If you read the stories of victims of sociopaths, many common themes are apparent. One of these is the victim complains that he/she is riddled with anxiety while the sociopath goes on with life effortlessly. From the point of view of a victim then, it is hard to see fear as a gift. Many say they wish the sociopath suffered some anxiety over the mess of their lives. The worst sociopaths (psychopaths) even go to prison multiple times, only viewing this fate as “an occupational hazard.”
Over the past 100 years, clinicians and scientists have written about the lack of fear in sociopaths. Many have speculated that lack of anxiety or fearlessness is one of the causes of sociopathy/psychopathy. In fact, one researcher was able to show that the level of anxiety shown by children in the first two years of life predicted conscience at age 6. Low fear kids had less of a conscience. In these low fear kids, only empathy predicts conscience.
If you are with me in raising a fearless child whose other parent is a sociopath, you have to understand this risk factor for the disorder. Fearless kids require specialized parenting that focuses on developing empathy to an advanced degree. They have to be super empathetic to make up for their deficit in guilt/anxiety/fear. Many writing on this blog have questioned whether empathy can be taught or fostered. There is much evidence that the development of empathy can be enhanced by the right parenting.
My son’s teachers have all described him as very caring and empathetic even without knowing that I wrote a book on that subject. So I can give testimony as to what helps fearless, at-risk kids have empathy and conscience through empathy. Many fearless kids, like my son are resistant to punishment. So the only hook you have with them is a loving relationship. You need a big hook too, because the same fearless kids are energetic and very impulsive, so they require a great deal of correcting. Their only motivation to learn to control their behavior is to have the approval of those they love. This is why the usual American parenting style, which does not foster close family relationships, produces sociopathy in fearless at risk kids.
Many parents who come to realize they are dealing with a fearless at-risk child, come to believe that “discipline” will fix the problem. They therefore seek out advice on how to do this effectively. They use all the techniques only to find out that they may work in the moment here and there but do very little to impact the fearless child’s behavior overall.
Also I should say that fearlessness and dominance behavior go hand in hand, so these kids are what most people call “strong-willed.” Many religious leaders have therefore said that it is important to “break the will” of strong-willed kids.
The problem with trying to break the will of an at-risk child and focusing on discipline, is that these do not instill what at risk children need to develop a conscience. These kids don’t need to be broken, they need to be fixed! The fix involves teaching them to love.
When teaching a child to love, it is important to remember that negative family experiences have a stronger weight in our minds that loving ones. The at-risk child responds to negative interactions, not with fear but with more dominance behavior. Psychologists have determined that in order to be of equal weight, our positive loving experiences have to out-weigh our conflicts by 5:1. So we have to experience 5 times more love than conflict in order for us to feel stable.
If you are with me raising at-risk kids you will immediately see the “Catch 22.” These kids need constant correcting because they are so impulsive. If they get a thought to do something, they do it instantly and they have a hard time terminating an unwanted behavior. So the usual parenting means 100 times more conflict than love for these kids. In a nut shell that is why many develop sociopathy. Study after study has shown that when normal loving parents adopt children with genetic risk (whose biologic parents are sociopaths), they turn negative and punitive toward the kids.
Without focused practice loving, the absence of guilt turns into a complete absence of conscience for at-risk kids. A person with guilt deficiency can have a conscience if he/she has empathy. Without either guilt or empathy you get a psychopath. (Also by the way some guilt with no empathy makes ____________ personality disorder? You fill in the blank.)
Ok now many of you are saying to yourselves, “I don’t buy this fearless, lack of anxiety crap. The sociopath I was with was neurotic as hell.” Although studies of groups of sociopaths show that within individuals the level of anxiety is negatively correlated with the level of sociopathy, it also turns out that the rates of phobias (other than social phobia) and anxiety disorders are NOT lower in sociopaths.
Scientists are presently very puzzled trying to reconcile all these observations. The evidence that fearlessness and lack of anxiety are causative in sociopathy is fairly strong. How do we explain then, phobias and anxiety in sociopaths and conduct disordered kids?
I can offer some explanation based on my reading and my own observations of sociopaths and their offspring. I think the critical question is WHEN the fear system develops in a child, if it does. I think that in many sociopaths, the fear system develops too late to impact their development in a positive way. So if a child develops fears after he/she has already developed a pattern of dominant, impulsive behavior, those fears do little to positively impact his personality development. Instead these fears lead a child to become even more aggressive in self defense.
Also realize that if a child’s fear system, which is supposed to develop by 2, doesn’t develop until 4 or 5, he/she is left without the tools to manage the fears. Children are supposed to use their loving relationships to cope with their fears. The at-risk child, at 5 already has a poor relationship with his/her caregivers because of the impulsive behavior. Who is the child supposed to turn to when afraid? The only thing that child can do is to focus on having interpersonal power. If he/she is powerful then he/she can’t be hurt. I encourage you to go and observe this for yourself this summer. Go to a local playground and observe the kids. You will see the dominant ones using fantasies of power to cope with their fears.
So as I have said before, sociopaths do not have the gift of fear. The way fear works in their lives never helps to keep them safe. Their experience of fear is aberrant; they suffer with it but that suffering does them no good. For sociopaths fear and anxiety are not connected to avoidance of stuff that gets them in trouble. For them fear and anxiety are connected to the opposite, fantasies of interpersonal power. Feeling anxious only makes them aggress more on others.
I am interested to hear your accounts of phobias, fears and anxiety in the sociopath you were involved with. Also if you have at-risk children please feel free to comment on how hard it is to parent them. This is one area where the observations of family members can contribute to our understanding of both sociopathy and how it develops.
For tools to help your at-risk child develop empathy and emotional intelligence visit The Parent’s Store.