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New study finds conduct disordered boys are just like their fathers

Although fearlessness is not part of the formal definition of psychopathy or DSM IV antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), it is widely recognized that this temperamental attribute is part of these disorders as well as their childhood precursors, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD). Thankfully, not all fearless individuals are sociopaths but it appears that fearlessness is present in varying degrees in everyone with these disorders. (Interestingly some sociopaths do show anxiety. The exact relationship between anxiety and fearlessness is not completely understood.)

Fearlessness is a good trait to study because the trait reflects the function of specific brain regions that are linked to a person’s ability to learn from punishment. The trait is also influenced by genetics. In addition to psychological measures, fearlessness can be assessed using physiological measures. The most universal finding related to fearlessness and genetic risk for sociopathy is that children at risk have low heart rates. Low heart rate has been documented in groups of at-risk children from six different countries and in children as young as 3 years of age.

It appears that the psychological trait of fearlessness has its roots in the physiological trait of “autonomic under-arousal.” This means that the sympathetic nervous system of fearless individuals is under-active at rest and does not readily respond to cues of danger. The sympathetic nervous system is under the control of a part of the brain thought to be abnormal in sociopaths. That is the amygdala-prefrontal cortex circuit.

In a recently published study, Similar autonomic responsivity in boys with conduct disorder and their fathers (J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007 Apr;46(4):535-44), researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Rostock University, Rostock, Germany, studied 44 conduct disordered boys and their fathers. They compared them to 36 “healthy controls” and their fathers. The boys were between 8 and 13 years of age.

The researchers examined sympathetic nervous system activity as measured by skin conductance. They also measured personality characteristics in fathers. Fathers of CD boys were “more aggressive, hostile, and impulsive” than the fathers of the non-disordered boys. The researchers showed the fathers and sons pictures that usually elicit emotional responses from people. CD boys and their fathers showed significantly less emotional responses to the pictures. They also had little physiological response to the pictures compared to the control group. “Psychophysiological measurements were highly correlated between fathers and sons.”

The researchers conclude their abstract with this statement: “High father-son correlations in psychophysiological measures raise the question of whether autonomic abnormalities may constitute a biological mediator through which the disposition for antisocial behavior is transmitted within families.” In making this statement, they are not asserting a purely genetic basis for the trait. A father’s behavior toward his son could also influence this trait since these pairs were in contact or lived together.

In my opinion there is overwhelming evidence that low sympathetic activity and accompanying fearlessness are present very early on in developing sociopaths. Furthermore, the caregivers of fearless kids know their kids are fearless usually by age 2. The most important question is, what can we do to help fearless children develop guilt and empathy so that they do not develop CD or ODD?

There are no studies comparing children at risk who have or have not had contact with their sociopathic parent(s). There are, however, many studies that suggest that fearless children require special parenting. Fearless children who do well have an especially warm and loving relationship with at least one caregiver. A warm loving relationship with that caregiver predicts conscience formation in fearless children. Researchers have called this “the alternative pathway” to conscience. Since they do not readily experience guilt, fearless people rely on empathy for conscience. Empathy develops from early affectionate experiences.

Many at-risk children are in triple jeopardy. They have the genes from one antisocial parent, the environmental exposure to that parent AND another parent who has major depression. This depression is usually aggravated by having to deal with the sociopathic partner. Depression in a mother predicts antisocial disorders in children with sociopathic fathers. I believe the reason is that a mother battling untreated depression has a difficult time relating to a child in a way that promotes enthusiasm for loving and the development of empathy.

There are many things that people co-parenting with a sociopath, or raising an at-risk child, cannot control, starting with genetics. Court ordered visitation is a big problem for many kids and co-parents. There is, however, one thing these parents can control, that is their own loving relationship with the child. For more on how to overcome your child’s genetic connection to sociopathy, addiction and ADHD, read Just Like His Father?



27 Comments on "New study finds conduct disordered boys are just like their fathers"

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  1. behind_blue_eyes says:

    Oxdrover;

    While much focus regarding psychopathy is on prefrontal cortex abnormalities, under-active noradrenaline response and high testosterone levels (in males), I believe you are on to something regarding oxytocin, especially regarding those psychopaths/sociopaths with a history of many short-term relationships. It may also explain the propensity of psychopaths/sociopaths to be less trusting.



