Child psychopaths: bad seeds or bad parents?

People stereotype psychopaths as unemotional killers but the reality is very different. Psychologist Eva Kimonis talks about what makes a psychopath and the work she's doing with unemotional children

What comes to mind when you think of a psychopath? A highly unemotional killer? Your boss? Every Hollywood villain?

They may be highly attuned to what they need to say to get what they want… they are very impulsive and con others using emotion – Dr Eva Kimonis

How about a child?

Behavioural problems at a young age are treated with a sort of ambivalence. Many parents are told, “oh, they’ll grow out of it” or “give them time”.

But what happens when these behaviours are hard wired into their children’s brain?

What if they are psychopaths?

It is estimated that 1 per cent of the world’s adult population are psychopaths. For children showing psychopathic tendencies like callous and unemotional traits, the percentage is higher, 2-4 per cent.

Psychopathy is just like any other mental illness. It doesn’t discriminate – everyone can have it, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. In most cases, it’s an inherited illness with many holding a genetic predisposition to the condition. It is not immune from environmental causes either.

A psychopath can be born and created.

To be categorised as a psychopath, you need to first tick all the boxes.

You need to be callous, manipulative, deceitful, reckless, remorseless, lie to get what you want, never really feel guilt, get bored easily and not understand people’s pain or feelings.

Like any mental illness, people can have levels of psychopathy, but to be a text book case, all signs must be there.

Psychologist Eva Kimonis of the UNSW has spent years researching the illness and studying its roots. She says to be considered a psychopath there must be signs that the illness is harming the person’s ability to function as a member of society.

“The point that it’s considered a disorder is when you’re seeing all of these things presenting together and they’re causing some sort of significant impairment in the person’s life,” she tells Neos Kosmos.

Psychopaths are notorious for living parasitic lives; they go from one partner to another and aren’t able to hold down jobs.

But for all their harmful conditions, there are quite lucky side effects. Psychopaths are notoriously charming, very extroverted and cunning and can expertly manipulate unsuspecting victims.

“They may be highly attuned to what they need to say to get what they want … they are very impulsive and con others using emotion,” Dr Kimonis says.

They are so unapologetic that putting other people in danger just for their own amusement is a common occurrence.

“They may be very irresponsible partners or parents, where they may do things like drive recklessly even though they may have a child in the backseat,” she says.

Using violence to achieve their goals is only seen in extreme cases, but does explain a lot about the people who do commit horrific crimes. Research has shown that up to 35 per cent of inmates in prisons around the world are psychopaths.

Hollywood has been in love with portraying genius villains who tick all the psychopath boxes. Some of the best villains known to date have used all the traits of psychopaths and gone well beyond them. Think of how the Joker in Batman or serial killer Hannibal Lecter always seem to be 10 steps ahead of the authorities.

Psychopaths are very calculating people. They are able to justify holding grudges for years on end, and work tirelessly to inflict harm on these people when they least expect it.

What is most alarming is that psychopaths know the difference between right or wrong, it’s just they don’t choose to abide by it if it’s not in their interest.
Instead of feeling emotions, they tend to mimic them as a way to get what they want. Think of someone that has caused a huge fuss only to get preferential treatment. That might have been a calculated response.

So is there a cure for psychopathy? No. But there are ways to manage it.

Dr Kimonis is observing some of the most promising treatments to date. Her research for the University of New South Wales is showing that children who display psychopathic tendencies can be nurtured and taught to feel more empathy and understand emotions more.

When parents come to her, they are in a desperate state.

“Parents might be saying their child doesn’t show any empathy, or doesn’t appear to be guilty whatsoever after they’ve done something wrong,” she says.

“A common one is that they’re saying their child doesn’t respond to punishment.”

Dr Kimonis has seen extreme cases, where pre-school children have acted out of character for their age.

“We had a child who was hurting animals, or physically hurting siblings,” she says.

“It’s very common that you’ll see them kicked out of their pre-school for aggressive types of behaviours.”

Dr Kimonis says these traits, although very alarming, won’t last for many children.

Only a small percentage of children actually show psychopathic tendencies through to adulthood.

“We know it’s about 30 per cent of kids with these callous and unemotional traits who show those characteristics into childhood and adolescence,” she says.

“Only 14 per cent go into adulthood, so most of them don’t.

“Kids can definitely grow out of it.”

Although many of the cases are genetic, environmental factors can exacerbate but also alleviate these problems.

Research has shown that children with callous and unemotional traits who have grown up in loving, nurturing families suppress their psychopathic traits.

That’s why Dr Kimonis is embarking on a large research study to find ways to intervene early and nurture children with the help of their parents.

In a treatment called parent-child interaction therapy, Dr Kimonis trains parents to better communicate with their children and find ways to help children understand emotions better.

In a play room, parents are asked to play with their children while researchers behind a two-way mirror tell them what to say and how to say it through earpieces. It’s all to train parents to offer their children a more nurturing environment and provide more ways to react to bad behaviour, Dr Kimonis says.
“We’re seeing pretty promising results, where parents are reporting more empathy after they finish the program,” she says.

“We’re seeing after we give them computer tasks they’re actually better at recognising emotions, especially sadness and fear, than they were before they started.

“We’re seeing fewer aggressive and anti-social behaviours.”

The program gives parents in-moment feedback and teaches them drills that they can easily transfer to the home.

Most of the guidance actually has a basis in training aimed for autistic children. Dr Kimonis says 30 to 50 per cent of children suffer from conduct and behavioural disorders. With prescription drugs showing mixed or no results, more innovative ways need to be found to better treat children and give them more chances to become useful members of society at adulthood.

“Even thought we know that about 85 per cent of the kids that we’re dealing with will not have psychopathy as adults, we’re really trying to get that 15 per cent that may show this very severe personality disorder as adults early and prevent it,” Dr Kimonis says.

She also warns it’s not a good idea for parents to self-diagnose their children. She says it’s important that parents bring concerns to their local GP to get a referral to a clinical psychologist.

“Only they are going to be able to really know how to best assess this and make sure that they’re getting the right treatment,” she says.

It’s a good idea also to make sure that you child is properly assessed, so that they are not referred to generic behavioural treatments if their symptoms
show deeper underlying problems.

Dr Kimonis’ research is still in its early stages and is calling for families to take part in the parent-child interaction therapy.

“We are just looking for families who might have children who might have very low levels of empathy and guilt, who don’t really seem to care about others’ feelings or don’t really seem to be responsive to punishment,” she says.

The program is currently only available in Sydney but Dr Kimonis hopes to expand it to more states.

Parents who are interested can contact Dr Kimonis on (02) 9385 0376, mentioning the parent-child interaction therapy.

Signs of a psychopath:

Sign one: emotionally deficient functioning

Psychopaths don’t show the same levels of empathy or guilt as others.
They are callous, unemotional and aren’t attuned to other people’s feelings or emotions (especially in response to things like pain, sadness or fear in others).

Sign two: using people for own benefit

Psychopaths don’t make friends easily.
They tend to see people as pawns they can use to get what they want.
They are very manipulative, deceitful, they will often lie to get what they want and con others using emotion
They are promiscuous in relationships, always searching for ways to satisfy their needs without thinking of other people’s feelings.

Sign three: selfish impulses rule their thoughts

They are very impulsive, irresponsible, have difficulty holding down a job or might not have a long-term plan.
They choose to live off other people for their own benefit without guilt.
They may be very irresponsible partners or parents where they may do things like drive recklessly even though they may have a child in the backseat.
They are fine with putting people’s lives at risk because of something they want to do that’s more thrill-seeking.