Posts Tagged ‘ conduct problems ’

“Child Psychopaths”: What Does Research Tell Us?

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Can you label a child a psychopath? The recent provocative story in the New York Times has stimulated lots of interesting discussion on the internet. But what does research tell us? 

Rather than identify “child psychopaths,” researchers have studied specific traits in childhood and adolescence that are considered to be early signs of risk of later psychopathy in adulthood. Primary amongst them are “callous-unemotional” traits. Here are some examples:

  • glibness
  • lack of guilt
  • manipulation
  • untruthfulness
  • callousness
  • failure to accept responsibility

Studying these characteristics as a trait means that it’s not just a “yes or no” approach. Any kid could show some of these traits at any point in time. The idea is to get a bigger picture (a total score) when you add up the levels of each of these traits. When this is done, the vast majority of kids show very low levels of callous-unemotional traits. An especially informative study tracked the trajectory of these traits in nearly 10,000 kids from age 7 to age 12. They found that about 4% could be considered to have very high levels of callous-unemotional traits along with documented conduct problems.¬†This is a small subgroup of kids that would warrant intensive intervention.

What happens to kids with high levels of these traits? Do they go on to be psychopaths in adulthood? Most do not. One report found that the majority of teens with high levels of callous-unemotional traits at age 13 would not be diagnosed with psychopathy at age 24. That said, there was some prediction available, particularly in the sense that those diagnosed with psychopathy at 24 were also likely to have had high levels of callous-unemotional traits at 13. So kids with this profile are at high risk for psychopathy – but clearly there is some malleability and other factors influence the extent to which they develop maladaptive behavior as adults.

Lots of studies have tried to examine the causes of callous-emotional traits. There is strong evidence that genetics plays a role, as indicated by informative twin studies. Some projects also suggest that genetic factors may underlie the linkage between callous-unemotional traits and aggressive behavior. But the role of the environment is not trivial, and a disruptive family environment is often involved as well. Bear in mind that this work is far from complete, and no genetic markers – or associations with brain architecture or functioning – have been established with certainty.

This brief sketch of the research provides something of a big picture on the development of psychopathy. Individual case studies always have their own nuance. The bottom line is that kids who show a troubled picture characterized by callous-emotional traits – especially when combined with early emerging problematic behavior – should receive intensive clinical evaluation and care. As pointed out in a thoughtful piece in the Huffington Post, though, specific tailored treatments have yet to be developed – suggesting the need for more clinically-based research.

Child brain via Shutterstock.com

 

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