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Toddlers Are the Real Psychos

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My daughter started out nice enough. She was a laid-back baby, always ready with a smile. Strangers would stop me to tell me how lovely and well-behaved she was. And then, one month before her second birthday, she woke up mean.

She colored in books, colored on walls, she screamed when I offered her strawberry pancakes and sobbed when I took them away. Offer to take her to the park? You might as well have told her that Elmo was dead and Big Bird was on trial for the murder. She was, at the same time, callow and lacked empathy. Sure, she cried when a kid took her toy away, but did that stop her from snatching the toy back? No. It didn't.

What happened to my sweet child? What had she become?

Recently, I tested my child using the Levenson Self-Report Pyschopathy Scale. She was a little too young to take it herself, so I answered the questions for her and I found that they were eerily resonant with my child's life philosophy of snacks, cookies and whining. For example:

"I don't plan anything very far in advance."

Last night my daughter punched me in the leg and was shocked when I put her into time out. Agree.

"My main purpose in life is getting as many goodies as I can."

That kid will do anything for an M&M. Agree.

"I feel bad if my words or actions cause someone else to feel emotional pain."

Based on her callous tendancy to throw balls into babies' heads and then laugh. Disagree.

I began to worry whether we should reserve a room in federal prison.

All in all, she scored a 4.6 out of a possible five. According to the results, my toddler's score for primary psychopathy was higher than 95.74% of people who have taken the test. Her score for secondary psychopathy, which according to the site are the "antisocial aspects of psychopathy," was a 5 out of a possible 5.

To verify my findings, I compared my child's behavior to the Hare Psychopathy Check List, which began to read like my kid's eHarmony profile:

Glib and superficial charm. Oh, yes.

Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self? Her insistence that she is big enough to use a knife, drive the car and run out the door naked is proof enough of this.

Lack of remorse or guilt? That should have been her middle name.

Parasitic lifestyle? The girl sobs when I go to the bathroom alone.

I began to worry whether we should reserve a room in federal prison.

Looking for answers, I reached out to Dr. Donald Lynam, professor and director of clinical training at Purdue University. Dr. Lynam has done extensive research into juvenile psychopathy and even has his own assessment on his website. I also gave that to my daughter, and the results were not encouraging. When I told Dr. Lynam of my findings, he noted that I might not be far off in my assessment of my toddler. "Most people do not regard others as beneath them or as objects; this limits their ability to hurt others. Most people have the ability to deliberate and reflect on the potential consequences of their actions. This keeps us from doing things that might be dangerous or that might get us into trouble later," he wrote in an email.

"In full-blown psychopathy and two years old, most of these traits are absent. What you end up with is an individual who is capable of acting on almost any impulse. I can't remember who said it and I can't say I ascribe to the theoretical perspective, but one psychoanalytic thinker wrote that in psychopathy 'the lid is off the id'—an apt description of a two-year-old as well," he continued.

But, Dr. Lynam, reassured me, "I suspect that two is probably too young to begin thinking about psychopathy. I am not sure that guilt, shame, anxiety, and empathy are even meaningful traits to talk about in two-year-old children. I do not believe that there is much variability at that age—those traits are not there yet."

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So, essentially, my toddler isn't really a psychopath; she is just going through a psychopathic stage. I'm not sure that's comforting, but at least I don't need to call the FBI.

But if toddlers early in their development mimic psychopathic behavior on their journey to learn empathy, kindness and restraint, does that mean we've all been a little Hannibal Lector to our mothers?

"Maybe," Dr. Lynam noted, "I do think it is a bit like saying when we are two we are all lousy drivers, bike riders, and mathematicians."

Which she is. And while it's comforting to know that my child will grow out of this serial-killer stage of behavior, I'm still keeping her far away from the neighbor's cat.

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