When I began my journey with Conduct Disorder (CD) roughly four years ago, right after our son was diagnosed at the age of 13, I consulted with experts all over the globe. They all said the same thing. Nothing helps. There is no existing intervention or parenting strategy that is helpful if you have a child with Conduct Disorder. The only hope is that your child bumps up against the Juvenile Justice System. Sometimes it works, sometimes it makes them worse. No one knows why.
I have recently been given information for interventions that appear to be effective for young children, under the age of nine, and one intervention for children under the age of sixteen (links at the bottom of the page). But, as this information came to me too late to be of use to my now 17-year-old son, and as I did not have any of this information when I began my journey, this is the story of how I made due with “nothing works” and cobbled together a strategy of my own.
Years ago, in doing my own research, I developed a theory. One I tested on my own child. Based upon current circumstances with our son, it seems to be working.
Upon receiving my son’s diagnosis of CD, I did what I always do: read every book I could find on the subject. Knowing that CD is a precursor to psychopathy (also sometimes incorrectly called sociopathy) , I devoured everything on psychopathy (and sociopathy) and CD I could get my hands on. As I read these books and articles, I began to see a very painful truth.
If I was in any way to become effective as a parent, I needed to come to terms with the fact that my child will hurt people, lie, cheat, attack, lash out, steal, and manipulate the way other children smile, share, play nice, get gold stars, and Student of the Month awards. I would never have a normal child. And I would never have friends the way other parents do. Because one by one my child would make sure to alienate all of my friends and family.
So my husband and I came face to face with the terrible truth. We were, and would always be, completely alone in this.
Once we faced this terrible realization, one we had always felt deep down on some level but never put a name to, we needed to take some time to grieve for what we had hoped our child might be. My husband more so than me because he could not reconcile the fun and wonderful person our son could sometimes be with the terrible person he often was. It broke my husband’s heart every time the beautiful parts of our child would melt away into the nightmare of CD. And it broke my heart to watch his heart break. That was actually the worst part of this whole thing for me. Watching my husband’s heartbreak over and over and over again every time his hopes were dashed by CD.
But aside from the near constant heartbreak, my husband’s biggest struggle was feeling like the things our child did reflected poorly on HIM. In this day and age where a parent is considered responsible for everything their child does, it is very easy to take every little screw-up by your child personally. This is something my husband struggled with immensely. He took the vast bulk of our son’s suspensions, thefts, or attacks on other children very, very personally.
My husband has always been more concerned with societal constraints than I am, so he was far more caught up in what people would think. He took every failure by our child to follow the rules as though it meant he was a failure as a parent. Every time other parents or teachers met us with disapproval or upset, he reacted emotionally and blamed himself, as though he had been the sole cause of our son’s constant screw-ups.
I’ve always thought the notion of parents being able to “control” their children, as though the children were not independent beings with a mind and will of their own, was a laughable one. So I was far less bothered by what people might think about me when my child would misbehave, no matter how society tells me I “should” feel as a parent.
But when you have a child with CD, no matter how free-thinking you are, this notion of how it reflects on your character as a person and your efficacy and worth as a parent is magnified to an extent you cannot possibly believe if you don’t have one of these children yourself. Because not only do you blame you, others blame you. Often very vocally. And so, when your child screws up (yet again), your immediate reaction is an emotional one.
And when a child with CD screws up, they REALLY screw up. And it is darn near constant.
Parents of children with Conduct Disorder are left with an almost PTSD-like response surrounding their children. It is an automatic fear-based reaction. It is pure dread. Every time the phone rings, you jump, certain it is the school demanding you come pick up your child, again. You know that the teachers are going to look at you and think (or even outright say) it’s your fault.
The fear is everywhere. Every time you make a new friend at the park, you wonder how long it will take before this new friend finally decides that your child is a bad influence on their child and stops returning your calls for play dates (like they always do). Every time you drop your child off with aftercare you wonder if your child will get kicked out of yet another program because of the way they behave. And, when they are older, every time you hear a police siren you immediately check to see where your child is to see if they are the reason for it. And on the days your child happens to be locked up in juvie and you hear a police siren, you turn to your spouse and say, “Well, at least we know it’s not our kid!”
