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A recent thread from the Dr. Robert Forum:

Dear Dr. Robert,

My son, who is a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday, seems to fit perfectly into the category of a sociopath. I have been suspicious of this for the past three or four years but as one of the diagnostic criteria is age over 18, and another is conduct disorder diagnosed by the age of 15, and his therapist, emergency room docs, and psychiatrist have only diagnosed him with "mood disorder NOS" and "PTSD" I am feeling a little confused.

Since the age of three, several months after I gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, my son has had incredible bouts of rage. My then husband (his stepfather) and I dismissed this as classic toddler behavior. He has had an off-again/on again relationship with his biological father, who was in college when he was born and I guess what one would call a Type B personality. After several years of an unsuccessful marriage, my husand and I divorced and became involved in a very contentious divorce and custody battle due to my husband's drinking and violence. My son was a witness to only one incident of this domestic violence pre-divorce but became a victim of it himself after the court awarded joint custody. This was discovered after about three years post divorce. After several years of joint custody, I was awarded sole custody after our family therapist was threatened physically by my ex-husband. This was two years ago. It has been a total of 8 years since the divorce.

My son has always been verbally and physically threatening to the twins, and since my SO and his son have moved in with us in 2009 things have gotten worse. It has always been easier to allow my son what he wants, while the twins and additional child are happy and eager to please us. He uses incredibly foul language with the smaller kids, and shows no conscience/remorse/guilt/compassion/empathy/passion for anything unless it benefits or serves him in some manner. He will lavish tiny amounts of praise/affection on the younger children sporadically, but then brutalizes them either verbally or physically for no obvious reason. He also takes his siblings favorite or prized possessions and rubs them inside his pants then hands them back to his horrified brother and sister. He treats our family pets with what seems like tenderness and love but this is always when other people are watching. No punishments or praise seem to affect him, he continually identifies himself with "bad news" children or befriends and seeks out the antisocial/misbehaving children in his social circle, but never seems to really get into "terrible" trouble. His IQ was assessed this week by school at 126 and his grades are everywhere. When I questioned him how he was maintaining A's in his homework assignments (that we NEVER see him do) but getting F's on his quizzes, suggesting to him that his grades looked like those of a child who was cheating or copying, his rage was impressive. He was then caught cheating in this exact manner by his guidance counselor and he vehemently denied it. She was labelled as "stupid, and several other four-letter words." He seems fake most of the time and is really obviously only concerned with his own feelings, and is unable to process others feelings or care for them.

I should mention that when my SO moved in with us two years ago, we decided to seek out therapy for my son because he made several disturbing comments to my SO. "I will stab you in your sleep" and "I hope you die in a fire" and such. My SO is a firefighter so that is a concievable concern within the family.

With regard to the glibness and superficial charm- despite the ridiculous and seemingly insignificant rages my son has over the tiniest of what he percieves as infractions (having to deal with our "stupidity", his brother and sister's "being retards" etc and our basic inability to please him and respond to 100% of his wishes, desires, and demands)he can be the most charming, loveable adorable child. As long as you "buy" into what he is selling.

He once called an ER doc that suggested he may need "inpatient" hospitalization an "effing tool" and a "moron".

He lies constantly and with no apology even when he is caught in the most blatant of falsehoods.

He announces to everyone that he plans to attend "Yale" but has no solid idea of how that is going to happen. He sincerely believes that he is more intelligent than those around him, including his family, friends, and teachers. He is very capable of manipulating therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

We are at a point where we feel hopeless to find real help, we feel like no one believes us, and we don't know if we are imagining all this or if it's possible he could truly be this disturbed at such a young age. We were watching a program describing the psychopathy of Caligula and one of our ten year olds remarked that it sounded exactly like her older brother. Is it possible? I should mention several years ago when I was doing some research about Oppositional/Defiant Disorder and Intermittent Explosive Disorder due to suggestions by his counselors I felt that he fit far more into the anti-social personality description than either of those as he truly seems to be able to "control" most of his explosions and deviant behavior.

Please Advise if you can. Thank You.

Sifter replied with this:

I'm far from qualified to answer this - I'm not a parent or a sociopath or a professional - but a couple of things strike me in your letter. 

One is that you are looking quite urgently for a diagnosis. I can understand why - it would sort of settle the question of who is responsible for all of this, and maybe give you a rest from having to try, try and try to affect his behavior when you are probably quite exhausted (and possibly also a rest from feeling guilty). But I wonder whether a diagnosis is really going to give you more power - especially a diagnosis for which there is no treatment. If you can forgive me a pretty harsh speculation, it seems to me like it might actually allow you to give up on your child as your child, someone you can reach, and make him instead into a type, that you don't have any chance with. If you can find a way to recharge your internal batteries instead, perhaps you don't need to give up on him. I don't know what you would need to do to recharge, but I would suggest that making genuine peace with yourself over any guilt you have would be a necessary part of it.

The other thing that strikes me is that you and your family give him an awful lot of power. The kids being horrified by his cheap trick with their toys, you feeling upset by his 'I hope you die in a fire' comment etc. At some point you've allowed him to convince you all to be frightened by him, and all he needs to do is silly tantrum stuff to induce that fear. I'm not saying silly tantrum stuff is all he does, but - I've said this before - you want to choose your battles.

I'd say it's very destabilizing for a child to find they are able to scare their parents. Obviously it's not the only thing going on with him, but maybe it's a factor. Maybe given what you went through with your ex, it's a button your son found he could push way too early. It's possible you still have a small window left in which you and your husband are able to really be his parents. To do that you have to find a way to be grounded and unafraid of him. You have to be able to calm yourself and rationalise with yourself when he's trying to freak you out. And you have to find a way to listen to him and try, slowly, to understand who he really is, and who he sees himself as, as a person, not a diagnosis. By the way, if you were still suffering from PTSD, Complex-PTSD or other ill effects of your violent marriage, that would make it very much harder to deal with your son acting out, and would be worth checking out.

WorriedMom replied with this:

Thank you for your reply. You are 100% right with everything you said. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with my own guilt, and with respects to the giving up part, it's more about really KNOWING where I should go from here. As I said we have three other children and they have been (for lack of a better term) counted on to not be difficult because the oldest takes up 80% of our time, literally and figuratively. We are searching for new therapies and services for his because we have been trying to balance our time as suggested by our famly therapist. I am still trying to deal with my own feelings/PTSD surrounding my marriage and during one episode several years ago realized that my response to my son's threatening behavior was to become submissive, which mirrored the role I took when being battered. Last week, the child fabricated a story about my SO to entice his paternal aunt to come and pick him up at our house. Apparently he has been trying to solicit from them an offer of an alternative place to live. ((I should mention it's in the same house as his abuser). When she arrived, he lied to her in front of our other son, who told us immediately what he was "up" to. Needless to say, as a result of his actions, she called the authorities, school, etc. and reported what he told her. Things were quickly worked out but it was a loud message to his fmaily and parents that he will do WHATEVER is needed to get what he wants. He was not apologetic, and didn't seem to even care what he had done. My SO is truly the one who has given us all the courage to stand up to my son, and for me to not cower to him when he is outrageously behaved, and that's why I suspect my son has gone after him so vehemently. Because we have been "working" on that fear element in therapy , we seem to be pushing him out of our ranks, so to speak. As the five of us get healthier and more bonded, he seems to fight and try harder to destroy. 

I do need a break, and I'm NOT really desperate for a diagnosis. I just want to know if it's possible for someone to be this way at his young age. I also want to salvage as much of my children's childhood as I can, and don't quite know how to do this if we are still in an abusive situation. So basically, I am hoping to be able to begin to meet some of the more than basic needs of the other children by finding some better balance of effort. I also feel terribly guilty that my son is abusive towards his siblings so much so that it is noticed by my family, as well as close family friends and I wrote it off for so many years as "sibling rivalry" instead of intervening more.

Sifter, thank you for your insights. I now have a few things to work on that no one had suggested yet. I really appreciate your words.


Sifter replied with this:

You're welcome, K. I want to say a couple more things, but again ask you to bear in mind that these are very much layperson's opinions - and also, I'm not there in your family, and you are. 

I'd say the impulse in you to identify your son with his father is probably very powerful - not through any fault of your own, but because that's how the brain works when it's traumatised. It scans for the threat and anything like the threat and it acts to *get you away from the threat*. 

But the thing is, your son is *not* his father, and couldn't be if he tried. You know that saying - you can't step in the same river twice? He and his father are different people. I think part of your job as his mom is to heal the trauma in you, while learning to know and understand your son as himself - someone affected by his father, but *not* his father. This is a job he has to do too, and you can be his ally in that. 

