Temperament and Parenting

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Children without a conscience
Children without a conscience

There has been a lot of speculation in the media and a few popular books written about children who lack conscience and sometimes engage in the most horrendous crimes. In some countries, the term 'psychopathy' is used to describe a disorder involving lack of conscience children and adults. This term is not really used in the US any more with the term 'conduct disorder' being preferred. Editorial Consultant Dr. Sean McDevitt reports that the term "psychopathy got a bad name when some researchers started saying that it was entirely genetic and inborn- the classic 'bad seed' notion and that it was completely unchangeable, even in childhood". It is now known that problems with conscience involve a complex interplay between biological and environmental contributors.

Whatever you term a young person who truly lacks conscience, researchers have found that this attribute may be associated with other behavioral tendencies: superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, need for stimulation, pathological lying, manipulativeness, shallow emotions, lack of empathy and poor behavioral controls. Adults with these characteristics tend to have had behavioral problems in childhood and to have been juvenile delinquents. However, they do not necessarily engage in criminal behavior as adults but their social and work relationships may be impaired. 

Brain damage is associated with problems with conscience but does not inevitably lead to it. Research by Anderson et al. has shown the long-term consequences of early prefrontal cortex lesions occurring before 16 months. Two adults with such early damage had "severely impaired social behavior despite normal basic cognitive abilities, and showed insensitivity to future consequences of decisions, defective autonomic responses to punishment contingencies and failure to respond to behavioral interventions". They differed from adult-onset patients in having "defective social and moral reasoning, suggesting that the acquisition of complex social conventions and moral rules had been impaired". The researchers conclude that early-onset prefrontal damage can result in "a syndrome resembling psychopathy". However, a history of early brain damage has not been demonstrated in most people with such problems, although brain differences appear to be present in many as shown in research summarized by Canadian psychologist Dr. Robert Hare.

Regardless of the origins of a true lack of conscience, adults with these problems are extraordinarily resistant to treatment and can delude and deceive the most seasoned clinicians. The lack of intervention for children heading down this path is unfortunate because the chances of a good outcome are improved the earlier the family and child receive treatment. Treatment of childhood problems of this type is highly specialized. It is generally agreed by experts in the problem (but not sufficiently well-known by the general public and community counsellors) that the wrong types of treatment can make the problem much worse by, in effect, training the young person in intellectualization and in finding fashionable and convincing, but untrue, excuses for their manipulative and unremorseful behavior. Naivety on the part of well-meaning adults can delay treatment which could prevent terrible tragedies.

While research has been directed to both the biological (including temperamental) and environmental contributors to these problems, the origins of a lack of conscience continue to be explored by researchers. A long-term study of preschoolers indicates that conscience develops in different ways. A good fit between a child's temperament and a parent's child-rearing style play a role in a child's ability to tell right from wrong and to act accordingly, at least from ages 2 to 5 1/2, according to research by Kochanska at the University of Iowa. However, most of the developmental differences in conscience that are being studied in relation to temperament are those that are well within the normal range. Parents of children with different temperaments do not need to panic that their child-rearing style will determine everything about their children's moral development. Rather, families noting a severe lack of ability to tell the difference between right and wrong in a school-age child should seek professional help.