How to Tell if a Child Will Be a Psychopath

Certain signs may indicate that a child will be a psychopath in the future. It's key to be able to identify them and act on them. Learn more.
How to Tell if a Child Will Be a Psychopath
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 28 May, 2023

When we think of someone suffering from psychopathy, a murderer or violent criminal usually comes to mind, as this is the image that’s transmitted through series, movies, and other media. Therefore, it’s hard to imagine that a child of 6 or 8 years of age could fall into this category. However, at this early age, it’s already possible to intuit whether a child will be a psychopath.

This is a mental condition that we talk about a lot, but of which we know very little, although it’s estimated that between 1 and 2% of the population suffers from it. As it’s a personality disorder, the first traits are visible from childhood and tend to remain over the years. It’s therefore important to identify them as early as possible and to apply appropriate intervention in order to reduce their impact. We’ll tell you more below.

What is psychopathy?

First of all, it should be noted that there’s no consensus on the criteria for diagnosing psychopathy. Generally, this condition overlaps with others such as dissocial disorder or antisocial personality disorder. However, they’re not exactly the same.

Nevertheless, we can define psychopathy as a mental disorder characterized by the absence of empathy, guilt, and remorse. This leads the person to act for their own benefit without regard for the impact on others.

This tendency appears as early as childhood, although it may go unnoticed until adolescence. It’s then when behaviors may become more violent and conspicuous. It’s important to emphasize that it has been found that not all people with psychopathy become murderers, sex offenders, or criminals. In any case, social difficulties and disregard for rules are usually a constant.

Traits that allow us to sense if a child will be a psychopath

Although it’s difficult to imagine that a child can have psychopathic traits, there are several early manifestations of this disorder that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Below, we’ll show you what they are so that you can be alert in case you detect them in your children.

A child holding a kitten by the neck.
Cruelty to animals is an obvious sign that the child may become a psychopath.

Cruelty to animals

This is one of the clearest early signs that a child may be a psychopath. Mistreating animals, deliberately harming them, or killing them are practices that denote a huge lack of empathy. This can be a preamble to violence towards other people.


Pyromania is an abnormal attraction to fire and a tendency to deliberately set fires. If your child repeatedly burns objects or places, shows satisfaction in doing so, and feels no guilt or remorse, this is a worrying sign.


Children with psychopathic traits are expert manipulators. They’re driven solely by their own benefit and know how to manipulate others to get what they want. Through various means, they often get their parents to give in and comply with their every wish. To do so, they may resort to lying, blackmail, or coercion.

Lack of empathy

These children are incapable of considering the feelings of others. They’re unmoved by the suffering of others, don’t value the repercussions that their actions may have on others, and do not show pity or feel compassion.

Defiance of rules and authority

All children may rebel against their parents at certain times. However, when the violation of rules and defiance of authority is constant, we must be alert. These children don’t respect hierarchy and end up dominating their parents. In addition, they tend not to respond to certain methods such as punishment.

A young child screaming angrily.
Instead of correcting their behavior, these children defy authority, act out, and tend to take revenge on those who’ve tried to impose discipline.

Other early manifestations of psychopathy

In addition to the above, there are other signs that may indicate that a child will be a psychopath and, therefore, shouldn’t be overlooked:

  • They never show remorse for their misbehavior.
  • They have a low tolerance for frustration and may react violently when something doesn’t go their way.
  • They show narcissistic traits, feel superior to others, and are demanding of others.

How to deal with this?

Several studies have found that psychopathy has a high genetic component, which explains about 50% of the variance. That is, a large part of the chances of suffering from the disorder aren’t controllable.

However, the upbringing and the environment that the child lives in during childhood also have a great influence. It’s children who suffer trauma, continuous abuse, or who live with neglectful parents who most frequently present these traits. Therefore, a democratic educational style marked by affection and limits can reduce the probabilities.

However, if you’ve already detected some of the above signs in your child, it’s important that you put yourself in the hands of professionals. Working strongly on empathy and social skills can help improve the child’s adjustment. In any case, it’s up to a psychologist or psychiatrist to indicate the most appropriate interventions.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • López, S. (2013). Revisión de la psicopatía: Pasado, presente y futuro. Revista Puertorriqueña de Psicología24(2), 1-16.
  • Pozueco Romero, J. M., Romero Guillena, S. L., & Casas Barquero, N. (2011). Psicopatía, violencia y criminalidad: un análisis psicológico-forense, psiquiátrico-legal y criminológico (Parte II). Cuadernos de Medicina Forense17(4), 175-192.
  • Dujo, V., & Horcajo, P. J. (2017). La psicopatía en la actualidad: abordaje clínico-legal y repercusiones forenses en el ámbito penal. Psicopatología Clínica Legal y Forense17(1), 69-88.
  • Holguín Mendoza, T. E., & Palacios Casados, J. J. (2014). La genética del trastorno antisocial de la personalidad: Una revisión de la bibliografía. Salud mental37(1), 83-91.

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