Heredity and Psychopathy
Children and Callous – Unemotional Traits
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Can children be considered psychopathic? Research of children who demonstrate strong psychopathic traits indicate that this age group is not diagnosed with psychopathy. Rather their emotional and affective presentation and condition are described as, Callous – Unemotional.
With that being said, this is not a disorder that suddenly appears at the age of 18 years old. The patterns are present life-long and considered a neurodevelopmental condition.
In a review of a childhood history of an adult with psychopathy, we often find they have been callous towards others since they were a very young child. Some have targeted children and peers they considered weak and bullied them relentlessly. They may have mocked the pain of others and caused harm to animals. They demonstrated pride in their ability to dominate, control, and intimidate other children/ teens. There is a pattern of inability to accept blame or accountability and a propensity toward manipulation and deception.
Some have harmed pets, siblings, ‘friends’, and been disrespectful and harsh with parents and other authority figures. They have demonstrated a pattern of not learning from punishment or experience and continuously engaged in aggressive behaviors (covert or overt).
Often depending upon their intellectual level and other (non-psychopathic) personality traits, they have chosen to demonstrate their control through physical, psychological, and emotional abuse of others. Some have used psychological and emotional means only, without physical violence, thereby maintaining the image of a behaved child. (“I didn’t hit him! It’s not my fault he’s too sensitive to take what I said!”)
What are Callous – Unemotional traits?
Disregard for others
Lack of Empathy
Lack of Guilt
Blunted emotional response/ range
(Kimonis, Fanti, Goldweber, Marsee, Frick, & Cauffman, 2014).
This naturally leads one to wonder:
Are callous – unemotional traits demonstrated in children due to parental abuse and mistreatment?
At this time, research seems to point to the answer of – No … not likely.
The reason is that mistreatment and abuse can lead to antisocial behaviors in children – fighting, stealing, aggression, & acting out or an anxiety or PTSD reaction, such as a pattern of heightened sensitivity and emotional & arousal dysregulation. However, not typically a callous-unemotional personality style.
Victims of abuse tend to be more sensitive to the state of others – not less.
Psychopaths are insensitive and ignore and often exploit the needs of others. They do not care. Their emotional state sharply contrasts a childhood victim of abuse who has no history of callous-unemotional traits.
When we look at the two groups of victims of childhood abuse – those with psychopathy and those without, it’s not uncommon to find that victims of abuse without psychopathy put the needs of others before their own. Many demonstrate codependence as adults. These individuals may be prone to unintentionally place themselves in vulnerable positions. This can easily lead to being taken advantage of due to a tendency to automatically give others the benefit of doubt, and help and care for others.
Psychopaths and narcissists, on the other hand, would never genuinely place someone else’s well-being and happiness before their own. Self first at the expense of others.
Victims of abuse with no history of callous-unemotional traits are very different from adults with psychopathy who were abused during childhood.
Interestingly, research suggests that children with callous-unemotional traits have a bit of an internal protection from external influences, including mistreatment from abusive adults.
“callous-unemotional traits may paradoxically serve as a protective factor against parental maltreatment among children with callous -unemotional traits, there is little correspondence between the quality of parenting that children receive and the severity of their antisocial behavior problems” (Marsh, 2013, p 2).
Bottom line – parental mistreatment and abuse have not been linked with callous-unemotional affective traits of psychopathy (e.g., emotional processing limitation). Although childhood abuse does not create the psychopathy, it can impact other components of one’s personality, adding additional maladaptive traits and behaviors.
Someone exposed to harsh conditions during their childhood could be prone to engage in antisocial behaviors during their youth and adulthood. However, exposure to abuse, trauma, and so forth will not necessarily lead to callous-unemotional personality traits. Personality traits and behavior are not the same.
Antisocial behavior is not heritable,
callous-unemotional personality traits are.
One reflects behavior while the other reflects brain capacity and hard wired neurobiology.
This suggests that the cold/callous personality style, preference to exploit others, lack of remorse or guilt, discarding others, and inability to bond demonstrated in psychopathy is likely not a result of a bad childhood.
The lines might appear to blur on the surface because those with callous – unemotional traits (e.g., psychopaths) are more prone, due to their emotional processing disorder, to engage in antisocial behaviors.
As with many conditions of the brain, this neurodevelopmental personality disorder can be passed along to the next generation. That means even if the child has no contact, abuse, or rearing from the psychopathic parent, the callous-unemotional traits could be present due to genetics.
“These features appear to be heritable, begin to manifest early in childhood, and are relatively stable throughout adolescence and into adulthood” (Neuman & Hare, 2008, p 894)
Kimonis, E.R., Fanti, K., Goldweber, A., Marsee, M.A., Frick, P.J., & Cauffman, E. (2014). Callous-unemotional traits in incarcerated adolescents. Psychological Assessment, 26, 227-237.
Marsh, A (2013). What can we learn about emotion by studying psychopathy? Frontiers in Neuroscience,10;7:181. 1-13
Neumann, CS and Hare, RD. (2008). Psychopathic traits in a large community sample: links to violence, alcohol use, and intelligence. J Consult Clin Psychol. Oct;76(5):893-9.
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