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Sociopathy and the fearless child

Many have expressed doubt that a condition as complex as sociopathy can be genetic. The doubters aside, studies of identical twins separated at birth and raised by non-relatives do clearly show the condition is genetic. The question now is, “Just what is inherited?”

Genes interact with environment

Although sociopathy is genetic, it is not inherited in the same way as many other traits, for example, eye color. The genes that cause sociopathy do so by making a child vulnerable to certain environmental influences. A child can have the genes but if he is not exposed to the triggering environment, he will not develop the condition.

Fearlessness an important precursor to both sociopathy and addiction

Go to the park or to the town pool and watch young children playing. You will notice that a small percentage are completely fearless. These children will climb the highest trees or try to enter deep water even when they cannot swim. Furthermore, when they fall, get stuck up in the tree or nearly drown, they are completely unaffected by the experience! These are the fearless children.

An Iowa researcher has identified fearless children by their responses in the laboratory during the first year of life. She has followed them for years and has demonstrated that fearlessness predicts poor conscience formation. The reverse is also true: Fearfulness predicts good conscience formation.

The link between fearlessness, sociopathy and addiction is explained in detail in my book Just Like His Father? and is too long to explain fully here. However, this link has very important implications that parents have to know about.

Fearlessness means little or no response to punishment

Remember that fearless child who nearly drowned because he just had to “swim” in the deep end of the pool? Well, as soon as the lifeguard pulled him from the water, he wanted to go right back in! If nearly drowning has no affect on him, then his mother yelling, “Johnny, don’t do that!” has even less of an effect. Furthermore, Johnny also learns nothing when his parents spank him or yell at him for wrongdoing. Actually though, Johnny does learn something—he learns how to be aggressive.

Many parents of sociopaths raised their children in the usual way

Many, if not most, sociopaths received the same kind of parenting that the rest of the kids in our society received. The take home lesson is that the usual parenting doesn’t work with at-risk kids, and may make them worse. Since fearless children get into a lot of trouble, they are punished often. This punishment does not teach them “right from wrong,” instead it makes them callous and more aggressive. Studies of adoptive parents reveal that even nice, well-intending adoptive parents fall into this trap as a reaction to the child! The at-risk child himself elicits from his environment the very thing that increases his risk for becoming a sociopath!



8 Comments on "Sociopathy and the fearless child"

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  1. LAMan says:

    I’m still shaking my head that these people actually exist. I’ve read about them like everyone else, but until I met one and believed I was in love with him, and then discovered what his real nature was when he turned his back on me, I had no idea.

    The guy I knew once showed me a photo taken when he was young of him jumping off the roof of his house into his family swimming pool. His family was seated poolside. Even before I found out about his prison record and discovered his personality matched EVERY POINT of the psychopath checklist, I thought his jumping off the roof was very odd. I mean, what normal person does that?

    He came from a strict religious upbringing and told me he once divorced his mom in some legal proceeding as a child. There was lots of punishment in his upbringing, and he referenced something bizarre to me once about being made to “eat the weeds.” I never learned the details to these stories, but they were referenced offhandedly. When I asked to hear more, he would not respond.

    I’m glad I did my sleuthing and am no longer involved with him. I was betrayed emotionally, but at least I educated myself and gave up, before anything more damaging to me could take place.

  2. As LAMan points out, fearlessness does not necessarily end when they grow up! Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Bobbie says:

    My brother was fearless and foolhardy. It is a wonder that he survived childhood and adolescence. One example – the family was taking a tour of a gold-processing plant. The guide pointed out some huge vats of grey sludge and said that the contents were pulverized rock and cyanide. He made a big thing of telling everyone that even a drop of that mixture the size of a match-head on your skin would kill you. The group moved on but my brother had doubled-back. Next thing he was yelling “look at me” whilst he swung like Tarzan above the huge vat.

    He was often punished – usually by being sent to bed without his meal – but he would repeat the same behaviour as if nothing had happened.