I know you want and need to rebalance your family, get some boundaries around your 12 yr old, and take care of your other kids too. That would be healthy for everyone. I'd say it's worth shooting for doing that *while keeping him in the family unit and bonding with him too*. So noticing that you seem to be pushing him out of the ranks is important information. 

How do you do that? Using the latest incident as an example - what was he after as he reached out to his aunt's family? What does he get there? Is he wanting to be close to his dad? I know he's really hard to communicate with, but this is an opportunity to find out about him, get to know him. If you can, find a space where you can just listen to him - forget for a little while the tricks he used to get what he wants, forget for a little while trying to change his behaviour and educate him about acting right or being respectful - and just see if you can get to the deeper message he's sending out here, about what he's seeking. Don't go submissive, don't think of it as a power play. Just centre yourself and listen to the deeper person. 

Good luck - I know it's not easy.

dr-robert replied with this:

Hello, WorriedMom—

I understand that your son's behavior presents serious problems for you and the others in your family. It is a psychological truism that the sickest person in the family always becomes a center of attention, and usually ends up controlling the others in one way or another. But this is not just a matter of inconvenience or unpleasantness. Many of the details you have supplied suggest that your son is seriously troubled and needs more help than he has been getting. 

You ask if, "he could truly be this disturbed at such a young age." The answer is yes. The children who grow up to be anti-social or psychopathic adults often begin showing the signs at a very young age—three, four, five years old. Judging from what you have written, your son displays some signs of incipient sociopathy. This is not a diagnosis, as I have not even met your son, and have only your short letter as a basis for understanding anything. But part of your reason for writing to me is your suspicion that your boy might be more seriously troubled than any authority has so far confirmed, and so I feel compelled to respond that this may be true.

Now I like Sifter's take on this. Either your son is sociopathic or he isn't, but either way, he is still your child and still needs your help. If he turns out to be a psychopathic adult, there is nothing much you can do about that, but while he is still your child, living in your home, and under your control (legally, at least), I suggest the following:

1. Create a system of very strict rules about his behavior. The rules must be clear, unequivocable, inflexible, and uncompromisingly enforced. The rules should require precisely the kind of comportment expected of a "normal" child. Violation of any of the rules will result in punishment such as losing privileges (TV, computer, permission to leave his room, whatever). If those punishments fail to change behavior, you will need to escalate them.

2. When his actions remain within the rules, reward him in one way or another. Praise is always good, and material rewards can help too. The idea here is to teach him that threats and bad behavior result in loss for him, and decent behavior results in gain.

3. Find a psychotherapist who is willing and able to work with him, and be sure that he attends those sessions whether he likes it or not. No attending is a rules violation.

If you cannot do these three things, then the ER guy was right: your son will need to be treated in a controlled environment. Simply letting him run wild, or allowing him to continue to dominate you and his siblings is not a option.

Sifter also was correct in saying that you must try to relieve yourself of any guilt for your son's situation. I understand from your account that your life has been unsettled, and that the boy's father is not much of a man, but all of that is water under the bridge. You must forget that now, and simply try to deal with things as they are. If you need help with this, you should find some therapy for yourself as well.

Sorry that I cannot be more helpful, but this kind of thing is difficult, particularly at a distance. I have taken the time to reply because I hear your desperation, and want to offer some support, however minimal.

Be well.


Dear Sifter and Dr. Robert-
Thank you so much. I feel a little rejuvenated by what you have suggested and especially for taking the time to break things down for me. It's often hard for me to seperate myself and look objectively at this situation, trying to remove the guilt and the love and just SEE what an outsider would see. Also though, it helps to be HEARD and not feel guilty for actually voicing these fears I have. You have both given me a great deal of information and helpful suggestions that I will be putting into practice. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But if I can stop showing fear and submission, (which I suspect actually disgusts my son) then I may be able to work on becoming the mother he needs. Thank you very very much.

dr-robert replied with this:

You are most welcome, and I wish you best of luck with this difficult project.

It was always my intention to create an environment in which people like Sifter could share their experience and insight with those who ask for advice or clarification. I am happy to see that my intention is being realized, and that the Forum is working as it should. I invite all of you to share this with friends so that this conscious community may grow and prosper.

Be well.

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page last modified November 16, 2010

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