This week while reflecting on the writings that most influenced my thinking about psychopathy/sociopathy, I received a letter from a mother of a five year-old boy whose father shows many signs of the disorder. She wrote:
Do you believe that children can show signs of being psychopathic? If so do you teach them to suppress the way they really feel by masking the problems with fake feelings? Can feelings of love really be learned? Just because someone on the outside appears like they have feelings does that mean inside they have actually changed? As you know they are good actors. The skill is learned very quickly to lie to blend in with the others. I bought your book off Amazon I should be getting it today. And i am also reading Dr. Hares book. I will try to look at your book some more today.
Shortly after my son’s father was arrested, I sat on my bed, with our seven month old baby asleep beside me, with the psychiatry DSM manual open to the page containing the criteria for “antisocial personality disorder”. I asked myself “do any of these criteria relate to common themes discussed in the child development literature.” I had to answer that question to know how best to mother my own child.
Interestingly, all the criteria mapped onto three developmentally acquired abilities: Ability to Love, Impulse Control, and Moral Reasoning. I then vowed I would read everything there was to read about each of these.
I started with Ability to Love. In my opinion the most important book about Ability to Love is Learning to Love by Harry Harlow, Ph.D. He is the scientist who demonstrated that a baby monkey clings to his mother out of pleasure in affection and “contact comfort” not because mother is a source of food. Prior to Dr. Harlow, scientists believed that the child learned to relate to his mother because she was associated with food.
The profound conclusion reached by Dr. Harlow’s research team is that babies are born to “learn to love” just like babies are born to learn language. We don’t come into the world talking but as our brains develop and we are exposed to language we learn to talk. Similarly, we don’t come into the world loving, but as our brains develop and we receive the right input we learn to love.
There are other interesting parallels between talking and loving including the observation that both are disordered in autism and both are influenced by genetics.
My world completely changed when I read page 44 of learning to love. It is on this page that Dr. Harlow discusses a very important developmental sequence. Ability to Love starts to develop before pleasure in aggression and competition sets in:
“The primary basis of aggression control is the formation of strong generalized bonds of peer love or affection… All primates, monkeys and men alike are born with aggressive potential, but aggression is a rather later maturing variable. It is obvious that a one year old suffers from fear and is terrified by maternal separation, but the child neither knows nor can express aggression at this tender age…This lack of aggression targets accounts in part for the fact that “evil emotion” culminates during the age-mate stage, long after peer affection and love have developed. It is the antecedent age-mate love that holds the fury of aggression within acceptable bounds for in group associates.”
Love starts to develop before aggression does, and has a head start in the race for the brain connections that form the basis of our values.
Now back to our 5 year old boy. I am very disturbed by the recent trend of referring to children as “psychopathic” in the scientific literature. Not that she does not describe symptoms of psychopathy, but to call a 5 year old psychopathic, negates the importance of learning to love and acts like it is an inborn ability.
I would say that this boy is learning disabled and requires extra help when it comes to learning to love. Just like speech therapy would help him if he couldn’t speak, love therapy will help him if he can’t love. Studies of autistic children show that a mother’s love makes a big differences for many severely affected children. Why shouldn’t we at least give this 5 year old the benefit of the doubt and give him love therapy.
Many studies show that the parents of at-risk children struggle with loving them. It is hard to love an impulsive child who goes after the cat with sharp tools. These parents are also harmed by suggestions that psychopathy is entirely genetic and firmly in place by age 3.
The focus on “discipline” also hurts these families because children need to learn to love. How can they learn to love if the people who are supposed to teach them are constantly yelling at them and scolding them or spanking them?
What is the answer?
An at-risk child is a full time job! Parents have to love that child 24/7 and not leave him alone to go to the kitchen to pick up the knife and go after the cat. Preventive positive parenting means waking up before the child, being there when he opens his eyes and saying, “I love you”. It means giving him hugs and kisses, playing and having fun together.