Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?
One day last summer, Anne and her husband, Miguel, took their 9-year-old son, Michael, to a Florida elementary school for the first day of what the family chose to call “summer camp.” For years, Anne and Miguel have struggled to understand their eldest son, an elegant boy with high-planed cheeks, wide eyes and curly light brown hair, whose periodic rages alternate with moments of chilly detachment. Michael’s eight-week program was, in reality, a highly structured psychological study — less summer camp than camp of last resort.
Michael’s problems started, according to his mother, around age 3, shortly after his brother Allan was born. At the time, she said, Michael was mostly just acting “like a brat,” but his behavior soon escalated to throwing tantrums during which he would scream and shriek inconsolably. These weren’t ordinary toddler’s fits. “It wasn’t, ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m frustrated’ — the normal things kids do,” Anne remembered. “His behavior was really out there. And it would happen for hours and hours each day, no matter what we did.” For several years, Michael screamed every time his parents told him to put on his shoes or perform other ordinary tasks, like retrieving one of his toys from the living room. “Going somewhere, staying somewhere — anything would set him off,” Miguel said. These furies lasted well beyond toddlerhood. At 8, Michael would still fly into a rage when Anne or Miguel tried to get him ready for school, punching the wall and kicking holes in the door. Left unwatched, he would cut up his trousers with scissors or methodically pull his hair out. He would also vent his anger by slamming the toilet seat down again and again until it broke.
When Anne and Miguel first took Michael to see a therapist, he was given a diagnosis of “firstborn syndrome”: acting out because he resented his new sibling. While both parents acknowledged that Michael was deeply hostile to the new baby, sibling rivalry didn’t seem sufficient to explain his consistently extreme behavior.
By the time he turned 5, Michael had developed an uncanny ability to switch from full-blown anger to moments of pure rationality or calculated charm — a facility that Anne describes as deeply unsettling. “You never know when you’re going to see a proper emotion,” she said. She recalled one argument, over a homework assignment, when Michael shrieked and wept as she tried to reason with him. “I said: ‘Michael, remember the brainstorming we did yesterday? All you have to do is take your thoughts from that and turn them into sentences, and you’re done!’ He’s still screaming bloody murder, so I say, ‘Michael, I thought we brainstormed so we could avoid all this drama today.’ He stopped dead, in the middle of the screaming, turned to me and said in this flat, adult voice, ‘Well, you didn’t think that through very clearly then, did you?’ ”
For the past 10 years, Waschbusch has been studying “callous-unemotional” children — those who exhibit a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy — and who are considered at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults. To evaluate Michael, Waschbusch used a combination of psychological exams and teacher- and family-rating scales, including the Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Traits, the Child Psychopathy Scale and a modified version of the Antisocial Process Screening Device — all tools designed to measure the cold, predatory conduct most closely associated with adult psychopathy. (The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are essentially identical.) A research assistant interviewed Michael’s parents and teachers about his behavior at home and in school. When all the exams and reports were tabulated, Michael was almost two standard deviations outside the normal range for callous-unemotional behavior, which placed him on the severe end of the spectrum.
Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number of psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5. Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits, which most researchers now believe distinguish “fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder, who are also impulsive and hard to control and exhibit hostile or violent behavior. According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits. (Narcissism and impulsivity, which are part of the adult diagnostic criteria, are difficult to apply to children, who are narcissistic and impulsive by nature.)
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.”