There are times when children get out of hand, throwing tantrums or making a huge, embarrassing fuss in public. Deep down, some of these kids have behavioral problems. While it's easy to spot the naughty ones in a playground, researchers struggle to determine if it's possible to diagnose children as being potential--and perhaps dangerous--psychopaths.
This issue came to our attention when it was brought to light in a thought-provoking New York Times article on "callous-unemotional" children.
Children who exhibit a distict lack of affect, remorse or empathy have been under the scrutiny of researchers for more than a decade. The basic view is that children may be capable of having some abstract psychopathic tendencies which only truly develop as they head into adulthood. But now some psychologists are creating a series of psychological exams which they think can accurately determine and predict psychopathic traits. The study suggests that children can, in theory, be labelled as psychopaths from an early stage. The findings lean towards the prospect of researchers developing tools to change it.
The difficulty is of course identifying which traits are important. Evaluating a child who kills its pets shows clear signs of psychopathy. But other signs are far more subtle, like defining their lack of humanity, or their ability to manipulate and lie for any reason or no reason at all.
John Edens, a clinical psychologist at Texas A&M University, has cautioned against investing in research to identify children at risk of psychopathy. “This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”
Until researchers are confident that people are willing to brand children as psychopaths, treating them to avoid psychopathic behavior in their adulthood remains idealistic.