What makes a child psy­cho­pathic?

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Abi­gail Marsh by Abi­gail Marsh (Robin­son, £14.99) is avail­able for £12.74 from­book­shop.the­guardian.com

The con­cept of a psy­cho­pathic child makes peo­ple queasy. The two cat­e­gories seem in­com­pat­i­ble. Chil­dren, even badly be­haved ones, are viewed as main­tain­ing some fun­da­men­tal in­no­cence, whereas psy­chopaths are seen as fun­da­men­tally de­praved. Nei­ther stereo­type is to­tally true. Chil­dren, just like adults, are ca­pa­ble of cru­elty and vi­o­lence, and even highly psy­cho­pathic peo­ple are not cruel or vi­o­lent all of the time.

Psy­chopa­thy is a de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der. It doesn’t emerge out of nowhere in adult­hood – all psy­cho­pathic adults show signs dur­ing ado­les­cence or child­hood.

But this doesn’t mean we should la­bel a child a psy­chopath – far from it. No re­spon­si­ble re­searcher or clin­i­cian ever would. Even though ev­ery adult psy­chopath be­gan as a psy­cho­pathic child, the re­verse is not true: many chil­dren with high psy­chopa­thy scores do not go on to be­come adult psy­chopaths. And re­mis­sion can oc­cur in re­sponse to favourable changes in a child’s en­vi­ron­ment, or as a re­sult of in­nate de­vel­op­men­tal pro­cesses. But the fact that chil­dren can strongly ex­press psy­cho­pathic traits should not be ig­nored.

What is some­times over­looked is the im­pact on par­ents. Dur­ing our re­search, the sto­ries they told us about their chil­dren were heartrend­ing. Of­ten they wor­ried about what new episode of vi­o­lence or theft or de­struc­tive­ness each day would bring, about the safety of their other chil­dren and about their own safety.

In your mind the thought that “th­ese kids must have re­ally ter­ri­ble par­ents” may be bounc­ing around. The be­lief that badly be­haved chil­dren are the prod­uct of bad par­ent­ing is so deeply rooted in our cul­ture that it is dif­fi­cult to dis­pel. But let me try. I have talked to many fam­i­lies over the years and a com­mon thread has been that the par­ents had tried lit­er­ally ev­ery pos­si­ble op­tion be­fore com­ing to see us – coun­sel­lors, med­i­ca­tion, spe­cial schools, so­cial work­ers. Th­ese were car­ing par­ents with re­sources. Nearly all had other chil­dren, none of whom were psy­cho­pathic.

En­gag­ing in psy­cho­pathic be­hav­iours seems to be driven by in­her­ited fac­tors, as we know from adop­tion and twin studies. Th­ese studies show that par­ent­ing and other en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors ex­plain only a small frac­tion of the ag­gres­sion of psy­cho­pathic chil­dren.

So what was go­ing wrong with th­ese chil­dren? Part of our re­search mea­sured ac­tiv­ity in the pre­frontal cor­tex, right above the eyes, and a re­gion called the amyg­dala. The amyg­dala (Latin for al­mond) is a lump of fat and fi­bre about half an inch in di­am­e­ter that is buried be­neath lay­ers of cor­tex un­der each tem­ple. Among other things, it plays a crit­i­cal role in recog­nis­ing fear­ful fa­cial ex­pres­sions.

The psy­cho­pathic chil­dren showed no ac­ti­va­tion – zero – in the right­hand amyg­dala when they viewed the face of some­one ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in­tense fear. The sight of an­other per­son in dis­tress made no mark on this part of their brains. Th­ese chil­dren lit­er­ally struggle to un­der­stand what they are look­ing at.

The chil­dren with psy­cho­pathic traits re­ported that they felt fear only in­fre­quently and weakly. Two claimed they had never felt fear, whereas no healthy chil­dren said this. This sug­gested a pos­si­bil­ity that amyg­dala dys­func­tion in psy­chopaths im­pairs not only their be­hav­iour, but their fun­da­men­tal abil­ity to em­pathise with an­other’s fear.

If some­one doesn’t un­der­stand what it means to feel fear, how can they em­pathise with it in oth­ers?

Good For Noth­ing: from Altruists to Psy­chopaths and Ev­ery­one in Be­tween

The sight of an­other per­son in dis­tress made no mark on this part of the brain of th­ese chil­dren

Feel no fear: Ezra Miller in We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). Pho­to­graph: BBC Films/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

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