After the Webinar: Childhood Psychopathy and Extreme Violence Committed by Youth. Q&A with Dr. Sandra Antoniak

Webinar presenter Dr. Sandra Antoniak answered a number of your questions after her presentation, “I Just Wanted to Know What it Feels Like”: Childhood Psychopathy and Extreme Violence Committed by Youth.  Here are just a few of her responses.


Audience Question: They wanted to know about the young college student. What happened? Was she allowed to eventually return to classes? Did she get help? What happened?

Sandra K. Antoniak: This young person, actually she did end up okay. She took a very long time to come back to school, that being that she basically put her academics on hold while she did basically a year-long program of individualized studies and re-evaluation. And thank you for this question because in these situations, where your experts maybe in fact, evaluating people for you for the presence of these types of traits and concerns, re-evaluation is very important. Because not only would the person… you have to do your intervention, but she was also required to go to therapy, to start a medication for treatment of her depression, and she was going through some socialization and in-depth therapy. But she had to be re-evaluated, and over time it was obvious that these things sort of fell away for her as she started to understand and adapt to college more easily. So, she did end up okay. Last, I heard, she’s still doing well, and should have graduated by now.


Audience Question: With these adolescent violent crimes, have you ever also observed a pattern of animal abuse? And, of course, for our animal control officers out there in the audience today, we so often talk about the link between animal abuse and other human-related crimes. What’s your experience with that? 

Sandra K. Antoniak: Being a child and adolescent psychiatrist and not only working in the forensic world, we see this very commonly. That oftentimes children who are abused or who are conduct disordered, we always talk about the health and well-being of the animal. Unfortunately, I don’t want to traumatize anyone, and I believe this audience could handle it but for example, the gentleman who had engaged in kind of the Romeo and Juliet elopement and killed her grandmother, had a habit of disappearing pets. We see this, not infrequently, unfortunately, that companion animals are easy access. This is also —– unfortunately, to sexual experimentation as well. So, there are very many times when, especially companion animals are inflicted with things. And of course, psychopathic traits, the empathy if they’re not available to humans are certainly not available to pets or animals. So, again, if that is part of a presentation, it should always be asked about, and it should be listened to if present.


Audience Question: How much does trauma play a part in psychopathy? 

Sandra K. Antoniak: That is an interesting question. Trauma in and of itself may exert influence on the person’s ability to control their thoughts, feelings, and actions. So, for example, let’s take bullying as an example of a trauma. It can take the shape of emotional trauma or physical trauma. When somebody is having, psychopathic traits or impulses, they may be perseverating about committing a violent act. Then, certainly, if they are traumatized and that trauma is not mitigated by intervention, then certainly they may not feel the motivation to control those impulses any longer. In fact, especially in the case of targeted attacks upon schools by students. In very many cases, there are pretty much three things. There have been some instance of alienation, estrangement, or bullying, which certainly was the case in my example as well. There’s often depression, again, in my example as well. And then if you probe deeply enough, especially in the instances of targeted attacks in schools that suicidal thoughts are also present. So, if you think about when you put your mental armor on every day to go out and deal with the world, if you’ve been traumatized, that’s like putting a hole in your armor. So, therefore, you know, those impulses and motivation to control yourself may start to slip over time. And certainly now, if you think about the heritability of callous, unemotional traits, being that 40 to 68%, that is passed down as well. So, if you have a cold and emotional, a callus parent who then commit violence or abuse, physical or sexual upon a child carries those same gene. You know, that’s not going to be a very good setup for that child then or adolescent to be able to learn the proper coping skills to deal with their traits. So, trauma may very much influence the person’s ability to control what they are thinking at that point.


Audience Question: You talked about how juvenile violent crime went down 19%, do you have any sense as to why that happened, why did juvenile violent crime? 

Sandra K. Antoniak: That is a very good question because it’s quite stark. if you remember that graph back there, 93 to 96, you had a huge spike, like I think I called it a mountain, and then it’s just kind of gently came down. And then we had a tiny spike, again, like 2003, 2006, and then coming down again. Now, my personal theory is that back then, if you think about the early 90s there was a lot of, you know perhaps the evolution and development and of gang-related activities, drug-related activities in the street, and that sort of things that involved youth. A lot of this is not certainly exclusionary to this. But my theory is that there was this spike in violent crime across the board. That, in general, has been coming down, and this is also for adults, as well. This trend has been coming down. Now is that due to mandatory sentencing? Is that due to a shift to stricter gun legislation? Greater public awareness, and getting guns off the street? If we think is guns are the number one determinant of access to guns. You know, there’s probably it’s multi-factorial. But I think in looking at the literature too, it’s always what’s always cited is that was a period of escalation of street styles of violence associated with perhaps a developing drug trade.


Audience Question: What is the reason psychologically for children to offend in groups? You talked about the young gang of boys, they’re online. What is that notion of committing crimes but in groups? 

Sandra K. Antoniak: If we think about, this again, comes back to the neurodevelopment portion of this concept. When we are in our teens, we’ve all been there, we’ve all done it. We are very exquisitely sensitive to peer influences. So, is every single person who is involved in a group that there has been a bad act, is every single person psychopathic in that group? No. Are they influenced by their peers that are participating in the act? Yes. And so, we, in that portion of our neurodevelopment, we are for very many reasons, exquisitely sensitive to peer influence. We’re also very sensitive to coercion because we do not have the ability to stand up and say, “No, I’m not going to do that,” or “I’m outta here.” If we think of it, reflect upon our own times in middle school or high school. So, it’s that part of life, both neurodevelopmentally, as well as socially, that we are very prone to this. So, that’s the reason why, those types of crimes, particularly sets of sex offenses, juveniles are more likely to act in groups than are adults.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of “I Just Wanted to Know What it Feels Like”: Childhood Psychopathy and Extreme Violence Committed by Youth



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