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A Plea for Better Mental Health Support for Kids & Parents

"Dr. