On Sociopaths, Psychologists, Selfishness, and Disobedient Children

Stop here every day for a new question and answer, practical help for busy parents.


Before my daughter’s father died, I found out he was diagnosed as a sociopath and discharged from the Army. That scares me because the girl, now 11, is showing some weird behavior. Yesterday I told her not to touch the sherbet I had bought until she cleaned her room. She didn’t clean her room and I found the entire gallon of sherbet melted on the couch. If you’re going to steal some sherbet, at least have enough sense to put it back in the freezer. No matter what I tell her not to do, she does it anyway. Spanking and grounding change nothing. She doesn’t seem to care about anyone but herself. Could she just be a selfish tween, or is it more serious?


True sociopaths are rare. The behavior you describe is not.

Given the psychological profile of your daughter’s father, you should indeed pay close attention to the girl’s behavior. Selfishness and a lack of concern for others are classical traits of a sociopath. But if those characteristics were definitively a sign of sociopathic behavior, our psychiatric wards would be more populous than our schools.

Normally I hesitate to advise people to consult psychiatrists. Behaviors spring from a variety of causes, and doctors paid to diagnose mental conditions can easily blame behavior on one of many disorders when the true cause is far simpler. Ask a chef how to rescue an ailing party, and you can expect him to prescribe a new menu. Ask a musician the same question, and he may suggest changing the playlist. For all their education, psychologists and psychiatrists are as human as you and I. And like the rest of us, they tend to seek solutions that fall in their area of expertise.

All that said, in your case I suggest you seek outside help – mostly because of the father’s diagnosis. The issue of whether sociopathic behavior is inherited inspires strong debate. The evidence is inconclusive, but you can’t rule it out, and for that reason you need an outside viewpoint. Talk to a psychiatrist about your observations to get an expert opinion. See more than one if necessary, and always season what they say with a healthy dose of skepticism.

After you talk to some experts, do a little research of your own. According to a paper prepared for the University of Vermont College of Medicine and the Vermont Children’s Hospital, antisocial personality disorder, the condition that afflicts sociopaths, cannot be truly diagnosed in children. Diagnoses more common in children are oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.

One theme that pervades all of these disorders is aggression. In your letter you described several instances of your daughter’s conduct, and it seems to lack the blatant hostility, destructiveness, and violence common to such cases. The paper contains a lot more information, and you may want to download it from the medical college’s Web site .

What does all this mean? First, your daughter’s conduct doesn’t scream “sociopath.” Second, the fact that her father was a sociopath (or at least diagnosed as one) doesn’t mean she suffers from the same ailment. Third, you have a stubborn, defiant, strong-willed child on your hands. You need to keep a firm hand on the situation.

If the punishments you currently use don’t work, then step up the severity of those punishments. You should also try new ones. Don’t just ground the girl. Instead, focus on privileges she values. What does she do in her spare time, what will she go out of her way to acquire? Find something of value to her, and let her know that unless her conduct changes, she will lose it.

Good luck.

If you’d like to submit an Ask The Dad question, send it to [email protected] . If you’d like to read more questions and answers, visit www.askthedad.com .

People also view

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *