Understanding antisocial personality disorder in children
Television, films and books have largely demonized sociopathic and psychopathic behavior. They have also added to a general misconception that the terms are interchangeable.
Though the definitions are open to debate even among experts, there are differences. In the case of an antisocial personality disorder (APD) child, they typically have sociopathy, psychopathy, or dyssocial traits, or a combination.
Definition of key terms
The term sociopath is closely associated with antisocial personality disorder (APD) and therefore interchangeable. It signifies a dramatic lack of ability to deal with normal social constraints and engagement.
Psychopathic behavior is a more severe form of sociopathy â€“ including risk taking, manipulation and dishonesty. Not all children with antisocial personality disorder have psychopathic tendencies.
Dyssocial personality disorder is a different medical condition, which means the person has a poor or non-existent moral sense or a defined conscience. This trait appears in children with APD.
A diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder in a child
Antisocial personality disorder is usually diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, but it continues into adulthood. The primary characteristics are that the child has little or no understanding, or regard, for the safety, feelings or rights of other people.
This is vastly different from a â€œnaughtyâ€ child, who is wilful and rude. It is a lack of the ability to feel empathy with others, no â€œconscienceâ€ to control their actions. In fact, usually one of the few emotions they feel is contempt. This causes them to engage in highly antisocial behaviors and even criminal activity, with no sense of remorse or guilt.
Though the traits can be present in a child, the diagnosis may only occur when they enter the criminal justice system.
It is estimated that APD affects 3% of males and 1% of females in the USA.
Coping strategies for the antisocial personality disorder child
Studies have shown that children with APD will learn to mimic emotions to engage in relationships with other people. This learned behavior is often a coping strategy to carry out normal daily interaction.
Their medical condition may cause them to have outward charm or even an overdeveloped sense of self-worth which they can also use to hide their indifference to what other people feel or need.
It is believed that there are substantial numbers of highly intelligent, high functioning children, young people and even adults who have developed such strong coping mechanisms that their antisocial personality disorder (APD) remains undiagnosed.
What causes antisocial personality disorder in children?
This disorder is believed to be a combination of genetic (inherited) and environmental factors.
More research is required, but there is growing evidence that if your parent or parents had APD, you are predisposed to have it too. This has been studied by observing both natural and adoptive children, as the latter can develop APD even if their home life is supportive and nurturing.
However, environmental influences are thought to be highly significant; in other words, the circumstance of a child’s birth and upbringing. APD in children is sometimes a result of being raised by a parent or parents with the same disorder. It can also occur when their caregivers are engaged in substance misuse, or when the child is the victim of severe neglect, sexual abuse or physical harm.
As mentioned early, some children with APD do develop coping mechanisms and go on to mask their condition sufficiently to progress through life reasonably smoothly. However, this condition is prevalent in urban areas with low socioeconomic status, predisposing children with APD to struggle with daily life at an early age.
As they grow, a child with APD will find it difficult to establish and maintain relationships or deal with everyday activities. This means they may end up unemployable, homeless, reliant on alcohol or drugs and engaging in criminal activity.
Cause for debate
Defining the primary characteristic of an antisocial disorder child is the source of debate, especially as legal, medical and scientific communities interpret some of the terminology and traits differently.
Mental health professionals and legal experts have put forward the view that APD should be classed as a mental health illness. In this way, the disorder can explain illegal or immoral behavior.
However, courts in the USA maintain the stance that an APD diagnosis does not excuse criminal activity or exempt perpetrators from punishment.
The American Psychiatric Association considers APA to be synonymous with psychopathy. Other experts argue that the two things are different; not all psychopaths have APD, and not all children with APD are diagnosed as psychopaths.
Treatment for the antisocial personality disorder child
Methods and medication to modify this disorder are scant and can be ineffectual.
The ability to feel emotions, understand cause and effect, and develop empathy, cannot be meaningfully taught to a child with this profound mental deficit.
In later life, treatment can be given to balance some of the resulting symptoms and problems, such as anti-depressants to stabilize emotions. Other medications exist to control behaviors in adults, but these tend to be open to abuse or noncompliance due to the nature APD.
Long-term residential care, modern behavior modification techniques, and self-help groups have been found to help people to manage their condition and function better. This is particularly effective if therapies are used in a way that isolates them from committing further anti-social activities while they learn.