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Is my toddler a psychopath?

Published on Psychology Today

A few years ago, while we were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and my kids were home from school full time, my mom graciously volunteered to hang out with them a few days a week so that I could get some work done. At some point during one of those days, my mom was playing restaurant with my younger son Charlie and asked him whether he would take her to a fancy restaurant one day when he was all grown up. Charlie, who was only 3 at the time, looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Well no grandma, you’ll probably be dead by then.”


All I can say is YIKES (and thank goodness my mom has a great sense of humor). Hearing a small child say something so callous can be chilling, and after frequent interactions like this one, you might even think to yourself, “Is my toddler a psychopath?” And you’d be surprised how many stories I hear from other parents that are remarkably similar. Kids do say the darndest things, but do I have to worry about my kid murdering me in my sleep one day?


Believe it or not, despite how many times you’ve heard it, the term “psychopath” is not recognized as a disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is practically the Bible for mental health issues. Instead of having its own term, psychopathy and psychopathic traits fall under the more general umbrella of antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder focuses on behaviors like breaking the law, being deceitful, acting impulsively, acting aggressively, being irresponsible, and showing a general disregard for the safety of others and oneself. Psychopathy also includes these behaviors but is characterized by additional personality traits like lack of empathy, narcissism, and general lack of remorse.


If you’re a true crime afficionado like myself, you might associate psychopaths with being murders or serial killers, as they are often portrayed in the media. But are all psychopaths really murderers? The answer is no, but a complicated no. First of all, most serial killers are indeed psychopaths. In fact, research has suggested that approximately 87% of known serial killers met criteria for psychopathy, and another 9% presented with some psychopathic traits (Morana et al., 2006). But not all psychopaths commit murder, or even crimes. Only about 1.2% of U.S. adult males and .3 to .7% of females have clinical levels of psychopathic traits. These folks make up 15-25% of incarcerated adults, which is actually a large proportion when you consider how rare psychopathic traits are in the general population (Burton & Saleh, 2020). In other words, psychopaths are few and far between, they don’t all commit crimes, but they commit a large proportion of crimes that lead to incarceration when compared to people who do not have psychopathic traits.


What does this mean for kids (and for my kids in particular)? Children are rarely diagnosed with psychopathy. However, researchers have identified factors in late childhood and adolescents that predict psychopathy later in life. These factors are called callous-unemotional traits. Callous-unemotional traits are a set of personality characteristics that come from components of psychopathy and predict violent behavior in adults. In children, callous-unemotional behaviors typically include lack of empathy and guilt, and a lack of emotional responsiveness to other people’s feelings and cues of threat (Waller et al., 2021). However, these behaviors tend to be studied in older children and teenagers. What about my toddler?


Recently, researchers looked at callous-unemotional traits in a sample of very young children who were adopted shortly after birth (Waller et al., 2016). First, they looked at the heritability of callous-unemotional traits based on the traits of each child’s biological mother. Next, they looked at whether different parenting styles in the children’s adopted parents might play a role in buffering the child from developing psychopathy later in life. They found that two characteristics of toddlers at 18 months were predictive of callous-unemotional behaviors at age 2 and a half—fearlessness and low affiliative behavior. Toddlers who had these characteristics showed very little or no fear in threatening situations, and very little interest in positive interactions with other people.


If you’re thinking at this point, “oh no, that sounds like my kid,” first of all, remember that psychopathy is rare. Second, a lot of kids are somewhat fearless, and fearlessness alone doesn’t mean your child will become a psychopath. Third, and potentially most importantly, children of this age all struggle with emotions like empathy and guilt, mostly because these emotions require some degree of Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is the understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings that are separate from yours. It is what allows children to understand other people’s intentions and emotions and is related to a variety of important prosocial behaviors, like sharing and helping, and potentially even deceptive behaviors like lying.


Importantly, Theory of Mind is also related to the development of the self-conscious emotions like empathy, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride, which each require a child to compare their own actions to the expectations of others. For example, for a child to feel guilt, they have to understand that something they have done might have caused someone else to be upset or angry. Likewise, in order to feel empathy, a child needs to think from the perspective of another person and imagine what that person might feel. Emotions like empathy and guilt aren’t generally observed in children until the second year of life and continue to develop until children are 6 or 7 at the very least, and there is even research suggesting that parts of Theory of Mind continue to develop into adulthood!


Finally, the last thing to note about this study is that the researchers also found that when the adopted infants who had a genetic predisposition to develop callous-unemotional traits (from their biological mothers) had adopted parents who practiced positive parenting, reinforcing their children for good behaviors, they were buffered from risk, and were less likely to develop callous-emotional traits later on. So even if your child does demonstrate some kind of risk for developing callousness in the first few years of life, positive parenting can help.


Altogether, the fact that my son Charlie said something so callous to his grandmother is actually quite normal for a 3-year-old child—he didn’t really understand how his words would impact his grandmother’s feelings. Indeed, if you can’t take the perspective of another person, empathy and guilt are pretty hard emotions to experience. In this way, toddlers can indeed resemble psychopaths. But as he got older and learned how to reason about other people’s thoughts and emotions, he now chooses his words a bit more carefully and lovingly. Unfortunately for me, Theory of Mind doesn’t seem to help with fearlessness, but at least now he knows enough to say something nice before he does something reckless. I’ll take the win.


Photo by Flickr/OUCHcharley




Burton, B., & Saleh, F. M., Psychiatric Times, Vol. 37, No. 10, 2020


Morana, H. C., Stone, M. H., & Abdalla-Filho, E. (2006). Personality disorders, psychopathy and serial killers. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry28, s74-s79. 


Waller, R., Trentacosta, C. J., Shaw, D. S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Ganiban, J. M., Reiss, D., ... & Hyde, L. W. (2016). Heritable temperament pathways to early callous–unemotional behaviour. The British Journal of Psychiatry209(6), 475-482.


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