In the article “When Your Child Is a Psychopath,” Hagerty presents multiple stories of people whose lives were and are affected by these persons’ childhood behaviors and their personalities. The author also discusses some interesting findings in the sphere of childhood psychiatry, particularly concerning psychopathy and similar traits. The article offers insight into the thinking and behavior of children who have been described as having “callous and unemotional traits” and examines the connection of these characteristics to those persons’ future behavior (Hagerty). Hagerty’s findings and the story of the Mendota facility reveal a possibility for helping young people with callous and unemotional traits.
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This article is closely connected to the class material, especially in its discussion of various psychological theories of delinquent behavior. First, the author poses the question of whether a child’s callousness can or should be viewed as an ascribed or achieved status. The story of Samantha and her parents, Jen and Danny, for instance, shows that some medical practitioners the family consulted expressed different opinions regarding the young girl’s behavior and thinking. While some of these professionals stated that a treatable mental illness could explain Samantha’s actions, others raised questions about Jen and Danny’s parenting (Hagerty).
However, the most visible connection between this article and the course material is the outlook on juvenile delinquency and its potential causes. Fuller and Hagerty analyze the role of genetics in the story subjects’ personalities. Fishbein notes that “all human behavior has a genetic component,” but a person’s environment plays a significant role in modifying or suppressing some traits (Fuller 110). Similarly, Hagerty talks with medical specialists who argue that both nature and nurture can play a role in children’s development of psychopathic traits.
Another point discussed in both sources relates to theories of children’s moral development. Hagerty’s collection of stories shows that both males and females have been known to engage in behavior that shows an evident lack of empathy.
Here, Gillian’s theory, which focuses on gendered notions of moral thinking, is contested (Fuller 122). Samantha’s treatment center is likely to provide many examples where empathy and compassion are equally misunderstood by girls and boys alike. The history of the Mendota facility nonetheless cannot provide additional support for this idea as the center has only treated boys, which can be viewed as a specific focus on a particular population as well.
Samantha’s parents’ primary foundation for concern was her lack of empathy towards others. The young girl did not react to others’ emotions and behavior that her parents expected from children. One of the first signs that alarmed Jen and Danny was Samantha’s meanness (Hagerty). The girl expressed rude and violent behavior as early as about 20 months old – her aggressive and invasive actions were consistent and premeditated. This is another trait that led Samantha’s parents to believe that they were not seeing a full picture of their daughter’s mental health – Samantha did not act impulsively, instead of creating elaborate plans and thinking about future activities.
The girl’s emotional response to violence and her overall neglect of others’ pain is another trait that drew increased attention from her family. Samantha would not respond to any type of punishment but instead acted more aggressively each time. She would openly discuss her hatred and irritation, and she remained cool and calm and even expressed happiness while thinking about violence. Finally, Samantha acted on her words multiple times by trying to strangle her younger siblings and stating that she wanted to kill all the members of her family. The girl also shared her plans for premeditated murder with her mother. The combination of aggressiveness, intentional violence, and open confession of thinking about killing is what caused Jen to seek immediate help.
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The Use of Terminology
In the case of Samantha and other children or adolescents discussed in the story, the clinicians refrained from using such words as “psychopathy” and “psychopath.” Instead, the young patients were characterized as having “callous and unemotional traits” – a description that first appeared in the DSM-5 in 2013 (Hagerty). The main reason for using these terms and not others lies in the implications that the commonly known words have. The word psychopathy and its forms have many negative connotations for the general public that extend beyond the medical description of the disorder. Children marked as psychopaths can face stigma, which deprives them of opportunities to seek help and support in adjusting to their daily life in society.
As a result, the psychiatrists decided to carefully distinguish these notions and focus on exploring the children’s behavior and personality by using such descriptions as callous and unemotional. It is vital to note that this differentiation was also made to emphasize the doctors’ belief in young people’s future improvement. As Hagerty notes, this diagnosis allowed Jen and other people to have some hope for their children and prioritize active support instead of confinement and passive observation.
Major Signifying Traits
The common characteristics of psychopathic behavior are very similar to those discussed in Samantha’s case. According to Hagerty, traits may be identified in children as young as 3 or 4 years. One of the signs is detachment from other children’s emotions – and expected agitated reaction to crying is replaced with a lack of response or, sometimes, the expression of happiness. Later warning signs include both verbal and physical aggression.
Notably, criminal activity is viewed as especially alarming if it is committed without pressure, support, or influence from others. The most critical element in these behaviors is harm directed at other people or animals. Persistent violence is a symptom that often allows clinicians to confirm the diagnosis of callous and unemotional traits. A lack of violent action in children with no empathy may not be enough to reject a psychopathy-related diagnosis. Abusive or harmful behavior may be directly connected to the children’s misunderstanding of emotional connections and social norms.
The Mendota Facility
The treatment center investigated by Hagerty uses unconventional methods to reach out to children with callous and unemotional traits. The facility’s founders base their efforts on the idea that such children do not respond significantly to punishment, but can be influenced by rewards. Therefore the staff engages the boys in a system where aggressive and antisocial behavior leads to small and short-lasting punishments, while positive, sociable, respectful, and empathetic actions contribute to long-lasting benefits. For example, boys can receive Pokémon cards and get additional time to watch TV or listen to the radio.
Moreover, the negative behavior of young people is not turned against them – the staff does not express negativity and instead uses persistence as the most effective tool. According to data collected by the researchers working at the Mendota facility, adolescents and children who leave their facility were much less likely to engage in harmful or illegal behavior than children who went through other programs (Hagerty). Thus, one may say that this program has positive results. The outcomes may not be perfect, but the improvement in these young persons’ behavior is visible.
If I had a child who acted like Samantha, I would also be concerned about her wellbeing and future. Samantha’s social life would suffer from her behavior. More importantly, if one were to ignore her actions, other people and animals could be in danger. Therefore at first, I would try to understand why my child is acting in that manner. A simple conversation would not be enough: I would engage medical professionals (psychologists and psychiatrists) in explaining my concerns and talking to my child.
Then I would try to establish a connection with my child to understand what mechanisms would work for them to adjust to life in society. I would not try to punish them harshly, as it is shown by research that this approach is not effective. Moreover, I would not accuse them of being a psychopath or showing that I do not have any hopes for their future. On the contrary, I would do my best to use this knowledge to create a system that would ensure that the child can be a part of people’s lives.
In the article, Hagerty explores interesting ideas connected to psychopathy in children. The perspective that gives parents and young people hope for integration and coexistence with others does not currently have extensive supporting evidence, but it offers some ideas for future improvement in the sphere of psychiatry. It is especially important in helping young people to navigate this complicated phase of growing up. It also shows that both nature and nurture play a significant role in one’s life.
Fuller, John Randolph. Juvenile Delinquency: Mainstream and Crosscurrents. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2016.
Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. “When Your Child Is a Psychopath.” The Atlantic. 2017. Web.