In my work with parents and children, there is one theme that creates the most anxiety: how likely is it that my child will inherit the abusive personality traits of the father? Worried moms observing aggressive behaviors, similar personality traits to a psychopathic ex-partner, or lack of empathy in their child will tentatively ask this question.
Moms who have left relationships due to abuse, violence, or other criminal behaviors in their partner fear these behaviors when they witness them in their child. In fact, any negatively-viewed behavior that’s similar to the child’s father is often a source of anxiety for these mothers. Sometimes the mother’s own trauma is triggered by their child’s developmentally normal behavior.
As children develop, they can be aggressive. They can hit, kick, bite, pinch, growl, and slap. Even if they’ve never observed violence or been punished physically, children can have volatile anger that they have difficulty self-regulating.
Equally, empathy takes time to develop in children. Humans develop empathy over time. For moms who’ve had an abusive partner with strong psychopathic tendencies, observing heartless or cruel behaviors in their kids younger than five years old can be very worrying. This fear is usually strongest if the child is a boy. Sometimes this fear leads to harsh punishments when a child lacks empathy or behaves aggressively.
As parents, we often place a lot of emphasis on genes as we look for similarities to our families in our children, but how much do genes play a role in psychopathy? Although genes have been found to play a role, no one factor has been pinpointed as the cause of psychopathy.
Parenting style and environment also play a role and can weaken the genetic risk. Researchers of these gene studies, such as the Minnesota twin study that’s often cited to explain the genetic influence, continue to emphasize the role of parenting and environment.
”The message for parents is not that it does not matter how they treat their children, but that it is a big mistake to treat all kids the same,” said Dr. Lykken. ”To guide and shape a child you have to respect his individuality, adapt to it, and cultivate those qualities that will help him in life.”
This means parents should not give up hope and instead parent the child that they have. A 2015 study of 780 twin pairs demonstrated the importance of the environment and parenting we provide for children with a genetic risk for psychopathy. This research has shown that life experiences during the infant and teen period can make all the difference to whether a child becomes a psychopath.
How to help prevent the development of antisocial traits in our children
By soothing our baby, we provide the first steps towards healthy emotional development. When we comfort our baby, we help him learn to soothe himself and, over time, to soothe others. The love and care you give your child together with talking about his feelings teaches him these skills as he grows. Bruce Perry’s beautiful book “Born for Love” explores this further.
As part of nurturing care, I urge mothers to notice the ways in which their child is different from their ex-partner instead of focusing on similarities. Focusing on what’s the same tends to increase the mothers’ anxieties and impacts their relationship with their child.
Encouraging empathy as your child grows
As your child grows, you can begin actively coaching their empathy skills as their language and cognitive skills increase. Toddlers need carers to repeatedly model empathic behaviors. You can do this both in day-to-day interactions and in play.
You may see your toddler copying your empathic behaviors during play by saying things like, “Oh teddy sick, teddy hug.” Notice and praise these behaviors when you see them.
As your child approaches three, you may notice some empathic behaviors beginning to shape. Many parents report their child reflecting back feelings like, “Mummy sad,” or empathic statements such as, “Poor Mummy is sick.” Praise and notice these interactions.
Parents can help encourage the development of empathy by encouraging discussion about feelings, the child’s and others. Ask questions like, “Why do you think your friend Sophie cried when she fell off the swing at the park?”
Reading books and encouraging discussion about the characters’ main feelings can also help. Discussing with your child how you knew that someone was sad or angry gives your child a broader understanding of how we interpret feelings in others. Playing games or crafts in which you create faces is a fun way to emotion coach. Encourage your child to label her feelings and where she feels them in her body when she is happy, mad, or sad.
As your child approaches six, she will be increasingly able to discuss feelings and develop a sense that she belongs to a community. Children in this age group become more skilled at reading people’s faces and voices for emotions.
Parents can help children to develop empathy by avoiding “quick-fix” solutions or reassurances in response to feelings. These manifest in blanket statement like, “Everything will be all right.” In these situations, reflect what your child is feeling with phrases such as, “You feel scared of the spider because you think the spider will bite you” rather than “Don’t worry, you’re okay.”
It’s also important for children to learn to read your emotions empathically. If you’ve had a hard day, don’t hide your feelings from your kids. Instead, share with them that you feel sad or angry. It may not be appropriate to share every detail and we certainly don’t want to lean on our children emotionally but, by sharing the emotion, we help our children better develop their own empathy skills
Positive parenting with love and limits
It’s important to use positive parenting strategies with lots of love and limits. The heart of positive parenting is guiding behavior through noticing desirable behaviors and ignoring unwanted behaviors. Punishment is avoided wherever possible and empathic guidance is preferred. Limit-setting is also a core part of positive parenting. Children need firm boundaries to feel loved and cared for.
It’s very important not to harshly parent children with a possible genetic history for psychopathy because this will increase the risk rather than minimize it. Here’s an example of what positive parenting could look like:
Mom: “Jack, you hit your sister because you felt angry that she wouldn’t give you the toy when you asked. How did your sister feel when you hit her?”
Jack: “Sad. She cried.”
Mom: “Yes, and she was angry too. Remember I had to stop her from hitting you?”
Mom: “What can you do when you’re angry instead of hitting?”
Jack: “Use my words or tell Mommy.”
Mom: “That’s right. Sometimes it’s hard for you. You can’t always do it yet, but I know that you’ll be able to soon if you keep trying. For now, I need you to come and help me in the kitchen until your feelings calm down.”
In this example, the parent coaches the child’s emotional reaction and uses connection rather than consequences (such as time out or losing points).
Provide nurturing care in a loving and safe environment, encourage empathy, and use positive parenting strategies to help prevent your child from developing psychopathy. Seek professional help for your relationship with your child or in the use of positive parenting techniques if you’re struggling to view your child in a positive way. Raising your child with support and guidance is necessary when your child exhibits challenging behaviors that trigger you.
If you fear your child’s genetic loading, there’s a lot that you can do, but always keep in mind that your child shares your genes as well.