Have you ever met a psychopathic child?

First of all, there is no such thing. Children can be diagnosed with conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder, which are both regarding extreme behavioral issues and may lead to a later diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder in adulthood, but children can't be diagnosed with psychopathy. I would also like to say I have no training in psychology, child development, neurology, or any other field pertinent to psychopathy. And I'm answering anonymously to protect the privacy of the child I am going to speak about in this answer and the other people involved in his and my life.

He was a very pleasant child. He is in his late twenties, though we haven't kept in touch, I hope he is doing quite well. It's not that he was cruel, he just couldn't form an emotional connection to anyone, and that's the aspect of his behavior I found somewhat antisocial. He also could be extremely manipulative and had little regard for his own safety and the safety/feelings of those around him unless it suited him to act otherwise.

I met this child, who I'll call Peter-though that is not his real name-when he was 9 years old. He then lived with me for 2 years, left, then lived with me for 6 more months when he was 13. Peter was a foster child, and I had long since been taking in foster children. I tended to be an emergency housing place for foster children who had just been removed from an unfit situation and needed somewhere to stay. Some stayed for only a week before finding a permanent home, for some it was years, others I raised through childhood (if a child stayed with my long enough, I'd usually adopt so that they would have someone to support them outside of the system, help them pay for college, get their own place, just general young adult stuff parents are supposed to help with, I've adopted 4 kids total, fostered just over 20 in my life, but never had more than 7 kids in the house at a time).

Peter came to live with me after being removed from an extremely abusive foster home. I won't go into the details of what happened in that home, as they are quite distasteful. My original thoughts on him were that he was an incredibly endearing boy, very sweet, quite, always cleared the table when it was his turn. At first, he was fearful of physical touch, I figured this was due to all the violence he had endured, but he made many breakthroughs with me, he used to curl up next to me and ask me to read to him. He loved all my favorite books. He would dance along to all my favorite music. He started calling me "mommy", said I was the only person he trusted, the only person who had ever loved him. He truly seemed to be attached and dependent on me, and I felt a stronger than usual impulse to keep and love and protect him.

Then one day, something odd happened. I went to pick him up from school and I saw him laughing and talking with his teacher. They were running around a basketball court playing one-on-one. Peter was telling jokes. Making layups. Allowing close physical contact in the game. What!?! Was this even the same kid? How could this be the little boy who had been living with me for 6 months now? The little boy who would only let me have physical contact with him because I was the only one he trusted, the only one who loved him? The little boy who was quiet and withdrawn? He was like an entirely different person with his teacher.

I asked Peter about this later that night.

"So, when you were with your teacher today, you seemed to be acting, maybe a bit weird"

"Weird, what do you mean, mommy?"

"Just different than how you usually act, more outgoing. But when I'm around you, you seem shyer and quieter"

"My teacher likes outgoing kids. You like shy and quiet kids. If I was shy with him, he wouldn't like me, and my grades would be worse. If I was outgoing with you, you wouldn't like me, and you'd give me away. And the next person might not make me food and they might hit me"

I was heartbroken and shocked that he thought all of this.

"Sweetheart, I know you've had trouble with people leaving you before. But you're going to stay with me for as long as you need to. Until you find a family that wants to adopt you, and if that doesn't happen, I'll adopt you. I'm not going to pass you off to someone who will hurt you. If you leave my home, it'll be so that you can be apart of a happy and healthy family. Do you understand?"

He nodded but seemed skeptical. The skepticism slowly turned to a look of anger and frustration. For a moment he was quiet, then he said, "You like me more than the other kids"

"I don't have favorites, I love you all so much"

"Yes, I know you love us all. But just because you love us all doesn't mean you love us equally. You love me more because I let you read me books and listen to music you like and call you "mommy". And my last foster dad loved me more than the other kids because I talked about football with him and agreed with his rants about government and let him teach me to shoot, and so he beat me less than he beat the others. And don't tell me you'll love me no matter what when you have no idea who I really am. I have no idea who I really am. There are at least 10 different versions of me and I put on my personalities the way you put on clothes. I'm whoever whatever person I'm talking to wants me to be" It was odd hearing this come out of the mouth of a seven-year-old who I was used to viewing as young and innocent and in need of my maternal protection. We continued talking for hours. It took me a while to assure him I'd always love him, I'm pretty sure he still didn't believe me by the end of the conversation. But after that, he did let go of his mask if I was the only person around.