We, as a society, are caught up in looking good. What do the neighbors think when the police car is in front of our house (yet again)? How will other parents perceive us when our child acts up (yet again)? How will the school officials view us in light of our child’s horrific behavior (yet again)? What will our families think when our child acts up at a family gathering (yet again)?
The harsh reality was that the only way for us to effectively parent a child with CD was to completely give up the notion that we would ever look good as parents. Everyone would always judge us. It would always be our fault. Nothing we do would ever be right because nothing we could ever do would cause our child to behave. Our child would always be “that” kid. And until he turned 18, we would be stuck paying for every single criminal act he committed. And we would be judged as if we ourselves had committed these acts, and would be shunned accordingly.
Oddly, once we came to terms with that, there was a sort of freedom in it. Once we realized that nothing we could do would ever be enough or make us look good to our community we could stop trying. And then it stopped ruling our lives.
It was a lonely sort of freedom, but it was a kind of freedom nonetheless.
And in that freedom, we suddenly had the space to tell the truth.
But before we could get to that place of freedom, we both had to be on the same page. Like I said, my husband took all of these circumstances and our son’s misbehavior far more personally than I did. In fact, I had to wait for him to catch up to where I was. To be okay with the harsh judgment we would forever face every time our son screwed up. In fact, to expect it and anticipate and plan for it.
As you might expect, planning parenting strategies all on my own while my husband was still reacting emotionally didn’t go very well. So I had to wait until my husband could find his own way to a space of being okay with the constant judgment. Then we could plan for it together. But I had to wait for him to get there on his own, rather than simply because I told him that’s where he should be. That is a huge part of being in a partnership: waiting for the other person to be on the same page with you. There were many days I had to manage his feelings as well as our son, and be patient about it (I wasn’t always), but eventually he got through it and was ready to face the truth with me.
The truth is that we were completely alone in this process, and would always be blamed for everything that went wrong with our child. No matter what we did, it would always be our fault. And now, we had our freedom.
And so, since it would always be our fault no matter what, it didn’t really matter anymore. We would always be “those” parents. And suddenly it didn’t matter what anyone thought. So really, what did it matter if they knew our child was a potential psychopath? Magically, it no longer mattered if someone found out. In fact, we started telling them.
If you are parenting a child with CD, raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the brutal truth, and nothing but the brutal truth, so help me.”
When you have a child like ours, the truth must be brutal. We had a potential psychopath on our hands, and even though we didn’t sign up for it, our job became to do everything in our power to ensure he didn’t grow up to be one. Our entire life became about Harm Reduction for the community. I was no longer acting out of love for my child, or even a desire for him to grow up to be happy. I’m not saying I didn’t love him, I’m simply saying I was no longer acting out of love for him. My sole motivation in my parenting was how do I keep him from hurting other people. And let me tell you, that is a shitty place to come from as a parent. To be more concerned about what your child might do to other people than you are for what might happen to your child.
But since 40% of children with CD grow up to be psychopaths that meant, statistically speaking, we had a sixty percent chance he would not grow up to be one. And that’s not nothing.
We made sure everyone around our child knew he had CD and provided them with a reasonable understanding of what that meant. That left untreated, he could grow up to be a psychopath. We told them to give him no slack. No quarter. No mercy.
We told them our child must learn NOW that the world has consequences when he misbehaves. And while, of course, there must be (and were) consequences in our own home, real-world consequences must be given out by someone other than mom and dad, too. Otherwise, if we were the only ones handing out consequences, our child would continue to spend the rest of his adolescent life blaming mom and dad for all his problems. Because, of course, the only reason he was ever in trouble was that we kept handing out consequences. “The only reason I’m in trouble is because you keep handing out consequences. You just want to get me in trouble.”
He needed to see that trouble could come from someplace other than mom and dad.
