Conduct Disorder and IEP’s

This article will cover Special Education law in the United States and how it relates to children with Conduct Disorder.  Because people reading this will come with varying degrees of knowledge about the Special Education system, I have chosen to cover the basic workings of the system, laws, and IEP’s.  I begin with a background on Special Education, then move onto what an IEP is, and then onto how to refer your child for Special Education services.  I finally move onto how Special Education relates to Conduct Disorder, as well as a few other sections.  If you feel you already have a basic understanding of Special Education, feel free to skip the first three sections.  You can always come back to them if you don’t understand something.

In this article, you may encounter many new terms.  It may look like what we love to call “alphabet soup”; that is, an endless list of acronyms that swim about the page like, well, alphabet soup.  All of the abbreviations are used when dealing with Special Education.  Therefore, to help you learn these terms as we use them, once I have briefly introduced each acronym, I use it exclusively throughout the rest of the document.  You can find a glossary of all terms at the bottom of this article.

Disclaimer:  Everything in this document is my own personal understanding of the laws and IEP process.  This is an OVERVIEW.  I am not a lawyer.  These are my own personal recommendations.  They are not a substitute for doing your own research and due diligence or consulting with an attorney.  In other words (and because I hate disclaimers) if you follow these recommendations and things don’t go well, don’t sue me, m’kay?

Background on Special Education

Navigating Special Education (SpEd)can be trying at the best of times, even when you have an “easy” diagnosis that no one disputes and is clearly spelled out as qualifying for services under the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  But when your child has a diagnosis of Conduct Disorder (CD) this already difficult task can become downright Sisyphean in nature.

First and Foremost, you need to know that as crazy as it sounds, schools DO NOT use the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM) criteria when they are assessing a whether or not a child qualifies for SpEd services, and if so what they might be.  Which means that your medical diagnoses mean exactly diddly-squat to the school district.  The district does not care what the clinical definition of your child’s medically diagnosed condition is.  They care only how they, the district, define your child’s needs in an educational setting.

The school district has a legal obligation to identify, locate, assess, and serve ALL children residing in their district who might qualify for SpEd services.  This process is also known as Child Find or Search and Serve.  It is the district’s responsibility to locate all children residing within their district and offer them SpEd services whether or not that child is attending a public school.

The school districts are responsible for providing support as it relates to the child’s education.  They are not responsible for the child’s medical care.  Therefore the definition of a child’s disability is not a clinical definition, it is an EDUCATIONAL definition.

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The very nature of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is that each educational plan is individualized.  It’s right there in the name (more on what, exactly, an IEP is later).  The services provided and support given in the classroom are based on NEED, not diagnosis.  For instance, just because a child has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) doesn’t mean they automatically get to sit up front to keep them being distracted.  It is based on need alone.  Not all children with ADHD need to sit up front in order to access their education.

One of the tenets of IDEA is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).  What this means is that before we throw our SpEd students into a Special Day Class (SDC) and throw away the key (I can actually remember when this used to be done), we must exhaust all other avenues of support first.  We must first start with a General Education (Gen Ed) setting (Gen Ed is a “normal” classroom setting).  If the child is still not able to access their education in a Gen Ed setting (remember that term: “access their education”, because you will use it a lot when dealing with SpEd), the next step is to add in SUPPORT in the classroom, such as the Resource Specialist Program (RSP), which is a pull-out model wherein an RSP teacher will pull the child out for specialized instruction for a minimal amount of time during the week.

The very first thing that needs to be tried is Gen Ed, so in essence, if you are new to the IEP process, once your child has qualified for services, nothing should have changed except that your child will now have a legally binding document on his or her side.  Once your child has an IEP, putting your child into another classroom such as an SDC is considered a change of placement, and that cannot happen unless you agree to it.  If one party changes the placement of a student without the other side agreeing to it, it is called a unilateral change of placement.  Only you can make a unilateral change of placement.  This district cannot!

Students with CD are typically treated by school districts as Gen Ed students.  There are a few different ways to go about getting services for your child with CD which we will go into in a little bit, but first I will explain what an IEP is.

What is an IEP?

You will hear the term IEP bandied about.  It stands for Individualized Education Plan.  The term IEP can refer to a number of different things though as if the alphabet soup of Special Education wasn’t already enough to confuse you!  An IEP can be the plan itself, arrived at and agreed upon by the school district and the parents, eg:  “I don’t know what to do when X happens in the classroom.”  “Are you following the IEP?”