It was like watching him devolve. He went from a happy, shy, sweet little boy to an emotionally distant robot. He didn't laugh or smile. He hyperfocused on whatever task caught his interest, but then as soon as someone else came around he slipped into whatever personality suited the situation best. He could be a clown, a nerd, a jock, a cheerleader, he was amazing at reading people to figure out exactly what they wanted from him. Peter also had other ways of manipulating people. If there was a disagreement over anything among the kids, even something trivial, like where we'd go out to eat that night, Peter had a way of coming out on top. He wouldn't threaten or force his way up, the way a television "psychopath" would, he would simply convince the other kids that what he wanted was really what they wanted, and then he'd say "okay, we can do what you want". So now he's somehow convinced the other kids that they wanted to go to his favorite restaurant all along, and he's doing them a favor by agreeing we can go to his favorite restaurant getting him both his ideal dinner and gratitude that could later be bartered with his foster siblings. I wouldn't intervene when I saw this happening as it was a rather brilliant way to ensure everyone got what they wanted (or at least what they thought they wanted).

Peter was never hostile. Sometimes he could hurt people, but not randomly. He tried to avoid making enemies. I think there is only one instance, at least only one that I know about, of him intentionally causing significant distress to someone else. It was with another child at his school. The situation had already escalated to a fist fight by the time I, as Peter's legal guardian, was called into the school to talk about it. What happened is another student from Peter's class started mocking him for being a foster child, saying very rude things like that he was unwanted and unloveable, the bully also implied that Peter's parents were criminals who had beaten Peter (this was actually true, but the bully didn't know it was true. He was just trying to mess with Peter by saying those awful things). Peter didn't seem to care that much but did start doing subtle things to mess with the bully. For reference, this was when Peter was nine. Peter got essentially the rest of the school to isolate the boy, by doing things to demean him but never straight out speaking ill of him. Example: Instead of saying "The way [bully's name] draws cars is wrong" he would say "don't draw cars like that, that's how [bully's name] draws them" So he got the whole school believing this was the "wrong" way to draw cars, and continued to do subtle things like this to isolate the boy like loudly correct the child's mistakes in math class, and explaining the mistake in an overly simplified jovial way so the kid seemed dumb for making the mistake, and Peter seemed like an altruist for helping the kid with math. When they were alone Peter would intentionally let his mask slip a bit and say things like "it's weird, I haven't seen you spending time with [random classmate's name] in a while. Are you guys still friends?" Even when Peter knew perfectly well the bully wasn't friends with that classmate anymore, because Peter had convinced the classmate not to be friends with the bully, without even getting his hands dirty or seeming like it was intentional. Eventually, the bully kid snapped and assaulted Peter. Peter got a black eye and bloody nose, but no major injuries.

After a long meeting with the principal and Peter's teachers, who were convinced Peter carried none of the blame and referred to the attack as "completely unprovoked and shocking, we have no idea where it came from" describing Peter as "an angel, the reason [boy's name] attacked him was probably jealousy, we are so sorry". I personally thought the other child was mostly, if not entirely, to blame as well, as he was the one who physically assaulted Peter and the one who started it by bullying Peter verbally, so I felt no need to question the "unprovoked" status of the fight. As I was driving Peter home I asked him for the truth, at that point in our relationship he knew he could be candid with me, that I wouldn't fear him, or hurt him, or give him away. And that's when I got the full story including the original bullying by the boy and the ensuing social isolation of the boy. I asked Peter how he felt as he was being attacked if he was scared if it brought back traumatic memories. This might seem unwise, to blatantly bring up a child's past like that, but Peter had always seemed almost indifferent to his past.

"Why would I have been scared?" He asked, seeming legitimately unsure of what one might find scary about being physically attacked by a classmate.

"You were being beaten up" I explained.

"Barely, the beating was nothing. I liked it"

"You liked it, why?" I said, giving him a side eye.

