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Child Psychopaths, Do They Really Exist?

Child psychopaths! That’s a real scary thought.  Can a child be a psychopath? Read more about psychopathic children and whether they really exist?

The idea of a child psychopath is a chilling one for most people. Imagine a sweet, little 12-year-old who could commit heinous acts such as the torture of animals without remorse and then manipulate and charm his way out of any consequences. That might be the image of a child psychopath but do psychopathic children really exist?

What Would a Psychopathic Child Be Like?

Psychopaths are defined by certain personality characteristics and these characteristics can be present in children. It's important to note that only when these psychopathic personality traits exist as a cluster (not just one trait) and/or in the extreme would psychopathy be suspected.

The personality traits of a psychopath include:

  • Superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Manipulativeness
  • Shallow emotions
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Impulsivity
  • Failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions

A child need not have all the above traits to be considered having psychopathic tendencies but certainly showing them mildly or singularly may be normal for any given child at a point in his or her development.

That said, it is believed that psychopathic traits are fairly stable over the course of a person's life, including development at some point during childhood. Indeed, most of the traits will be noticeable before a child turns 16. (Psychopathic Personality and How It Develops)

Adolescents with psychopathic traits will also:

  • Seek stimulation
  • Be more reactive to reward than punishment
  • Be more likely to exhibit behavior outside the norms of society and engage in antisocial behavior
  • Show more premeditated aggression compared to other youths with behavioral problems

Diagnosing a Child Psychopath

Children are not actually diagnosed as psychopaths until they turn 18, rather, children are said to have psychopathic traits or psychopathic tendencies. These traits, or tendencies, can be assessed by a professional using the 50-item Psychopathy Checklist-Revised Youth version by Hare. This way of assessing psychopathy in youths is time-consuming, however, so other methods have been developed such as the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory and the Antisocial Process Screening Device – Self Report each designed to assess psychopathic traits among 13-18-year-olds in the community.

Is My Child a Psychopath?

Only a professional, such as a psychiatrist who specializes in psychopathy, can answer the question as to whether your child is a psychopath. Nevertheless, if your child shows the above traits, professional help should be sought as psychopaths not only cause great harm to the community, but they also tend to end up incarcerated. One should also be warned that, in rare cases, psychopaths have killed others before adulthood.

What To Do With A Psychopathic Child

If a child is found to have psychopathic tendencies, not all hope is lost. While treatment of adult psychopaths has been virtually fruitless, the same cannot be said of the treatment of young psychopaths. A relatively new therapy called decompression treatment has been used with positive results.

Keep in mind that psychopathic traits in children are also highly correlated with other mental illnesses and drug use. Psychopathic youth also tend to drop out of psychiatric treatment and be noncompliant on a more regular basis than others.

For more information on the treatment of psychopathy, please see: Treatment for Psychopaths: Can the Psychopath Be Cured?


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next: Psychopathic Children, Psychopathic Behavior in Children
~ all articles on Personality Disorders
~ all Psychopath Articles

Last Updated: 21 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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