IEP can also refer to the actual physical document that both you and district sign.  THIS IS A LEGALLY BINDING DOCUMENT, SO DO NOT SIGN IT UNLESS YOU UNDERSTAND AND AGREE TO EVERYTHING IN IT.  Eg:  “I’m going to take the IEP home with me.  I want to read it over and digest it for before I sign.”  (Note:  School Districts will often try to bully you into signing right then and there at the meeting by saying something like, “Remember, we can’t start services until we get your signature.”  They may even tell you you cannot take the document home without signing it.  DO NOT LET THEM BULLY YOU INTO SIGNING UNTIL YOU HAVE READ IT.  They are banking on you wanting to get the services started ASAP because the process is so lengthy.  Yes, the process takes too long.  But I promise you, when it takes as long as it does, a few more days isn’t going to make an appreciable difference.  And if your child is old enough to be in the room with you for the process, this is a great thing for them to learn.  No one should ever sign a legally binding document without reading and understanding it.)

And finally, the term IEP can also mean the formal meeting where you sit down with the teachers, school psychologists, principal, RSP teacher, and/or district representatives (or any combination of these folks) to decide what will go into your child’s plan.  Eg:  “I plan on recording the IEP.  Please make note that I am giving you more than 24 hours’ notice of my intention.”  (Note:  Nowhere in the law does it say that if a parent records the IEP meeting that the district also MUST record the meeting.  I have, however, never come across a school district that did not also insist on recording if you do.  My child has been through five different districts.)  Always record the IEP meetings.

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You might also hear the term IEP process, which will generally be referred to in exactly that way and therefore can be easily distinguishable from the other ways in which the term IEP might be used.  This is used to refer to the process as a whole, from the first referral for services to the completed document and implementation of services.

Remember always that IEP’s are about an access to education issue.  If you remember only one thing, remember to reframe every issue as an access to education issue.  Your child has CD?  Great!  What is the issue affecting his or her education?

Another important piece of the SpEd puzzle is a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  It is what the school district MUST provide to all SpEd students.

  • Free: Just what it sounds like.  It cannot cost you money to educate your child.
  • Appropriate: This is not so simple and is often where parents end up arguing with the district.  Appropriate means what is appropriate to the child in question, not what is appropriate for other students.   For example, it might be appropriate for a child to receive copies of a teacher’s PowerPoint presentation in certain circumstances.
  • Public/Education: Both exactly what they sound like as well.

Always ask if the IEP constitutes FAPE.  Always.

SpEd and IEP’s are not just about grades.  They cover behaviors as well.  (Note:  This applies only to behaviors the child exhibits at school.  If your child is a perfect angel at school and then comes home and is a holy terror, the district does not need to assess for behaviors.)  Especially with children like ours who tend to have a myriad of negative behaviors, it is perfectly okay to ask early on in the process for Functional Behavior  Assessment (FBA) if you have concerns about your child’s behavior as it relates to his or her education.

As with everything in the IEP process, you want to request the FBA in writing.  You want a paper trail.  Back when I was a Realtor, my old Broker used to say leaving a paper trail was just like potty training a dog:  DO IT ON THE PAPER!

This is your new mantra with anything SpEd related!

DO IT ON THE PAPER!

If the school district tries to tell you you don’t need an FBA just yet (and they will!), make sure you request a denial in writing!  They will likely have a very different approach once they have to put it writing.  For a more in-depth look at FBA’s, check out this article from Behavior Advisor.com:  http://www.behavioradvisor.com/FBA.html

Once you have submitted your request they will call in a Behavior Support Specialist (BSS) to complete the FBA to assess for and create a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).  If they try to get you to agree to a Behavior Support Plan instead, don’t.  You want the BSS to come out to assess the situation and create a BIP.  They are specially trained to do this.  Anything less is just the blind leading the blind.  Because let’s face it, if the teacher knew how to handle your child’s behaviors in the first place, your child’s behaviors wouldn’t be an issue!

Now that you know the basics behind what an IEP is, let’s cover how you refer your child for services.

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Referring Your Child for SpEd Services

Remember your mantra?  DO IT ON THE PAPER!

Everything, everything, EVERYTHING goes in writing.  You want to create a paper trail in the event the school district does not do what they are supposed to do (and believe me, they will).  If you have a conversation with your child’s teacher, send them an email reinforcing what you talked about earlier.  Eg:  “Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me after school today.  I appreciate your concerns about my child, and I agree.  As we discussed, you will be keeping a closer eye on Ethan during lunch.  I really appreciate your willingness to do that.”