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  2. BloggerT7165 says:

    Frank Lee,

    First I have to say that I often post things on here that go against the grain or popular belief yet I have not had any problems or attacks from other posters here. Why? because unlike your posts I have not intentionally come in with a flame thrower on tring to make forcefull incendiary comments to others. Just because you, me, or someone else believes something doesn’t mean diddly unless there is some proof behind it and it certainly doesn’t give us the right to flame people or try to incite others. That is no way to try and convince people your point is correct.

    As for the whole genetics/environment piece, I have posted about the quite a bit previously. In this instance genetics are not destiny. There is an interaction between genes and environmental factors that tweek each other over time and these are dynamic so they change over time and situation.

    Most people I read talk about nature or nurture and stick with just those two. Personally I think the 3rd piece is as important as those two but not often discussed in the same vein. That piece is choice.

    Choice can often overcome but nature and nurture (in regards to this topic). A person may be “predisposed” genetically to alcoholism but they make a choice not to drink alcohol. A person makes a choice not to treat another person poorly, not to sexually assault, not to strike another person, not to use that drug, etc.

    It may not be as easy for some as it may be for others but that still does not mean someone is compelled/forced to do certain things because of genetics. For instance someone may have impulse control issues that make it easier to do certain impulsive things. Yet they can still make a choice to work on improving this in themselves and improve it over time. BUT this often takes a lot of conscious work with success and slip ups along the way and there are a good number of folks who do not want to do this work and prefer the easy way out; the easy excuse or rationalization. This is why just taking a pill to fix something can seem so attractive.

    Making serious lifestyle changes can be, and often is, very difficult for many people let alone deep seated personality issues. Humans tend to be quick to judge and slow to change. But we have the ability to overcome these things or at the least improve them by the choices we make.

    There is a quote I like that says “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”.



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  3. blueskies says:

    Polly –
    thanks for your ‘Brain Fart’ (lol!) I’m going to fart now too;)

    I have always felt terribly guilty about having to work and leave my son in private childcare from a young age and I would agree with what you say about it being poor quality and certainly not ideal. Yes. Son hated being left at nursery, had major separation anxiety, the staff were unskilled and too young. It was also very, very expensive!

    He then went to private SCHOOL which was great for son (less than 10 kids in a class 1 mature experienced teacher and two assistants!) He really made progress.

    When I stopped working ( because of my spath related disintegration) he had to go to the local state school 32 kids 1 harrasssed teacher and 1 teenage assistant – he REALLY struggles to get work done there! At home in a one to one – he produces wonderful work – at school he scribbles all over his books and seems to be going ‘backward’ academically, feels angry alot, it eats away at his self esteem… there is no one available for one to one guidance at school:( But I have more time WITH him myself and more time to spend AT the school.

    If I had the money to send him somewhere else. he WOULD do better. If I could afford to stay at home more with him…he WOULD do better. If things in MY life hadnt been so disruptive… he WOULD do better. So my poverty and MY situation IS a stumbling block…for him.Of course it is. I’m working on it.

    Back to the great unwashed spawning 30% of sociopaths ;P ‘If they don’t read much then how are those people to gather good information about parenting?’ Agreed!

    Our last government did a couple of really valuable things for our society that are now being scrapped:( In particular – ‘SureStart’ a programme to deliver quality early education, childcare, health and family support in our most deprived areas, these programmes engaged with parents and children at a young age and were a single point of access to health and education and social services. Parents learning about basic parenting skills and nutrition…which they had no clue about before… They ran a campaign to encourage reading with your child which included a box of books for EVERY child… access to literacy help for parents…etc.etc..I believe that surestart improved the life chances of countless children AND their parents. But its being scrapped:(

    I think we should all be marching on parliament right now to demand more action against poverty and poor education.

    I like what EC said “Parental rejection, abuse or neglect is damaging for all personality types.”

    … and if poorer parents have less parenting ‘tools’ than middle class ones , and having them will make a difference…we need to make sure they get them!

    …. Then there’s the high flying bankers and CEO’s who went to EATON and screwed us all! The CEO of BP who thinks that sailing his yacht with his son instead of spending every waking hour clearing up his mess is ‘okay’… I am pretty sure he didnt grow up on a council estate!

    Oxy’s oxytocin – I was just reading about clinical trials with regard to the behavioural effect of oxytocin on people with autism. it’s encoraging… maybe along the tracks there will be an effective way to treat these conditions… but as buttons points out unless specific criteria and parameters to include the “everyday” sociopath are defined and recognised how can anyone do effective work on how to clinically treat it.



