problems is scary and heartbreaking at the same time.

    1. The parents are ‘aware’; but they seem disturbingly sanguine about the fact that their little monster enjoys more-or-less-free reign to terrorize his younger siblings and whoever has the ill luck to be in school with him. In fact, they seem rather callous and unconcerned about that aspect of things…

  18. One of my best friends had a brother who was a psychopath. I knew it very early on – there was something incredibly disturbing about the kid. He was calculating, horribly abusive, and killed or totured small animals all the time. His family life was not particularly stable, which obviously didn’t help anything. I remember commenting to someone that he would either be in jail or dead by the age of 18. At age 13, he shot and killed a sleeping homeless man, just to see what it would be like.

    In the spate of media coverage that followed, it was uncanny how many people, including teachers, talked about what a delightful boy he was (“It’s just such a shock!”) – apparently he did an amazing job hiding his abusive nature from authority figures, but really let it all out at home.

    It’s possible that he would have never become a murderer if his home life had been anything other than chaotic, but I suspect he would have always been a little off.

    1.  Nothing angerts me more than when sick Fs play out their twisted-ness on the extremely marginalized.

  19. I was ‘friends’ with a sociopathic little bugger when we were both 12 or so. He was very controlling, he liked to vandalize, but not so much as convincing and manipulating others to vandalize. I remember a birthday party we were all at, we were launching fireworks out of PVC pipes (this was in the south, so things were a bit more free and easy vis a vis explosives), he started aiming them at other kids, which was dangerous, but somewhat fun and all joined in, and then instead of aiming them at other kids legs, he started aiming them at faces… it’s a miracle no one was blinded.  He always had nasty half-joke comments for his ‘friends’ (though to be fair, thats pretty much the ussual amongst a group of pre-teen boys), one time I snapped back with something equaly witty and scathing, and the look he had for a split second ( “how dare YOU mock me! I will mock whoever I damn well like, but NO ONE DARES TO MOCK ME!!!!!!!”, basically a different set of rules applied to him than to anyone else, in his head at least) was enough for my father to take me aside and tell me to watch him and be wary, as he knew what the kid really was. there’s much more to the story, such as his force feeding a friend hard liquor to see what would happen, the friend getting serious alcohol poisaning and almost dying and th ebad kid completley being unremorseful and blaming it on another. I don’t know if it’s true, but I think he date raped his first girlfriend when they were both 14. He later started cooking up meth and got his non-sociopathic but impressionable younger sister involved in the lab. He is now in prison, and I’m sure ready for bigger and more terrible things when he gets out sometime soon. I feel very bad for his parents, especially his mother, who was a very sweet woman. I guess it’s not TOO bad if only one out of your 7 kids is a little demon-person.

  20. Having seen a 4 year old attempt to smother his 18 month old brother, I can see that psychopathy in children or what I have heard called  “The Bad seed” does exist.
    The younger brother had some developmental issues but it was still shocking to see the hate in the eyes of the older brother.

  21. The title question of “can a kid be a psychopath?” is kind of obvious.  Of course they can.  What do we think that Charles Manson was like when he was 9 years old?  A normal kid?  If you look at adult psychopaths, basically all of them showed signs as children.  People don’t start off as kind, empathic children, then become psychopaths when they become adults.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s straightforward to identify potential psychopaths as children.  The accuracy of this process is really what the article is about.

    One problem with this article (and the comments) is this implicit idea that someone is either a psychopath or they are not.  In reality, antisocial traits fall on a spectrum, and psychopaths are just the people on the extreme end.  Having moderate antisocial traits can still be a serious problem for people.  I’m an adult psychiatrist, and I’ve done some work with the prison population, including a number of true psychopaths (serial killers, cannibals, etc.).  A significant proportion of general prisoners are antisocial, but only a small percentage of them qualify to be true “psychopaths” in the classic Hare sense.  Still, it’s a huge societal problem that is not well understood or researched sufficiently given its importance to our society.  I think that concerns about stigmatizing these children or worsening their prognosis with experimental treatments have some validity, but it seems to me that the worst possible thing you could do for kids like that is nothing at all.

    1.  Actually, the article makes it quite clear that there is a spectrum, and that Micheal is at the severe end of it. It even is on page 1, I think.

      1. You are correct that the article states that, but it implies the opposite over and over again.  The very use of the term “psychopath” implies that it is a binary condition.  The article asks what to do with kids on the most severe end of the spectrum, when the more important question is what to do with the much larger number of children who have some antisocial traits.

      2. The article is responsible at many points, less so at many others. The author knows that highlighting the most severe case available to them will draw readers, but not enough work was done to leave those readers with a proper balance given the highlighted behaviours. However it did IMO conclude that  diagnosing psychopathy, which has no treatment, was too problematic and dangerous to children.

        The highlighting of CU was refreshing. 

  22. I read the article. I suggest that everybody else here distance themselves from the family turmoil of “Michael”, and instead focus on the more clinical character study of the little girl known only as “L”.

    Minus the complicating blur of Michael’s parents and the emotional struggle they go through, learning how to define and deal with their child (who is very much portrayed as a child), you can see how scary and inhuman these kids can be. The article spends more time highlighting the difficulties of diagnosing these kids and the strains of solving how to fit them into the world, but “L” stands out as a brutal reminder of the necessity of doing exactly that.

