The following is a guest post written by Dr. Liane Leedom, a contributor to the Lovefraud Blog. Dr. Leedom is a psychiatrist who was conned into marriage with a sociopath. She had a child with him, who carries a genetic risk of developing the personality disorder. Dr. Leedom is author of Just Like His Father? A Guide to Overcoming Your Child’s Genetic Connection to Antisocial Behavior, Addiction and ADHD, available at the Lovefraud Store. The article drew 139 comments on Lovefraud. The original post and comments are here.
If you read the stories of victims of sociopaths, many common themes are apparent. One of these is the victim complains that he/she is riddled with anxiety while the sociopath goes on with life effortlessly. From the point of view of a victim, then, it is hard to see fear as a gift. Many say they wish the sociopath suffered some anxiety over the mess they made of their lives. The worst sociopaths even go to prison multiple times but only view this fate as “an occupational hazard.”
Over the past 100 years, clinicians and scientists have written about the lack of fear in sociopaths. Many have speculated that lack of anxiety or fearlessness is one of the causes of psychopathy. In fact, one researcher was able to show that the level of anxiety shown by children in the first two years of life predicted conscience at age 6. Low-fear kids had less of a conscience. In these low fear kids, only empathy predicts conscience.
If like me you are raising a fearless child whose other parent is a sociopath, you have to understand this risk factor for the disorder. Fearless kids require specialized parenting that focuses on developing empathy. They have to be super empathetic to make up for their deficit in guilt, anxiety, and fear. There is much evidence that the development of empathy can be enhanced by the right parenting.
Many fearless kids, like my son, are resistant to punishment. So the only hook you have with them is a loving relationship. You need a big hook, too, because the same fearless kids are energetic and very impulsive, so they require a great deal of correcting. Their only motivation to learn to control their behavior is to gain the approval of those they love. This is why the usual American parenting style, which does not foster close family relationships, produces sociopathy in fearless at-risk kids.
Many parents who realize that they are raising a fearless at-risk child believe that discipline will fix the problem. They therefore seek advice on how to do this effectively. They use all the techniques only to find out that they may work in the moment here and there but do very little to impact the fearless child’s behavior overall.
I should add that fearlessness and dominance behavior go hand in hand. These kids are what most people call “strong-willed.” Many religious leaders have therefore said that it is important to “break the will” of strong-willed kids.
The problem with trying to break the will of an at-risk child and focusing on discipline is that these do not instill what at-risk children need to develop a conscience. These kids don’t need to be broken, they need to be fixed! The fix involves teaching them to love.
When teaching a child to love, it is important to remember that negative family experiences have a stronger weight in our minds that loving ones. The at-risk child responds to negative interactions, not with fear but with more dominance behavior. Psychologists have determined that in order to be of equal weight, our positive loving experiences have to outweigh our conflicts by 5:1. So we have to experience 5 times more love than conflict in order for us to feel stable.
You see the Catch 22: These kids need constant correcting because they are so impulsive. If they get a thought to do something, they do it instantly and they have a hard time terminating an unwanted behavior. So the usual parenting means 100 times more conflict than love for these kids. In a nut shell that is why many develop sociopathy. Study after study has shown that when normal loving parents adopt children with genetic risk (whose biologic parents are sociopaths), they turn negative and punitive toward the kids.
Without focused practice loving, the absence of guilt turns into a complete absence of conscience for at-risk kids. A person with guilt deficiency can have a conscience if he/she has empathy. Without either guilt or empathy you get a psychopath.
OK, now many of you are saying to yourselves, “I don’t buy this fearless, lack of anxiety crap. The sociopath I was with was neurotic as hell.” Although studies of groups of sociopaths show that within individuals the level of anxiety is negatively correlated with the level of sociopathy, it also turns out that the rates of phobias (other than social phobia) and anxiety disorders are not lower in sociopaths.
Scientists are presently very puzzled trying to reconcile all these observations. The evidence that fearlessness and lack of anxiety are causative in sociopathy is fairly strong. How do we explain, then, phobias and anxiety in sociopaths and conduct disordered kids?
I can offer some explanation based on my reading and my own observations of sociopaths and their offspring. I think the critical question is when the fear system develops in a child. I think that in many sociopaths, the fear system develops too late to impact their development in a positive way. So if a child develops fears after he or she has already developed a pattern of dominant, impulsive behavior, those fears do little to positively impact his personality development. Instead these fears lead a child to become even more aggressive in self-defense.
Also realize that if a child’s fear system, which is supposed to develop by two, doesn’t develop until four or five, he or she is left without the tools to manage fear. Children are supposed to use their loving relationships to cope with their fears. At five, At-risk children already have a poor relationship with their caregivers because of their impulsive behavior. Who is such a child supposed to turn to when afraid? The only thing that child can do is to focus on having interpersonal power. If he or she is powerful then he or she can’t be hurt. I encourage you to go and observe this for yourself this summer. Go to a local playground and observe the kids. You will see the dominant ones using fantasies of power to cope with their fears.
So as I have said before, sociopaths do not have the gift of fear. The way fear works in their lives never helps to keep them safe. Their experience of fear is aberrant; they suffer with it but that suffering does them no good. For sociopaths fear and anxiety are not connected to avoidance of stuff that gets them in trouble. For them fear and anxiety are connected to the opposite, fantasies of interpersonal power. Feeling anxious only makes them more aggressive toward others.