One in a hundred children have psychopathic traits

Can children from normal families be psychopaths?

Psychopathic traits in children need to be addressed to stop them developing into the stuff of horror movies

Many of us 1wonder what makes psychopaths. When we hear about Stephen Paddock shooting into an innocent crowd in Las Vegas or the ten-year-old Liverpuddlians who hit two-year-old James Bulger with bricks and left him on a train line in 1993 to be 2split in half by a train, we desperately want to understand why. If we could only understand, maybe we could 3fix it.

Around 1% of children have what experts call “4callous, unemotional traits” – behavior that would be considered psychopathic in an adult.

One couple recently went on Radio 4 to explain how their lives were being destroyed by their adopted son Max, who is now a teenager. They said that changing their parenting techniques had made no difference to Max’s behavior.

“He’s got a younger sister,” the father told The Today Program. “And one of the things we have to do is physically get between the two of them to make sure she doesn’t get hurt by him pretty much all of the time. We can’t leave them alone. We’re in real physical danger.”

“I can’t see the problem”

When asked, Max told The Today Program that he didn’t care when other people got angry with him. He said he simply “can’t see the problem”.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
We Need to Talk About Kevin

According to leading child and adolescent psychiatrist Stephen Scott, from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, “About 5% of children have a severe level of anti-social behavior and of those about a fifth have these callous, unemotional traits – we don’t like using the word psychopath in under 18s.”

So why are so many children – one in a hundred – 5driven to acts of premeditated violence and cruelty and unable to feel any 6remorse? Dr Scott says it’s not just because they themselves have been cruelly treated. “There are a few like that, but for the majority it’s 7inherited. When we scan their brains we find an area called the amygdala, which is where you 8acknowledge emotions and process them, (and) it’s completely quiet and 9flat. So they will understand what is going on, but they don’t care,” he explains.

This largely “unrecognized” phenomenon, which was behind films such as We Need To Talk About Kevin, is not being properly managed because families are 10ashamed to come forward and many therapists prefer to treat easier and more 11appealing patients. “They’re not the people you put on the poster when you go to a 12charity bash,” says Dr Scott.

Moderate psychopaths thrive in certain jobs

Associate Professor for developmental psychopathy at Bath University, Graeme Fairchild and postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Patricia Lockwood are not exactly optimistic about a cure for this 1%, but they do claim the right treatment could stop them from becoming violent psychopaths as adults. They might, for example, 13thrive in a job where they have to fire people or hand out parking tickets.

Helpful measures include improving the family environment, encouraging the child to empathize to try to activate that part of their brain and keeping them in school or work to keep their lives firmly structured.


Characteristics to look out for:


  • They may 14resort to violence to 15fulfill their own needs.
  • They won’t be 16deterred by 17punishment.
  • They can be suddenly 18charming when they want to manipulate you.
  • They feel no 19guilt or remorse.
  • They enjoy or are indifferent to other people’s 20pain.






1to wonder: preguntarse

2split: partido

3to fix: arreglar

4callous: cruel

5driven to: motivado a

6remorse: remordimiento

7inherited: heredado

8to acknowledge: reconocer

9flat: plano

10ashamed: avergonzado

11appealing: apetecible

12charity bash: acto benéfico

13thrive: prosperar

14resort: recurrir

15fulfill: satisfacer

16deterred: disuadido

17punishment: castigo

18charming: encantador

19guilt: culpa

20pain: dolor