    1. I’d recommend reading “The Sociopath Next Door” (despite such wild claims in the book as 11% of the population fall under this diagnosis) because the author makes it clear that most socio/psychopaths aren’t Hannibal Lecter….they’re not smart enough.  Instead, they’re mostly just manipulators like “L” who cause a lot of problems for others without lifting a finger themselves.

    2.  yeah, I found the description of L more creepy than Michael… how many men is She going to lead into terrible choices?

  23. I would encourage people to look at “the gift of fear” by Gavin De Beker.  A great book about how our human intuition can recognise dangerous people if only we would let it.  

  24. I’m sorry if this reads like flaming, it’s just my honest opinion, as a parent of two. 

    IMHO, it’s peculiar how these horror stories often involve parents with psychology degrees. Which sort of 9-yr-old can shout “No, Daddy! I have a greater bond with you than I do with Mommy!” during tantrums? A 9-yr-old doesn’t even know what an emotional bond *is*, let alone be aware of his own specific ones… unless this sort of terms has been thrown around him for way too long, way too early, by anxious, over-analysing parents calling on armies of psychology professionals to treat their children as guinea-pigs. Once you start down that path, smart kids will inevitably react in “manipulative” ways, saying whatever the pros want to hear just so that they can be left alone, and basically by freaking out. Michael might have “natural” problems, I’m not denying that, but I’m pretty sure his parents didn’t make him any favours by treating him like a basket case so early in his life.

    1. Yeah… blame the parents. You seriously think a “normal” 9 yo would be behaving in a psychopathic way just to manipulate his or her parents? Or that some psych talk makes a kid a psychopath? How about autistic kids? It used to be the “cold” mother that made autistic kids. It cannot have anything to do with it being the other way around… it is hard to build a bond when your child is not responding to you in any way. Nope… it must be the mother.

      You are “normalizing”. If only the parents… then the kid would be normal. Because all kids are normal. Because otherwise it would make you uncomfortable. And that would mean… something… something…

      Edit: I am myself from the adoptive/foster parent community, and I see this (parent blaming) soooooo often from other adoptive/foster parents… people who really should know better. Somebody is writing about their children grieving hard for a first parent they never met after being babies… hey, it must be the parents fault, they must have talked too much about the first parents. Or somebody is talking about how their children are mommy shopping… it must be the parents who are just looking for red flags where there are none. Because… everything is normal… _my_ child is normal.

      I’m pretty sure “treating him like a baket case” is about parents who are very worried about their child and trying to get help for him. I would not be surprised if he heard that from a therapist talking above over his head by asking the parents “So… which one of you does he have a stronger bond to?”.

    2. When I was 9 I could have told you what an emotional bond is, in depth. Children are smart enough to discern meaning from context or learn about terms they don’t necessarily know the meaning of. Kids are pretty smart, in ways adults often forget themselves.

    1. But it’s much easier to pretend that nothing’s happening until they kill somebody.

  25. I like how “psychopath” has turned into a buzzword lately. When did it start? With Adam Curtis’ pronouncement that only economists and psychopaths lived up to the Homo Economicus model in Game Theory? Or did someone make that observation earlier?

  26. I wonder about the summer camp for potential psychopaths. It seems like that’s going to lead to some disturbing future outcomes.

    1. At the top office of a multinational corporation, somewhere in the year 203x:
      “Hey, haven’t we met at that ‘special’ summer camp for future CEOs?”

  27. On a sidenote, what’s up with the user comments on the NYT website? When I read the article earlier, there was a really lively discussion below the article. Some really great user comments, one person even earnestly suggesting that Michael literally needed to have a demon exorcised. But now those comments are all gone?

    And I usually read the Times on the iPhone app, which I pay a monthly fee to access, and it doesn’t show user comments at all.

    It seems that the Times clearly knows its future is online, and yet it continues to either botch or make really bizarre mistakes along the way.

  28. I’ve worked with kids and teens for a good long time, and the ones were were manipulative, preyed on other kids, went into rages, tortured things, etc. had all been horrifically sexually and physically abused. I’m not implying that the kid in the article is being abused, but I don’t think being a psycho/ sociopath is as simple as “you have it or you don’t.” I think you can make a sociopath, or unmake one. If Michael is truly a burgeoning one (he is WAY too young to get that label in my view), I hope intensive therapy and behavioral modification can unmake him.

    I agree that “The Gift of Fear” is a wonderful book and everyone should read it. But I must say that every time I have worked with a sexual predator (in a correctional setting) they were articulate, kind, inoffensive, and I found myself wondering what on earth they could have done to end up in such a bad place (before I knew they were sexual predators.) This is why I do trust my gut, but I also don’t trust my gut when somebody I don’t know seems so nice and kind and I’m willing to take a little risk and go outside my boundaries because I’ve got such a good feeling about them. Particularly if they’re male. That’s how Ted Bundy got all those girls in his car. A true sociopath is charming as hell, and gets people to do all sorts of things they wouldn’t have otherwise.

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