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Can and Should Callous, Unemotional Children Be Treated as Psychopaths?

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Should kids be labelled psychopaths?

The New York Times magazine published a lengthy feature this weekend on whether or not children who exhibit callous, unemotional behavior should be identified as pre-psychopaths and treated. I don’t mean treated as such (though many in the psychological community fear that once a child is branded a psychopath they will be treated like a criminal), but I mean treated, as in psychologically. It’s a particularly difficult question, because it’s unclear whether or not the condition can even respond to treatment. There is one theory that says while adult psychopaths are beyond help, by treating “CU children” (as they’re called) at a young enough age, they may avoid becoming full-blown psychopaths as adults.

I’ve done a bit of reading on sociopathy, so I’m familiar with a lot of the traits of anti-social personalities, but to someone who isn’t, they might be shocked to hear the word psychopath used in reference to a child. Toward the beginning of the piece author Jennifer Kahn says, “The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are essentially identical,” which is an assertion some in the psychological community agree with, while others believe that sociopathy and psychopathy exist on a spectrum. (The idea being that less violent, anti-social personalities may be best described as sociopaths, while serial killers are psychopaths. However, sociopaths are more adept at “blending in” and manipulating people into thinking they can experience empathy or remorse, even though they don’t, which in a way makes them more dangerous.) It’s a commonly accepted theory that psychopathy has a genetic component, but can be kept at bay or catalyzed by environmental factors, as is common with so many physical and mental conditions. So it makes sense that doctors might want to begin to test for and identify the disorder. But the implications are quite obviously troublesome, given the way things stand now in a society that has no compassion for the compassionless.

I won’t rehash the ins and outs of the article for you here; you really should just go read the whole thing for yourself. The case study Kahn follows is an interesting one, and any parent will be able to sympathize with the mother of the young boy in question. (Well, unless you’re a psychopath, of course.)

What I will bring to your attention is this: I stumbled across a website recently that is run by a self-identified “high-functioning” and “exceptionally considerate” sociopath, filled with comments from legions of other self-identified sociopaths. On more than one thread, the fear that sociopathic embryos — if identifiable — would be aborted by “normal” parents was rampant. Though many sociopaths consider themselves superior to empaths and admit to feeling a great sense of freedom attached to the absence of conscience, it’s clear that these people do have some sense of feeling — albeit shallow — about how they are treated. That’s why, ultimately, they lash out at others — because they’re sensitive to the anger they overwhelmingly perceive coming at them from the rest of the world. That’s certainly a condition worth curing, in my opinion, but a friend of mine said to me recently that maybe sociopathy shouldn’t be looked at as something to cure, but rather a personality type to be dealt with and used to its advantage. After all, psychopaths do make excellent business people, as many books and studies have noted.

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