A recent New York Times Magazine article asks the question, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?” Although, technically speaking, you can call anyone anything, we know that broad labels such as this do not provide specific enough information to intervene in an effective way. However, the article goes on to describe certain children as “callous-unemotional,” which does lead us closer to identifying some specific skill-deficits, which can in turn lead to more effective interventions.
Although there is a fair amount of conventional wisdom (the word “manipulative” pops up quite a bit), the article actually makes a great case for the need to do Plan B. The author discusses the difficulties involved in teaching empathy, something that is definitely lacking in “callous-unemotional” children. We know, of course, that empathy is a skill that can be taught. However, the distinction between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy is key. Many of the strategies used to directly teach empathy tend to get at the more cognitive/intellectual aspects of empathy. The risk, as is mentioned in the article, is that the “callous-unemotional” child uses this information in a hurtful manner. In order to truly build empathy in kids who lack empathic skills, the child must experience empathy. This is what happens during the first step of Plan B. True empathy/understanding. And then, in the second step, the cognitive aspect of empathy/perspective taking is taught. These and other skills are taught indirectly through the problem solving process (as opposed to the more common direct instruction method). One benefit of teaching these skills indirectly is that the child does not have to “agree” that they lack empathy nor do they have to “agree” to let someone teach empathy to them.
The challenge, of course, is that it is quite difficult to empathize with someone who is perceived to be “callous-unemotional” and who engage in the serious maladaptive behavior described in the article. As a result, instead of empathy, these children often receive harsh punishments, which can lead them to be even more disconnected from others. And thus, the label becomes destiny.
There is a brief mention of “one early study” which indicated that “warm, affectionate parenting seems to reduce callousness in C.U. kids over time, even in children who initially resist such closeness.” Plan B is a great way to provide what these children desperately need. And remember, empathy does not equal agreement. So, take specific problems, work with the child to solve them, and take your time in step 1. Through it all, you can build empathy and a stronger relationship with a child who desperately needs it.