Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Friend’s Son Is a Psychopath

He gives me the creeps—and he just killed a bunny.

A boy holds a hammer behind his back as his mother looks concerned in the foreground.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by UroshPetrovic/iStock/Getty Images Plus and MangoStar_Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A very good friend of mine has two sons, Dan, 7, and Max, 4. They are both very poorly behaved. I don’t have children myself but have been startled at the difference between these children’s behavior and other friends’ kids’. Max is impishly naughty—he tries to get away with things, refuses to listen, and generally makes a habit of pushing boundaries. However, my main concern is about Dan, who seems malicious and lacks empathy for others. I fear that he may be a psychopath.

Dan is very intelligent and highly calculating. I’ve watched him manipulate his mother into giving him what he wants and into forgiving him for nasty things that he’s obviously done deliberately, and whenever he is around other kids, his behavior seems on the verge of bullying. A year ago, another friend and I compared observations and agreed that Dan seems to have sociopathic tendencies. However, neither of us sees him very often, and as it’s quite difficult to tell a friend that there may be something wrong with their child, we kind of let it drop. Dan also has anxiety issues and poor social skills, so we thought (or hoped) we might be overreacting somehow.

However, Max recently let slip that he saw his brother kill a baby rabbit by “poking” it until it wouldn’t open its eyes anymore. We also learned that Dan’s teacher has suggested he needs therapy, but his parents are not on board with that.

We’re not sure how to handle this situation. Confronting his mom with our suspicions seems out of the question. She is very sensitive and in the past has become pretty defensive even at minor things we might mention to her about her kids. She’s also stretched the truth about Dan’s behavior to us to make it seem less alarming. I worry if we talk to her directly, she will cut us out of their lives; I love her like a sister, and she has very few other people in her life she can rely on.

Right now, we’re making a point to call out his disturbing behavior as we see it and showing enthusiastic support for therapy when she brings it up. But things seem to be escalating quickly, I’m not sure what the window is to teach a child empathy, and we’re worried about the family dog, neighborhood animals, and, most especially, Max (who would likely become the target of Dan’s cruelty). We just don’t know what to do.

Also, while I am not a clinical psychologist, I do have an advanced degree in psychology, so I am not saying these things lightly. What do you do when you think your friend’s child is a psychopath?

—Concerned Observer

Dear CO,

You can protect your friend’s fragile feelings now, but you won’t be able to protect her in the future if your suspicions are correct and this young man is dealing with some issues that could make him a serious threat to himself, his family, and countless others.

Your educational background gives you unique insight. You may have more success if you outline your concerns in great detail without using the word psychopath, which may terrify her enough that she digs her head even farther into the sand. Explain that you only want what is best for Dan, as well as Max and the rest of the family, and that what her son seems to be going through is likely causing him tremendous discomfort that no child should have to endure. Give examples of things that you have observed and heard from his brother and other friends. Let her know that you hesitated to bring your concerns to her for fear that she would isolate herself from you, and that you love her like a sister—which means loving her enough to tell her what she needs to hear, and being willing to support her as she takes the difficult step toward getting this young man the help he needs.

If possible, consult with a child psychologist and come equipped with their insight on how to best engage your friend, as well as contact information for local mental health professionals. Do not drop this issue if she is unwilling to admit, at the very least, that her child should go to therapy or won’t commit to providing it for him. Persist until she and her husband take action, and employ the friends who have shared these same concerns with you to do the same thing, perhaps culminating in a group intervention if one-on-one conversations do not net results.

Folks must be willing to step up and tell parents the devastating truth about their kids—truths that they are, in many cases, working hard to ignore. I think this is the second time I’ve said as much in this column, but there are too many mass shootings and acts of violence in this country to prioritize comfort or friendship over potentially saving lives. The stakes are high, and neither you nor your friends can afford to do nothing. I wish you all the best and hope you can summon the courage to show this woman just how much you really love her—and Dan.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How do you talk to your young children about crushes at school? My oldest daughter is in first grade, and for the last few months, she has been talking about a classmate and how much she loves him. She even asked how to know if she should marry him.

I don’t want her to feel dismissed or belittled by me, but she is only 7! I know her feelings are real to her, but I just don’t know what to say. Please help!

—Not Ready to Be an In-Law

Dear Not Ready,

Ask her some questions about the object of her affection and just what it is that he has or does that makes her feel like she does about him. If this kid isn’t terribly nice to her, ask her to explain just why she finds him to be so dreamy and help her to understand why it’s important to surround ourselves with people who treat us with kindness. If she lists positive attributes—say, he’s good at sharing, patient, polite, and smart—explain that those are excellent qualities to have in a friend, and that friendship is the only suitable relationship between kids their age.

Let her know that it’s OK to feel butterflies in her stomach or even that she loves this classmate, but that she has to express those feelings in ways that are appropriate. Make sure she knows not to overwhelm him or, you know, propose marriage, which is something for when you’re much older. Crushes can be sweet and safe, and yes, her feelings are real to her … so be gentle with them!

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We live in a very multicultural and socioeconomically diverse area in South Florida. We are white, and both my husband and I are well-off professionals. Our 4½-year-old daughter has grown up socializing with all types of children and has a close friend who is black and one who is Brazilian.

There are two Hispanic little girls at the preschool that have made meanish comments to my child based on her race and appearance. They have told her that they didn’t like her because of her blond hair and that they won’t be friends with her because she doesn’t speak Spanish. I’ve reiterated to my daughter that she should be kind, that all people are the same on the inside, and that we shouldn’t judge people by their appearance.

