9 Tips For Dealing With Difficult People

Blamers, complainers, and bullies, oh my! The Savvy Psychologist offers 4 tips for dealing with difficult people, and 5 more for taking care of yourself after a close encounter with the difficult kind. Plus: does bedwetting predict psychopathy? Find out in our new Savvy Listener Mail segment!

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
September 15, 2016
Episode #030

Page 3 of 3

Now for a New Segment: Savvy Listener Mail! 

After the episode, How to Identify a Psychopath or Sociopath, Keith Carrter, of Mobile, AL, wrote and asked, “I've read that psychopaths tend toward arson, and are frequently bedwetters in their childhoods. Any truth to this?”

Keith, this is a great question, because it addresses an urban myth so persistent it even got on Law and Order: SVU.  The answer is both yes and no. The theory to which you are referring is the MacDonald Triad, also called the “homicidal triad”--which to me sounds like the combination of sick kids, a work deadline, and no coffee

In 1963, the psychiatrist Dr. J.M. Macdonald published a paper that suggested a set of three characteristics—arson, cruelty to animals, and bedwetting—for predicting later homicidal and violent tendencies.

But the study didn’t actually crunch any data; it just came from Dr. Macdonald’s hunches after working with violent patients. And even Macdonald himself started to express doubt in the theory after multiple studies failed to replicate his findings.

But he was one-third right. In a 2004 study, kids were followed over a 10-year period, and those who had been cruel to animals were more than twice as likely to later commit a violent crime. Likewise, a 2005 study followed over 3600 participants for 7 years, and found that pet abuse was one of the five factors that predicted who would later abuse his partner.

Animal cruelty, however, doesn’t come out of the blue—it’s often a sign of child abuse and neglect. Indeed, animal cruelty is basically about power and control, much like child abuse, sexual assault, or domestic violence. So it’s no surprise that children who are brutally mistreated and humiliated may try to play out power and control scenarios by torturing animals weaker than themselves. 

Firestarting can also be a sign of childhood abuse and neglect, or a sign that kids have witnessed domestic violence. But while it isn’t exactly the ideal extracurricular activity, it’s not as strong a predictor of future violence as animal cruelty.

Bedwetting, however, doesn’t really belong in the triad. While enuresis could be caused by anxiety in an abusive home environment, in the vast majority of cases, it just signals an immature bladder, a heavy sleeper, or constipation taking up all the room down there. Delayed nighttime bladder control has even been found to be hereditary, so it may just be in a child’s DNA.

So don’t freak out if your child wets the bed. Wet sheets do not mean you have a budding sociopath on your hands, nor does it mean you’re inadvertently abusing your child. 

Better early warning signs for future violence are child abuse and neglect, particularly combined with mental illness and substance abuse. Indeed, of Macdonald’s original research subjects, 90% had schizophrenia or organic brain disease, 35% had paranoid delusions, and 26% were drunk or high when they made their homicidal threats. If anything, that triad--plus being a victim of parent brutality--would have been the more appropriate predictors.


Becker, K.D., Stuewig, J., Herrera, V.M., McCloskey, L.A.  (2004).  A study of firesetting and animal cruelty in children: Family Influences and adolescent outcomes.  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43, 905-12.

Juvenile Firestarting: A Research Overview. www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/207606.pdf

Macdonald, J.M. (1963).  The threat to kill.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 125-130.

Walton-Moss, B.J., Manganello, J., Frye, V., & Campbell, J.C. (2005).  Risk factors for intimate partner violence and associated injury among urban women.  Journal of Community Health, 30, 377-389.

Photos of bedwetting boy, man rollling eyes, annoying co-worker, and blah-blah bubbles courtesy of Shutterstock.




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