Can children be identified as psychopathic? Can adolescents be identified as psychopathic?

Several researchers have examined qualities in children and adolescents that serve to differentiate psychopathic youth from their peers.  Frick posited that children who exhibit both conduct problems and callous/unemotional traits are most similar to adult psychopaths (Frick & Marsee, 2006).  Research findings by Lynam (1996) identified a subset of children with both conduct problems and hyperactive/impulsive/attention problems, which he believes most closely resembles the behavior of adult psychopaths.  Although these theories identify two separate paths to adult psychopathy, studies by both Frick and Lynam have shown that there is a subset of children whose personality and behaviors set them apart from other children, and conduct problems alone are not sufficient to make this differentiation.  There is also substantial evidence that measures such as the Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV) and the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory (YPI) are reliable and valid ways of identifying youth with psychopathic features.

One of the reasons we do not label children and adolescents as psychopathic is to avoid the potential negative consequences of the ‘psychopath’ label.  The term has many negative connotations, and there is evidence that labels like “psychopath” or “mentally ill” can hurt the way that youth are treated by parents, teachers, and peers.  Examples of how labels can be harmful include denying someone treatment because of a belief that he/she cannot be treated, sending an adolescent to adult court, and attempting to influence a judge to administer a more severe punishment (including capital punishment) on the grounds that someone is untreatable.  Thus, extreme caution should be used when applying when using the term “psychopath” or “psychopathic” to describe youth.

Another reason not to label children as psychopathic is that many may be capable of significant change from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, particularly with intensive intervention.

Please keep in mind that even when research studies reveal symptoms that indicate a worse prognosis, there are still many children who change for the better over time. Prognosis is a statistical concept that loses some of its meaning when we consider one individual child. We simply cannot predict for any individual child what the outcome will be. It is therefore advisable to make intensive treatment available to all families dealing with children who have psychopathic features.

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