The New York Times recently came out with an article about 9-year-old boy, Michael, that experts have given the differential diagnosis of a psychopath by psychologist Dan Waschbusch. Callous-unemotional children are considered likely to become psychopaths or sociopaths (essentially equivalents), referred to in the article as “prepsychopathic.” The callous-unemotional child is marked by a “distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy.” They often present early with disruptive tantrums and a difficulty controlling their tempers without a desire to curb their behavior in order to please their parents or others. Furthermore, they learn to manipulate in particularly clever or unusual ways for their age range. This is marked by their lack of regret or qualms about lying or manipulating those around them to get what they want or simply on a whim. The lack of empathy may lead the child to partake in extreme behaviors like in one instance when a boy cut off a cat’s tail a tiny bit at a time with a knife like scientist and was unrepentant (Kahn, 2012).
Dan Waschbusch believes that support and treatments might improve callous-unemotional children’s behaviors’ and their chances at not becoming psychopaths. As such, he created a research summer camp program to give them structure in a reward-based setting to encourage them to positively and socially engage. Unfortunately, chaos reigned. Many students actually regressed. Michael actually picked up new and more complex manipulative behaviors. One attendee began biting counselors.
The description of Michael is heartbreaking. I do not feel for Michael, but for his mother, father, and brothers. In order to cope with the temper tantrums, the threats of violence, and the knowledge that he very well may turn violent, yet still accept him lovingly into the family without any reciprocating warmth is remarkable. Without the family’s patience and acceptance of Michael, he almost certainly will take a turn for the worst. His mother deals with the uncertainty, “I’ve always said that Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Peace Prize winner or a serial killer” (Kahn, 2012).
In an interview, Dr. Alan Ravitz, the Senior Director of Forensic Psychiatry and Senior Pediatric Psychopharmacologist at Child Mind Institute, pointed out several criticisms of Waschbusch’s diagnoses and experimental treatment camp. First, diagnosing a child as essentially prespsychopathic is completely worthless. There are no positive implications for treatment, and there are negative societal impacts on the family, the child, and even the child’s teachers, principles, and healthcare providers. It “is a kind of implication that there is no treatment for this, so we might as well give up” (Mustich, 2012). Furthermore, Waschbusch was really taking a stab in the dark with his summer program. Ravitz says that, “nobody has identified effective treatments for it.”
On top of that, Ravitz says that he really has not come across that many psychopathic children and those psychopaths in general are quite rare. He says, “I was surprised that they were able to find that many of them in one place.” On top of that, Ravitz says they tend to be experts at avoiding detection (Mustich, 2012). This is where I got very suspicious. As a child, I went to many specialized psychiatrists and low and behold I had each and every diagnosis that they were specialized in. Upon further examination with more well-respected and less biased diagnosticians, I miraculously had none of these diagnoses from the specialists. When a psychiatrist or psychologist is looking for a specific diagnosis, he or she is likely to find it in just about anyone with any psychopathology. I do not question that the “emotionally-callous” children do not have something going on in their lives, but are they all truly “emotionally-callous” and “prepsychopathic”? I am not denying the existence of children with this condition, but I doubt Waschbusch’s diagnostic techniques and therapeutic endeavors.
Kahn, J. (2012, May 11). Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath? Retrieved 2012, from The New York Times
Mustich, E. (2012, May 15). 9-Year-Old Psychopath: Dr. Alan Ravitz On How to Diagnose Children As Psychopaths. Retrieved 2012, from The Huffington Pos
Robert D Hare, S. D. (1991, August). Psychopathy and the DSM – IV Criteria for the Antisocial Personality Disorder . Retrieved 2012, from Journal of Abnormal Psychology
By: Emily F.