    He does not keep in touch with his two sisters, two daughters or his grandchildren. He always seemed emotionally “distant” – which no-doubt contributed to his wife’s need to go off with one of his friends when the children were small. He has had at least three fairly long-term relationships after his divorce and I suspect that the women concerned were very hurt and angry when they finally left.

    His risk-taking was carried over into his working life. He is an excellent pilot – performing top-rate aerobatics, low-flying, and crop-dusting. As far as I know, he has never done anything illegal.

  4. bumblebee21 says:

    Since ive discovered my cousin as a sociopath I have been looking a lot closer at my aunt. She doesnt do the things to the extent of my cousin that make her a sociopath but she does lie and start trouble from time to time. I have been stuck on trying to figure out where my cousin got this from its so hard for me to believe that this is really how she is. Its making me look at people alot closer now but it seems like its almost impossible to avoid these monsters. There everywhere .

  5. OxDrover says:

    Having raised a violent sociopath (psychopath) who is currently incarcerated for a brutal murder that he is apparently proud of, I’d like to chime in here. It is also possible that my child(ren) were somewhat different from the norm in the fearless department.

    My “good” (adult) son C is very ADHD, and was very fearless as far as the “stunts” he pulled that could have killed many kids, him included. Staying on top of him to keep him safe was a full time job and until he started to school I was a stay at home mom.

    His brother, the Sociopath, however was the “ideal child” and gave me very little problem at all. He seemed to want to please adults and responded very well to positive reinforcement. Did well in school, etc.

    My older son , the ADHD one, was freqently fighting with his younger brother, who by the time they were 3 and 4 were the same size. I discouraged the fighting, but once day I heard the “sweet darling little son” verbally provoke his ADHD brother until even Jesus would have thumped him. LOL

    At that point, I think they were 5 and 6, I told them that I did not care which one struck the first blow, that they would BOTH be punished if there was a fight. It took six months of continual supervision before the physical fights stopped, and one day I heard one of them (and I forget which one) say to the other one, “If you do that again, I’m gonna punch you and then we will BOTH be in trouble.”

    By the time the younger one reached puberty (the P-son) he did a jekyl/Hyde switch and be came a monster with no signs of remorse—his risk taking was now criminal and it seemed to almost appear out of no where. One day he was the ideal child, and the next he was this monster who was determined to NOT follow rules.

    My ADHD son, who was slower to reach puberty, in fact, quite late, became much more safety conscious and gave me much less trouble of any kind. He didn’t participate in his brother’s activities.

    Because the younger one reached an early puberty and had a full beard by age 13, and his older brother was much smaller and looked several years younger, the “roles” of older and younger brother “switched”—and though the ADHD son who was the smaller and younger looking one, had some problems with this switch I am sure emotionally, especially when VERY unthinnking and unkind adults would make mention of the obvious differences in maturity and size. At 12 and 15, the older was still very much a physical pre-teen, and his brother was a full-grown man.

    As far as “risk” taking by itself as a young child, my P-son didn’t, and my ADHD son took great physical risks. Punishment did have an effect on the ADHD son’s behavior though, and he responded well to both positive and negative reinforcement.

    When the P-son did start his negative and criminal behavior, though NO SANCTIONS had any effect on him. Even being arrested didn’t stop his attitude or his behavior for more than a few hours.

    My ADHD son, however, does learn from his mistakes, and has a well developed conscience, while his P-brother has NO conscience, and actually takes glee in getting away with crimes and brutal behavior.

    Having worked with some younger children with “conduct disorder” (budding Ps) that were so risk taking, and seemed to delight in keeping their parents in a tizzy. Some of these kids would set hte house on fire during the night while the parents slept just to see the fire engines come. I can’t even imagine having a child like that in my home.

    Even in a controlled environment of a psych hospital, these children were unruly, and sanctions of any kind did not have any effect on their behavior.

    Postive reinforcement was not effective with some of them nor was negative reinforcement. “Time out” (essentially the psych equivalent of solitary confinment) didn’t work either.

