Scientists now believe that the set of personality traits that cause sociopathy develops in people with genetic risk. But research also shows that genetics alone cannot account for the presence of sociopathy in our society. Sociopathy is caused by an interaction between genes and environment. In my opinion, many kids are twice cursed by genetics. The same genes that put them at risk also give them at least one unfit parent. This unfit parent creates an environment where the genes that produce sociopathy can become manifest.
In part 1 of this series, I listed several parenting behaviors that foster the development of sociopathy. This week we will discuss the trait anger and hostility that characterizes sociopathy. Nowhere are gene-environment interactions more apparent than in the development of an angry, hostile, suspicious style of relating to others.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that children at risk for sociopathy tend to adopt a suspicious approach during social interactions with both peers and adults. They are quick to interpret the behavior of others as hostile, angry or otherwise malevolent. They are also more likely to propose aggressive solutions to situations that involve conflict. When at risk kids respond in kind to perceived hostility, other children reject them. This rejection serves to confirm to the child that others are indeed malevolent–a classic self-fulfilling prophesy.
I am convinced that this suspicious, hostile stance we see in at risk children is due to their focus on dominance and power. At risk children tend to focus on competition and power as opposed to affection in relationships. If your child is focused on dominance, she/he will appear to you to be strong willed and will not respond well to correction. Many parents respond to dominant children by trying to put them in their place. They thus model aggressive behavior. Engaging in dominance struggles only further activates the dominance drive in at risk children. Dealing with a child’s dominance behavior, is perhaps the biggest challenge parents of at risk children face.
The only tool we have to reduce dominance behavior in at risk children and teens is affection. Affectionate interactions are incompatible with dominance behavior, so, if you want your child to be easier to live with, you have to teach him/her to be affectionate. You have to do everything in your power to give your child the ability to love. When strong dominance motivation is appropriately balanced with empathy and affection, the result is a great leader. Our kids who are born dominant are born leaders if we are able to guide them to have this balance.
I believe the dominance behavior at risk children show is inborn. My son was born with this dominant temperament and I work daily to teach him to love. He is now nearly 5 and does show a great deal of empathy and affection, however, he also shows the dominance behavior I am discussing. For example, there are times when we are shopping and someone gets close to our cart. My son becomes very territorial and says to adults, “This is our cart, don’t touch our stuff!” I promise he did not learn this from me. When we are in public I make it a point to smile, greet people and wish them a good day. Notice, too, that my son is not afraid to confront adults he doesn’t know. Just a few weeks ago, we drove to a local bike trail with our bikes on the bike rack of the van. As I was unloading the bikes, a woman approached me to ask about the trail. Her tone was a little anxious and her expression somewhat dry. My son interpreted her body language and expressions as hostile and said, “Don’t be mean to my mom!”
When these issues come up, I reassure my son and encourage him to give people the benefit of the doubt. “That nice lady only wanted to know about the trail.” I relate these experiences here because I want you to consider what would happen to my son if there was an adult male in his life who modeled the same competitive, suspicious behavior he is predisposed to. I have no doubt what would happen; these traits would become greatly magnified!
Studies have confirmed that nurture magnifies nature to produce antisocial behavior in at risk children. Two of the primary predictors of sociopathy in the children of sociopaths are a hostile style on the part of the sociopathic parent and hostile parenting. Interestingly, sibling to sibling spread of antisocial behavior also occurs via this hostility factor. Last week we received a letter from a mother whose former husband and now adult son are both sociopaths. She expressed guilt over not fighting harder when her son asked to live with his father. She didn’t fight because she also had two other children in the home who were suffering at the hands of their sibling, who was developing sociopathic personality traits. I believe that this mother’s decision, to focus her energy on the children she believed could be helped, likely saved the other two children. In the real world, people who have had children with sociopaths often have to make very difficult, gut-wrenching decisions.
Sociopaths not only model a suspicious/hostile attitude toward others, they can also be hostile toward family members, including children. For children who are not dominant, hostility directed toward them from a sociopathic parent creates anxiety and depression. When dominant children are the recipients of hostility, they simply throw it back or displace it on others. Either way, a home that is not a source of peace is bad for child well-being. In order to learn to love, children must learn to enjoy affection. In homes where anger abounds, children come to enjoy food, various forms of video entertainment, and other escapes, as opposed to really enjoying loved ones. This creates a problem with the pleasure balance that sets these children up to develop alcoholism and addiction later on. When love does not abound in our lives we seek to fill the void…and the result can be disastrous.