Sociopathic children represent a unique quandary for people who love children and hate sociopaths. They are also the most impressionable, which some see as an invitation to target them with attempts at early intervention. From Fox News:
Criminologist Nathalie Fontaine of Indiana University studies the tendency toward being callous and unemotional (CU) in children between 7 and 12 years old. Children with these traits have been shown to have a higher risk of becoming psychopaths as adults.How do you accomplish this early intervention?
"We're not suggesting that some children are psychopaths, but CU traits can be used to identify a subgroup of children who are at risk," Fontaine said.
Yet her research showed that these traits aren't fixed, and can change in children as they grow. So if psychologists identify children with these risk factors early on, it may not be too late.
"We can still help them," Fontaine said. "We can implement intervention to support and help children and their families, and we should."
Neuroscientists' understanding of the plasticity, or flexibility, of the brain called neurogenesis supports the idea that many of these brain differences are not fixed.
"Brain research is showing us that neurogenesis can occur even into adulthood," said psychologist Patricia Brennan of Emory University in Atlanta. "Biology isn’t destiny. There are many, many places you can intervene along that developmental pathway to change what's happening in these children."
"You don’t have to do direct brain surgery to change the way the brain functions," Brennan said. "You can do social interventions to change that."I'm conflicted about this news. On the one hand I am reminded of very well-meaning attempts at early intervention for children of first generation immigrants, Romani children, aboriginal children, native children, and other efforts at forced integration and assimilation into the "norm." On the other hand some sociopaths really do suffer immensely. To the extent that these efforts demonstrate society's increasing awareness of sociopaths and desire to cater more carefully to sociopathic needs, e.g. using very consistent incentive schemes instead of punishment to achieve desired behavior, I see it as a step in the right direction.
Fontaine's studies, for example, suggest that kids who display callous and unemotional traits don't respond as well to traditional parenting and punishment methods such as time-outs. Instead of punishing bad behavior, programs that emphasize rewarding good behavior with positive reinforcement seem to work better.
Raine and his colleagues are also testing whether children who take supplemental pills of omega-3 fatty acids — also known as fish oil — can show improvement. Because this nutrient is thought to be used in cell growth, neuroscientists suspect it can help brain cells grow larger, increase the size of axons (the part of neurons that conducts electrical impulses), and regulate brain cell function.
"We are brain scanning children before and after treatment with omega-3," Raine said. "We are studying kids to see if it can reduce aggressive behavior and improve impaired brain areas. It's a biological treatment, but it's a relatively benign treatment that most people would accept."