Who comes to mind when you think of the word “psychopath?” Ted Bundy? Jeffrey Dahmer? Jack the Ripper? Your child or someone else’s? While it’s a terrifying thought to even consider that your little baby boy or girl could ever display psychopathic traits, there are some parents who have had to learn how to deal with this difficult fact, every day of their lives.
My first job out of teaching college, where I trained to become a special education teacher, was in a middle school classroom for students who were considered Emotionally/Behaviorally Disturbed. I loved the job, and I stayed there for five years before moving on to my next teaching challenge.
In those five years, I had some incredible students and some incredibly scary students. I had one girl who wanted to cut the fetus out of another student’s body with a pair of scissors. I remember standing between her and the pregnant student until help arrived. I taught one male student for a while until he horrifically impaled his grandmother to the floor of their home with a screwdriver, and he was incarcerated.
When I reached out for more stories, my inbox immediately started alerting me to new messages. Here are some of their stories. Note: The names in these stories have been changed to help protect the families involved.
“Paul was only 13 years old when he was sent to the psych ward for the first time,” shares Terri, a local mother. “I walked on eggshells around him for years. My husband, to this day, has not accepted the disorder. We have disagreements about Paul all the time, and I tell my husband to let me handle him on my terms. Paul has never really had a relationship with his father.”
John, a local father, shares, “My daughter was three when we first started to see that she was very different from other children. Not just different, bad different, manipulative and unremorseful. She lied and stole property from others.”
Grace, a local teacher, shares what she experienced with a student. “She was caught in the neighbor’s yard with a big knife. She’d caught some of their koi fish and had cut them open to see their insides and watch them die. She was in second grade. She started several fires and hurt the family pets. It was so strange because she appeared calm and quiet at school. We paid close attention to who talked with her to see if she had enemies. None. Friends? None. Children didn’t outwardly dislike her, just kept their distance, like they knew something wasn’t quite right.”
Mental health isn’t the taboo topic it once was, but openly talking about children as sociopaths or psychopaths just feels wrong. In fact, neither term is used anymore as both are considered outdated. The new term, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition, or DSM 5, has grouped psychopath and sociopath under one umbrella diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, or APD, under the heading of Personality Disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), Personality Disorders are long-term patterns of behavior and internal experiences that often differ from society’s norms.
Because personalities are nearly unchanging over time, a diagnosis of APD implies that the condition cannot be helped. However, children’s brains are still developing, and therefore, APD cannot be officially diagnosed until the age of 18.
“In children, the terms ‘callous-unemotional traits’ with ‘with limited prosocial emotions’ are sometimes used,” according to Dr. Paul Frick with the Department of Psychology at Louisiana State University (LSU). “In both the DSM Fifth Edition, published by the APA in 2013, and the International Classification of Disease 11th Edition, published by the World Health Organization, a child who often shows serious conduct problems can be diagnosed with Conduct Disorder with Limited Prosocial Emotions if his or her behavior problems are accompanied by at least two of the following features with most people and in most settings (not just occasionally or in certain situations): lack of remorse or guilt, callous–lack of empathy, a lack of concern about educational or occupational performance, and shallow emotions.”
Signs and Symptoms
Dr. Frick goes on to share, “The first thing that should alert parents, is if their child is getting into trouble (such as not following rules) and hurting other people either directly by fighting and/or bullying, or by stealing or damaging others’ things.” Additional red flags for Conduct Disorder can include the child using a weapon against others or animals, setting fires, stealing, and even running away from home. Children may lie to intentionally deceive others, act impulsively, disregard social norms, display erratic or dramatic behaviors, and they may also engage in illegal or promiscuous behaviors.
The additional specifier, “with limited prosocial emotions,” includes at least two of the following traits over a 12 month period: lack of guilt or remorse (not feeling sorry after hurting others or does not care about breaking rules); callous–lack of empathy (disregards the feelings of others, may be considered cold or uncaring); unconcerned about performance (shows no concern about problematic performance in important activities, may even blame others for their own poor performance); and shallow or deficient affect (their emotions may appear insincere or superficial, or emotions are used to manipulate others for personal gain).
Hope for Families
For the Child
“Parents can seek a psychological evaluation to determine if these problems are due to the above traits or due to other factors, such as the child being impulsive or having trouble controlling their anger because the child is frustrated with school,” shares Dr. Frick. “Such evaluations can be done by licensed psychologists, and we offer those services through the Psychological Services Center at LSU. It is important that parents seek help for these behaviors early because the treatments are very effective for young children, but they get less effective as the child gets older and enters the adolescence stage.”
Although there are no medications to specifically treat conduct disorders, medications for anxiety, depression, impulsivity, and mood-stabilizers can help control some of the symptoms. Additionally, physicians suggest regular exercise, meditation, or yoga to help manage symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Finally, limit screen time. A 2013 study by Robertson and colleagues found that the risk of developing aggressive personality traits, experiencing negative emotions, and developing antisocial personality disorder (APD) increased with the amount of unrestricted television time the person was allowed as a youth.
For the Parents
Take a deep breath and read all you can to arm yourself with knowledge about Conduct Disorder. First, know that unless you are either an extremely neglectful or brutally controlling parent, you didn’t cause it. Second, children are still developing both cognitively and emotionally, and early interventions can be very beneficial, so seek an evaluation. Third, join a support group to share your experiences and avoid isolation.
Having a child who displays the traits of Conduct Disorder is extremely stressful and can be burdensome on relationships. Having a support group of parents who are experiencing similar things can be extremely helpful to other you or other parents. Consider reaching out to NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an organization for parents of children who are living with mental illnesses. NAMI has several Louisiana chapters in the state, and each group offers multiple group meetups and discussions for families.
Also, it's important to take the physician’s advice and make sure that you are scheduling time to be able to meditate, exercise, or destress with yoga or journalling, which can help with processing your thoughts and your emotions. Spend “time-in” with your child, and rely more heavily on positive rewards for prosocial behaviors than punishments for negative behaviors.
Lastly, take heart in knowing that there is hope for you, your child, and your family. Terri shares, “As far as seeing how I was a parent during that point in his life, I felt like I let him down. It was the hardest time of my life. But, to this day, he and I have the strongest relationship that any mother and child could have. He went to counselling, and we also attended family counselling. [After counselling,] if either one of us sees our faults, we can identify them. We let things calm down, apologize to each other, then we talk about it. We are close, he and his sister are very close, and he has gone on to have very strong, meaningful relationships.”
As far as my former students go, the ones from the middle school class for troubled or emotionally disturbed teens, some of them are currently incarcerated for arson, theft, or assault.
It's unfortunate for me to share these things, but I choose to focus on the happier endings for my former students.
Many of my former students are now supportive, loving parents. I have been invited to their graduations, their weddings, their gender reveal parties, and other celebrations they are experiencing in their lives. These now-grown adults are all gainfully employed, they are living independently, and they are contributing to the world in a beautiful and positive way.
Ultimately, it is hard to say who or what exactly deserves the credit for these individuals’ successes and changes, but I know one thing is for sure, hope truly does exist. ■