Child Abuse and Sociopathic Behaviours: Are they Related?

Child Abuse and Sociopathic Behaviours: Are they Related?

The Influence of Child Abuse on the Development of Sociopathic and Behaviours

Over the years, the two antisocial personality reaction/disturbances, sociopathy and psychopathy, 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. Fritz (2001) 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 child abuse and sociopathic behaviours. Let this article serve as a preliminary understanding of sociopathy and child abuse.


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

To support this assertion, Lykken (1995) 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, Kantor (2006) 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.


On the other hand, Hare and colleagues (1991) 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, Cleckley (1976) 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 behaviours later in life.

With above scholarly clarifications, one can conclude that sociopathic and psychopathic behaviours 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 behaviours of children but can also have lasting influence into adulthood of the said children.

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. Delaney (1998) claims 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 behaviours. Toni (2006) 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. Bromfield (2005) refers to child abuse and neglect as behaviours and treatment that result in the actual and/or likelihood of harm to the child or young person. Furthermore, such behaviours 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 (2006) 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, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 800,000 children (2007 data) are victims of child abuse and neglect annually (Administration on Children Youth and Families, 2009). 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

The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (2001c) provides the following elaboration for clarification:

Physical Abuse

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 Neglect

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.

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.

Sexual Abuse

Fondling of a child’s genitals, intercourse, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism, and commercial exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.

Emotional Abuse

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 behaviours

In the study conducted by Farrington (2002) it showed that harsh parental style of discipline can affect the affective and antisocial components of psychopathy and sociopathic behaviours. 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.

Weiler & Widom’s (1996) study also predicts that child abuse leads to psychopathic and sociopathic behaviours. Karpman (1941), Lykken (1995), and Porter (1996) agreed that the idea of psychopathy is as a result of dysfunctional interpersonal exchanges and adverse environmental factors, including child abuse and neglect. Similarly, Porter (1996) 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 behaviours in adolescence (Gilbert et al., 2009; Haapasalo & Pokela, 1999; Maas, Herrenkohl, & Sousa, 2008; Trickett et al., 2011). Research suggests that physical abuse and exposure to family violence are the most consistent predictors of youth violence (Gilbert et al., 2009; Maas et al., 2008). In a meta-analysis by Gilbert and colleagues, both prospective and retrospective studies indicated strong associations between child abuse, neglect and criminal behaviour.

Resources on Child Abuse

Bromfield, L. M. (2005). Chronic child maltreatment in an Australian Statutory child protection sample (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Deakin University, Geelong.

Cleckley, Hervey (1976). The Mask of Sanity. C.V. Mosby Co.

Delaney, R. J. (1998). Fostering changes (2nd ed.). Oklahoma City: Wood ‘N’ Barnes.

Farrington, D.P. (2002). Families and crime. In Wilson, J.Q., Petersilia, J. (Eds.), Crime: Public policies for crime control (2nd ed., pp. 129148). Oakland, CA: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press.

Fritz, Jan Marie, ed. (2001). The Clinical Sociology Resource Book, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association Teaching Resources Center.

Gilbert, R., Spatz Widom, C., Browne, K., Fergusson, D., Webb, E., & Janson, J. (2009). Burden and consequences of child maltreatment in high-income countries. The Lancet, 373, 68-81.

Haapasalo, J., & Pokela, E. (1999). Child-rearing and child abuse antecedents of criminality. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal, 4(1), 107-127.

Hare, R., Hart, S.D., & Harput, T.J. (1991). Psychopathy and the DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100, 91-398.

Kantor, M. (2006). The psychopathy of everyday life: How antisocial personality disorder affects all of us. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

Karpman, B. (1941). On the need of separating psychopathy into two distinct clinical types: the symptomatic and the idiopathic. Journal of Criminal Psychopathology, 3, 112137.

Lykken, D. (1995). The antisocial personalities. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Maas, C., Herrenkohl, T., & Sousa, C. (2008). Review of research on child maltreatment and violence in youth. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 9, 56-67.

National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. (2001c). What is child maltreatment? Washington D.C.: National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Porter, South (1996). Without conscience or without active conscience? The etiology of psychopathy revisited. Aggression and Violent Behavior.pp:179189.

Toni, R. (2006). NDAS issue brief: Child abuse and neglect: Child Welfare League of

Trickett, P. K., Negriff, S., Ji, J., & Peckins, M. (2011). Child maltreatment and adolescent development. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 3-20.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2009). Child maltreatment 2007 In Y. a. F. Administration on Children (Ed.). Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Weiler, B. L., & Widom, C. S. (1996). Psychopathy and violent behavior in abused and neglected young adults. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 6, 253-271.

World Health Organization. (‎2006)‎. Preventing child maltreatment : a guide to taking action and generating evidence / World Health Organization and International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. World Health Organization.

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.