    My children didn’t have a perfect mother, by a long shot, but they did have many good things for a child growing up. They had the best of the city and the best of the country, a large extended “family” of close friends, good male role models, excellent private schools for most of their pre-college years (the Pson was in prison by the time he would have gone to college) the ADHD son finished college.

    I guess the worst “down side” that they had was my mother was a hard-core enabler with my P son, when he started his criminal behavior, and she remains so today in spite of the fact that she is well acquainted with his violence and lack of repentence.

    My biological father was a raging P, and started his criminal and running away from home antics by the time he was 8. His mother was a physician, but from all I can learn about her (she was universally hated by everyone who knew her including her husband) she was most likely an N or a P.

    I have NO doubt that there is a big genetic component in my son’s back ground, actually on both sides of my family, incliuding my mother’s P-brother.

    I am just not sure though, that if I had known about what my son was before he “blossomed” into a criminal, that I would have done a thing differently than the way I raised him. I know my mother’s enabling didn’t help him when he did start the criminal activity, but I think by then it was too late in any case, even if there EVER was anyting that could have changed the outcome in his life. Of course there is no way we can do “experiments” on kids, or to really KNOW why one kid turns out okay and his identical twin doesn’t. WHAT in the environment was the deciding factor(s)?

    Lord, I wish I knew, I wish anyone knew. I have dated a P, and I have been the daughter of a P, and for me at least, having a child that is a P-monster is the biggest grief I have ever had to contend with. I think it is on a par with the grief of parents whose children are abducted, which I think would have to be worse than knowing your child is dead. At least with a child that is dead you can come to some kind of closure.

    With the P son, it is only now, when he is 37 and I am 61, that I am finally, FINALLY coming to some kind of closure since he was a young teenager. I now realize that he has been “dead” to me for 20+ years and I have been doing “CPR on the corpse,” trying desperately to raise him from the “dead of soul” I finally unplugged the “emotiomal life support” that kept me hoping I could “revive” him—and he is finally in the emotional graveyard of my heart. It was a painful trip.

  6. Glinda says:

    OxD,
    I am just so sorry. I can’t imagine what it’s like that one of your children ended up a P. I have 2 young sons by the dirtbag and I worry all the time. I have and continue to see the dirtbag’s mother enable him. I don’t plan on any of that going on in my home, and my parents are on board with that as well (good since we spend alot of time with them). The dirtbag and his mother have limited time and hopefully influence on them. (10hrs per month of supervised visitation.) I read about warning signs and what not and I don’t think I see any in my 8yo- but I continue to watch him like a hawk, and worry. My other son is a toddler- if we were all judged as toddlers we’d ALL be labeled sociopaths!

  7. Ariadne says:

    Bumblebee,
    I’m glad you restarted this conversation because I have been thinking about this a lot lately. The genetic aspect of sociopathy is really interesting and it seems to be really strong. The way you describe your aunt and cousin is similar to the situation in my family. My stepmother is a sociopath and now that she’s middle aged she limits herself to the kind of troublemaking that you describe because otherwise it would be difficult to keep up her cover. Her son (my half brother) is probably going to end up like her and it really makes me sad.

    When he was a kid he was fearless, but a lot of kids are. There was always something missing in him, even as a child, and because of that we never had a connection. I was really afraid that he’d end up to be like her but he was a sweet kid so I was always hoping that I was wrong about him.

    Even though my father has been a good, kind and honest role model for him, he seems to be making that transformation. After puberty, he has started to be extremely rude and inconsiderate, his grades are failing and he is hanging out with a crowd of boys who constantly harass other people for no reason. I know that a lot of teenagers go through stages like that but it’s the look in his eye that really makes me think that this won’t be a stage.

    Like oxdrover, my dad tried to be the best parent he could to my half brother but I think that genetics can just be really strong in some cases. My half sister is really sweet and sensitive too, so I guess it is hard to understand what conditions and factors come into play.