We told everyone around us that our child could be given NO slack. None. No second chances. At all. Not ever. Charges should always be pressed. Always. That the consequences needed to come hard and fast every time he screwed up. He needed not to be able to blame his problems on what other people did. He needed to get the message that HE was doing this. To himself.
The disheartening part was that mostly they did not listen. It took years before our plan was implemented by the school, the court, and probation all at the same time. Though I know we will never know what might have been, I would love to know how different our lives might have been had everyone listened earlier.
When a child has CD, everyone and I do mean everyone MUST be on the same page. Our kids cannot be given any slack, not by anyone. Without everyone working together our children are doomed to fail.
We knew there was a chance this would make our child worse. After all, no one knew what makes it worse or what makes it better. We knew there was always that possibility of failure. But in that case, it would most likely end up in our child being locked up more permanently, and, while he is our child and we love him, sometimes, when you are coming from a space of Harm Reduction for the community, that is the best thing for everyone involved.
Early on when I was trying to figure out what to do about my child, I binge-watched the TV show Dexter. Not because I really wanted to watch it (I didn’t). But because I had heard of something called “Harry’s Code”. In the TV show, Dexter, a psychopath (the gruesome kind), is raised by his father, Harry, who sees Dexter for what he is. Recognizing Dexter and his nature, Harry comes up with a code for Dexter to live by that allows Dexter to live in society while still honoring his nature. It’s a sick show, one that was painful to watch (not to mention just plain gross), but I learned a lot watching it. I didn’t get the “psychopath parenting tips” I had been hoping for, but I did learn rather a lot about the nature of a psychopath, as well as what the heck the rest of the world actually *thinks* a psychopath is, even if it isn’t true. I learned enough that when I am explaining my child’s condition to a new person for the first time, I know to say, “We’re not talking Dexter here. That’s not reality.”
The reality is that most kids with CD do not go around slicing up animals, and do not go on to become serial killers. Remember my statistics from the last blog, I am the Frog? If 4% of the population are psychopaths, and all psychopaths turned out to be serial killers I don’t think there would actually be enough people on the planet to sustain their killing sprees.
So we’re not dealing with serial killers here (for the most part). We are trying to stop Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) from developing. And the only way to stop someone with CD from growing into an adult with ASPD, at least that we knew of at the time, was to have our child bump up against the very real-world consequences of his actions.
The problem with that is that law enforcement has now been trained to cut an enormous amount of slack to children in order to avoid criminalizing them for the misdeeds of youth. Even in the face of constant physical attacks on their parents, repeated shoplifting, destroyed walls and doors, threats of harm to others, and begging by parents to arrest the child.
I absolutely understand why we have become this way in the area of children and criminality. I don’t even necessarily disagree with the changes or why they were made. Of course, we should not criminalize children for acting out when their brains are not fully formed. Of course, we should not ruin a child’s adult life with a criminal conviction that will follow them for the rest of their life. Of course, we should not teach children the revolving prison door and institutionalize them. Of course, they should be given second chances.
Of course, that is, for normal children.
But not for ours.
Our kids need to stop being thrown a life-preserver every time they end up in deep water. Our children need to drown every time they put themselves there. Without exception. Otherwise, they will never learn not to do it. Children with CD need to face the consequences of their actions.
And so, as a parent, the only solution is to stop throwing them a life-preserver every time they screw up. Say it with me: LET. THEM. DROWN.
For those of you who are staring open-mouthed thinking, “Wow, that’s HARSH.” Yes. Yes, it is. It is very harsh. But then, so are psychopaths. Better they learn it now than cost millions of dollars in criminal damage years down the road.
I’ve come to terms with who my son is. I see him very clearly. And quite frankly, I think my ability to do that is in large part why we have been so successful with him.
What do I consider a “success”? Well, for starters, my son sits in a treatment facility that he chose for himself at the age of 17, realizing he was never going to change his behaviors if something didn’t get interrupted.
For years we had been begging everyone involved with him not to cut him any slack. He doesn’t show up for school on time? Give him detention. He doesn’t show up for detention? Suspend him. He gets suspended from school? Violate his probation; put him back in Juvenile Hall.
