“It’s always the mother’s fault, ain’t it?” she said softly, collecting her coat. “That boy turn out bad cause his mama a drunk, or she a junkie. She let him run wild, she don’t teach him right from wrong. She never home when he back from school. Nobody ever say his daddy a drunk, or his daddy not home after school. And nobody ever say they some kids just damned mean. …”
― Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Of all the things I have ever done, starting this blog and support group is by far the scariest. I know anyone else out there parenting a child with Conduct Disorder knows why.
Let’s face it. It’s always the parents’ fault. Always.
When the Columbine shootings happened, I asked myself the same questions everyone else asked. Where were the parents? Where was the mother? How could she not see this coming? Now I wish I could go find that mother, give her a hug, and tell her I get it.
All parents harbor great hopes for their children when they are born. You want them to grow up to be happy, loved, loving, kind, and fulfilled. You love them with more of your heart and soul than you ever thought possible. You hurt when they hurt, you laugh when they laugh, and sometimes you rejoice more over their accomplishments than your own.
Such it is to be a parent. You love your children more than anything, and you would do anything to help them. Or, at least you do if you are a good parent. And I am a good parent.
I splashed in the rain with my son on rainy days. I encouraged every interest he ever brought up even when it didn’t excite me. I woke him up with smiles and tickles. I painted with him, rode bikes with him, and played sports with him, even though I’m not into sports.
When I found out our son had disabilities that were making it difficult for him to learn, I researched them. Not only did I learn about the disabilities, I studied hundreds of pages of Special Education law, and took a nine month course on navigating Special Education, so I could make sure he was getting the help he needed from the school. I became involved in the local Community Advisory Committee on Special Education, eventually becoming a Board Member, and even holding office.
When I needed to choose the right middle school to be able to deal with his disabilities (we lived in a large city with a choice of over 120 middle schools), I designed spread sheets for the gathering of information, toured schools, and even sat in on classes. This was a process that took over a month of my time, full time. I put in more working hours per week than most workaholics do at their actual job.
Finally, when my son was being bullied in the carefully chosen middle school, I pulled him out and homeschooled him. We found a great group of homeschoolers to hang out with, and I tried every version of homeschooling I could think of, from ready-to-go curriculums, to ones I carefully designed specifically for my son. We even tried unschooling.
In short, I tried everything a reasonable parent might have tried and then some.
When you are reading books on what to expect as a parent, among the lists of milestones and danger signs, the one thing missing from those books are the warning signs of Conduct Disorder.
To be honest, until a year ago, I didn’t even know such a thing existed.
My child is charming, sweet, funny, and poignant. He’s not all bad. But he has always been difficult to parent. He is defiant, aggressive, and impulsive—that’s on a good day. But his defiance, aggression, and impulsiveness go far beyond those experienced with a normal child. Like any good mother, I tried to encourage the good behaviors while not rewarding the bad. I will get into all the various things I have tried over the years in another post, but believe me when I tell you that with the exception of beating our child, we have tried everything.
We even moved out of the big city to the suburbs to keep our son away from criminals and drug addicts. The funny thing is that our son never touched a drug until we moved out to where it was supposed to be “safe”.
It pains me to write this, but my son has never treated me well. Sure, there were wonderful moments, but overall, throughout his whole life, he’s been pretty terrible to me. From the time he was small, he bit me, kicked me, head-butted me, and laughed about it. And now that he is older, it’s a good day if I don’t get called a bitch. We have holes in our walls, we have had to replace doors, and I have been a victim of psychological warfare. I have been told by professionals, “You are his mother, he feels safe around you, that’s why he’s always lashing out at you.” It is clear to me now those people were utterly full of shit. Or just ignorant. It was Conduct Disorder.
If I had a dollar for every time one of my son’s friends mentioned how awesome I was and how they couldn’t believe the way he was treating me, I could put our son in one of those expensive wilderness camps. As one of his friends from back in the city put it when introducing me to a new friend, “And this is his awesome mother who he treats like shit.” No joke. Actual quote.
There is an old parable about putting a frog in a pot of water. If you put the frog in the pot when the water is cold and gently turn up the heat, the frog will be so used to the gradual rising of the temperature that it won’t jump out even when it starts to cook. When I look back at everything I realize I am the frog.
Believe me; I tried not letting him treat me like shit. I tried many different tacks to get him to stop. I got angry and yelled; I got sad and asked him why he would say things like that; I was unemotional in delivering consequences; and I ignored the hurtful things he did and rewarded only good behaviors. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the things I have tried.
Fast forward to our move to the suburbs. He is now in high school, but he’s still having trouble with school work. Hoping to get him the help he needs, we take him to a therapist that comes highly recommended. During this time I began to see his behaviors in a new light – one that only shines on the face of a young man (who is getting much bigger than me) and not a little boy.
“I think my son my might be a sociopath,” I tell our therapist, “or at least he might become one if something isn’t interrupted. He behaves like an abusive husband.”
