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View Full Version : How harrowing can a childhood be without producing a sociopath?



efreysson
06-14-2010, 07:46 PM
AKA: What does it take to develop a conscience?

One of my way too many ideas for a novel involves a girl who spent most of her childhood on the streets with very little meaningful social contact, moving from place to place and frequently getting into mortal danger. And while the idea is that she's quite troubled as a young adult, I don't want her to be a total sociopath.

So yeah, how much care and social contact does a child need to develop at least some empathy and ability to care about people? Child psychology really isn't my area.

Granted, this is an idea for a fantasy novel and she has the additional problem of being a half-vampire with the corresponding diet-related issues, but that's another story.

KTC
06-14-2010, 08:09 PM
I think anybody can be a sociopath...no matter their circumstances. Just as 'street people' can become presidents and leaders of men. Don't look for a co-relation.

Quite often 'children of the street' are emphatically empathetic.

Kathie Freeman
06-14-2010, 08:26 PM
It's not circumstances, it's attitude. "This situation sucks" vs "I can handle this".

PGaritas
06-14-2010, 08:27 PM
Sociopaths/psychopaths have a strong genetic element (nature). Being isolated as a street survivor (nurture) could certainly lead to anti-social tendencies, approach-avoidance, etc... but it is not a formula for full fledged sociopathology, especially if the nature side is strong (if you can work it in, make it known her parents were stable). Also "most of her childhood on the streets" leaves room for some period of solid nurturance/succorance that might vest the character with more empathy and compassion (eg, infant years with good parents, or some later period with unconditional love)

Ken
06-14-2010, 08:33 PM
... Elie Wiesel spent his at Auschwitz. Went on to become a bestselling author and recipient of the Nobel Prize. Lots of similar accounts. We Jews are a tough lot though, capable of surviving horrors and impossible trials and not letting ourselves be weighed down and crushed by them. So unless your protagonist is Jewish I wouldn't put them through too much ;-)

Wayne K
06-14-2010, 08:38 PM
It would take me an hour to answer this question properly, but the answer is yes. I grew up in the streets, prison and without meaningful social contact, and I turned out fine. It took a while though

dirtsider
06-14-2010, 08:42 PM
Even though she spent much of her childhood on the streets, you might want to give her some sort of mentor, even if that mentor isn't always there. Granted, that mentor doesn't have to be another vampire or half-vampire - just someone who will occassionally put her up for the night or listen to her vent, someone she feels she can trust even if that person can't always get her out of trouble.

blackrose602
06-14-2010, 10:00 PM
Qualifications: Formerly homeless, BA in psychology with an emphasis on child psychology, lots of homeless/formerly homeless friends, aunt with schizophrenia.

My thoughts based on my experiences: Sociopathology/psychopathology have a heavily genetic base, as PGaritas mentioned. Homelessness/mortal danger could certainly trigger a psychotic break in someone otherwise predisposed to psychosis, but would not cause pathology in and of themselves. Likewise, if someone is going to become a sociopath or psychopath, it'll happen despite a "good" upbringing.

If this girl is spending her childhood on the streets and has "little meaningful social contact," there needs to be a really good story-based reason for the lack of socialization. In my experience, street people tend to develop VERY protective and close-knit communities, especially when there are children involved. If she's moving around a lot, she may have been in and out of a lot of DIFFERENT communities, and as a young adult she probably won't still have contact with most of the people she's known, but she's likely to have had a great deal of exposure to people who cared about her.

Granted, there are a lot of mental health issues and other problems in the general homeless population, so some people she's met may be "creepy" or "scary" or just not "right," and her social skills may be a bit skewed by the different norms that she learned growing up. But that's a far cry from entirely isolated or "little meaningful social contact." Besides, as KTC said, some street kids are almost preternaturally empathic/empathetic, possibly due to their awareness of their own circumstances. You grow up fast.

Chasing the Horizon
06-14-2010, 10:49 PM
As others have said, there's no way to create sociopathic personality disorder in someone who doesn't have a genetic predisposition to it. So just don't give your character a genetic predisposition towards it.

One thing I learned studying trauma psychology is that there as many ways to react to traumatic experiences as there are people in the world, and that the severity of the abuse/trauma is not an absolute indicator of the severity of the resulting pathology. You have almost unlimited leeway here, as long as you don't ignore the issue entirely.

If you want your character to be fairly mentally stable, consider giving her a stable home up until age five or six. A large portion of the personality forms before age five, and if she had a stable home then, it's perfectly believable for her to remain mentally stable even through extreme experiences in later childhood.

johnnysannie
06-14-2010, 10:54 PM
In talking with a Maryknoll missionary yesterday, I heard the story of a young lady who grew up in the jungles of Guatemala, during a war, living in constant danger and fear of being found, who could not ever shout or be noisy, who had no toys of any kind, and little else....but she turned out normal, fine, and good, smart, and grand.

His theory was that her family loved her so that the adverse circumstances did not warp her in any way.

backslashbaby
06-15-2010, 01:23 AM
I think there are many examples of folks turning out great when their background was disturbing.

Chasing the Horizon brings up an interesting point about early childhood. There is some interest in whether a severely neglectful or abusive infancy alone can make more folks grow up to be antisocials. So I'd also suggest that she have a good early upbringing.

efreysson
06-15-2010, 02:09 AM
Okay, it seems I've misused the word sociopath. I guess "maladjusted, self centered and antisocial" is a better description for what I was thinking of.



