It’s painful to see anyone, let alone our child or teenager, show characteristics of a manipulative person, a lack of empathy, uncontrollable or disrespectful behavior. With all the talk in the press about sociopaths and psychopaths who demonstrate these signs, it’s natural to wonder, “Am I raising a child sociopath?” To understand the difference between a normal adolescent and a budding child sociopath, we need to first fully understand how one becomes a sociopath. (The term sociopath and psychopath are used interchangeably so for simplicity, I will henceforth use the word sociopath).
To start, the main point to understand how one becomes a sociopath is that they can not tolerate healthy relationships. What do I mean by that? Healthy people in healthy relationships move fluidly between closeness and distance. Think about your relationship with a good friend. You get together and feel close and then separate for some period of time before getting close again. The healthy relationships move in and out of these states with little to no drama. Sociopaths, however can not tolerate prolonged closeness or distance. To them, closeness feels like being taken over and distance feels like abandonment. So what do they do? They stay smack dab in the middle. They will never get too close or too far from anyone.
Secondly, it’s important to understand a child psychopath doesn’t just appear, they evolve over the course of childhood. Studies show that most sociopaths were terribly mistreated for prolonged periods. Typically, a parent was too invasive (extremely controlling or physically/sexually abusive) and/or neglectful (leaving a very young child to fend for himself for prolonged periods). The child grows up thinking closeness and distancing causes pain, not that a damaged parent caused the pain. It’s much less threatening for a child to think an abstract concept like closeness and distancing is the problem, as opposed to the parent whom they love and depend on. So they wrongly conclude they can never get too close or too far from anyone.
Thirdly, to understand how one becomes a sociopath, let’s talk about how sociopaths keep from getting too close or too far from people. Healthy people set appropriate boundaries for distancing and verbally open up for closeness. The sociopath use lying and manipulation to create distance and charm, good deeds and charisma to create closeness. This continues in an endless, unconscious fashion.
As a simple example, if you ask a sociopath what they had for breakfast they might lie and say they had the same as you. In doing this, they are establishing closeness. “We like the same things!” But the lie puts keeps it from being true closeness. She’s only appearing to gain closeness verbally, the lie, the secret, gives her distance without losing you completely. Along the same lines, if you do kind things for a sociopath, they might steal something from you. While they receive your kindness (closeness) the theft give them a secret and thus distance, much like the lie in the previous example.
We’ve all seen sociopaths in action. The couples who get together and break up repeatedly or those who marry and divorce multiple times with all the drama often are made up of at least one sociopath. It might seem on the surface that their behavior is nonsensical, why would someone keep getting back together with someone who mistreated them or lie about their breakfast? When you realize they are always trying to stay in the middle, not too close and not too far, it makes more sense.
Teenage lying and manipulation and other disrespectful behavior can be normal and not a sign they are becoming a child sociopath. While sociopaths are engaging in this behavior to protect themselves, teenagers are engaging in this behavior to separate from you, their parents. Just like their milestone at age one was to walk, their milestone in adolescence is to separate from you. And also like walking, they have to practice separating to master it, this involves a lot of pushing you away, and getting close again, ie drama. Here are three key differences between the normal teenager and the child psychopath and sociopath.
1- The teenage lying and manipulation mainly occurs with his parents. The child sociopath, however, mostly engages in this behavior with everyone but his parents because he is too terrified of them and doesn’t trust them. In fact budding sociopaths often appear “too good” in adolescence because they have already become adept at finding the middle zone.
2. The healthy teen will have longstanding friends and/or interests, but sociopaths flit from friend to friend and interest to interest. Child sociopaths find the middle zone by avoiding prolonged exposure to anyone and avoid distance by having superficial and fleeting relationships.
3. The healthy teen practices separation between middle school and college. Once their identity forms by age 20 or so, the lying and manipulation starts dissipating. On the other hand, the sociopath’s lying, manipulative and disrespectful behavior doesn’t dissipate, if anything it worsens as they leave their parents and try to navigate the world and all the new relationships.
So, how can you avoid raising a sociopath? Remember, sociopathic behavior stems from abusive behavior, including neglect. Of course, physically and sexually abusive behavior is known to be damaging to a developing child but many people don’t realize that neglect is a form of abuse. Also, mistreatment can come from other sources such as an extended family member, babysitter or neighbor. Vetting anyone who cares for your child is extremely important .
There are more subtle ways to create a safe environment for your teenager to practice their separating milestone. It starts with you deciding what forms of separation you can tolerate and what you can’t. For example, it didn’t bother me when my boys stomped up the stairs or missed curfew by a few minutes, but eye rolling drove me nuts! I let the “small” things go which gave them a sense it was okay/safe to practice their separation with me. But since the eye rolling was very irritating to me, I had to be honest and let them know. To punish or ignore something that bothers you is creating an unsafe environment for the teen/young adult. In this case, talking about it makes it safe and gives them a template to use for their future relationships. Think about it. Do you want your teen to one day ground their wife for a week without her phone if she rolls her eyes? Or do you want him to talk to her in a reasonable calm fashion about behavior that annoys him. Of course you chose the latter! You have to demonstrate the latter for him to learn it.
So instead of punishing or ignoring, talk to your child. I recommend the template: I feel x when you do y. An example: I’m not sure you’re aware of this but it really irritates me when you roll your eyes when I talk to you. The message I get is that you don’t respect what I’m saying and if we don’t both respect each other’s viewpoints, it’s going to hurt our relationship. Do you think you could try and control that? Another key point to this is being open to their irritations. Maybe your sighing when they talk creates the same annoyance within them. The goal standard you’re aiming for is to respect each others’ viewpoint and come up with a compromise, such as you would do with a friend or co-worker.
The main points to remember here is that lying, manipulative and disrespectful behavior in your teenager can be a GOOD thing! You’ve given them the impression that your household is a safe place for them to practice separating from you. Don’t punish or ignore your teen’s behavior that consistently annoys you. Instead, talk to them about these things in the constructive, I feel x when you do y pattern, let the rest go, and realize the separation will eventually lead them to a whole new adult-adult relationship down the road and not a sociopath.
If you have any problems or troubles, give me a call at (757)340-8800.