I highly recommend picking up a composition book and keeping notes in it of every interaction with every school district employee, no matter how small, for your own records.  NEVER tear a page out of it.  If you need to cross something off, go ahead.  Write everything front to back, in chronological order, dating and time stamping everything, leaving no blank pages.  In the event you ever need to go to court, a composition book like that will hold up as evidence in a way that a computer document cannot (computer documents can be altered).  I once had an issue settled almost immediately because I pulled out two composition notebooks containing over 160 pages of chronological notes!

When writing a letter requesting your child be assessed for SpEd services, keep it as simple as possible.  You could even write simply:  “Please assess my child for an IEP under IDEA.”  This is not the venue to vent all of your upset.  Do not turn this into your sob story!  The less information you give them in the letter, the less they can use it against you later as reasons why your child is not performing.

If your child has behavior issues as well (and I’m guessing most of our children with CD will have behavior issues) you could keep it as simple as:  “Please assess my child for an IEP under IDEA and perform an FBA to assess for a BIP.”

A 504 plan is like the little brother of an IEP.  It’s not legally binding on the school district though, so I try to steer toward an IEP whenever possible.  If your child is denied for SpEd services under IDEA, then a 504 Plan might be a second option.  Because the process to determine eligibility under IDEA is so lengthy, it is best to request an assessment for a 504 at the same time as you request one for the IEP.  Just add, “Please also assess for a 504 Plan” to either of the examples above.  For more on 504 Plans vs. IEP’s, check out this link:  https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/504-plan/the-difference-between-ieps-and-504-plans

Your child may also receive SpEd services under 504 if the 504 team agrees.  (This may or they may not happen with regularity, I don’t know how common it is, I only know that it is possible.)

If your child has ADD/ADHD, be sure to mention that in your referral letter.  That will help to qualify them under OHI (we’ll talk about that in a minute).

Please remember that each child is unique and you want the district to assess ALL AREAS of your child’s suspected disability.  These items will be individual to your child.  Remember that what the district is looking for is a severe discrepancy between ability and achievement.  If you know which IDEA category your child might fit into, list all of those categories when you refer.  For example, if you know your child has a learning disability, you could include the category Specific Learning Disability (SLD).  If you don’t know, that’s fine and you can just use the templates above, or use the sample letter at the bottom of the page, courtesy of Community Alliance for Special Education (CASE).

If you are using a doctor during this process, you need to have the doctor reframe his or her diagnosis toward eligibility for services.  Get a copy of the SpEd eligibility criteria to your child’s doctor and have them go beyond a diagnosis of CD and address the issue of how your child’s behavior is interfering with his or her education.

You want them to frame the diagnosis as “The child has CD (or whichever other diagnoses you are referencing) which makes him unable to see how his actions affect others, THEREFORE, you need to…”

You need to connect the CD with SpEd and how it is impacting your child’s education.

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Once you have given the school the letter asking them to assess your child, the district then has 15 business days in which to get you a written assessment plan.  If 16 days pass and you still do not have a plan, you can choose to file a Compliance Complaint with your state Board of Education (Board of Ed).   Usually, with something like this, the school district knows that even if you file a Compliance Complaint against them, the Board of Ed has 30 days in which to investigate the matter.  And even if they are found to be out of compliance (and they will be) that is still 30 days to drag their feet, because if at day 29 they have given you the assessment plan to sign off on, the Board of Ed will consider it resolved and move on.

Once you have the assessment plan, do not just sign it and send it back.  Read it, make sure you understand it, and feel free to add in anything you think they missed.  I did this just a few months ago.  They called and asked why I had added the other assessments, but in the end, they did everything I added.

The district is also legally required to give you a copy of the school psychologist’s reports detailing the results of his or her assessments of your child prior to the meeting.  I have never been in or even heard of a district that did not take this to mean they could hand you the documents as you sit down to the meeting.  The law only says they have to give it to you prior to the meeting, but it doesn’t define that term.

As with everything, DO IT ON THE PAPER.  Submit your request in writing for a copy of the document prior to the IEP meeting.  Be sure to include enough lead time for you to digest it.  Eg:  “Please provide me with a copy of the School Psychologist’s report no later than five days prior to our IEP meeting on X date.”

