Can a 5-Year-Old Child Be Diagnosed as a Psychopath?

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As facts trickle in about the massacre that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and about Adam Lanza, the killer who took the lives of 20 elementary school students and seven adults, many people are wondering just how this situation could have occurred. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

As facts trickle in about the massacre that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and about Adam Lanza, the killer who took the lives of 20 elementary school students and seven adults, many people are wondering just how this situation could have occurred.

Many have pointed to the need for an increased gun control; others want to discuss a way to better combat mental illness. Often enough though, as people draw in to watch the news coverage and feel sorrow for the victims and their families, many wonder how a young man in his early twenties could have been troubled enough to commit such a horrible act. It has led some experts to step up and tentatively suggest that maybe people can be psychopaths at 20 - or 15, or 10. Perhaps children can be psychopaths at the age of five. If so, is there anything that we can do to help them?

In the New York Times, Jennifer Kahn writes about Michael, now nine years old. At three, shortly after the birth of his brother Michael, Michael's behavioral programs began in earnest. He would throw tantrums that went far beyond that of a normal toddler, tantrums that could last for hours and be set off by anything. His behavior persisted until well beyond his toddler years; even now, he vents by screaming and slamming the toilet seat again and again until it breaks.

At the age of five, Michael developed the ability to turn his tantrums on and off. His mother Anne recounted an argument in which she tried to help him with a homework assignment. As Michael shrieked and cried, Anne pleaded with him, saying, "Michael, remember we brainstormed yesterday so we could avoid all this drama today." Michael stopped and replied in a flat, adult voice, "Well, you didn't think that through very clearly then, did you?"

Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University, has been studying callous-unemotional children who are at risk for becoming psychopaths as adults. Some psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, may be neurological and that it can be diagnosed as early as the age of five. Unlike children with conduct disorder, these children are not just impulsive. They are also manipulative and lie frequently, for no reason. When Michael was given a test, he scored almost two standard deviations outside the normal range for callous-unemotional behavior, placing himself at the severe end of the spectrum.

The idea that young children can be considered psychopaths is controversial in the psychology community. Some say that it is impossible to diagnose in children because their brains are still forming. Many note that these behavioral problems may overlap with other more common disorders, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or bipolar disorder. Others note that branding children as psychopaths from a young age will come at a ruinous social cost.

But proponents say that ignoring the signs can be even more dangerous. They point to the fact that, in many psychopaths, signs could be found as early as the age of three. Psychopathy is estimated to cost taxpayers $460 billion annually; even though they make up just 1 percent of the population, they make up 15 to 25 percent of offenders housed in prison and often are arrested multiple times.

Researchers believe that coldblooded behaviors can be traced to low levels of cortisol and low function in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes fear and shame. Other brain scans reveal that psychopaths have smaller subgenual cortexes and a 5 to 10 percent reduction in density in the paralimbic system, the portion of the brain responsible for empathy, social values, and moral decision making. In addition, researchers place hereditability of these callous-unemotional traits at 80 percent. Most often, children with these traits have parents who hold similar traits as well.

However, researchers note that physiology is not destiny. Many callous-unemotional children can grow up to be well-adjusted adults. One study found that nearly every psychopathic adult was antisocial as a child. However, only 50 percent of children who scored high on antisocial tests went on to become psychopaths as an adult. That is the ray of light for psychologists. Obviously, there is something in the environment that prevents these children from being psychopaths as adults. Researchers hope that they are well on their way to discovering a treatment.

Still, researchers believe that, if they start early enough, they may be able to do more than just modify behavior. They may be able to rewire these children to have greater empathy. In the meantime, they note that many children with antisocial behavior are helped by warm, affectionate behavior in their parents - a difficult task since oftentimes, parents will respond to their behavior by punishing them more often and rewarding them less.

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