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Sociopathic Children: How Do They Become That Way?

Do sociopathic children truly exist and, if so, what causes a child to exhibit sociopathic behaviors? Read this.

First of all, do sociopathic children exist? You may have heard a parent describe a child as a sociopath because of certain behaviors, but that's different than a formal diagnosis.

Childhood bullies torment other kids. They're obnoxious at best and downright mean at worst. Physical aggression and emotional harassment gives the bully power over people. The ordinary playground-variety bully is not a sociopathic child.

Many people have heard chilling stories on the news or around the water cooler at work, stories of kids setting fires, torturing animals, and engaging in extreme bullying as well as showing little care for the consequences. These are not sociopathic children.

Sociopathic Children or Conduct Disorder?

Ethical reasons as well as the changing nature of children as they grow and develop dictate that a person cannot be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (the clinical term for sociopath) until age 18. Thus, a child or an adolescent cannot be labeled as a sociopath. Regardless of their behavior, there is no such thing as sociopathic children.

There is such a thing as a child who behaves very badly and is a danger to people and property alike. Some might say that such a child shows sociopathic tendencies. Still, though, the diagnosis can't be antisocial personality disorder. Before the age of 18, the diagnosis would be conduct disorder (or its milder cousin, oppositional defiant disorder).

While a child or adolescent can't be labeled as a sociopath, a requirement of the adult diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder is that disregard for and violation of the rights of others be present from age 15 or earlier. In the majority of cases, this equates to a diagnosis of conduct disorder in childhood or adolescence.

In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), conduct disorder is defined 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" (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

How Do Children Develop Conduct Disorder?

A diagnosis of conduct disorder in a child can be devastating for his parents and family members. The news often induces guilt, helplessness, self-blame, and shame. They've likely known that their child is different, removed from other kids and adults, selfish, uncaring, and mean. Many parents wonder how their baby became this way.

As with its adult counterpart, antisocial personality disorder, researchers are seeking understanding of the cause of conduct disorder. While there isn't yet a definitive answer to this complex puzzle, experts have uncovered significant evidence that the origins of conduct disorder are both biological and environmental. That is, both nature and nurture contribute to the development of conduct disorder, just as they do with sociopathy (Sociopath Causes: The Making of a Sociopath).

What Leads To Child Sociopathic-like Behavior?

While experts don't fully know the answer to why a child develops sociopathic traits or characteristics, they have identified factors that may predispose a child to conduct disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Any one of the factors, whether its nature or nurture, by itself isn't a red flag. It's when several are at play in a child's life that conduct disorder and signs of sociopathic behavior increase in likelihood.

Biological factors, or "nature," include

  • difficult temperament from infanthood (suggesting a brain-based problem);
  • maternal smoking during pregnancy (the toxins negatively affect brain growth);
  • antisocial personality disorder in the family (creating a genetic predisposition).


Environmental factors, or "nurture," include

  • growing up in a violent neighborhood
  • associating with delinquent peers
  • rejection from peers, parents, or others
  • lack of supervision
  • early institutional living
  • frequent changes of caregivers, as in foster care
  • large family size
  • varying types of child abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, neglect—singly or multiple)
  • parental rejection
  • inconsistent parenting practices, from leniency to harsh discipline


It's important to note that trauma, such as those listed here, impacts the brain on the neurobiological level, thus creating emotional and biological changes and difficulties.

There is no such thing as sociopathic children; there are, however, children with conduct disorder. Kiehl states in the 2014 study that nearly 80 percent of children "outgrow" the disorder by early adulthood (Sociopath Treatment: Can A Sociopath Change?). Others segue into antisocial personality disorder at age 18. At that point, they are sociopaths, perhaps to become sociopathic parents.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2015, August 11). Sociopathic Children: How Do They Become That Way?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/sociopath/sociopathic-children-how-do-they-become-that-way

Last Updated: May 31, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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