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Should some children be labeled as psychopaths?

As any parent knows, all children misbehave at some point. Tantrums, lying, and hitting are tactics just about every child uses to get what they want. But a select few exhibit unsettling behavior at an early age that some psychologists fear could lead to violent crime.

The issue is controversial, to say the least. No parent wants their child labeled as a psychopath, no matter how troublesome the behavior. It's also hard to know what to do with such a diagnosis once it's made, especially since psychopathy is largely considered untreatable.

From a legal standpoint, it's unjust to label anyone in such a way before he or she does anything that's considered a crime. Imagine being arrested and accused of a violent crime, only to have a childhood diagnosis used against you in court without any proof that you've committed such an act.

Many argue, of course, that diagnosing someone as a psychopath at a young age could prevent the person from committing crimes in the future. But how? A person can't be locked up out of fear that he or she will hurt someone else. And how would families of these children continue to raise them with the diagnosis hanging over their heads?

Digging deeper into conduct disorders seen in children seems to be the best option at this point. Calculated behavior, violent outbursts and a lack of empathy appear to be common among children with psychopathy. Researchers hope that focusing on the parts of the brain that control these behaviors will lead to effective treatment. Strengthening a child's ability to empathize, for example, could soften his or her more violent tendencies. A link has also been made between cold-blooded behaviors to low levels of cortisol and lower-than-average function in the part of the brain that processes fear, shame and other aversive social emotions. Most children avoid these emotions, which is what motivates them to behave. Kids with severe conduct disorders don't have this discomfort, and therefore no incentive not to misbehave.

The benefits of solving this puzzle would be remarkable, considering that psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the general population, but represent roughly 15 to 25 percent of the prison population. Finding out what causes psychopathic behavior and how to stop it without having to incarcerate anyone prematurely would be a groundbreaking achievement and lead to fewer violent crimes.

Source: The New York Times, "Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?" Jennifer Kahn, May 11, 2012

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