Do not assume that just because you are dealing with SpEd teachers they know the law and will follow it.  I have never been in an IEP meeting with school district employees where I was not the one who knew the most about the law.  Not even the heads of SpEd!

Conduct Disorder – How Does It Fit Into IDEA?

While there is no specific designation under IDEA for children with CD, there are a number of ways to look at it so that your child could qualify for an IEP.  Remember that it is far less important why your child qualifies than it is that they do qualify.

If your child has any learning disabilities they may qualify under the Specific Learning Disability (SLD) criteria.  For more in depth information on that, visit this link:  http://www.asha.org/advocacy/federal/idea/04-law-specific-ld/

While it does happen that children with CD can have CD and only CD, it is far more likely that our children will some other type of designation as well (also referred to as comorbidity or comorbid conditions), so it’s okay to focus on getting them qualified for SpEd services under their other disabilities.  A fairly large percentage of children with CD also have ADHD, as just one example.  Remember also that children who act up in the classroom very well may have an underlying issue at work leaving them unable to process the information given to them in the classroom, so always be sure to assess for Learning Disabilities (LD).  Again, each child is individual so you will need to engage in some detective work to find out which letters in the alphabet soup of SpEd apply to your unique child.

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Other Health Impaired (OHI) is probably the most likely way your child will be qualified for SpEd services.  It tends to be kind of a catch-all for qualification.  This is a really great link to information about OHI, though I don’t know why they say there are 14 categories under IDEA.  There are not.  There are only 13.  I will assume it is a typo:  http://www.parentcenterhub.org/repository/ohi/

Notice that in section (i) of the OHI definition it says:   “Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as…”

This makes the OHI category very broad.  The inclusion of the term “such as” in the legal language opens that whole category up to interpretation, and you should feel free to make use of the broad, non-specific language in the law.

The other option for qualification for services under IDEA that might apply to a child with CD is the designation of Emotional Disturbance (ED).  One of the criteria of ED is “inappropriate behaviors under normal circumstances”: http://www.naset.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Forms_Checklist_Etc/IEP_Committee/Eligibility_Criteria_Chklt_Emot-Disturb.pdf

The school district might argue that CD differs from ED based on our children’s conscious decision to engage in these behaviors (Eg:  Rather than lashing out in the moment at another child they perceive has wronged them, our children might very well plot and plan their revenge for a later time.)  I would actually argue that that constitutes “inappropriate behaviors under normal circumstances”.  If you wanted to get right down to it, you really could argue that that is a perfect description of sociopathy in general.  Pretty much everything they do (especially the children who have yet to develop any self-control) falls under the “inappropriate behaviors under normal circumstances” category.

The school district might try to tell you that you do not want to pursue an ED designation because you don’t want your children in a classroom with “those” children.  This is nothing more than a scare tactic.  Remember back to our Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)?  A designation of ED does NOT mean your child will be placed in a Special Day Class (SDC) for ED children.  In fact, the school district is required by law not to place them in an SDC unless all other avenues have been exhausted.

Congratulations!  Your Child has Been Found Eligible for SpEd.  Now What?

Now that your child has qualified for SpEd services, your job is not over.  The IEP will need constant tweaking.  Issues will come up.  Behaviors will happen.  When they do, remember to focus on the emotional side of the behavior PLUS the impact it is having on your child’s education.  Always ask yourself, “What is the adverse effect this behavior is having on my child’s educational performance?”

Again, any unwanted behavior is the manifestation of an underlying emotional issue, so when looking at these behaviors you need to ask why the behavior is coming up.  Is your child bored?  Are they frustrated because they are having a hard time understanding the material and feel stupid?  (This was a big one for my child, he would constantly ask why he was so stupid.)

If you frame it in that manner all of the time, the school district will have a very hard time indeed trying to convince you your child’s disability is not impacting his or her education and that therefore the school doesn’t need to do anything about it.

The school district may try to pull a fast one on you and tell you that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain.  Do not let them do this to you.  I have had to remind many a room full of district employees of this.  “I am doing my best to get my child to hold up his end of the bargain.  But whether or not he is doing what he is supposed to be doing, you are still required to follow this legally binding document.”

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Post Script

One last note about our children.  For those of you who read my last blog post, No Quarter, remember that for our children it is imperative that consequences happen!  Whatever the IEP says the consequences for behaviors are must be followed to the letter.  Our children must learn early that their behavior has consequences.  MAKE SURE THIS IS IN THE IEP! 