"Oh don't look at me like that. I don't mean I liked being beaten up, that was annoying, I just liked what it meant"

"And what did it mean?"

"That I had won, obviously"

About a year after that, when Peter was 10, his father was unexpectedly let out of prison early due to overcrowding. This was a shock. I begged the social worker to try and find a way for Peter to stay with me, but there was nothing he could do. It was believed Peter's father had been beating Peter and Peter's mother until Peter's mother took Peter away in the middle of the night (she alleged this was to protect him from abuse from the father), she was arrested for kidnapping, child endangerment, drug use, and prostitution and ultimately sent to a mental hospital due to severe bipolar depression when Peter was six and he was sent to foster care. The father had also been arrested on unrelated charges of drug possession and auto theft. Peter's father had never been officially charged with child abuse or domestic abuse, as neither had been officially proven, so Peter was going to be sent back to that man's care.

Peter and his father moved out of state and I didn't hear anything about it until 3 years later when I was told there had been a serious complication in Peter's home life, I was the first call given my history as a guardian for Peter. Peter's father had started abusing Peter when Peter went to live with him. When Peter was 13 he set his father's shed on fire. As you may imagine this resulted in a serious yelling match and by the time the cops arrived (they were called by a neighbor who heard the screaming) Peter's father was beating the living daylights out of him. Peter's father was sent to prison where he was killed in a knife fight 2 months later. There was some concern that Peter might have to go to a juvenille correctional facility for the arson, but the judge was understanding due to the circumstances and Peter's characteristic charm, he got off on a bit of community service and everything was kept from his record. Peter came back to live with me. It was good to see him again. Even if it was heartbreaking to see him bruise covered with lash marks on his back (I should say with more lash marks on his back, he'd already had some when he was 7 from his previous foster father).

After another 6 months living with me, Peter got a girl pregnant. I found out about this when the girl's father showed up pounding on my door at 1 in the morning, absolutely livid, and probably wanting nothing more than to beat Peter up. Of course, I was not going to let this happen. He was claiming Peter had raped his daughter and gotten her pregnant that way. The daughter, who was 16, was also there, and absolutely hysteric. She was in tears begging her father to calm down, saying that everything between her and Peter was consensual. The police showing up, the father claimed that his daughter had previously stated to him in private that Peter had raped her, but was changing her story now because she was scared. The daughter denied this, saying she had never said this. The police informed the father that if he stuck by his statement he could be made to swear it under oath, and if it came about he was lying, he would be arrested for perjury, at which point he admitted he had lied and that his daughter had never said anything about rape. Apparently, he lied because since his daughter was so much older than Peter (3 years) he was worried she would be accused of wrongdoing and possibly arrested. It's absolutely sickening he would accuse an innocent 13-year-old kid of something so heinous for no reason other than he thought it might make his daughter seem more innocent.

After the domestic dispute was settled the police left. There was some awkward silence, then out of nowhere, the daughter says she wanted an abortion. Peter said he'd support whatever she wanted to do, but that he also thought this was a good idea. The father, who was Christian, seemed bothered by it, but agreed if it was what she wanted he would help provide it for her. Finally, at about 4 am, the father and daughter left, I asked Peter if he wanted to talk about what had happened. He said he did not and went to his room.

The next morning he was gone.

No note. No goodbye. Nothing. I spent the day contacting anyone I could think of. Peter didn't have any friends so I just called everyone from his class and all of his teachers I filed a missing person report but the police investigation was fruitless.

About 2 years went by without me hearing anything. Then, out of nowhere, he sent me a letter. It was vague regarding his life and what he'd been up to, but it was a rather charming and whimsical note that I now have framed on a mantle (it doesn't contain anything personal or sappy so I don't mind guests seeing it). Then, nothing else for another 3 years. Before, out of nowhere, he shows up to my youngest adopted son's high school graduation. I'm ecstatic to see him again and talk to him and so are my kids, who have also missed him a great deal. We talk him into letting us treat him to dinner (or, maybe he talked us into it, hard to know with him) and he ended up sleeping on our couch that night. He told us very little about what he'd been up to, he remained fairly secretive. He had a giant mostly healed scar on his forehead which he said he got in a motorcycle accident, though I don't know if this is the truth. He was gone before any of us woke up.

