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- Children can show antisocial behaviours, but they can’t be can’t be labelled as psychopaths as it is an adult condition. However, “callous, unemotional” traits can be warning signs that they will grow up to be psychopaths. Studies show that their fate is not sealed, though, as going to parenting groups can make them less likely to behave antisocially.
Anyone who has been a teacher will know that children can be very antisocial at times. They can be insolent, disobedient, and loud.
However, it’s not always about merely being a brat. One in 100 children actually show antisocial traits which can act as warning signs that they will become psychopaths when they grow up.
Professor Stephen Scott from the Institute of Psychiatry told Business Insider that about 5% of children have a severe level of antisocial behaviour, and of those about a fifth have callous, unemotional traits.
“That’s not just being a bit naughty, that’s persistent aggression,” Scott said. “If you take the worst 5% and follow them up until their mid to late 20s, the prevalence of extra problems – like serious drug misuse, criminality, domestic violence, leaving school without qualifications, being on state benefits – these things are not just a few percentages higher, they’re eight to 10 times more common.”
One thing many antisocial children have in common is that they don’t look at people’s eyes very much, Scott said.
“That’s what you need to do to see fear,” he said. “They look at other bits of their face. Which is quite interesting. You look at people’s mouths turning up to see if they’re happy or if they’re sad, but you need to look in their eyes to see fear.”
‘Psychopath’ is an adult condition.
Children cannot be called “psychopaths” because it is a term that relates to an adult psychiatric condition, where the person has no empathy for others, and behaviours abnormally and sometimes violently without guilt or remorse.
However, they can have “callous, unemotional traits,” as Scott calls them. Some children are aggressive and can mentally or physically abuse their parents and siblings.
One case study, reported in The Atlantic, involved a child called Samantha (a fake name), who began behaving in a worrying way at age six. She made a “book about how to hurt people” which included drawings of murder weapons like knives, poison chemicals, and a plastic bag to be used for suffocation. She also tried to strangle one of her younger brothers, just to see what would happen.
Others children with these traits aren’t violent, but are incredibly calculated in their actions.
For example, Scott told a story about one school boy who convinced his friend to help him steal all their classmates’ mobile phones out of their lockers while they were busy playing football.
“Then he said ‘look out, a teacher’s coming, throw them in the bush,’ which his friend did,” Scott said. “In fact the teacher wasn’t coming, so he then took all the phones and sold them. He couldn’t care less. It wasn’t a violent thing but it’s very unpleasant and antisocial. But he was skilled. That’s the sort of thing they can do.”
Still, there are treatments for psychopathic traits in children.
Scott says that psychopathy is a psychological condition, and there are treatments for these traits in children.
“We’ve done studies showing that kids who came to parenting groups between age four and seven were less likely to have those traits seven to 10 years later,” he said.
“Socialising, making them learn that there’s no secondary gain from being aggressive – it doesn’t mean you get your way, you don’t get the extra biscuits, get to stay up late, etc. Also giving them lots of warmth.”
Current research is looking at whether being abused in childhood means you have a higher chance of becoming a psychopath. Scott says that so far the evidence suggests that callous, unemotional traits don’t appear to be much more prevalent in abused children.
Rather, many cases are down to genetics. Scott said that the children who are not callous and unemotional, but are still disruptive and antisocial, are usually that way because of their environment. For these children, about 30% of their behaviour is genetic, but the rest is because of harsh parenting or a difficult upbringing.
Meanwhile, for children that have callous and unemotional traits, 80% of their behaviour is genetic, and only 20% is down to environment.
This is important for parents to hear, Scott said, because it helps remove the shame associated with having a difficult child who won’t behave themselves. Going to support groups, and learning about the child’s traits, can help them realise that it’s not their fault – it’s a condition and there are ways to manage it.