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Recent events might have caused you to wonder about a teen you know, if that teen seems smart, socially-awkward, and maybe living in a world of his own. We have always distrusted the ‘evil genius.’ But not every nerd needs watching. Here’s what you need to know.

Economist Daniel Kahneman, in his recent book Thinking Fast and Slow, reminds us of the “availability heuristic.” Kahneman means that what is most “available” – what’s in the news, what’s on our minds – seems the most important measurement of what’s real. So an airplane crash will make people imagine that air travel is dangerous, despite the fact that thousands of airplanes fly without incident each and every day. One disaster makes crashing more “available” to our thinking than do the many unmentioned – and so unavailable to our minds – successful flights.

One mass murder conducted by one nerdy youth makes headline news across the country. The many other murders that happen daily in major cities everywhere, perpetrated by desperate, deranged, or dangerous individuals of any age, go largely ignored. They have become part of what is normal and expected – terrible as that is – in modern life.

In addition, society has a long-standing distrust of brainy people. Slogans like “evil genius” and “early ripe, early rot” and even “mad scientist” perpetuate the notion that smart people are unstable. But IQ is not associated with sociopathology. Most crimes are committed by otherwise ordinary folks. They may have a personality problem and they might be evil. But their level of intelligence – at either end of the IQ scale – didn’t make them so.

So not every nerd needs watching… but every child does. Get professional help if these are true of your child or your family:
• Your child has an explosive temper, so that even adults are afraid of this child;
• You worry about how you will handle this child when he’s bigger and stronger than you;
• You’ve caught your child being cruel to animals and insects;
• Your child seems obsessed with thoughts of pain and death;
• Your child seems indifferent to the feelings of others.

These can be signs of serious psychological issues. These are traits he or she is unlikely to outgrow and that you cannot fix all by yourself. Withdrawing your child from school, keeping him under your watchful eye, and limiting his contact with others may postpone the moment when things spiral out of control but they cannot eliminate the possibility of an out-of-control episode.

Children who grow up to be monsters are few and far between. Monstrous acts are rare. It’s important not to overstate the danger the kid next door presents, simply because we are deluded by the availability heuristic. At the same time, it’s important to not ignore our own children’s needs.

If your child needs help, get that help.