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  4. blueskies says:

    And … now I get to complimenting Dr. Leedom for this thought provocing wonderful article…

    i dont have a child with a socipath but he has been affected by MY relationship with one…

    “The most important question is, what can WE do”

    “Depression in a mother predicts antisocial disorders in children with sociopathic fathers. I believe the reason is that a mother battling UNTREATED depression has a difficult time relating to a child in a way that promotes enthusiasm for loving and the development of empathy.”

    “There is, however, one thing these parents can control, that is their own loving relationship with the child.”



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  5. blueskies says:

    ( cor. just coming here and ‘talking to myself’ today helped me to define my thoughts and release hurt and ‘percieved insult’ – lF is pretty good isnt it?;)x



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  6. blueskies says:

    Buttons – I really admire you for what you are doing. Mike is one lucky boy to have you in his life and batting for his team.x I wish him all the very best.x



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  7. OxDrover says:

    Dear Blkueskies,

    You bring up many points that are of courcern to me as well. Leaving infant children with a large “kid herd” to care for.

    Women have always worked both inside the home and outside the home, but usually the child was minded IN the home either byu older sisters or brothrs, or before this was available option, the mother took the child with her.

    The child was cradled in the family, not with strangers who changed on a regular bassis and the kids themselves changed on a regular basis. The child could make connections with the caregivers and other infants or toddlers.Even today in many primative cultures the child rides in a sling on the mother’s back and when he no longer does that, he toddles with her to her daily chores or stays behind with an older sibling.
    I was a stay at home mom when my kids were pre-school age, OR the few jobs I took were ones in which I could take my kids WITH ME. I was a church secretary—-took the kids and set them down to play or sleep, etc., managed a large fish farm, hauled them around in my pick up with me as I worked. When this was no longer possible, I got a job waiting tables at night and let my boys sleep over with my best friend and picked them up to take them to school, anbd slept while they were in school.

    The reason (at the time) I did it this way when I did work was to save on baby sitting costs, AND because the one year I had to go to a LARGE day care myself, I hated it being “just a number” one of a large herd of kids with stranger adults.

    Now that I am looking back on it, I agree more and more with a stay at home parent, or one who has a job which can include the child(ren).

    My late husband’s granddaughter-in-law does Real estate sales, and she works it around her two children, taking them with her on call outs, or waiting until her husband is home and can care for them. In actual fact, she is one of the TOP sellers for her region. So she has sort of the BEST of “both worldS” a job and time to be with and care for her kids.

    When they came to visit a few months back, I was SHOCKED at how well behaved they were for their ages. I also had my heart warmed when I watched the look on the face of my grandson as he sat on the couch watching his 4 year old son sleep. Talk about a LOOK OF LOVE! Anbd I sure do hope the latest generation does become like his daddy! and their mother!



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  8. blueskies says:

    How lovely:)x Thanks for sharing that Oxy. Your husband had ‘good stuff’ to pass on and the environment is right for it to flourish.x Fab.xx

    I like what you say about women having their children with them: I met a woman a while back who was volunteering at a horticultural charity that works with people recovering from depression, she had her child in a sling, like a cloth, african style, at all times… when the child got older the sling was adapted and sometimes the child would just sit by the mother as she worked…. the child was the least fretful and calmest child I have ever seen:) This woman made a choice to spend her time child rearing like THAT… not on the school or Nursery run (I agree with the ‘kid heard’ thing – you walk into some of these nurseries and its like the Lord of the flies!;) My natural response is: well that isnt practical for most urban single parents…real food for thought…x

    Our wonderful 2010 society and all its marvelous ‘progress’ has missed something I think…



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  9. OxDrover says:

    Dear Blueskies,

    I think I just did whatever job I had to do to be with my kids, and bartered baby sitting with friends and relatives so they never had to go to day care. I think our resourcefulness in thinking out side the box makes us think we can fix anything or do anything, and we try to fix the relationshit with the Ps.

    My cows, believe it or not, trade baby sitting duty when the calves are all very small. You will see one cow (not necessarily even the mother of a calf right then) lying down chewing her cud with all the “kindergarden” around her and the mommie cows out grazing all over the place. Then later you will see the kindergarden with another baby minder there.

    Lord of the Flies is right! I didn’t want that for my kids….l



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