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Thursday, 26 July 2012

Kevin and callous-unemotional children

On 30/3/2012 in the entry "2 films and 2 books" I wrote about "We Need To Talk About Kevin", a film I'd watched a few days earlier.

"... It's quite a painful and thought-provoking film, with some haunting scenes, and after watching it last Friday I still think a little about it, but my feeling now, after about 1 week, is different from how I felt that day. As you've probably known, I'm fed up with films and books about serial killers whose brutal and inhumane acts are simply explained, or decoded, by traumatic events in their childhood..."

"... I don't really like the creation of the character Kevin. It sounds simple. Why does he become a murderer? Because he has always been like that, evil, since birth? Isn't that boring? He has always had an instinctual aversion to his mother, which has no apparent reason, but is a reason for his acts. It develops over time. I of course like the message of the film that the parents should have talked about it and come to a solution before it's too late, because his inhumanity develops over time, because it's so often in real life that people just postpone important things and directly or indirectly cause something that should have been stopped, or changed, for a long time. But it's predictable..."

After 4 months, I've changed my mind.


A rather long but very interesting piece.

1st we have to start with callous-unemotional traits: "Callous and unemotional (CU) traits are distinguished by a persistent pattern of behavior that reflects a disregard for others, a lack of empathy and generally deficient affect. The interplay between genetic and environmental risk factors may play a role in the expression of these traits as a conduct disorder (CD)." (wiki)

It must be clarified right from the beginning that those are traits. There are various levels, and having some callous-unemotional traits doesn't mean a child is a callous-unemotional child. (Just like we all have various levels of selfishness but not everybody is called a selfish person).

"Children with CU traits have distinct problems in emotional and behavioral regulation that distinguish them from other antisocial youth and show more similarity to characteristics found in adult psychopathy. Young adolescents with higher levels of CU traits were more likely to engage in direct and indirect forms of bullying. In general, children or adolescents with CU traits exhibit more severe and instrumental displays of aggression than individuals with non CU conduct disorder." (wiki)

Children and adolescents with callous-unemotional traits up to a certain level can be described as aggressive, insensitive, sadistic, who might inflict pain upon weaker kids or animals and enjoy it, for instance, but beyond it, they are more unlikely to change and have the potential to develop into psychopaths.

"Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial charm, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, nonplanfulness, impulsivity, and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality." (wiki)

"The concept of psychopathy should be distinguished from the DSM-IV concept of antisocial personality disorder. While diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder is heavily dependent on a record of criminal behavior, psychopathy is more geared to the actual personality traits associated with criminal behavior. Such traits include callousness, superficial and shallow emotion, lack of empathy, irresponsibility, lack of remorse or guilt about harming others, and the tendency to exploit, manipulate and engage in predatory behavior towards others. Psychopathic prisoners commit more serious and violent crimes than non-psychopathic prisoners. They are also more likely to recidivate (commit another crime) after they are released from prison. Moreover, psychopaths are more likely to commit premeditated rather than impulsive crimes. In Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter's 2002 study of 125 prisoners convicted of homicide, the 34 psychopathic prisoners were much more likely than the 91 non-psychopathic prisoners to have committed premeditated murders (93.3% vs. 48.4%)." (Psychology Today)

"The diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder focuses primarily on observable or documented long-standing patterns of behavior such as disregard for social norms, lying, impulsivity, irresponsibility, recklessness, cruelty, violence, law-breaking, lack of guilt or remorse, etc. Psychopathy or Dissocial Personality Disorder emphasize somewhat more subjective, qualitative and inferred traits like lack of caring or empathy, easily formed but superficial interpersonal attachments, low tolerance for frustration, chronically irritable mood, absence of conscience, failure to learn from negative consequences, and defensive projection of blame onto others." (Psychology Today)

Note: "The knee-jerk reaction of calling all violent offenders "psychopaths" is inaccurate, irresponsible, misleading and unethical. According to the Handbook of (Forensic) Psychology (2003), "there are many ways that someone can be at high risk for violence that are unrelated to psychopathy.. . . This is especially true," it continues, in cases of "spousal assault, stalking and sexual violence, where violence may be related more to disturbances of normal attachment processes rather than the pathological lack of attachment associated with psychopathy." Indeed, there are a multitude of mental disorders associated with violent behavior, including substance abuse or dependence, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders, narcissistic and paranoid personality disorder, and psychotic disorders. Violent behavior is multi-determined, and cannot be simplistically reduced to or conveniently explained away by glibly dismissing all such offenders as "psychopaths."" (Psychology Today)

