In pop culture, psychopaths are portrayed pretty much all the same, Dexter-style. Psychopathy is more complicated than a TV character, of course, but it's still hard to know how many kids are diagnosed psychopaths. Because technically they can't be. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) V, to be psychopathic, a patient has to have a pattern of impulsivity, violating the rights of others, a lack of remorse, and deceitfulness. It's hard for a 2-year-old to have intense patterns like those — they can't even go to the bathroom by themselves yet.
But researchers do think that they can spot signs of possible psychopathy early on an predict manipulative and "unemotional" behavior. In 2015, a study revealed that chilren can be diagnosed as psychopaths as early as 3-years-old. Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia studied 214 girls and boys in preschools to monitor callous and unemotional traits, which are indicative of psychopathy. They found that, judging by the children's responses to various facial expressions, some kids were "less engaged by images of others in distress when co-occurring conduct problems presented."
There is another study that found that it's possible to note psychopathic tendencies in babies as young as 5 weeks old. The researchers in this 2015 study published in Biological Psychiatry looked for the same callous and unemotional traits by showing babies a red ball and a human face. Those more interested in the ball than the face was assumed to be showing more psychopathic tendencies.
It's not a perfect science, but there is research that indicates early signs like these facial expressions and responses indicate more problems later on in life. Dr. Rachael Bedford, a psychologist at King’s College London and the study’s lead author said, “Callous unemotional behaviors in children are known to be associated with an increased emotional burden on families as well as later criminality and antisocial behavior."
Still though, it's hard to say that a child is a psychopath, since it's all about patterns. So what can parents do if they think they're child is showing any callous or unemotional behavior? Counseling is always the safe bet, but even then, some experts believe that counseling can have a negative impact on the child — if a parent is eyeing their child suspiciously all the time and taking them to see a therapist, it could hurt more than help, according to Tiffany McLain, M.S of Psychology Today.
So take note: any professional who tries to diagnosis a child as a psychopath is jumping to a lot of conclusions. When it comes to children and psychopathy, it appears that it's mostly just assumptions.