I couldn’t have been more right.
After some observation, she came back and confirmed what I already knew deep down.
There were a few technical things I was not aware of like terminology. You cannot call a minor a sociopath. It is called Conduct Disorder (CD). Once they are 18 or older you are free to call them a sociopath, but we don’t use that term anymore—it’s now called Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD).
There is some debate in the psychiatric community about whether to use the term sociopath or psychopath. Depending on which books you read they may or may not be the same thing. As of this writing, it seems the consensus is that they are the same thing, and currently get lumped under the umbrella of Antisocial Personality Disorder.
(Quick side note: the term sociopath, or even worse, the term psychopath, conjures up images of Dexter, John Wayne Gacy, or Ed Gein – the inspiration for the main character in Psycho. I assure you these people represent an infinitesimal portion of people with APD. The same goes for Conduct Disorder. We are not looking at serial killers here. If you are looking up the diagnostic criteria for Conduct Disorder, please be aware that the behaviors of setting fires and harming animals do not need to be present for a diagnosis. I can’t tell you how many times the person doing an intake would ask if my son ever set fires or hurt animals only to look puzzled when I said no.)
According to Martha Stout in her 2005 book The Sociopath Next Door, 4% of the population is Sociopathic. That means that with a world population of 7.125 billion people, there are 285 million people out there with the condition. (Though I will be using the terms Antisocial Personality Disorder/Sociopathy/Psychopathy interchangeably throughout the blogs please note the term Conduct Disorder applies only to juveniles, and thus cannot be used interchangeably with the other terms).
Let’s now assume each of these 285 million people have two parents. That means there are 570 million parents out there who are impacted by this condition and could use some support. That is a LOT of people. There are over half a BILLION parents out there who need to find each other! That is why I am writing this. More than a half a billion parents are dealing with this right now, but no one is speaking up.
If so many people are affected by this condition, why is no one speaking up?
I’ll tell you why. Remember my Lionel Shriver quote in the beginning? Everyone always blames the parents.
I spent a long time coming to terms with my son’s condition. I blamed myself for a long time. I kept running over everything in my head. If only I hadn’t done this, or if only I had done that instead. I even spent some time wondering what the hell I had unleashed on the world. After all, I gave birth to him. I brought him into the world.
If you are reading this and you are the parent of a potential psychopath (only 40% of those diagnosed with Conduct Disorder actually go on to be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder), I am here to tell you it is not your fault. From what I have read so far, it looks like there are brain anomalies, and potentially other factors that are genetic in origin. You might as well say it’s your fault that your child has brown eyes.
I will share some words of wisdom from some of the various professionals I have spoken to.
“There is nothing you could have done. Some people are just born this way.”
“Your child cannot be controlled. Please don’t take this to mean YOU can’t control him. He cannot be controlled by anyone.”
Remember my words from earlier? “I think my son my might be a sociopath. Or at least he might become one if something isn’t interrupted. He behaves like an abusive husband.”
Knowing what I know now, I would amend that statement. He doesn’t simply behave like an abuser. He is an abuser. Which is a terrible thing to have to come to terms with in your own child.
If you had a friend who was in an abusive relationship, you would tell them to leave. At least, I hope you would. You would tell your friend they didn’t do anything to bring on the abuse, nor did they deserve it, and you would tell them they are not to blame.
This is no different. Except for one tiny little thing.
You are legally responsible for your abuser. You cannot leave. You cannot kick them out. Indeed, you are legally responsible for providing them with food, clothing, and shelter until they turn 18—in some states, beyond 18. Where I live, we can’t just kick him out when he turns 18; we have to serve him with a 30 day notice first.
Our son turns 15 in four days. So unless something changes and we can find an effective treatment for him, it will be three years, one month, and four days until we are free from his abuse. The police can’t do anything. So far, there are no effective treatment options I have been able to find.
My hope in writing this blog is that other parents like me will be able to find each other and know that we are not alone, we are not to blame, and hopefully get the support we so desperately need. I also hope that the treatment professionals will take notice and figure something out. No one is helping these kids. Treatment professionals don’t want to treat a psychopath. Law enforcement doesn’t have any teeth when it comes to juveniles (that is a whole different post, coming soon). A juvenile with Conduct Disorder? Forget it.
This demographic of people with psychopathy is by FAR the most destructive and costly to our society. If we can find a way to effectively treat them and halt their psychopathy, the benefits would far outweigh the cost. According to this article “How to nip antisocial personality disorder in the bud”, published a few days ago in The Guardian, the cost of just ONE case of chronic criminality is estimated at 3-4 MILLION dollars. (And yes, more about the rest of this article in yet another post coming soon).
I am not a treatment professional. I am just a mom who finally got so fed up with the lack of resources for these kids that I decided to tell my story, in the face of my nearly crippling fear of being “that parent”.
But someone has to do something. Someone has to open up that dialog, and publically. Someone finally has to say out loud to the world about their own very real child: We need to talk about Kevin.