In Consultation

In Consultation

Don’t Hit Your Sister! Understanding the complexities of moral development

By Lawrence Cohen

September/October 2015

Q: Recently, I’ve seen a number of parents in my practice who worry about their young children’s lack of remorse or empathy when they hurt someone. They fear their children are budding sociopaths. I’m not sure how to reassure them—or even if reassurance is the most appropriate response.

A: Though you may have to dig for examples, most children have some capacity for empathy, cooperation, and kindness. A few minutes of family observation or talking with parents is usually enough to rule out the rare diagnosis of sociopathy. Even when children are quite aggressive and have difficulty with emotional connection, the situation is usually subtler than that extreme label suggests, so reassurance is certainly in order.

However, because most parents are really asking if their child will be a kind, thoughtful, and law-abiding adult, I usually combine reassurance with acknowledgment that their concerns are serious—and the sooner they’re addressed, the better. As we shift away from fears of sociopathy, I aim to help parents understand the complexities of moral development through a four-part model of the conscience.

• Moral Knowledge starts with rules of appropriate behavior and develops over time into a deeper understanding of basic ethical principles.

• Impulse Control refers to the ability to refrain from unacceptable behavior, not an absence of impulses.

• Inner Guidance is the capacity to take moral responsibility,…

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