My Child is a Sociopath! Is There Anything I Can Do?
Do I have a child sociopath? For a parent, noticing a pattern that a child is a sociopath can be heartbreaking and utterly terrifying. Officially, there's no such thing as a child sociopath because a child or adolescent can't be diagnosed as a sociopath. He or she is too young and his personality hasn't matured sufficiently to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, an adult personality disorder more commonly known as sociopathy. So while there are no sociopathic children, there can be sociopathic behavior in children.
Child Sociopath and Conduct Disorder
When children show sufficient and persistent sociopathic traits, characteristicsand behaviors, they can be evaluated for conduct disorder (Symptoms of a Sociopath in Men, Women, Children). Conduct disorder can be a precursor to antisocial personality disorder in adulthood; indeed, all sociopathic adults had conduct disorder (whether or not it was officially diagnosed) as a child. It's noteworthy that not every child and teen who has conduct disorder will grow up to be a sociopath. Child sociopath characteristics often abate by adulthood.
The American Psychiatric Association (2013) discusses the clinical criteria for conduct disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the authority on mental disorders. Conduct disorder is described as "a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated..." The child or teen exhibits delinquent behavior, frequently severely so, in the following ways:
- Aggression to people and animals
- Destruction of property
- Deceitfulness or theft
- Serious violations of rules
Fire setting, cruelty to animals, and bedwetting (enuresis), together known as the MacDonald Triad, are behaviors that are connected to conduct disorder. Truancy, vandalism, violence, lying, cheating, running away, and early sexual behaviors are but some of the sociopathic behaviors committed by a child or adolescent with conduct disorder.
A Child "Sociopath" is Callous, Unemotional
The professional term frequently used to describe children who have conduct disorder (CD) is callous and unemotional (CU). Just as sociopathy is a group of traits and behaviors, so, too, is conduct disorder. Traits of a CD/CU child include:
- Disengaged, withdrawn from relationships with parents, family, peers, teachers, etc.
- Social isolation (a sociopathic child is a loner by choice)
- Limited affect/emotion other than impulsive anger
- Little or no attachment or bonding with anyone
- Impervious to punishments, positive reinforcements, and negative reinforcements
Can Conduct Disorder Be Cured?
To date, there is no cure for conduct disorder. Because it involves traits and behaviors rather than illness, there is no medication to help. Professionals are working to develop effective treatments, but thus far there isn't a quick fix (Sociopath Treatment: Can A Sociopath Change?).
Researchers are discovering what definitely does not work for the child with sociopath characteristics. Behavioral approaches that target specific acts like bullying or stealing fall short because they minimize the big picture and they involve consequences, things that a CD/CU child cares nothing about. Sugar-coating or side-stepping the traits and total behavior of the child also doesn't work. Someone who does this attends to the elephant in the room while the child himself sneaks away undetected. The elephant grows ever closer while the child grows increasingly distant.
New treatment approaches are constantly being developed and tried. Nothing can cure conduct disorder, at least not yet. For now, though, some treatment approaches are at least marginally effective. Experts have discovered certain things.
- To have a chance at succeeding, an intervention must begin as soon as possible, ideally early in childhood (sociopathic behaviors in children sometimes begin at a very early age).
- Working with a child to develop prosocial behavior is more effective than working with him to stop antisocial behavior.
- It's not enough to work with only the CD/CU, sociopathic child; instead, the treatment must be multi-systemic and involve the family plus the social context in which problems occur.
Eighty percent of children with conduct disorder outgrow it by adulthood and never become sociopaths. Therefore, it's important for parents to not give up on the child "sociopath."