Writer and broadcaster

My 11-year-old son steals, lies and gets into trouble – is he a sociopath? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

We have two children and the older one is 11. He has been slow to pick up on social cues and is not as socially advanced as his peers. Lying comes easily to him. He is self-absorbed, possibly narcissistic, impulsive, keen to win peers’ admiration and hooked on sugar. I think his self-esteem is not good.

Age nine, he stole a bag of sweets from a shop. Age 10, he started stealing money from my purse. My husband and I have spoken to him about it on several occasions and taken away privileges as punishment. Today I discovered he had stolen more money from me and used a stranger’s credit card to purchase game points. My son is adamant that he found the card outside.

This week his headmaster called me in to tell me my son had written a note to a younger girl, in the name of another boy, telling her he was going to do things to her [content not published]. I was shocked and disturbed. I let my son see how upset I was, and my husband and I spoke to him about how wrong this was and why this was so wrong.

We try to monitor his screen use but neither of us is very engaged with the internet. We think that there is a lot of “sex talk” in the playground.

We give our son pocket money and some of the coveted computer games. My husband is very engaged and thoughtful. We are both affectionate to him, try to talk to him and provide positive modelling. His wellbeing is a daily conversation between my husband and myself. But my son has no conscience. And I feel utterly overwhelmed, anxious and frightened that we appear to have a sociopath for a son.

How do we get him to appreciate the impact of his actions on others? I know his brain is still developing but I don’t know what to do.

He goes to secondary school next year so will be further from our influence and control.

I also feel that he is like me. I am selfish and a liar. I am an impatient, angry person and sometimes that leaks out at the children. I have to work full time. So, taking all this into account, my children do not get enough of my time and attention. My husband would describe my parenting style as “high criticism, high warmth”. I feel that my son has inherited my unpleasant personality.

First, what did you do about the “found” credit card? This is fraudulent and he is above the age of criminal responsibility.

It’s evident that your son needs attention. I contacted Ann Horne, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who has worked extensively with troubled adolescents. “It’s clear he’s on a path and it’s escalating – and it’s the escalation we need to worry about,” Horne said.

I do think you need to get proper support for him and for all of you, including your other child – this will be having an impact on the younger sibling. You need to explore, with a professional, why your son may be slow to pick up on social clues and be less socially advanced than his peers. If you don’t want to go through your GP, the link above will help you find someone near you.

The first thing I asked Horne was why children steal. “It usually goes a way back,” she said, “and can be a way of looking for something they lack. It may be a sign that a child needs something but doesn’t have a clue what. Money is usually a substitute for affection: it’s a ‘bit of the parent’.”

This isn’t said so you can blame yourself further but maybe it will be a piece of the jigsaw. You asked me not to publish a key fact about yourself that I think is rather important, and I would like you to look at that and what effect it may be having on your family, and your son.

“Your son is a long way from being a sociopath,” said Horne. “Being a sociopath or a psychopath are established psychological structures. He’s still fluid, still young, still a work in progress. But there is a sense of him getting into some self-sustaining [or his idea of it, by trying to make himself self-sufficient by stealing money], of shutting himself off from what is around him.”

What he wrote to the girl at school is completely unacceptable, and both Horne and I questioned what he had been watching on screen. I’m afraid you need to, very much, engage with the internet when you have children who will do so. “Bring any computer he has access to into the living room,” advises Horne, “so his use of it is public.”

Learn about the internet, learn about parental controls and how to use them on screens, tablets and phones. Don’t let him have a TV in his own room. Keep purses locked away. These are practical things you can do.

A couple of things in your letter gave me pause. Why is your son hooked on sugar? You talk of it as if you have no input into his life, you seem helpless: you are not. Who is in charge, him or you? Stop being afraid of your own child. Also, when he wrote the note to the girl, the key question you didn’t ask him was: “Why?”.

Try to talk at him less and listen to him more.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 4 June 2016.