Parenting Interventions May Decrease Child Psychopathy

Identifying psychopathy in children is often the first step in predicting or preventing the development of further psychological and behavioral problems. Research has linked psychopathy to aggression, impulsivity and externalization in children. “Such findings suggest that interventions that ameliorate child psychopathic features, in addition to child conduct problems, would offer a significant public health benefit,” said Renee McDonald of Southern Methodist University in Texas, and lead author of a recent study examining the effects of positive parenting on child psychopathy. “Consistent with this, some reviewers have concluded—primarily from results of research with adults and adolescents—that interventions can indeed exert positive effects on psychopathic features.”

Previous studies have shown that the symptoms of psychopathy increase with age. “This implies that psychopathic features gradually emerge and that their trajectory over time can be influenced by environmental factors,” said McDonald. “If so, intervening on the child’s environment early in the course of the development of psychopathy may alter its developmental trajectory.” McDonald noted that interventions that focus on positive parenting have proven effective for reducing problem behavior in children, and therefore theorized that similar interventions could help decrease symptoms of psychopathy.

McDonald and her colleagues evaluated 66 mother-child families from domestic abuse shelters after they underwent either the Project Support intervention or treatment as usual. The mothers in the Project Support program were taught 12 specific parenting skills and received two months of extended emotional support. After evaluating the families every four months for nearly two years, McDonald saw a significant difference in the groups. “We found that the features of psychopathy among children in the Project Support condition diminished steadily during the intervention period, and the declines were maintained stably through the follow-up period. In contrast, scores among children in the comparison condition did not change substantially during the intervention period, and they worsened over the course of the follow-up period.” She added, “The extent to which a parenting intervention helps parents tailor their discipline to an individual child’s characteristics may be crucial in reducing child psychopathic features. In addition, parenting interventions that teach parents to respond empathically (rather than  harshly) to children’s upsets and misbehaviors may be especially important when features of psychopathy are present.”

McDonald, Renee, Mary Catherine Dodson, David Rosenfield, and Ernest N. Jouriles. “Effects of a Parenting Intervention on Features of Psychopathy in Children.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 39.8 (2011): 1013-023. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • mila


    November 22nd, 2011 at 8:16 AM

    the prob with these things is that we cannot always take our children to an expert to see if they have a problem…we need to identify it ourselves.and that requires knowledge bout these things-the same is the problem area.

  • susan richards

    susan richards

    November 22nd, 2011 at 4:59 PM

    No parent wants to believe that this behavior is being exhibited by their own child. That is why many of them will not see the reality of their situation until things are too far gone to do anything about. I know that just like with anything else early intervention is the key to treatment, but who really wants to think that there is something wrong with their child? I think that this would be hard for any parent to stomach, and for as long as possible I would think that many will continue to make excuses for the bahvior.

  • KellY


    November 23rd, 2011 at 8:00 AM

    @susan:you’re right.most parents would not identify it as an issue and would take it to be just another characteristic of the child as an individual.but proper education and awareness will open their eyes.yes,not everybody can be as good as a professional in identifying things like these but even basic knowledge can helkp if you ask me.

  • Mae


    November 23rd, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    A good parent is going to be on top of this kind of situation
    The challenge is going to be finding the right person to listen

  • Harrison


    November 24th, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    @Mae: you say that this is not going to happen to a good parent, but whose definition of a good parent are we going to use? Some parents who think that they are doing the right thing are actually the ones who need to be intervened with. They may be causing way more problems than they could be had they handled things in a much more loving and caring way.

  • Paul Rhone

    Paul Rhone

    November 26th, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    I know that study after study has been done on psychopaths and those who exhibit psychopathic tendencies. Has there ever been shown to be any kind of consistency in terms of relationships between these kids and their parents, or is that so across the board that it is hard to determine if this really plays a big role or not?

  • nothing


    June 5th, 2012 at 9:29 PM

    STOP BLAMING THE PARENT! We now have gentetic/chromosomal testing and mri’s that SHOW these people are BORN as psychopaths. PLEASE search this. Whether or not one becomes a MURDERING psychopath STILL has little bearing on parenting! Ted Bundy, GREAT family. Jeffrey Dahmer? Watch the interview with him and his parents. His dad admits to similar thoughts (similar to Jeffery’s)and goes on to GLEEFULLY (a sign of psychopathy) tell horrible stories about the mom and wrote a book about it. WATCH the mother’s reaction. She has no clue what has happened to her. When they are telling her some of the things from her ex-husbands book, she is moritfied! When she finds out that he (her ex) knew he was like this before she married him, she says he should have told her. (Psychopaths KNOW what they are or at the very least that they are different.) Also, this woman is TOTALLY BLAMED AND ABUSED AND CONFUSED and do you know what? She is STILL concerned about other mothers/parents! She says that she doesn’t want another parent to feel that if they weren’t perfect that they’re gonna end up with this for their child. By the way, she displays very typical symptoms for one who has been abused by a psychopath (as her ex probably is). Read up on physical symptoms of people who have been in relationships with psychopaths. PTSD is very common as is MS. I would NEVER wish this on ANYONE (having a psychopathic child or partner) but if it would help you to LOOK and HELP the VICTIMS, then I DO HOPE YOU MEET ONE, or give birth to one, THAT DESTROYS YOUR LIFE. Then start looking at the victims forums. OR, you could display some wisdom and search these sites FIRST. Lovefraud, psychopathyawareness blog, Aftermath Radio blog, Victims of Psychopaths Sociopaths, just for a start. It is way too late for me to unknow this info. It is so prevalent and common and so soul-destroying and here we are arguing about PERFECT PARENTING. Dude, give me a chance to go back in time and do genetic testing on my partner and my children. Or to even know what psychopathy REALLY looks like. Armed with this info, ALL my decisions for everything would be completely different.

  • Nora


    August 15th, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    @nothing you are completely right. I hadn’t realised there was one in my genetic family. I didn’t realise how much I was ‘tolerating’ and therefore missed the signs in my now ex-partner. Hell. I wish I had known the truth. My poor long suffering mother probably didn’t know either. The trouble is, looking at psychopathy as a ‘theoretical’ concept won’t help in advance of having your life mashed about by one. Be more gentle with the victims and unwitting parents.

  • Dawn


    April 24th, 2015 at 11:21 AM

    How do you deal with a pscyhopathic child? He is 11 now and we have known since he was 4 that he was emotonally devoid. then came some messing around with animals, purposely creating fights, and violence towards my oldest child. He is my brother. I have witnessed events with him that still send chills down my spine (punching me in my stomache while pregnant). my mother knows but isnt willing to take him in because she doesnt want that stigma on him for the rest of his life. It affects every aspect of our lives. I have read and read trying to find some help. ive tried to look through his eyes. i am at a loss. I feel obligated to let people know what he really is, but he plays everything so cool that in the end i look like a fool.

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