Psychologists Are Trying To Identify & ‘Fix’ Budding Psychopaths As Young As 3 Years Old

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We Need To Talk about KevinWe all want our children to be good. We want them to make good choices, get good grades, and grow up to be good people. Lots and lots of good. And since parents are so concerned with making sure that our children are moral, upstanding human beings, it makes sense that we’re all a little scared of their bad behavior. We don’t want our children to be bad, often because we don’t want to think that we might be bad parents.

So can any of us, myself included, refrain from frantically reading about psychologist who claims to be able to spot the “bad eggs”? I mean really, who isn’t at least marginally interested in reading an article titled, “Is your child a psychopath?” The Daily Mail further sells the piece by adding, “It’s more common than you think – and you can spot the danger signs as young as three.” I could almost hear the piano afterwards playing, “Duh duh Duuuuh.”

Stephen Scott is a professor of child health and psychology and he’s the one who runs a program that’s aimed at identifying and treating mini-psychopaths. In all honestly, the program itself sounds interesting. The rehabilitation efforts for kids who have a hard time empathizing with others seems logical and impressive. What they call the TLC Project aims to help parents and children understand each other better and communicate in a way that both can process. Scott says the goal is “to get these children to understand the emotional components of interaction, to activate this centre in the brain that seems underactive.”

Honestly, the work they are doing sounds impressive and helpful for young children who have a hard time handling and processing emotion.

But psychopath? Do we really need to use the word “psychopath” for toddlers? It’s a word that instills so much fear and condemnation. I don’t understand why it’s necessary when we’re talking about young children who seem to need help recognizing and accepting feelings, both their own and in others.

Also, it’s hard to understand the criteria used to diagnose these children. Cruelty and selfishness are dangerous attributes, but they are also common in young children. There are times when my daughter pulls her dogs’ tails. I never understand why. If you ask her, she doesn’t seem to know why she did it. Sure the mutts are over 100 lbs a piece and she probably couldn’t injure them with a hammer, but it’s certainly not a loving choice. Does this mean that my daughter could be dangerous later in life?

And what is childhood if it isn’t selfishness? I know adults who still have a hard time accepting that the world doesn’t resolve around them. Most young children are just beginning to see things from another person’s perspective. They’re just learning to think about other people’s feelings. Scott says, “..there is little danger of confusing the average five-year-old scamp with the fledgling psychopath,” but we aren’t talking about educational testing, where the results are quantifiable and the labels are easily shed over time. I don’t think the label of “psychopath” is one that you get to test out of in a couple years.

I think we need to be much more wary of emotional and behavioral diagnosis in early childhood than we do of educational. I think terms like “psychopath” are dangerous to throw around. And I think that the blase way in which they can be used is often simply fearmongering for parents.

The TLC project sounds like an interesting approach to behavioral psychology for young children, but maybe it needs a lesson in marketing and a few less scare tactics. For parents whose children battle with issues like callous, unemotional traits, I’m sure that the problem doesn’t look like a movie starring Tilda Swinton. It’s a serious problem for these families, and they probably don’t need the term “psychopath” hanging over their heads.

(Photo: The Movie Report)


  1. Angela

    June 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    I’ve heard about this program before and to be fair I don’t believe the researchers are advocating labeling toddlers as psychopaths. They have simply developed a way to screen at risk kids and are trying to help them. I think the title of the article was crafted to draw in readers more than anything else.

  2. Angela

    June 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Also wanted to add that my understanding is that the screening actually focuses more on what the kids don’t do rather than what they do. As you pointed out all kids are self-centered, impulsive, and even cruel at times but if a kid lacks any affectionate or loving tendencies that really would be pretty unsettling.

    • kathleen

      June 8, 2012 at 10:30 pm

      Absolutely correct. They are trying to determine which children lack the sense of empathy that allows them to accord others the human status that they see for themselves. There are pretty clear indicators when a child cannot comprehend how others can suffer as they themselves do.

      The New York Times magazine (I think) had an excellent article about this issue, and it reveals much more about the understanding of psychopathology in children.

  3. boots

    June 9, 2012 at 12:57 am

    what is most wrong here is the misconception of what a psychopath is and why that label is important. if a child is a haemophiliac, simply saying ‘oh no he isn’t’ won’t change his blood status. the presence of a diagnosis does not change the individual – it changes how others perceive them and react to them. the change that should really be occuring is one of society’s interpretation of psychopathy and the needs of those with the disorder. just a children with autism and their parents have support networks and resources available to help them, so should the children and families who have to deal with other mental disorders, such as psychopathy. it’s a disorder, but early diagnosis and intervention can lead to a reasonably normal life for the child, their family and their community.

  4. T.

    June 9, 2012 at 2:39 am

    I agree with Angela. And I think it might be useful for them and, most importanty, for other people around them.

  5. Lastango

    June 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I’m concerned that this initiative may be part of the mental health profession’s continual attempts to create income and advancement for its members by fabricating illnesses and disorders and then using these to (a) seek funding, and (b) panic the public – especially parents – into seeking treatment. If a new disorder can be “discovered” and manipulated into being officially recognized, professionals can then bill for treating it, publish books and papers about it, consult about it, appear on TV to talk about it, and so on.

    When the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM 5”) was released, it triggered a backlash of concern among legitimate mental health professionals that the fraudsters had made significant, dangerous new headway toward their ultimate goal of turning psychology into whatever the hustlers wanted it to be. Here’s a bit from the petition to have DSM 5 recalled and revised. The petitioners are concerned that:

    “…clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalization of their natural and normal responses to their experiences; responses which undoubtedly have distressing consequences which demand helping responses, but which do not reflect illnesses so much as normal individual variation.”

    Specific problems with DSM5 include:

    — “Attenuated Psychosis Syndrome, ”which describes experiences common in the general population, and which was developed from a “risk” concept with strikingly low predictive validity for conversion to full psychosis.

    — The proposed removal of Major Depressive Disorder’s bereavement exclusion, which currently prevents the pathologization of grief, a normal life process.

    — The reduction in the number of criteria necessary for the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder, a diagnosis that is already subject to epidemiological inflation.

    — The reduction in symptomatic duration and the number of necessary criteria for the diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

    Yup, psychologists want to be able to discover Generalized Anxiety Disorder everywhere they look. The petitioners continue:

    “We are also gravely concerned about the introduction of disorder categories that risk misuse in particularly vulnerable populations. For example, Mild Neurocognitive Disorder might be diagnosed in elderly with expected cognitive decline, especially in memory functions. Additionally, children and adolescents will be particularly susceptible to receiving a diagnosis of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder or Attenuated Psychosis Syndrome. Neither of these newly proposed disorders have a solid basis in the clinical research literature, and both may result in treatment…”

    That ought to give a general idea of how this scam works. I’m very leery when the mental health mafia “researches” and then discovers a new problem that society then needs them to treat.

    • Ellen

      June 11, 2012 at 1:06 am

      There is no DSM V yet. the current edition is the DSM-IV-TR (the TR stands for text revision- no changes in diagnostic criteria, some small changes in wording.)

      Source: every college psych course I’ve taken.

    • Lastango

      June 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

      @ Ellen… you write “no changes in diagnostic criteria, some small changes in wording”

      That’s a talking point straight from the American Psychiatric Association (APA), authors of DSM 5. Yet your own link contains wording like:

      “Readers will also notice changes in specific criteria for some of the disorders, including those in the Neurocognitive Disorders and the Anxiety Disorders chapters.”

      Inquiring minds may want to visit the first link below to read more about the following sort of comment:

      “With The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, 51 professional organizations, a sizable blogging community, and the manual’s former editor, Allen Frances, all voicing strenuous concern about the manual’s planned revisions and likely content, the hiring of a PR firm to “execute … image-building”—that is, to gloss over serious diagnostic issues and controversies in psychiatry—amounts to a fig leaf, a frantic effort to whitewash the manual’s many flaws and questionable content.”

      And here is the letter of the concern from the American Counseling Association to the American Psychiatric Association (the “APA”, the authors of DSM 5):

      And more:

      The reason for the petition is that the petitioners believe there is no legitimate review process, and the APA intends to roll out DSM 5 substantially as is unless the APA is stopped by a groundswell of protest.

  6. Alan

    June 20, 2012 at 2:43 am

    @ Lastango

    I’m surprised you didn’t also reference that Scientology propaganda “documentary.”

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