How many signs would you need from an adolescent to convince you that he or she could develop into a sociopathic adult? What specific incident or incidents would cause you to identify a teenager as a developing sociopath?
For many of the parents I see in my office struggling with adolescent behavior, the number one predictor of sociopathic personality traits is often an indifferent and cold disregard for the rights, personal space, and privacy of others.
Explaining sociopathy to parents is one of the most difficult things I have to do as a child and adolescent therapist. Why? Because teenagers are not only a “work in progress,” but also a conglomerate of genes/biology, social environment/peer influence, and nurture. It is also very difficult to convince a parent that their highly intelligent, charming, and manipulative adolescent is likely to become a highly intelligent, charming, and manipulative (and possibly dangerous) adult. For these parents, reality is too much to handle and many retreat into denial or succumb to the manipulative behaviors of their teen. When this occurs, the adolescent gains control of not only the household but also the parent(s). It is a very sad cycle of confusion.
This article will briefly discuss traits often identified in adolescence as sociopathic. This article will also list five signs of sociopathic behavior to watch for in teens.
What is a sociopath? What personality traits, beliefs, behaviors, and thought patterns do you need to have to be categorized as a sociopath? For many people, a sociopath is someone who lacks empathy and the ability to feel guilty about negative behaviors such as stealing, lying, cheating, manipulating, calculating, and scheming. Others might define sociopathy as pervasive behaviors and personality traits that often result in the individual being incarcerated, becoming a politician, supervisor of a corporate business, or “high powered” drug dealer.
While these definitions do fit most individuals with the traits of a sociopath, there are many more traits, primarily in adolescence, that should not be ignored. When family members come into my office for their very first assessment and family session, I ask a series of questions to obtain a clear picture of what I am working with. Adolescent sociopaths who have sat before me for one hour often struggle to identify why they are in need of psychotherapy and why their families are struggling with their behaviors. These adolescents may have received a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at younger ages. Sadly, adolescents who receive these diagnoses are sometimes later labeled with conduct disorder (CD). You can think of conduct disorder as a milder version of antisocial personality disorder or sociopathy. Children and adolescents diagnosed with conduct disorder often exude a cold indifference to the world, are on probation as juveniles, have engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviors toward others, or are creating havoc at home, in school, and in their community.
For many people, it is difficult to conceptualize a child or adolescent with sociopathic tendencies. We’re all conditioned to seeing children and adolescents as innocent and needy. But reality is that while there are many children and teens who are innocent, there are also many kids and teens who require 24/7 supervision due to extreme behavioral and emotional problems, a disregard for the rights of others, and an inability to think before acting.
Sadly, many kids and teens who exhibit the above traits end up in long-term placements such as RTF’s (residential treatment facilities) or independent living. Why? Because families cannot locate appropriate services that are affordable. RTF’s can easily cost a family millions of dollars. A single night or two could easily cost well over $10.000. As a result, parents and families are often stuck trying to figure out what to do and how to get the attention of mental health professionals. It isn’t until a child or teen threatens to kill someone, seriously harm someone, or has become a danger to themselves that a hospital, clinic, group home, or other community-based mental health setting will admit and treat a child or teen with sociopathic traits.
Unfortunately, families are unaware of what to look for when their child or teen seems to be exhibiting the traits of a sociopath. While it is very important that we avoid labeling children and teenagers prematurely, we should still discuss some of the thought patterns and behaviors that often negatively affect children and teens. Parents and families should keep their eyes open to children or teens who:
- Set fires, play with fire: Children will be children. Teens will be teens. Sometimes they exhibit behaviors that are just difficult for them to grow out of and that cause the family a lot of stress. But then there are other kids who simply enjoy watching things burn up; setting curtains, bedding, or other household items ablaze. Pyromania is often the technical term for individuals who enjoy the sight of fire. Some kids, very much like adults who struggle with addiction, are addicted to the act of setting things on fire. For these kids, the continual act of setting things on fire will require the professional attention of a mental health therapist. Just telling these kids to stop is often not enough.
- Harm pets: I have spoken to parents who were very disturbed by an incident involving their child and their pet (or a pet). Children who are developing sociopathic traits engage in harming pets, typically the family dog or cat. I have observed kids who intentionally harm animals out of sheer hatred, opposition to a rule or expectation of an adult, sexually inappropriate fantasies, or fun. Examples of harming pets include squeezing them too tightly in an attempt to choke the animal, physically assaulting the animal, being intimate with an animal, refusing to feed the animal, or teasing or taunting the animal.
- Steal: As stated above, kids often engage in behaviors and habits that are difficult to break. But some kids seem more interested in associating with peers who enjoy assaulting the public with inappropriate behaviors such as stealing. Examples of stealing include stealing money, food, or other items from the community, home, or school environment. Some kids may choose to steal from elderly people, other kids, or strangers in the community. Some kids may also plan how they will steal from someone and decide on what items to steal. The stealing behavior is calculative.
- Frequently lie: Pathological lying is a topic that I often discuss with clients and readers of my blogs and articles. It is a topic that many people find interesting. Sadly, there isn’t a lot of research on child and adolescent pathological lying. However, I do discuss this topic in more depth here. Lying behaviors in children and teens may include lying about homework, lying about others, or changing bits and pieces of a story to make part of it true and the other part a lie.
- Engage in calculating, manipulative behavior with the intent of harming others: Kids and teens who calculate and manipulate in order to harm others are often the most frightening. Why? Because they are cloaked with the innocence of their youth and are often given the benefit of the doubt by adults. Who would want to see their own child or adolescent as one with evil intent? But it is important for you to understand that some kids and teens are genetically “pre-wired” to possess manipulative and calculating behaviors and thought patterns. For example, juvenile sex offenders are often asked, in therapy, to discuss how they planned to sexually assault their victim. Some juvenile sex offenders have expressed that they “groomed” their victim (treated the victim kindly) before they offended them. These offenders knew that with kindness they would ultimately get what they wanted.
It is important that I mention that none of the above behaviors or traits can assure sociopathy in adulthood because many kids and teens who exhibit these behaviors do not ever become sociopaths. We have to be careful in labeling troubled kids, and yet, at the same time, maintain an open mind that perhaps difficult personality traits and behaviors could lead to a negative prognosis.
What are some behaviors that would put you on alert? What would you do if you caught your child/teen engaging in the above behaviors?
As always, I wish you well.