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Psychopathic traits detectable in children as young as 3

Psychopathic traits can be detected in children as young as 3 with the help of a new diagnostic tool.

A team of researchers at the University of New South Wales, led by Dr Eva Kimonis, developmental psychologist at UNSW, has developed tools that can be used to identify callous and unemotional (CU) traits in children.

Early detection of CU traits can be used to predict ongoing aggressive behaviour and risk of criminal behaviour in adulthood, as well as allowing for early interventions focused on parenting and emotional development.

The study involved 214 children who completed numerous tests, one through a computer program that measured their reactions to changing and static facial expressions. Parents and teachers were also invited to partake in behavioural questionnaires.

The study found that children with CU traits have difficulty recognising “emotions in others” and “distress and fear in other people”, Kimonis said. These traits are similar to those found in adult psychopaths with symptoms such as “very low levels of empathy or guilt” and being “insensitive to punishment compared [with] other children”, she said.

For children who are insensitive to punishment, Kimonis said particular interventions such as modifying behaviour using rewards is beneficial and “positive reinforcement of the desirable behaviour is going to be most effective”.

She also advised that the best way to treat a child with psychopathic traits is to “increase the amount of warmth and affection that parents show toward their child”.

“Now that we have these tools, we’ll be able to show in future research whether or not these traits are stable all the way from preschool to adulthood,” Kimonis said in a statement. “The reason we care so much about this population is because they tend to be the most at risk for juvenile justice involvement in later childhood, or to have criminal behaviour and mental health problems throughout adolescence and into adulthood.”

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