While there is significant disagreement amongst psychologists and psychiatrists about whether a child can be diagnosed as a sociopath, there are early warning signs that signal when a child is deeply troubled. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, common among sociopaths, can be given at the age of 18 to an adolescent who has exhibited symptoms since the age of 15.
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Cruelty to Animals
Clinical psychologist Jill P. Weber states that while she is unwilling to diagnose a child as a sociopath, abuse of animals is an indicator that a child needs help. A child with an interest in watching others suffer may start by inflicting harm on animals. The National District Attorneys Association states that the boys responsible for most of the shootings in American schools between 1997 and 2001, including Columbine, had a history of killing animals. Serial killers Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Rader, some of the most famous sociopaths in history, also tortured and killed animals as children.
Lack of Empathy
A 2009 article in Molecular Psychology points to a lack of empathy and remorse as a common trait among sociopaths. While a psychopath knows the difference between right and wrong, it makes no difference to him. If a child frequently hurts or bullies others, but displays no noticeable emotion when their victims express pain, they may have a glitch in the brain network connecting the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala. This neurological trait has been noted in sociopaths and psychopaths, and may explain their inability to care about the harm they cause or the consequences of their actions. A lack of conscience and compassion are classic traits of a sociopath.
Vandalism and Setting Fires
Although the majority of fires set by children are ignited out of curiosity rather than malice, a pervasive interest in setting fires may be an early sign of antisocial or sociopathic behavior. Salisbury, MD-based Focus Adolescent Services cautions that if a child over the age of eight starts a fire, it is more likely that the behavior represents underlying mental illness than in younger children. Of adolescent firestarters, Focus states that the behavior often represents true criminal intent. Psychologists caution that children in whom firestarting behavior coexists alongside animal torture and excessive bedwetting are in particular danger. Often, children exhibiting these symptoms are victims of abuse or neglect themselves.