This past week, she informed me that the girls have now told her that they will only be friends with other girls who have dark skin, not light skin like hers. We are only three weeks into the school year, but I’m thinking of emailing the teacher. Comments about skin color and hair color seem really wrong to me. If my child said she didn’t want to be friends with a little Hispanic girl because her skin is brown or because her hair is black, I would certainly take action. Is it too soon to reach out, and if not, what should I say?

—Sad Blond Child

Dear SBC,

I am very sorry to hear that your daughter has had to deal with this, especially considering that this is her first experience with school and classmates. You should absolutely share what happened with her teacher. It’s better to address these things when they first come up than to let them fester and let your child, or any other kid who may have been subject to hurtful comments, suffer in the meantime.

I also must, though, engage the ever-complicated cultural nuances that so many parents would prefer not to have to deal with. But you’re a mom who takes pride in surrounding her child with diverse neighbors and a diverse circle of friends, so I trust you will take this seriously. The hostility that these Hispanic—or, perhaps, Latinx—children have displayed toward your daughter is inappropriate and must be addressed, regardless of what may have triggered it. However, I am curious to know if they have simply targeted her for looking different than they do or if there’s something more complicated at hand. You say that you’re in a culturally and economically diverse community, which likely means an area that is undergoing gentrification. You also pointed out that your family is well-to-do, which leads me to infer that these children may be from a somewhat different background—and even if they do have upper-middle-class parents, there are still some sharp contrasts in how your respective families are experiencing South Florida, as well as, well, America.

Between the likely changes in your neighborhood and the increasingly open contempt for Hispanic and Latinx people that has been stoked by the current presidential administration, there is a strong possibility that these kids may have seen, heard, or experienced some things that might make them hostile toward—or fearful of—white folks. The girls may have heard their parents talk about rising rents pushing neighbors out of a neighborhood that may be changing to serve a wealthier, whiter population. They may have witnessed friends being mistreated by members of the MAGA hat masses (or some racist-ass liberals). They may even have seen loved ones harassed or detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

It may be comfortable to think, No, this is just a matter of kids seeing someone unfamiliar and not knowing how to react, but I find that unlikely. At 4 or 5, most children of color have already been widely exposed to positive representations of white people in the media—Disney princesses ensure that your daughter is not the first pale blonde they’ve come across. It’s more likely that she represents to them either troubling events or things that they’ve had to deal with.

When you speak to the teacher about what happened, be careful not to suggest that these little girls have done something remotely comparable to a situation in which the children’s races were reversed: “I realize that the girls may have had some experiences that make them feel uncomfortable or turned off from people who look like my daughter. I’d like for us to figure out a way to address what they did, why it was hurtful, and how we can encourage all of the kids to see one another as equals and, hopefully, as friends.”

You also need to explain to your daughter that throughout her life she will come across people of color who are fearful, uncomfortable, or hostile in the presence of white people because of racism. “Unfortunately, there are some people who look like us who think that it’s better to be white than to be anything else, and they have done some very hurtful things to people who don’t look like us. It is our job to treat everyone with kindness and respect. I don’t want you to let anyone be mean to you, nor should you let people treat you badly because they’ve been treated badly.”

Racism is too complicated for kids that young! They can’t be expected to take all that in. Eh, tell that to those of us who actually have to live through it. As readers of this column have heard me say before, white folks typically have the privilege of living their entire lives without knowing jack about race and racism and the devastating impact it has on people of color from birth. They shouldn’t be allowed only to engage with the subject when it directly affects them or their children. The many readers of this column who are white parents of children either integrating schools in gentrifying neighborhoods or attending primarily white schools with a sprinkle of diversity should pay attention to SBC’s situation, and think about the best ways to raise children capable of treating people of color with the dignity they deserve.

Hopefully, this can be a teachable moment for all the kids involved and an opportunity for this school to deal with the uncomfortable changes in the community it serves in a meaningful way. Best of luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been dating a wonderful divorcé with three children—two girls (14, 10) and a son (8). He shares split custody with his ex-wife. She had them for the entire summer, and now they are back to their normal arrangement. He told me today that he feels ready to introduce me to the kids, and I am panicking.

Do you have any suggestions on the best way to approach this new aspect of our relationship? What is my role as “Dad’s girlfriend”? Any ideas for a harmonious transition? For what it’s worth, I am the first serious girlfriend he has had post-divorce.

—Scared to Meet

Dear StM,

How long have you been dating this dude? He’s ready for you to meet his kids, but are you ready to meet them? If not, you should tell him. It sounds like it may have only been a few months, and just because he hasn’t made a habit of bringing new women around thus far doesn’t mean that your personal comfort is irrelevant. If you are ready but simply nervous, then that’s different.

Also, have you talked about the kids’ mom? Has he asked her where she stands on introducing a new person into their lives? Be sure to get clarity, if you haven’t, regarding where she is on the matter before you walk into a situation unaware of potential hostility on her part, which could inform the kids’ feelings on the matter.

Ask him to tell you about the children’s personalities and interests. Ask how they’re feeling about the divorce and the custody arrangement. And when you meet them, be enthusiastic, engaged, and kind, but don’t press the kids to be more outgoing or comfortable than they are—this is likely to be even more anxiety-inducing for them than it is for you.

Your role is to be a warm, responsible, and supportive adult presence to both your boyfriend and his children. Your boyfriend can include you in his time with his kids, but at this point the majority of his custody should be spent as family time—and you aren’t family yet. Do not be afraid to set boundaries and to let him know that you want to take your time and build both your bond with him and this new connection to his kids before, say, routinely finding yourself picking them up from school or being present for the entirety of their visits. You are not a stepparent, nor should you feel obligated to function as one this early in your relationship.

Good luck!

—Jamilah

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I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity?