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Child Abuse and Sociopathic Behaviors: Are they Related?

Is there a connection between child abuse and sociopathic behaviors?

Over the years, the two antisocial personality reaction/disturbances, sociopathy and psychopathy, and their connection to external factors have attracted the minds of clinical sociologists around the world. Clinical sociology is a humanistic, multidisciplinary specialization that seeks to improve the quality of peoples lives. Clinical sociologists assess situations and reduce problems through analysis and intervention.

Clinical sociologists can operate at any level, from focus on individuals to the society and the inter-societal issues. Well-respective clinical sociologist Jan Fritz is of the opinion that though the clinical sociologist specializes in one or two levels of intervention (e.g., marriage counseling, community consulting), the practitioner will move among a number of levels (e.g., individual, organization, community) in order to analyze and/or intervene in the matters affecting the world.

For this reason, there is a need for clinical sociologists to evaluate the connection between one external factor in particular—child abuse—and sociopathic behaviors. Let this article serve as a preliminary understanding of sociopathy and child abuse.

What is Sociopathy?

Sociopathy is a personality disorders manifesting in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior. Many scholars in the field of sociology have opined that the root cause of sociopathic behaviors is upbringing rather than natural. Unlike psychopaths that deals with people with what’s been deemed a mental disorder and abnormal or violent social behaviors. Psychopathic behaviors occur as a result of the hybridisation of mental and societal factors.

To support this assertion, David T. Lykken views sociopath as the largest genus of all, consisting of young men—and increasing numbers of young women—who were simply never adequately socialized during childhood and adolescence. Specifically, he believes that sociopathy exists simply based on poor parenting and thus is the result of nurture rather than nature.

Also, Martin Kantor expands the assertion by implying that the individuals’ troubles are either the product of a faulty upbringing by or maladaptive identification with ones parents, or else the product of maladaptive identification with deviant members of a given society—often a deviant sub-society such as the Mafia.

What is Psychopathy?

On the other hand, Robert Hare and colleagues explain that psychopathy is a complex personality disorder, characterising individuals with emotional deficits who lack a regard for social norms, empathy, and remorse. In the 70’s, Harvey Cleckley described the inability to participate in, or understand, the emotional aspects of humanity as one of the fundamental factors in psychopathy. According to Cleckley anybody without major emotional accompaniments may develop psychopathic behaviors later in life.

With above scholarly clarifications, one can conclude that sociopathic and psychopathic behaviors are formed by children out of the need to survive from the cruel and wicked experience they are passing through either from their primary care giver which can be a parent, guardian or a criminal outfit (e.g., gang or antisocial social circle).

Therefore, understanding how someone develops this antisocial personality disorder has been the focus of different researches for many years. To provide factual explanation to this disorder, I will look at sociopathy and psychopathy in relation to one of major environmental factors, child abuse, which cannot only shape and reshape the behaviors of children but can also have lasting influence into adulthood of the said children.

Understanding Child Abuse

Apparently, the formative years of children can be highly promising and at the same time can be highly challenging because most children are shaped by their early life experiences. Scholars claim that children who experienced enriching environments view the world as a safe, exciting place to learn and explore, where adults are available, responsive and able to meet their needs.

These early life exposures will stimulate a child’s physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development thereby increasing chances for health, happiness, productivity, and creativity. However, many children do not have these opportunities as a result of abuse.

Hence, child abuse is the physical, sexual or emotional mistreatment of a child that causes long-term or permanent damage of behaviors. The Child Welfare League of America 2006 issue brief on child abuse and neglect views child abuse as an act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which presents an imminent risk of serious harm or results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation to the children.

This means that carefree and lackadaisical parenting style is an act of child abuse. Other scholars refer to child abuse and neglect as behaviors and treatment that result in the actual and/or likelihood of harm to the child or young person. Furthermore, such behaviors may be intentional or unintentional and can include acts of omission (i.e. neglect) and commission (i.e. abuse).

Child Abuse Around the World

Lastly, the World Health Organisation states that child abuse includes “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.”

Child abuse is a very rampant abuse in the society. Using information from child protective agencies throughout the country from 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 800,000 children are victims of child abuse and neglect annually. This figure includes some 80,000 cases of physical abuse; 56,000 cases of sexual abuse; 437,000 cases of neglect; 31,000 cases of psychological maltreatment; and 7,000 cases of medical neglect.

Types of Child Abuse

Physical abuse is the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, kicking, biting, burning, shaking or otherwise harming a child. The parent or caretaker may not have intended to hurt the child; rather the injury may have resulted from over-discipline or physical punishment.

Child sexual abuse is a specific form of physical abuse. It is defined as fondling of a child’s genitals, intercourse, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism, and commercial exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.

Child neglect us another form of abuse and is understood as the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs. Neglect can be physical, educational, or emotional. Physical neglect includes refusal of or delay in seeking health care, abandonment, expulsion from the home or refusal to allow a runaway to return home, and inadequate supervision. Educational neglect includes the allowance of chronic truancy, failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age in school, and failure to attend to a special educational need.

It’s important to also discuss emotional abuse of children under the topic of child abuse. Emotional neglect includes such action so as marked inattention to the child’s needs for affection, refusal of or failure to provide needed psychological care, spouse abuse in the child’s presence, and permission of drug or alcohol use by the child. The assessment of child neglect requires consideration of cultural values and standards of care as well as recognition that the failure to provide the necessities of life may be related to poverty.

Lastly, emotional abuse includes acts or omissions by the parents or other caregivers that have caused, or could cause, serious behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders.

The Connection among Child Abuse, Sociopathic and Psychopathic behaviors

A study conducted by Farrington shows that harsh parental style of discipline can affect the affective and antisocial components of psychopathy and sociopathic behaviors. This occurs as children’s behavior depends on rewards and punishment provided by the parents. Thus, children become antisocial if parents provide a model of antisocial behavior and respond in an inconsistent manner to the child’s need.

Another study also predicts that child abuse leads to psychopathic and sociopathic behaviors. Genearlly, scholars agree that the idea of psychopathy is as a result of dysfunctional interpersonal exchanges and adverse environmental factors, including child abuse and neglect. Similarly, psychologist Stephen Porter indicated that the capacity for empathetic responding is turned off with repeated disillusionment of the child through physical or sexual abuse or other mistreatment.

In conclusion, children exposed to abuse and neglect are at increased risk of inflicting pain on others and developing aggressive, antisocial and violent behaviors in adolescence. Research suggests that physical abuse and exposure to family violence are the most consistent predictors of youth violence. In a meta-analysis by Gilbert and colleagues, both prospective and retrospective studies indicated strong associations between child abuse, neglect and criminal behavior.

Muib Shefiu

Muib Shefiu is a professional English language pedagogue, a Journalist and a freelance writer who is passionate about Sociology. His works have featured in highly reputable Newspapers such as The,, and He is currently a Post-graduate student of the Federal University of Kashere, Gombe State, Nigeria. You can connect with Muib on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.