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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Child Psychopaths

Nature or nurture, it's an interesting, ongoing debate.  I want to believe that the love and affection we lavish on our children and the happy childhood we create for them is the reason they turn out to be happy well-adjusted adults, but I'm not convinced.   I think we are a product of our ancestors and it's all in the genes.

Professor Mark Dadds is a parenting expert from the University of NSW and last year, he published the results of his work in the British Journal of Psychiatry and the Journal of Child Psychiatry, suggesting that eye contact is vital in learning how to love others.

For five years he worked with children with a history of sustained rages, continual aggression, violence and cruelty to animals and he thinks the answer lies in the infant's inability to look into his mother's eyes and see the love.

A mother and her small son are in a playroom, watched by a researcher through a two-way mirror.  The phone rings and she is told "show him, in the way that seems most natural for you, that you love him."  She looks lovingly at her child and tells him, but the little boy won't return her gaze, he looks at her mouth where the words are coming from, but just doesn't understand what she means.

Professor Dadds' theory is that when babies gaze at their mothers, it's the fundamental moment that sets the stage for the development of empathy and morality in humans.

There is also a big difference between "hot" and "cold" children, he says.   The "hot" lash out with aggression but the smaller group of "cold" children don't react emotionally, care about others or show remorse.  "Cold" children did not return their mother's gaze and did not respond to her love.

His studies concluded:  The baby doesn't look into his mother's eyes, the mother never feels the baby's love, the toddler is remote, the mother is stressed, the child is aggressive, the parents are angry, the family fights all the time, the teen becomes aggressive and destructive and finally, the adult is callous and calculating as he is never understood or cared for the feelings of others.  

Today we have another view on the same theme.  The International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions are having a conference next week in Paris and a Sydney University psychologist, Dr David Hawes, will address the conference with his findings.  He believes that parents who maintained a "warm and emotionally engaged parenting style" could protect them from developing aggressive and anti-social behaviour later in life.

But how can you exhibit warm feelings towards a 4 year old boy when you discover that he has tortured the neighbour's kitten or hurt his baby sister so badly, she had to be treated in hospital. The parent would  automatically switch off the love, recognise they have a serious problem, and start praying for him to grow out of it.

Dr Hawes doesn't agree and said "The children's callous and unemotional traits cause parents to become harsher in their discipline and to emotionally disengage and this is the opposite of what parents should be doing."  Oh really Dr Hawes?  Good luck with that recommendation.

But he does concede that genes play an important part of our make-up. "Callous, unemotional traits are to a large extent under genetic control" he said "but they are also shaped by the parent-child relationship."  So, back to the nature versus nurture argument and square one.

Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children.