Side note: for nearly a year after his diagnosis at age 13, having been told by treatment professionals that our son’s only hope was to have Probation crack down on him, we called the police constantly, trying to get him into the system somehow. Every single time he got picked up for shoplifting we would BEG the Loss Prevention people to press charges. (They won’t, by the way, they are only interested in the $500.00 fine they are legally allowed to charge parents every single time a child is caught stealing something even if they recover the merchandise, and even if the merchandise is only an undamaged, unopened candy bar.) Every single time he would bust a door or put another hole in the wall in our house, we called the police. Every single time the police came we would ask them if they could arrest him now. And every single time they would refuse. Finally, we got lucky and his own stupidity got him caught doing something in another county, one where they DO go after juveniles. And we will forever count that as one of the luckiest breaks to happen to us as parents.
So now we had him on Probation. We were thrilled. We would finally have some help! We told them to violate his probation every time he stepped out of line. And for years, no one listened to us. Everyone wanted to give him second chances while they complained to us about how he was the most frustrating youth they had ever worked with in their entire careers (No, I’m not making this up. Every. Single. Adult. Said. This.) As you might imagine, cutting him slack never went well. In fact, some of the last words I said to his (latest) probation officer were, “I keep begging you and begging you and begging you until I’m blue in the face. You can’t cut him slack, ever. Until you start listening to me, nothing is going to change. Not ever.”
Finally, and oddly all at once, everyone seemed to start taking us seriously and finally began listening to us. The kid finally started getting detention every time he didn’t show up to school on time (or at all). He finally started getting suspended. He finally started having his probation violated for getting suspended and going back to juvenile hall. (These were not the only problems with him, far from it. But they were the only ones for which any legal consequences could be handed out). And it started happening often enough that our son saw, FOR HIMSELF the pattern that was going on. He came to the realization that the cycle was just going to continue if nothing changed. And he finally wanted that change for himself.
I don’t know how things are going to turn out. I don’t know if the interventions at the treatment facility will work or not. I don’t know if, in eight months’ time, my child will go from having CD to having ASPD, or if we will breathe a sigh of relief that we were one of those lucky parents whose potential psychopath didn’t end up an actual psychopath.
But I do know that during his IEP meeting today, I found out my son, for the first time in his life, has a 4.0 GPA. I do know that for the first time ever in his life, he has gone a whole month now with consistently good behavior. My whole life as a parent, all I have ever heard about my child during an IEP (or any school meeting for that matter) is that he is disruptive, disrespectful, distracts other students, and refuses to do any work. Today I was told the exact opposite. He is studious, volunteers to read out loud, encourages other students, is respectful, and does all of his work. I never thought I would ever hear that my son was one of the “more mature, hardworking, and respectful young men” in school.
I’m reasonably certain that it was the consistency and frequency with which the consequences kept happening, and from all fronts, that caused this change in our son. I’m reasonably certain that it was our constantly explaining what CD was to everyone, what they needed to do, and how they needed to respond to him (sometimes until we were blue in the face) that caused everyone to finally start taking actions to help our son, even if it went against their desire to “be nice” and “cut the kid some slack”. I’m reasonably certain they finally began to see they were not doing this kid any favors by cutting him slack because this kid was different.
And I’m reasonably certain that if this worked for us, it might work for other families too.
All we need to do is get everyone on the same page.
For quick reference, here is a list of bulleted steps we took to help our son:
- Take time to properly grieve for the child you will never have
- If you are married or have a partner, make sure you are on the same page
- Realize there is nothing you can say or do that will properly “control” your child
- Stop trying to look good to the outside world, you are always going to be the parent of “that” kid
- Start telling the brutal truth about your child to anyone involved in his or her life: explain CD, what it is, and that if left untreated, it will turn into psychopathy/ASPD
- Explain (and explain and explain and explain) that your child cannot be cut any slack and must have immediate consequences without fail every time they step out of line
- Explain it again
- And again
- And again until everyone gets it and starts acting accordingly
And finally, here are the links I mentioned above:
- For children with CD under the age of nine
- For children with CD under 16 years of age