5 Defining Characteristics of Psychopathy in Children

5 Defining Characteristics of Psychopathy in Children

Last update: 05 April, 2018

In this article we’d like to talk about some of the early warning signs of psychopathy in children, which include various attitudes and behaviors.

The main consequences occur in how the child relates to his environment. The child is also somewhat difficult to deal with.

Psychopathy is defined as behavioral alterations caused by personality or psychological disorders.

Essentially that means the person who suffers from psychopathy, in this case a child, has full mental and physical capabilities, but hasn’t adequately adapted to his environment due to failures in the brain.

Although the word “psychopath” sounds shocking and is linked to adults, these traits also occur in infants. In fact, most adults with psychopathy have shown symptoms of it since childhood.

It is necessary to notice, however, that a psychopath is not always the insane, violent and criminal being that we see in movies.

It could simply be a person with a lack of empathy or sensitivity, as we’ll describe below.

Child psychopathy doesn’t affect the child’s cognitive ability, but it will have a negative effect on their emotional abilities.

5 characteristics of psychopathy in children

How can you recognize a child with psychopathic traits? Children who suffer from some type of psychopathy usually present one or several of these behavioral problems:

  • They are self-centered, unable to share and very demanding and inflexible with their parents
  • They have a tendency to disobey. If they pay attention, it’s usually under threat and they’ll also try to get away with it.
  • They hardly express emotions. In children, emotions are very evident. If a child hardly ever externalizes their responses to the environment, it can be a sign of psychopathy.
  • They feel little empathy. They have a hard time identifying and interpreting the emotions of others. In addition, it will also be difficult for them to get involved in an emotional relationship with another person.
  • They are insensitive. They don’t feel guilt or remorse, nor do they apologize for their misbehavior, which are often used to impose dominance, either in the form of physical or verbal aggression.

On the other hand, in adolescents, the inclination to rebel and break the rules are usually indicators for psychopathy.

There may even be consumption of harmful substances, such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

However, these attitudes and actions can occur without conforming to psychopathic traits.

Diagnosis of child psychopathy

As we’ve previously pointed out, some of these behaviors can occur as characteristics of the child’s personality. However, psychopathic features are characterized by continuing over time.

They commonly appear around the age of 5, when the child begins to expand his social circle.

In a child who is not psychopathic, these bad behaviors and attitudes would disappear after learning the norms and values that govern social life.

Punishment, according to specialists, is not the ideal way to achieve this.

Psychopaths have full mental and physical capabilities, but their adaptation to the environment is not adequate.

In children with psychopathy, however, this doesn’t happen. The main reason is they don’t feel guilty about what they do.

Their innate aggressiveness makes it incomprehensible to them to feel another person’s pain or to have compassion for them, even for their closest friends and family.

Remember: violence doesn’t always have to be physical. Psychological and verbal violence and abuse also exist.

Modern technological advances allow us to measure brain responses to certain stimuli and, thus, could help us identify psychopathic traits through positron emission tomography.

What are the causes of child psychopathy?

Like all mental disorders, psychopathy doesn’t have a unique and special cause. Rather, we must talk about a combination of factors.

There are mainly three types of causes for these psychopathic traits:

  • Genetic factors: children whose parents, grandparents or other close relatives have had psychopathic traits are more likely to present them. The same happens between twins.
  • Biological factors: brain damage or dysfunction can determine the acquisition of psychopathy. Also, a poor connection between the amygdala (responsible for regulating emotions) and the prefrontal cortex could be another origin for this disorder.
  • Psychological factors: the existence of a psychological vulnerability, activated by specific environmental conditions such as violence or abuse, can lead to psychopathic behavior.

Advice to treat it

Psychological therapy is a very complex alternative for these cases that, according to psychologists at University College London, occur in one in every one hundred children.

This is because the patients themselves are unable to have a sincere and open communication with others, especially not with someone they don’t know, like a therapist.

However, planning an intense, lasting psychological treatment in an institution that has the proper human resources and interdisciplinary teams can work.

The latter is important, since leaving one person in charge of another with psychopathy can be extremely draining to their mental health. 


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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.