Of course, "The idea that a young child could have psychopathic tendencies remains controversial among psychologists. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has argued that psychopathy, like other personality disorders, is almost impossible to diagnose accurately in children, or even in teenagers — both because their brains are still developing and because normal behavior at these ages can be misinterpreted as psychopathic. Others fear that even if such a diagnosis can be made accurately, the social cost of branding a young child a psychopath is simply too high."

But, "The benefits of successful treatment could be enormous. Psychopaths are estimated to make up 1 percent of the population but constitute roughly 15 to 25 percent of the offenders in prison and are responsible for a disproportionate number of brutal crimes and murders."

In this article, 1 man says "This is uncharted territory. People are worried about labeling, but if we can identify these kids, at least we have a chance to help them. And if we miss that chance, we might not get another one." 

Callous-unemotional children here are defined as "those who exhibit a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy — and who are considered at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults".

As written before, there's a difference between callous-unemotional children and children with callous-unemotional traits, which is clarified here:

"Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number of psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5. Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits, which most researchers now believe distinguish “fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder, who are also impulsive and hard to control and exhibit hostile or violent behavior. According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits."

"Most kids, if you catch them stealing a cookie from the jar before dinner, they’ll look guilty. They want the cookie, but they also feel bad. Even kids with severe A.D.H.D.: they may have poor impulse control, but they still feel bad when they realize that their mom is mad at them. Callous-unemotional children are unrepentant. They don’t care if someone is mad at them. They don’t care if they hurt someone’s feelings. Like adult psychopaths, they can seem to lack humanity."
"They’re not like A.D.H.D. kids who just act impulsively. And they’re not like conduct-disorder kids, who are like: ‘Screw you and your game! Whatever you tell me, I’m going to do the opposite.’ The C.U. kids are capable of following the rules very carefully. They just use them to their advantage." Or "Hot-blooded kids tend to act out very impulsively... Coldblooded, callous-unemotional children, by contrast, are capable of being impulsive, but their misbehavior more often seems calculated. Instead of someone who can’t sit still, you get a person who may be hostile when provoked but who also has this ability to be very cold. The attitude is, ‘Let’s see how I can use this situation to my advantage, no matter who gets hurt from that.’"

In short, their behaviour is "a mix of impulsivity, aggression, manipulativeness and defiance", among which the most significant is manipulativeness- they say what they know should be said and create a healthy, ordinary image of themselves to make people (who are not very observant) think that their parents have imagined/ exaggerated, or to convince psychologists that they've improved.

"In another study, the researcher Mark Dadds found that as C.U. children matured, they developed the ability to simulate interest in people’s feelings. They have no emotional empathy, but they have cognitive empathy; they can say what other people feel, they just don’t care or feel it."

So, such children do exist. Kevin perfectly fits the descriptions of callous-unemotional children:

- Defiance: resists toilet training; thought to be slow, dim-witted or hearing-impaired because he refuses to throw the ball back at his mother or count numbers albeit remarkably intelligent and perfectly capable of understanding the demands; continues to masturbate when caught by his mother, and glares at her defiantly. 

- Aggression: gets angry at times and might also be the one who does harm to his sister, though it isn't very clear. 

- Constantly full of contempt and hatred for his mother for no particular reason, in spite of her attempt to get close to him. 

- Possible sadism: as already said it's no more than suspicion and isn't revealed in the film, if it's true that he's the one causing his sister's blindness, he seems to take pleasure in hurting others. 

- Calculated calmness: terrifyingly calm in a calculated way. Talks in an icy cold tone. 

- Manipulativeness: appears healthy, ordinary and perfectly OK and reveals his true nature to his mother solely; touches the bandaged arm or the scar and looks intently making his mother follow his wishes; makes his father think of him as totally harmless. 

- No indication of empathy and humanity since a very young age. No indication of love for any particular individual. Later, kills father and sister. The person for whom he has some feelings is his mother, but it's complicated, ambivalent, hard to express in words.

And Kevin does officially become a psychopath. 

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