Sociopathic Behavior in Teens

By Anna Green
Teens with sociopathic behaviors often break rules and violate the rights of others.
Teens with sociopathic behaviors often break rules and violate the rights of others.

Although antisocial personality disorder—more commonly known as sociopathy—is not diagnosed until adulthood, teenagers may display traits of this condition. Specifically, sociopathic behavior is marked by social deviance, rule-breaking and impulsivity. Sociopathic behavior may include property destruction, lying, deliberating harming others, hurting animals, running away from home or grossly deviating from other social norms, explains the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. These teens may be diagnosed with conduct disorder, a precursor to antisocial personality disorder.

Sociopathic Behaviors vs. Rule Testing

While it is common for teenagers to test rules and rebel against their parents’ and teachers’ expectations, sociopathic behavior is much more extreme. For example, while shoplifting a candy bar at the urging of friends is relatively normal teen behavior, an adolescent who breaks into a home to commit theft, steals expensive items or uses force to take the property of others is displaying sociopathic type behavior.

Origins of Sociopathic Behaviors

Although it can be difficult to identify why some teenagers engage in sociopathic behaviors, a history of childhood abuse or neglect are common contributors. Likewise, if a teen had poor or insecure attachments to his parents or early caregivers, this may give rise to sociopathic behaviors. In other cases, biological factors, including chemical imbalances in the brain, can contribute to antisocial actions.

Treating Sociopathic Behaviors

When addressed early, teens with conduct disorder or lesser sociopathic type behaviors may go on to lead healthy, pro-social lives. Treatment will generally involve targeted psychotherapy. For teens with sociopathic traits, counseling will usually involve several components, including helping the teen develop impulse control, emotional regulation skills, empathy and self-awareness. Additionally, teens with sociopathic traits often benefit from group therapy with other teens, which can improve their social skills. Finally, many teens with sociopathic behaviors can benefit from psychotropic medications, which can help them regulate their moods, anxiety and impulses.

Family Role in Treatment

Although sociopathic behavior in teens is treated primarily through individual therapy, it is important for the adolescent’s parents and caregivers to play an active role in the adolescent's healing. Because environment can have a strong effect on a teen’s behavior, parents or guardians can facilitate more effective treatment by providing a home that is conducive to healthy behavior. For teens with sociopathic traits, this involves clear boundaries and structured activities. Therapists may also suggest limiting the teen’s exposure to violent media and changes to his or her diet, explains David C. Rettew, M.D., Director of the Pediatric Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

About the Author

Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.