If this girl is spending her childhood on the streets and has "little meaningful social contact," there needs to be a really good story-based reason for the lack of socialization. In my experience, street people tend to develop VERY protective and close-knit communities, especially when there are children involved. If she's moving around a lot, she may have been in and out of a lot of DIFFERENT communities, and as a young adult she probably won't still have contact with most of the people she's known, but she's likely to have had a great deal of exposure to people who cared about her.

Well the really good story-based reason is that she drinks blood from people while they sleep and is in real danger of being killed by a mob if someone sees her doing it. Or if someone simply notices that her eyeteeth are quite sharp. So she's learned to be skittish, paranoid and careful not to let anyone get a really good look at her.




If you want your character to be fairly mentally stable, consider giving her a stable home up until age five or six. A large portion of the personality forms before age five, and if she had a stable home then, it's perfectly believable for her to remain mentally stable even through extreme experiences in later childhood.



Chasing the Horizon brings up an interesting point about early childhood. There is some interest in whether a severely neglectful or abusive infancy alone can make more folks grow up to be antisocials. So I'd also suggest that she have a good early upbringing.

Yeah, that's what I'm going with: Raised by a caring foster mother for the first few years before hitting the streets. I just wasn't sure if that was enough to give her personality a basically strong foundation.

Thanks for the help, everyone. This lays my concerns to rest.

frimble3
06-15-2010, 09:01 AM
Is she still homeless? Because that's a good disguise in itself. People don't tend to look at the homeless. Don't want to meet their eyes, be asked for change, have to interact. With a little effort, she could come off as a scruffy, snaggletoothed street-kid, someone no-one would look at twice.

JulieHowe
06-15-2010, 09:36 AM
AKA: What does it take to develop a conscience?

One of my way too many ideas for a novel involves a girl who spent most of her childhood on the streets with very little meaningful social contact, moving from place to place and frequently getting into mortal danger. And while the idea is that she's quite troubled as a young adult, I don't want her to be a total sociopath.

So yeah, how much care and social contact does a child need to develop at least some empathy and ability to care about people? Child psychology really isn't my area.

Granted, this is an idea for a fantasy novel and she has the additional problem of being a half-vampire with the corresponding diet-related issues, but that's another story.

I've got a PDF file of a Columbia Law Review article on this subject. The file is hefty - 7 MB, so it's not a quick download, but it discusses juvenile criminals and remorse, in great depth, also providing useful references for further research.

Edited to add: I like this article because it explains the concept of how we all might be getting it wrong when it comes to judging children and young adults and their capacity (or inability) to reason and comprehend the severity of their actions. A child who kills another and then weeps piteously on the witness stand at her own trial may actually be the psychopath, while another child who kills under identical circumstances but seems bored, disinterested and lacks emotion, may be the one who, upon maturity, will grow up and become truly remorseful.

However, as others have clearly pointed out in response to your question, there is absolutely no textbook blueprint for 'f--ed up child becomes a f--ed up adult.' Two siblings from the same abusive family may grow up, and one will become a serial killer while the other sibling will have a completely normal life. You might try doing a Google search with phrases like 'resilient childhood' to see what you come up with. There's been tons of research done on this very subject.


http://tinyurl.com/2bovc5v

GeorgeK
06-15-2010, 10:28 PM
There's a biography of a saint, I can't remember her name, but I think the title was "A Radiance in the Gulag". A girl ritually abused by her parents and then wound up in a Nazi concentration camp and was an inspration to all non related people she met. So, it can happen.

Lhun
06-15-2010, 11:18 PM
As others have said, there's no way to create sociopathic personality disorder in someone who doesn't have a genetic predisposition to it. So just don't give your character a genetic predisposition towards it.Seconded, thirded, and so on.
Also, humans, especially the human mind, are not neat little deterministic clockwork boxes. Or at least not simple clockwork boxes. There are no simple rules that can predict that a certain kind of childhood will produce insane serial killers or compassionate saints. The kind of psychological profiling that seems to be the current in thing in crime novels and TV shows is actually just so much bullshit, about on a level with fortune-telling.
There's quite an interesting article on that here: http://www.gladwell.com/2007/2007_11_12_a_profile.html

Chasing the Horizon
06-15-2010, 11:59 PM
Also, humans, especially the human mind, are not neat little deterministic clockwork boxes.
Absolutely. Most psychologists are too arrogant to admit it, but they have no idea what they're talking about most of the time. None of us do. Psychology today isn't far ahead of where physical medicine was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are hundreds of pathologies we haven't even recognized enough to name, and the ones we do have names for sorely lack cures. Sometimes we can mask the symptoms with drugs, but we can't fix the underlying problem because we just simply don't understand it.

So if anyone tells you 'that's not possible in psychology', ignore them, because they don't know what's possible. No-one does.


The kind of psychological profiling that seems to be the current in thing in crime novels and TV shows is actually just so much bullshit, about on a level with fortune-telling.
lol, yeah. I still like Criminal Minds, though. I look at it as a paranormal show, because the investigators are obviously psychic. :tongue

To be fair, most of psychology, excluding certain types of pharmacology-based psychiatry, are so unscientific they may as well be fortune telling. *cough*psychoanalysis*cough*