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Living with Children: Animal torture is marker for antisocial behavior

| Monday, April 21, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Question: My 18-year-old son and a slightly younger friend recently found some mice and decided to dispose of them. They drowned one and set the other one on fire. When I confronted my son for torturing animals, his response was “They're just mice.” Is this typical boy behavior, or should I be concerned?

Answer: This may be “boy behavior” in that boys are more likely to do such things than girls, but it is not typical boy behavior. Animal torture and abuse is a strong marker of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

The website “How to Spot a Sociopath” (www.wikihow.com/Spot-a-Sociopath) defines APD as a “disregard for the feelings of others, a lack of remorse or shame, manipulative behavior, unchecked egocentricity and the ability to lie in order to achieve one's goals.”

The fact that your son tortured mice to death is not, in and of itself, diagnostic, but it raises suspicions. His cavalier attitude when you confronted him raises those suspicions.

The question turns on whether other aspects of your son's behavior fit the criteria. It is possible for a person to exhibit an isolated sociopathic behavior without being a sociopath.

If, however, your son habitually lies, seems callous toward the problems of others, is generally narcissistic and often manipulative of others, I would recommend a professional evaluation. He's still young enough that, if he's confronted with a problem of this sort in a professional setting, he can, possibly, make corrections to the direction his life is taking (assuming the evaluation reveals a diagnostic issue).

Even if your son doesn't exhibit the above markers, a psychological evaluation might be valuable. If a psychologist gives him a clean bill of health, the process will emphasize to him the seriousness of what he did. At the very least, he needs to understand that deliberately killing an animal is not by any stretch the equivalent of stepping on a bug by accident.

Q: My 11-year old son, an only child, continues to ask me to “snuggle” with him and scratch his back at bed time. This is a time for us to read aloud, chat about concerns or questions and say prayers.

Sometimes, if I'm too busy, he just goes off to bed, and, sometimes, his dad cuddles instead of me. An older friend whom I respect said a pre-pubescent boy is too old for this kind of cuddle routine, that it sends the wrong mother-son message. I always assumed that the day would come when he would not want me to step foot in his room and decided to enjoy it for as long as it lasted, but am I continuing a routine that should come to an end?

A: Not in my estimation. I'm sure your friend is well-meaning, but I disagree that this is inappropriate behavior for a mom to engage in with an 11-year-old boy, especially given that (a) he accepts it when you are too busy to cuddle, (b) his dad cuddles with him at times and (c) you sound like a healthy bunch of humans. The day is rapidly coming when your son will probably no longer want you to come to his room.

Visit family psychologist John Rosemond at www.johnrosemond.com.

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