    I read somewhere that testosterone really plays a big role in sociopathic behavior, so that’s why it’s more common in men.
    I think that explains the puberty “transformation.” Maybe they are destined to be sociopaths from birth and are like ticking time bombs waiting for the testosterone to kick in.

    Anyway, if he does turn out to be a full fledged sociopath, our family is in for another round. I really am concerned for my father and half sister.

  8. OxDrover says:

    Thank you Glinda,

    I’m through the dark tunnel, and have come to acceptance about my son. My sympathy goes out to those women (and men) who have young children by these people, especially if the P is still involved with the child, and continuing to harass the other parent.

    I’m frustrated by a court system that lets “dirt bags” that are obviously BAD parents (not just the conniving Ps that can “pass for human”) remain in the child’s life….drunks, druggies, violent men and women…

    I don’t think psychopathic violence is “genetic” entirely, I have a family full of them, but I turned out different, even from a less than idea home (I didn’t realize the enabling at the time) but I actually had a pretty happy childhood. I wasn’t beaten (except one time by my mother when I was a teenager and “sassed her”) I realize now that there were some pretty dysfunctional things going on, but that is only in retrospect that I can see that.

    My mother’s brother was a violent sociopath who physically and emotionally abused his children and x-wife, and other women in ways that are unbelievable. That information was kept away from me though until I was about 30.

    Having a great deal of experience with animals and the “inborn” tendencies for aggressiveness in various breeds of animals and in “family groups” of animals observed over several generations, I have realized that a certain amount of tendencies for more or less violence or excitability is genetic. I also realize that some of this can be “trained” (environment) out of the animal. I also realize that you can take a non-aggressive animal and mistreat it in ways that will cause it to be very aggressive.

    I think the greatest pain in being a parent of a psychopath is the NOT KNOWING WHAT YOU ARE DEALING WITH, because it makes you loath to “give up” on them. Also, since many of them don’t start the overt behavior until adolescence, where do you “draw the line” between the normal rebelliousness of adolescence and the psychopathic behavior, especially, for the person who is not aware of, again, WHAT you are dealing with.

    If you factor in the enabling behavior of some or all of the family members that many of us have to deal with, including, I can see now, my own enabling, even though I swore I wasn’t, I was…which I can now see in retrospect—plus the malignant HOPE—it all gets confusing.

    Many psychopaths are “successful” in terms of jobs and education, CEOs, Governor of NY, and I could name a few more…LOL…but live miserable lives and make those closest to them miserable…not all become killers or criminals.

    I believe most parents want “the best” for their children, and are willing to do the best that they can to provide opportunities for those children to succeed,, although there are other parents who just sort of “drag their kids up” rather than “raise them up.”

    Looking back on my parenting over the years and my relationships with my adult sons (2 by birth and 1 by adoption) and the 11 foster kids I have had from time to time (short periods mostly) I realize I was an adequate but not perfect parent, and there are some things I would do differently today than I did then, but I am not sure that anything I could have done differently would have made a hoot’s difference in how my P-son turned out.

    The criminal aspect of it was traumatic, more so I guess since our family, even filled with Ps, had no history of run ins with the law. Just the “trauma” of seeing my own son commit crimes and become a felon in itself was devastating to me.

    During my “fog time” when I thought there was a glimmer of hope, it was like a “romance” with a P where they held out the carrot of your fondest dreams of riding off to a castle in the sky with your prince on a white horse—and the “prince” turned out to be the FROG! The constant having hope and having it crushed again and again.

    Of course I wish my “fairy tale” had ended differently, but at the same time, I have survived, and in many ways I think the adversity has been a blessing if in the end I learn. I think life is a journey, not a destination, and I do think that there is a reason we are here beyond this life. My faith in that is stronger now than ever. Even realizing that the journey has been painful, it has not been without some rewards as well.

    If nothing else, it makes me very proud of my other sons, and what wonderful men they have become. Not perfect, any more than I am but honest and caring men, and they too have learned from this experience.

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