That was 7 years ago, haven't heard from him since.

I doubt he cares what I've been up to, but I think about him every day, and hope he has been well.

I don't know if he was just an extremely spoiled brat or a psychopathic child. Aishah Hannan can tell this better.

He was my student and an only son of very well-to-do parents. I used to tutor him after school. He had an extremely cold pair of eyes. I never saw a pair of eyes colder than his. There was not a single expression in his eyes. But the way he used to look at me, his gaze seemed to be piercing deep in me. Thinking about it still makes me shiver.

He used to destroy everything around where ever he was sitting in my home. He stole my internet USB and I found its broken pieces right beside my front door. He tore down my notes and I don't know what the hell was his reason behind doing it.

He used to steal my money or whatever around he finds and likes and then destroy it.

There is one thing about him, he never used to tell a lie.

Abdul Mannan you did it?


But why?

My heart asked me to do so.

That's it. No shame, no fear, nothing.

The only thing that kept me tutoring him was his good grades. He never stood second. He couldn't stand second position. Always becoming first in everything was his obsession.

But the day he broke down my USB, my mother called his mother and told her that I can't continue tutoring him. *Sigh of relief*

Athena Walker's answer to Is it possible to be diagnosed as a psychopath before the age of 25?

Anyone that does so known nothing about the brain and it's development and has no business making that diagnosis.

This is due to brain development. Psychopathy is a variant brain structure.

The brain forms back to front. The back of the brain matures first; the front finishes around the time you hit that magic number that also allows you to rent a car. Until the front of the brain finishes growing, you can see narcissistic, psychopathic, and callous behavior. None of it means anything at that age.

The last aspect to develop is also the part of the brain that deals with consequences of your actions. Without that in place, people can behave in very impulsive ways. That, as well as behavior laced with several aspects of narcissism, is just part of being young. These traits can easily be mistaken for ASPD or psychopathic traits.

This, however, means the opposite of what you assume. It means the brain of the psychopath will be psychopathic. You cannot change that; nothing fixes that. What you cannot do is determine psychopathic brains from a normal brain until both brains have completed growth.

When the brains of both are mature, that is when the differences are observable. Until that point, you can easily mistake a developing neurotypical brain or its behavior as psychopathic, as due to the lack of neural maturity, their brains can both look psychopathic in a scanner, and their behavior can appear psychopathic when it is just a child or teenager working within the wiring that they currently have.

People have made the argument that some people have fully mature brains by the they are eighteen, however this does not make psychopathy determinable at that age, or younger. For the vast majority of people their brain finishes maturing in their mid twenties.

James Fallon is a neuroscientist. In being such, he obviously has a great deal of knowledge behind the brain, its development, and when it is ready for certain actions. One that he mentions is war and when we should be sending people into battles neurologically. He makes that argument that due to the level of development of the brain in these years, the earliest that a person should be sent into war is twenty-two. In his book The Psychopath Inside that was published in 2013, he states;

Stressful stretches of a young person's life such as college, first marriage, and especially military combat couldn't come at a worse time for the developing prefrontal cortex.

This is a big deal for the armed forces. A freshman and a senior in college are very different human beings. Sending kids to war at eighteen is ridiculous, as they're still in the active state of frontal lobe development. The military uses psychological tests to make sure recruits aren't crazy, but that won't tell you how they'll be in two years. If we're going to have war, we shouldn't let soldiers fight until they're twenty-two or twenty-three.

His statement about a college freshman and senior is absolutely on point, now let's bring into the mix a child and their developmental processes. With their brains being significantly lower in development, it would be impossible to determine psychopathy in them. However trying to label them can have life long impacts. I had an excellent example of this recently in a comment thread


My brother was diagnosed as being psychopathic when he was five years old. I've no doubt that my mother's attempts to explain it to him (and the rest of the family) considerably hindered his development into a decent human being, as if being psychopathic was somehow a ticket to wilful anarchy and cruelty, ‘because he couldn't help it.'I still don't understand it (I was only a year older than him, so reliant on the information I was given, until I decided I didn't want to be around him any more), but being able to read your responses to questions on the topic really help. Thank you.

