Identifying Sociopathy in Children

Sociopathy, also known as psychopathy, is a personality disorder characterized by lack of empathy for others, narcissism, impulsive behavior and intense anger with the potential for violence. Some children display behaviors characteristic of sociopathy, but the question of whether a child should ever be diagnosed with this disorder is highly controversial.

Unemotional Conduct

Narcissism and poor impulse control are defining features of adult sociopathy, but they are also normal behavior for most kids. According to a 2012 article in "The New York Times," this is one of the factors that makes it hard to successfully identify children with sociopathic traits. Some children display behaviors that are not only narcissistic and impulsive, but also are callous and unemotional. For instance, a child might steal a cookie from the cookie jar, but feel bad when he got in trouble for it. A child with callous unemotional traits would not care about getting in trouble or even about hurting someone else to get the cookie. Callous unemotional behaviors are a warning sign for adult sociopathy, but are not sufficient on their own for a diagnosis, according to the Times article. Extreme expressions of rage and aggression toward adults, other children or animals are also common in children who have the potential to become sociopathic as adults.

No Empathy or Anxiety

According to forensic psychiatrist Alan Ravits, in a 2012 interview with the Huffington Post, sociopathic adults display a lack of empathy or anxiety. They don't feel bad when they cause other people pain and they don't feel anxiety about potential consequences such as social ostracism or even punishment. Other personality disorders can involve problems with empathy or anxiety, but the lack of either leaves the sociopathic adult with no inhibitions against antisocial behavior. If a sociopath wants something, he experiences no guilt or fear about lying, manipulating or harming others to get what he wants. Ravits notes that some children display similar traits, but advocates caution about diagnosing a child with sociopathy.


According to the Times article, sociopathy and psychopathy have traditionally been viewed as highly resistant to treatment. Sociopathy is strongly linked with criminal behavior and violence in adults 2. Diagnosing a child as a sociopath can be troubling because the diagnosis could be interpreted to mean that the child was untreatable and destined to become a violent criminal as an adult. Although research conducted by psychiatrist Lee Robins found that the vast majority of sociopathic adults had shown sociopathic behaviors in childhood, it also found that about 50 percent of children who showed those behaviors did not grow up to become sociopathic. The stigma of being diagnosed as a potential sociopath could be disastrous for a child who could potentially still be helped.


According to psychologist Paul Frick, quoted in the Times article, children with callous unemotional behaviors might be able to develop the capacity for empathy through intensive behavior therapy programs. Psychologist Mark Dadds also expressed optimism that children with limited capacity for empathy could be helped through early intervention. Researcher Donald Lyman expressed skepticism that genuine empathy could be taught, but agreed that early treatment could help callous unemotional children learn how to regulate their behavior. Although early intervention might be beneficial, research in this area is still in the early stages.