If the school district does not follow through on consequences, file a compliance complaint.  Do this every single time they do not follow through with what is in the IEP, in regards to following through on consequences.  If our children learn they can behave any way they want and there will be no consequences, then they will behave any way they want.

If you have read No Quarter and don’t have time right now (I promise I’m not offended, it’s long) the basic gist is to never give our kids any slack.  No second chances.  Not ever.  Our children can be manipulative and often worm their way into being given “a break”.  Don’t let them.  Just trust me on this one.  You can go back and read No Quarter later for more information as to why that is.

Resources

A wonderful handbook, available for purchase, produced by the Community Alliance for Special Education (CASE) out here in California.  They were kind enough to consult with me on issues of CD and IEP’s.  Any mistakes in this blog are mine, I assure you.  Their handbook got me through many an IEP meeting.  I cannot recommend it enough.   http://www.caseadvocacy.org/handbook.html

CASE Sample Letter

Date

Date

Victor Verde

Director of Special Education

Local Unified School District

Address

City, CA Zip Code

Re: Max Bleu

Dear Mr. Verde:

I am writing to refer my son, Max, for assessment to determine if he is eligible for special education services and support. He is not progressing in school. He is 7 years old and attends Harvey Milk Elementary School (child’s school of attendance).

**If you believe that your child may be eligible in particular categories, especially Other Health Impaired, Emotional Disturbance or Autistic-Like, you should specifically say so and ask that the assessment address those conditions. A standard special educational assessment looks at cognition, psychological processing, and academic achievement, none of which may be deficient in a student qualifying in one of the above three categories.**

(If you have specialized knowledge or know specific tests, you might add🙂

I request that the Local Unified School District (your District) conduct the following evaluations of my son:

(1) A psychological evaluation to determine his learning potential, using instruments designed for non-oral children such as the Leiter International Performance Scale-Revised or the Hiskey Nebraska Test of Learning Aptitude;

(2) An evaluation by a non-oral communications specialist. To my knowledge, the district does not have on staff any experts in this field. I have been recommended to Barbara Blanco, Ph.D. in non-oral communication, and unless the district has a comparable expert, I am requesting that you contract with Dr. Blanco to do the non-oral communication evaluation of my son.

(3) An occupational therapy assessment

Note: In every request for initial assessment, you should include a paragraph requesting that your child also be evaluated under the provisions of Section 504 for any “disabling condition” which would require service accommodations and/or services that will allow the child to benefit from public education to the extent that students without disabilities do. (However, do not agree to substitute a 504 assessment for a special education assessment.)

Such a paragraph might read as follows:

I also request that my son be evaluated under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for the presence of any educational service need which may require any accommodation or program modification not available under special education or if my child is not found eligible for special education. I also request that the Section 504 Coordinator for Local Unified School District be present at the initial IEP meeting to discuss the results and recommendations of the Section 504 Evaluation.

I look forward to receiving an assessment plan in 15 days. I hope that these evaluations can be completed promptly. Thereafter, we can have an IEP meeting to discuss the results of these evaluations and plan for John’s continued education. Please ensure that I get copies of the assessment reports one week before the IEP meeting.

Sincerely yours,

Yolanda Bleu

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Alphabet Soup – AKA Glossary

ADD:  Attention Deficit Disorder

ADHD:  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

BIP:  Behavior Intervention Plan

BSS:  Behavior Support Specialist

CD:  Conduct Disorder

DSM:  Diagnostic and Statistics Manual

ED:  Emotional Disturbance

FAPE:  Free and Appropriate Public Education

FBA:  Functional Behavior Assessment

Gen Ed:  General Education

IEP:  Individualized Education Plan

IDEA:  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

LD:  Learning Disabilities

LRE:  Least Restrictive Environment

OHI:  Other Health Impaired

RSP:  Resource Specialist Program

SDC:  Special Day Class

SLD:  Specific Learning Disability SpEd:  Special Education

 

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No Quarter

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 sociopathy, I devoured everything on sociopaths 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 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.

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But aside from the near constant heartbreak, my husband’s biggest struggle was dealing with the things our child did.  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.

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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 is 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 sociopaths 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 sociopath. (Please note that I often use psychopath and sociopath interchangeably.)  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 because 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.

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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.

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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 sociopaths.  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 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 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.

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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 sociopathy/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:

I am the Frog

“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.

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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.

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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?

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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.