So, you think your kid’s a sociopath, eh? Well, before you go flying off the handle, you first need to understand what the term means. While a personality disorder may seem like a fated lot in life, it doesn’t have to be. Thanks to continued research, the medical community has a better understanding of how mental health issues affect individuals.
The discussion surrounding sociopathic behaviors in children is controversial. For one, the child may display the same traits found in those with conduct disorder. While there’s a lot that goes into an official diagnosis, here are the early warning signs your kid may be a sociopath.
Indifference to consequences
One of the telltale signs of sociopathy, Psychology Today says, is an indifference to looming consequences. Just as daredevils seemingly lack the ability to fully grasp the potential consequences of their risk-taking, so too do sociopaths. Kids will often rebel to some extent, but a child whose behavior points to antisocial personality disorder goes far beyond sneaking out past curfew. A sociopath truly doesn’t register consequences as a negative effect, which could lead to poor choices with potentially dire results.
Frequent lying without guilt
It’s not the lying itself that may raise early suspicion of sociopathy; it’s the fact a child can do so without considering repercussions. According to The New York Times, “They also lie frequently — not just to avoid punishment, as all children will, but for any reason, or none.” In the article, psychologist Paul Frick uses a simple example to describe the differences in children when carrying out a dishonest act. He says most kids will look guilty when caught stealing a cookie from the cookie jar before dinner, because they know it’s something they shouldn’t be doing and their parents won’t be happy with them. Kids with sociopathic tendencies, though, are unrepentant. On a larger scale, this sort of lying without any emotional attachment can be dangerous.
Lack of empathy
The media talks a lot about how we become numb over time, but it isn’t always a gradual process. It turns out this lack of emotion can be found in children, too. As described by Newsweek, certain sociopathic behaviors stem from callous, unemotional tendencies that may start very young.
One extreme example comes from a 1986 case described by the Orlando Sentinel, when a boy named Jeffrey Bailey pushed a toddler into a motel swimming pool. After doing so, he simply pulled up a chair and watched the toddler struggle before eventually sinking to the bottom of the pool. Rather than feeling any sort of emotion or desire to save the toddler, Bailey was more interested in watching the process in a stoic manner. Scary stuff.
Control over others can be dangerous, especially when a child is so calculated you don’t even realize what they’re doing. The DSM-5 says they will employ charm, seduction, and glibness to make themselves more likable in a way that allows them to manipulate others. Some kids can outsmart adults, but sociopathic kids render their authority in an alarmingly flat tone.
Severe bouts of violence or rage
While a spectrum certainly exists, the most severe cases of sociopathy among children are often seen through acts of violence, which is usually terrifying. In an article published in The New York Times, Jennifer Kahn describes a family’s experience raising a boy whom many would deem a sociopath. The eldest of three boys, Michael would fly into fits of rage on a daily basis, not having been provoked in the slightest. According to the parents, a suggestion as simple as putting on his shoes would send Michael into a fit — he would scream, slam objects, and run around the house for hours on end. His anger would grow so uncontrollable that, at times, he would repeatedly slam the toilet seat until it was destroyed.
This subject is a difficult one since every parent wants to think of children as perfect. Whatever you do, don’t simply write off alarming behavior as a phase your child will inevitably grow out of. If you think your child may have any kind of personality disorder, seek help from an expert.