Athena Walker

Wow, whoever diagnosed him as psychopathic at five needs to have their license revoked. There is no way to make that determination in a five year old, you can't until twenty years hence, and it labels a child in the parents' minds. It's a ridiculous move on their part. That's really unfortunate for your brother.The results are partially why you never make that kind of diagnosis in a child. Unless he had a brain scan now to show that he is indeed psychopathic, assuming that he is finally twenty-five, it is far more likely that the label determined his fate. He saw no reason to try because "he's a psychopath". He's just doing what's in his nature to do in his mind. I can imagine that it is an inescapable self fulfilling prophecy.You're welcome for the writings. It's unfortunate that the reason you found them is the situation that you described.


Thank you. He's now 53, although I haven't seen him for about twenty years (safer that way). I think you're right - it was indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if this exchange helps even one family to think more deeply or differently about such diagnoses / issues affecting them, that's something good to come out of it.

Athena Walker

That would be an excellent outcome, I agree

This is a prime example of an entire family being affected by this diagnosis. What did that ultimately determine? That he was psychopathic? No one knows, but it certainly gave him the ability to decide that he didn't need to require of himself. He could behave however he wanted because he was a psychopath. The chances that a child is psychopathic is less than one percent. However, labeling a child with that sort of diagnosis is pretty much is limiting a child to assumptions.

A child that is psychopathic can be helped in terms of understanding the world and their interaction with it, but the label of psychopathy is not necessary to do this, and if anything it is harmful to the development of the mental faculties of that child.

A cooperative project at MIT is dedicated to examining the brains of young people and their development, the link can be found below. It is a project with over five hundred reference materials, and is being conducted by one of the most respected and advanced universities in the world. They state the following;

Responding to increasing awareness and concerns, the MIT Young Adult Development Project was created in 2005 to analyze, distill, and disseminate key findings about young adult development, findings that shed light on the unique strengths and dramatic challenges for this extraordinary period.

Defining young adulthood as the years between 18 and 25, the project focused on identifying research conclusions about which there is widespread agreement across disciplines and researchers, as well as practical relevance for universities, employers, parents, human service practitioners, and young adults themselves.

Their determination thus far;

  • Prefrontal cortex: The most widely studied changes in young adulthood are in the prefrontal cortex, the area behind the forehead associated with planning, problem-solving, and related tasks. At least two things affect the efficiency in its functioning:myelination: the nerve fibers are more extensively covered with myelin, a substance that insulates them so that signals can be transmitted more efficiently, andsynaptic pruning: the "briar patch" of connections resulting from nerve growth are pruned back, allowing the remaining ones to transmit signals more efficiently.
  • Connections among regions: At the same time, the prefrontal cortex communicates more fully and effectively with other parts of the brain, including those that are particularly associated with emotion and impulses, so that all areas of the brain can be better involved in planning and problem-solving.
  • "Executive suite": The cluster of functions that center in the prefrontal cortex is sometimes called the "executive suite," including calibration of risk and reward, problem-solving, prioritizing, thinking ahead, self-evaluation, long-term planning, and regulation of emotion. (See Merlin Donald, Daniel Keating, and others in References.) It is not that these tasks cannot be done before young adulthood, but rather that it takes less effort, and hence is more likely to happen.

20s and beyond
According to recent findings, the human brain does not reach full maturity until at least the mid-20s. (See J. Giedd in References.) The specific changes that follow young adulthood are not yet well studied, but it is known that they involve increased myelination and continued adding and pruning of neurons. As a number of researchers have put it, "the rental car companies have it right." The brain isn't fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car.

This is why psychopathy is never determined in children, and why it also should not be determined until after that person's brain is fully mature, This will not happen until that person is in their mid twenties on average. Thus diagnosis of psychopathy (which is not actually diagnosed anyway) can not be made in children. It would be wildly inappropriate to do so.

Athena Walker's answer to If a person is born a Psychopath then why do doctors say they cannot diagnose a Psychopath until adulthood?

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain: James Fallon: 9781591846000: Amazon.com: Books

Young Adult Development Project

Athena Walker's answer to Why is autism diagnosed in children but not psychopathy when so many behaviours are similar/can be observed in childhood?

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