It’s every parents’ nightmare, the kind of thing explored with some exaggeration in horror films and books—you give birth to a kid who turns out to be a “bad seed” from the start.
Turns out there’s actually a real set of characteristic that define a group referred to as “callous children.” This callousness precedes genuine psychopathy in adults. the inability to feel empathy.
And, though of course upbringing has a part to play, the condition also has a scientific basis, according to a chilling but super-fascinating article in the Atlantic, “When Your Child Is a Psychopath” that is making the rounds this week.
“In particular, experts point to the amygdala—a part of the limbic system—as a physiological culprit for coldhearted or violent behavior. Someone with an undersize or underactive amygdala may not be able to feel empathy or refrain from violence. For example, many psychopathic adults and callous children do not recognize fear or distress in other people’s faces. Essi Viding, a professor of developmental psychopathology at University College London recalls showing one psychopathic prisoner a series of faces with different expressions. When the prisoner came to a fearful face, he said, ‘I don’t know what you call this emotion, but it’s what people look like just before you stab them.’”
There are other traits these people have in common, including low heart rates and a hard time being stimulated.
The story looks at an experimental facility that works with the most troubled group of teenage boys like this:
“The center’s real breakthrough involves deploying the anomalies of the psychopathic brain to one’s advantage—specifically, downplaying punishment and dangling rewards. These boys have been expelled from school, placed in group homes, arrested, and jailed. If punishment were going to rein them in, it would have by now. But their brains do respond, enthusiastically, to rewards. At Mendota, the boys can accumulate points to join ever more prestigious “clubs” (Club 19, Club 23, the VIP Club). As they ascend in status, they earn privileges and treats—candy bars, baseball cards, pizza on Saturdays, the chance to play Xbox or stay up late.”
Now, apparently, the condition is being diagnosed earlier, giving more hope to families affected.
Author Barbara Bradley Haggerty spent time with Jen and Danny, parents of Samantha, young girl who has been diagnosed as a callous child, receiving intensive treatment that helps rewire her to function in society. The story ends with their future dilemmas:
“Jen and Danny are planning to bring Samantha home this summer, a prospect the family views with some trepidation. They’re taking precautions, such as using alarms on Samantha’s bedroom door. The older children are larger and tougher than Samantha, but the family will have to keep vigil over the 5-year-old and the 7-year-old. Still, they believe she’s ready, or, more accurately, that she’s progressed as far as she can at San Marcos. They want to bring her home, to give it another try.
Of course, even if Samantha can slip easily back into home life at 11, what of the future? “Do I want that child to have a driver’s license?,” Jen asks. To go on dates? She’s smart enough for college—but will she be able to negotiate that complex society without becoming a threat? Can she have a stable romantic relationship, much less fall in love and marry? She and Danny have had to redefine success for Samantha: simply keeping her out of prison.”
There’s not much comfort in such a terrifying diagnosis, but the fact that the scientific community is actually making progress with these kids is heartening.