THE BIG QUESTION: Can a child be a psychopath?

A scene from ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ – a film about a child who becomes a killer.

Debate rages in the US, after a 9-year-old boy was given a shocking diagnosis. Meanwhile, UK ministers say doctors are too quick to blame mental disorders when children are badly behaved.

Two news items in the last week have fuelled debate over one of the most controversial topics in modern parenting: when children misbehave, is it just kids being kids – or a sign of an underlying psychological disorder?

The number of Western children diagnosed with disorders of one sort or another has grown dramatically in recent years. The facts are shocking:

– diagnosis rates for disorders like autism or ADHD have nearly doubled in the last decade.

– nearly one child in ten in the US has been diagnosed with ADHD, and ADHD medication is prescribed to children as young as five.

– A quarter of America’s children are now taking some sort of regular medication.

Now the British government has waded into the debate. Ministers plan to tighten up rules on special educational needs. In about 450,000 cases, they say, (out of a total of 1.7 million) supposed ‘disorders’ are simply being used as an excuse by parents and schools for bad behaviour.

Meanwhile, in America, the New York Times recently caused a stir when it reported on a truly extreme example of child diagnosis. Nine-year-old Michael had severe behaviour problems, but when his parents took him to a special psychiatric evaluation camp, they were unprepared for the doctor’s report: their son was a psychopath.

Psychopathy is a serious mental disorder, caused by abnormalities of the brain. Psychopaths do not appear to feel sympathy with other human beings. They may not feel guilt or shame. They are impulsive and are often expert liars. They are much more likely to commit murder or violent crime.

Can a child really be a psychopath? Certainly there have been examples of extreme behaviour in children. One boy used a knife to cut slices from the tail of a family cat ‘to see how it would react.’ Another pushed a toddler into a swimming pool, then pulled up a chair to watch the infant drown.

Michael, however, had done nothing so drastic. His rages were long and terrifying. He was threatening and unfeeling towards his little brother. But does that mean he should have a psychiatric label attached to him which could haunt him for the rest of his life?

The wrong diagnosis?

Many parents, including Michael’s father, say such a diagnosis can only cause harm. Michael will be treated badly if schoolmates or teachers find out the secret – and what about the psychological damage you might do by telling a child they have something ‘wrong’ with their mind? Many children go through ‘tricky’ phases. They almost always grow out of them in the end.

But psychiatrists point out that diagnosis is the first step to cure. You cannot solve a problem, they say, if you refuse to believe it exists at all.

You Decide

  1. How should society deal with psychopaths?
  2. Is a psychopath to blame if he or she does bad things?


  1. Split the class into two groups. One should argue that a nine-year-old can be a psychopath, the other should disagree. Each group has five minutes to come up with their best arguments. Then, a spokesperson from each group should make their case to the other side. Which team is most convincing?
  2. Write a short story about a parent with a child whose behaviour pushes the boundaries.

Some People Say...

“Psychiatric labels do more harm than good.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Psychopaths sound frightening!
Psychopathy is a little understood condition, but it certainly is alarming. Psychopaths appear not to have any of the feelings an ordinary person would call a ‘conscience’. They make up only around one percent of the general population, but are disproportionately likely to commit crimes. Some studies have found that as many as one in four people in US prisons has psychopathic tendencies.
Are all psychopaths violent?
No. Psychopathy removes inhibitions against violence, but psychopaths are very rational. To many, committing crime will simply seem like a very bad idea.
So what do they do?
One controversial theory is that many psychopaths go on to be successful bankers and CEOs.

Word Watch

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is one of the most frequently diagnosed disorders in young people. Symptoms include getting distracted easily, being impatient about waiting in turn, and impulsive behaviour. Critics say that ADHD-like behaviour is just an ordinary part of growing up.
Words like psychiatry, psychology and psychopathy all share the same root: psuche, Greek for ‘soul’ or ‘mind’. The words mean very different things however: psychiatry’ is the medical treatment of mental disorders; psychology is the study of the mind and psychopathy is a mental disease.
Scans show psychopaths have brains which are markedly different from those of normal adults. In particular, two areas appear shrunken, the subgenual cortex and the paralimbic system. These areas are thought to help the brain in moral decision making.
Luckily, the toddler was rescued in time.


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