Can Children Ever Be Diagnosed as Psychopaths?

All children play up from time to time, but deep-down, some are incredibly badly behaved. While it's easy enough to spot them in the playground, researchers are struggling to come to terms with whether it's possible to diagnose children as being real—and perhaps even dangerous—psychopaths.

The New York Times ran a wonderful and thought-provoking piece on "callous-unemotional" children over the weekend, which dealt with that exact topic.

In fact, children who exhibit a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy have been under the scrutiny of researchers for over a decade. The generally held view has been that children may be capable of having some abstract psychopathic tendencies which only truly develop as they grow into adults. But now, some psychologists—including the likes of Paul Frick from the University of New Orleans—are developing a series of psychological exams which they think can accurately predict such a fate. That means that children could, in theory, be labelled as psychopaths from an early age—which would in turn help researchers develop tools to change it.

The difficulty, of course, is identifying which traits are important. A child that kills its pets clearly has some psychopathic tendencies. But the signs can be far more subtle, manifesting themselves as an ability to manipulate and lie, or even just an apparent—and difficult to define—lack of humanity.

That lack of clarity makes the concept of psychopathy in children a controversial subject, even amongst psychologists. Indeed, even if psychopathy is a personality disorder which sits on a spectrum—much like autism—some academics, like Laurence Steinberg from Temple University, argue that it is impossible to accurately diagnose when the brain is undergoing such extreme development as is experienced by young children.

If it is at least possible to identify those who sit closer to the negative end of the scale, though, then help may be at hand. After all, it should be possible to modify aspects of a callous-unemotional child's behavior—by reinforcing, in particular, the capacity for empathy.

The fact remains, however, that few people are yet willing to brand children as psychopaths—and until they do, treating them to avoid such behavior in adult life remains little more than a passing idea. [New York Times]