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Should Children as Young as Five Years Old be Branded 'Fledgling Psychopaths'?


“Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”

Dan Waschbusch, a Florida International University researcher, has been studying people who exhibit "callous-unemotional" behavior for 10 years. More specifically, he has been researching children with an extreme lack of remorse or empathy who could potentially be labeled as psychopaths.

The New York Times magazine featured the concept of diagnosing children as psychopathic over the weekend, stating that a growing number of psychologists believe this emotional state could be diagnosed in children as young as five. At such a young age, they would be known as "fledgling psychopaths."

There is currently no standardized test to diagnose a child as psychopathic -- and for many reasons adult tests aren't ideal when applied to youth -- but some believe the signs are all there:

In some children, C.U. traits manifest in obvious ways. Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who has studied risk factors for psychopathy in children for two decades, described one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice. “When we talked about it, he was very straightforward,” Frick recalls. “He said: ‘I want to be a scientist, and I was experimenting. I wanted to see how the cat would react.’ ”

In another famous case, a 9-year-old boy named Jeffrey Bailey pushed a toddler into the deep end of a motel swimming pool in Florida. As the boy struggled and sank to the bottom, Bailey pulled up a chair to watch. Questioned by the police afterward, Bailey explained that he was curious to see someone drown. When he was taken into custody, he seemed untroubled by the prospect of jail but was pleased to be the center of attention.

In many children, though, the signs are subtler. Callous-unemotional children tend to be highly manipulative, Frick notes. They also lie frequently — not just to avoid punishment, as all children will, but for any reason, or none. “Most kids, if you catch them stealing a cookie from the jar before dinner, they’ll look guilty,” Frick says. “They want the cookie, but they also feel bad. Even kids with severe A.D.H.D.: they may have poor impulse control, but they still feel bad when they realize that their mom is mad at them.” Callous-unemotional children are unrepentant. “They don’t care if someone is mad at them,” Frick says. “They don’t care if they hurt someone’s feelings.” Like adult psychopaths, they can seem to lack humanity. “If they can get what they want without being cruel, that’s often easier,” Frick observes. “But at the end of the day, they’ll do whatever works best.”

At the same time though, diagnosing a child as a psychopath, fledging psychopath or with the potential to become psychopathic, comes with some weighty follow-up questions. Could your child be diagnosed as psychopathic but really not be? If this ends up being the case, what happens then? Is he or she labeled as such for life? Will they carry around this diagnosis on their medical records? If steps are taken to mitigate these behavioral issues, how will he or she expunge their reputation?

The article doesn't ignore the fact that this sort of diagnosis is controversial, especially because the brains of children and teens are still developing. Some even said there is really no point in diagnosing it:

“This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Texas A&M University clinical psychologist John Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”

The piece goes on to report those who are more middle of the road, believing that while it is sticky to diagnose a child with such a disorder, the benefits for parents to prepare and instituting some sort of behavioral treatment could make it worth it. Some of these psychologists believe that because the part of the brain that controls empathy is still technically under development at this age, it could be strengthened.

The New York Times piece by Jennifer Kahn, who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is lengthy but goes into far greater detail and cases about children who are potentially psychopathic. Read it in full here.

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