Psychopathic sons/daughters: coercion starts early

To coerce means to compel or force another to comply. Coercive behavior reflects reactance and a motive to dominate others; it is a tool for obtaining control over resources and other people [1920].

Patterson identified “coercive family interactions” that occur in the families of children and teens with the externalizing disorders that are precursors to adult psychopathy. He hypothesized that children learn coercion tactics early in life because such tactics are an effective strategy for the procurement of reinforcers. Strong dominance motivation facilitates learning of coercive tactics because dominant individuals are sensitive to reward [19]. Coercion is associated with negative emotions—trait anger and irritability (these often accompany trait dominance motivation [19]). According to Patterson, “It is the patterned irritable exchanges between the problem child, his mother, and his siblings that define the ‘basic training’ for coercion” [21]. Patterson brilliantly observed that not only is the problem child trained in coercion during these family interactions, but also parents are trained to submit to the child who uses coercive tactics: the externalizing child asks for something; parent refuses, child then escalates his/her demands until the parent submits. The difference between normative and problem children is that the former are not excessively driven to dominate their parents and problem children are not hampered in their demands by the presence of empathy [22]. Because problem children are deficient in (or dissociate from) emotional empathy, they are not concerned that their behavior distresses their parents.

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