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What do you do with a child psychopath?

May 30, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
What do you do with a kid who might grow up to be the next Jeffrey Dahmer? The New York Times has an interesting story this month about a 9-year-old boy named Michael in Florida whose mother thinks he will either grow up to be a killer or a Nobel Prize winner.

According to his parents, the boy goes into intense rages that last for hours and then has periods of chilly detachment; holds long grudges and makes threats against his younger brothers, is highly manipulative and was able to con the therapist they took him to. His parents have taken him to specialist after specialist and gotten multiple diagnoses of problems such as depression, ADHD, OCD or conduct disorder, but none seem to stick. This is a child they say seems incapable of empathy and doesn't feel anything when he is punished. A psychologist tested him last spring and said he scores on the severe end of a spectrum of kids with "callous-unemotional" traits.

The parents enrolled Michael in an experimental summer treatment program for children who are at high risk for becoming psychopaths as adults. These are the kids who torture animals for fun or kill a sibling to see how it feels. Brain scans show their brains are structured differently and they are less likely to feel fear. Counselors hope to they will be able to develop treatments that will rewire these kids' brains so they are more able to feel empathy. Others hope they can teach morality to the kids like other kids learn table manners.

The summer program didn't seem to help Michael or any of the 12 kids in the program, according to the Times. They were manipulative with their teachers and fellow students, good at holding long grudges and flying into rages and making physical attacks. The kids came up with a code word to use to unleash mayhem. When one kid shouted the code word, it was the signal for all of the children to run away from the teacher in opposite directions. They failed to respond to a reward system or to the threat of punishment. The counselors hope to have more success with a program this summer.

I strongly believe that the justice system must treat juveniles differently than adults who commit the same crimes and that treatment is usually better than punishment, but this story has me shaking my head. What do you do to keep a kid like Michael from growing up to commit murder? How should he be punished if he does?

Michael's parents sound exhausted and terrified of their child. Society will have reason to fear him too in a few years if counselors aren't able to come up with an effective treatment. I can only wish them luck.


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