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Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) in a scene from The Omen

Vince Valitutti

It's every parent's secret fear: What if your child turns out to be a bad seed? The idea that children can be psychopaths is no longer just a horror movie plot line – think of Damien and his chilling smile in the last scene of The Omen – but an actual diagnosis that comes with its own frightening consequences.

According to a feature by Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times Magazine, some psychologists believe that children as young as five can be highly manipulative, aggressive, defiant, lacking in empathy and guilt, and prone to lying for no apparent reason. These co-called "callous-unemotional" traits are, Ms. Kahn writes, indicative of the "cold, predatory conduct most closely associated with adult psychopathy."

Of course, diagnosing children in grade school as psychopaths remains controversial. Certain callous-unemotional traits can also be signs of everything from attention-deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder to sensory-integration disorder. But as difficult as any of those disorders could be to accept – and treat – imagine hearing that your child could be next Russell Williams or Ted Bundy.

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"This isn't like autism, where the child and parents will find support," Ms. Kahn quotes John Eden, a clinical psychologist at Texas A&M University, as saying. "Even if accurate, it's a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath."

So what makes one kid the pint-sized terror of the daycare and another a genuine danger to the society? A 1970s study of children with behavioural problems cited by Ms. Kahn revealed that while almost every psychopathic adult was deeply antisocial as a child, "almost 50 percent of children who scored high on measures of antisocial qualities did not go on to become psychopathic adults."

The reason might lie in the fact that children's brains, particularly the regions that control their capacity for empathy, aren't fully developed. The hope is that, as with depression, psychopathic tendencies can be mitigated through environmental and behavioural treatment. Just what those interventions might be remains unproven, although Ms. Kahn highlights a summer camp program for callous-unemotional children.

Early results, however, suggest that the participants are learning more from each other about how to be better manipulators than from the psychologists about empathy.

Do you believe that children can be psychopaths? How should society deal with them?

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