By Gina Maffey
British Science Association Media Fellow (BBC Countryfile)
Not all children who are aggressive and engage in acts such as truancy, lying and stealing will grow up to be psychopaths, said Professor Essi Viding yesterday.
Viding, who is Co-director of the Risk and Resilience Unit at University College London, was speaking ahead of the British Science Association’s Festival of Science which will take place next week in Aberdeen.
Only a sub-group of children whose behaviour is antisocial will show the callous, unemotional traits characteristic of real psychopaths: proactive aggression, no remorse for their actions, being unlikely to respond to punishment and finding it difficult to empathise with others’ distress, said Viding.
Recent studies demonstrate that nature and nurture may both have a role in the development of psychopathy in adulthood.
Callous, unemotional traits may be affected by both a child's genetics, together with environmental influences. In the same way that some of us are at more risk of heart disease due to genetic vulnerability, so children can be genetically susceptible to developing psychopathy in adulthood.
However, just as those at risk of heart disease can reduce their risk through a healthy diet and exercise, so the risk of developing psychopathy can be reduced through positive parenting.
Professor Viding warns, though, that due to genetic inheritance it is likely that parents themselves will find it difficult to respond positively when continually faced with a problematic child.
As we begin to understand more about the potential for children to develop psychopathy in adulthood, it is clear that we also need to prepare for increased support to provide nurturing environments that extend beyond the family home.
Once psychopathic behaviour becomes intrinsic in adulthood, said Viding, it is a lot more difficult to change than the developing traits in a growing child.