Can A Child Be A Sociopath?

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We're hearing a lot about a Tennessee family who sent their troubled 7-year-old son, adopted from Russia, alone on a plane back to his home country with a note saying they no longer wanted to parent the child. Their reasons — outlined in the note according to the Associated Press — stated: 

"This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues. "I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues. "After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child."

According to the boy's adopted grandmother, he was violent, angry and threatened to burn the house down.

Every kid has temper tantrums that could turn heads in the grocery aisle, but threatening arson and increasingly violent actions is entirely different. That kind of behavior from an adult could easily lead to a criminal record, but coming from a 7-year-old boy, is it the behavior of a sociopath?

And for the record, when we say sociopath, we're talking about "a person, as a psychopathic personality, whose behavior is antisocial and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience," according to dictionary.com.

For the answer we turned to Clinical Psychologist Jill Weber.

Dr. Jill Weber: I would say: No, a child cannot be classified as a sociopath. The manual that clinicians and psychiatrists use to diagnose individuals with different mental and emotional disorders is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. And a diagnosis like antisocial personality cannot be made until one is at least 18 years of age. And that is because kids — their brains — are thought to be so malleable and luckily so influenced by the environment. Different things that happen in the environment can completely alter a child's personality or even behavior. And with this child, it sounds more like some kind of an attachment disorder. We call it a reactive attachment disorder that can cause certain behavior like that. It's hard to see, but it comes from the child being afraid, being scared, not knowing if this is a consistent attachment [with his adoptive parents].

She also cautioned against labeling children as antisocial so early in their lives…

Weber: We know the environment has an enormous impact on children, which is why we don't want to label them early on with something like that because you can create the very thing that you're labeling.

What about kids torturing animals at a young age, the classic sign of a future serial killer?

Weber: It's certainly an indicator that your child needs some extra help — and maybe some very intense help even. But it doesn't necessarily mean that your child is going to be a sociopath or a serial killer. Usually that happens more when it's not noticed, when the child continues to not get any help.

So at what point does this kind of behavior become irreversible?

Weber: Over time, the more pervasive those tendencies are in every aspect of one's life, then it becomes just a mode of operating in the world. The more it is a mode of operating in the world… the harder it becomes to alter that.

So it's not something that just happens, according to Dr. Weber, but rather something that develops over time. She says diagnosing an adult as having an extreme antisocial personality disorder — what most of us would call a sociopath — is complicated. However, a person's history of behavior and social interaction are huge factors in making that assessment.

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