Surefire Signs Someone in Your Family Is a Psychopath (and What to Do About It)

You’ve certainly heard the term “psychopathy” thrown around before, though you probably don’t know that much about what it really is. Those who have this personality disorder have little regard for others. When these behaviors are particularly dangerous or destructive, the person is referred to as psychopathic.

So, how do you recognize a psychopath, especially if it’s someone in your family who has these traits? Here are the signs you need to watch for, and some advice on how to deal with it.

1. They’re a great liar

Family Looking At Artifacts In Glass Case On Trip

There are about 1.5 million psychopathic men in the U.S. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Here’s the thing about psychopaths — they might not lie more often than others. But with practice, they can learn how to be some of the best truth stretchers you’ve ever heard.

BioMed Central reports those with psychopathic traits are actually able to learn how to lie better over time with practice, according to a study in the journal Translational Psychiatry. When you lie, your brain works really hard to suppress the true information and reverse it so you can come up with a false story. In those with psychopathic traits, their brains don’t have to work as hard to do this — especially when they do it often.

Next: Psychopaths can typically be found breaking the rules. 

2. They break the law — a lot

yellow law enforcement line with police car

Frequent bouts with the cops might be a sign. | iStock.com/carlballou

Not all psychopaths are dangerous criminals, this is true. But if a member of your family isn’t someone you’d consider to be a law-abiding citizen, this is definitely a sign you need to watch for. Live Science explains many convicted criminals are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. This isn’t because they don’t know right from wrong — it’s because they don’t really care. They generally know when they’re breaking the law, but because they have such disregard for other people and the regulations of society, the law doesn’t act as much of a deterrent.

Next: You shouldn’t trust everything a psychopath says. 

3. They manipulate you easily

Senior couple walking on the beach

Watch out for their manipulation tactics. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

That one estranged family member no one likes due to their manipulative ways may be more than just selfish. Business Insider explains psychopaths are master manipulators, and they can easily turn a situation around to make them look like the sympathetic one. If you’re considering family therapy, you can expect the psychopathic person to put on a false show and look extremely stable when they need to. In fact, the publication notes therapists can often be manipulated by a psychopathic person without even knowing it. And if a trained professional can be fooled, so can you.

Next: Those with this condition don’t think about their actions. 

4. They’re impulsive

a father and son sledding

Psychopaths will willingly put themselves and others at risk. | iStock.com

For those who have psychopathic personality traits, impulsivity isn’t always a bad thing. It’s possible a psychopathic member of your family actually thrives in their work life due to quick idea generation and decision making. Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., tells Psychology Today this is the type of acting on a whim that can be super useful. But there’s the other side of impulsivity that’s not nearly as productive. Many others with antisocial personality disorder have a rebellious, erratic lifestyle that puts them and others at risk.

Next: You’d be hard-pressed to find a psychopath with low self-esteem. 

5. They think very highly of themselves

a grandfather talking to his grandson

Psychopaths tend to put themselves on a pedestal. | iStock.com

You probably have at least one family member that thinks pretty highly of themselves. But what if their inflated sense of self is more than just a huge ego? HealthyPlace.com explains psychopaths are typically very narcissistic. They might think they have a higher purpose than others, or they’re meant for unlimited power and success. On top of all that, they’re willing to step on others to get to where they want to be. If this sounds like a loved one of yours, don’t expect them to give up their narcissistic ways, even if you call them out on this behavior.

Next: Penalizing a psychopath doesn’t really work. 

6. They’re not receptive to punishments

two kids jumping on their parents' bed

Punishing a psychopath really doesn’t work. | Thinkstock

Perhaps there’s a person in your family known for their selfish, callous, and out-of-control behavior. You might think the best course of action is to punish them in some way — maybe you’ll exclude them from family dinners or events. Unfortunately, this approach is pretty ineffective. True psychopaths don’t process rewards or punishments the same way others do, a study in Lancet Psychiatry reports. This can make it more difficult for them to switch their behavior to something more socially acceptable.

Next: Don’t be fooled by a psychopath’s charm. 

7. They can charm just about anyone …

an elderly couple having coffee

Psychopaths appear charming, but don’t be fooled. | iStock.com

Psychopaths typically aren’t the scary recluses lurking in the shadows — they can be quite funny and charming. Psychology Today explains the most entertaining person in your family may actually have this condition, especially if their stories seem unlikely or cast them in a positive light. Because psychopaths can be such good liars, it can be hard to tell that their charm is just part of their manipulation. But they’re always out for personal gain, so be wary.

Next: Their relationships are highly unstable. 

