Are psychopaths born or made that way through childhood experiences?
We’ve all heard the stories of the tragic childhoods of some of the worst criminal monsters out there. Charles Manson was the son of a teen prostitute who had to turn little Charlie over to relatives while she served a prison term for robbery. She also once tried to trade him to a diner waitress for a pitcher of beer.
But was young Kathleen Maddox responsible for how her son turned out? Or was he doomed from birth to become the most infamous criminal of the 20th century?
According to a new study, two “extreme” parenting styles have been linked to children becoming criminal psychopaths in later life. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology interviewed high-security prisoners and found many have a history of either total parental neglect or highly controlling parents.
A psychopath is a person who suffers from a chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior. They are defined by their lack of empathy and have a tendency to manipulate people without any guilt. The research also found that the criminal psychopaths studied had a history of physical and/or psychological abuse during childhood.
Dr. Aina Gullhaugen, the author of the study, commented: “Without exception, these people have been injured in the company of their caregivers. And many of the descriptions made it clear that their later ruthlessness was an attempt to address this damage, but in an inappropriate or bad way.”
She explained that, “If you think of a scale of parental care that goes from nothing, the absence of care, all the way to the totally obsessive parent, most parents are in the middle.” However, she said that more than half of the psychopaths she has studied said that they had been exposed to parenting styles that fell on either extreme end of the spectrum.
In these cases, the psychopaths’ parents either exerted total control and expected the children to be submissive — or neglected their kids completely.
Gullhaugen pointed out that parents cannot be blamed for the actions of their children in adulthood. And of course, there are many children who experience these parenting styles that do not go on to commit crime or become psychopaths. But she said that, “we do not inherit everything either.” This also does not explain the children who grow up in loving homes, but display the callous and unemotional traits that can be a precursor to becoming a psychopath.
Experts do not label children as psychopaths, instead preferring to describe their troubling behaviors including a lack of empathy, shallow emotions, and cruelty. Researchers believe that nearly one percent of children exhibit these traits, about as many as have autism or bipolar disorder.
In the past, large studies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have come to seemingly the opposite conclusion, and found that these troubling early-onset behaviors are “highly hereditary — and hardwired in the brain,” according to The Atlantic.