8. … but they’re not good at keeping relationships

an elderly person's hand holding a younger person's hand

Their relationships don’t last too long. | iStock.com/vladans

That charm can only take the psychopath so far. Those who have antisocial personality disorder or psychiatric traits tend to have really superficial relationships, mostly because their primary concern is themselves. Their manipulation and lying tactics cause a rift in romance and familial bonds, Rick Nauert, Ph.D., tells Psych Central. Just because a psychopath is self-serving doesn’t mean they’re happy, though — research suggests they’re actually quite unhappy people because of this lack of connection with others.

Next: It can be tough for psychopaths to complete even the simplest tasks. 

9. They have goals that are totally unachievable

Older man sunbathing in a pool

A psychopath doesn’t usually achieve their outrageous goals. | iStock.com/wazymodo

You may have a charismatic family member who seems like they always have it all figured out — but in reality, they don’t work toward any realistic goals. According to Thrillist, there’s a chance this loved one may have psychopathic qualities. Because psychopaths tend to have grandiose ideas about what life should be like, they lack the ability to execute even simple tasks. This can be particularly frustrating for you if you’ve grown up with this person, too.

Next: Don’t expect them to feel sorry. 

10. If they hurt you, they don’t feel guilty

family driving in their car

Psychopaths have a hard time feeling guilt. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

It’s easy to think psychopaths have no feelings at all, but that’s not necessarily true — they do understand human emotion and experience a range themselves. It’s that they aren’t necessarily empathetic during “normal” situations because feelings like guilt or remorse don’t phase them, psychologist Paul G. Mattiuzzi tells HuffPost. Someone in your family who has antisocial personality disorder is more likely to display emotions like anger or jealousy over guilt. If they’ve hurt you in the past, don’t expect an apology.

Next: It’s likely they’ll blame their wrongdoings on something or someone else. 

11. They won’t take responsibility for their wrongdoings

Mature couple sitting on bed with the woman talking on the phone

You’ll have a hard time getting a psychopath to accept responsibility for their actions. | iStock.com/FlairImages

Has a sibling, parent, or even child hurt you without accepting they’ve done so? This is a sign they could be a psychopath. Those who refuse to take responsibility for their actions are unlikely to give you a sincere apology, and they also don’t take obligations for others seriously (which definitely shows a side of selfishness). This aligns perfectly with psychopathic behavior. These people don’t have much regard for what others need, and they certainly don’t feel bad when they’ve hurt someone.

Next: Don’t expect them to always act kindly. 

12. They can be aggressive

Close-up shot of senior couple holding hand

There are many ways someone can show aggression — it’s not always physical. | iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

You know by now your potentially psychopathic loved one probably isn’t the next Ted Bundy. With that said, there’s still the possibility for those with this condition to be very aggressive or outwardly violent. Research in the book Neuroscience of Aggression explains those with this condition may engage in violence more frequently, or their aggressive outbursts may be more severe than most others. Does your loved one get in frequent fights at the bar, or are they known as the bully of the town? These socially unacceptable acts could clue in to their mental state.

Next: Here’s the first step you need to take. 

What you must do: Set your boundaries

a family together on the couch

Remember — your mental health is extremely important, too. | iStock.com

Dealing with a psychopath can be incredibly draining, especially if it’s someone in your family you’re holding out hope for. In truth, a psychopath can’t be “cured” — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be helped. And you need to learn how to protect yourself from any psychological damage during this time.

Karyl McBride, Ph.D., tells HuffPost creating boundaries is a great way to protect yourself physically and emotionally. A boundary is a line you draw that says what you’re willing and unwilling to do. Setting limits and sticking to them will let your family member know you need to be taken seriously.

Next: Children can display psychopathic qualities. 

The earlier you can detect psychopathy, the better

family of two at the airport enjoying time

A child can exhibit these traits, too. | iStock.com/noblige

Many mental conditions start to show up in early adulthood, but some people observe callous and unemotional behaviors in children as young as a few years old. The Atlantic explains psychopathic children become more difficult to treat with each passing year, as their brains become less susceptible to change. Maybe it’s your child or grandchild you’re concerned for, but either way, it’s wise to take them to therapy if they show any of the traits listed previously. If you wait until they’re well into adulthood, they can become a near impossible case.

Next: Don’t be surprised when they try to skip counseling. 

Suggest counseling — but don’t be surprised if they resist

psychologist taking notes with a patient

Therapy can be really helpful. | iStock.com/shironosov

The debate is out whether a psychopath’s ways can ever be truly changed, but many professionals do believe certain techniques can help. GoodTherapy.org says the “Decompression Model,” which incorporates more positive reinforcement than punishment, can be really helpful. And it’s particularly useful to those who want to change their ways. Unfortunately, many psychopaths have trouble recognizing they need help. If you can convince your family member to get to a therapist’s office, that’s already a step in the right direction.

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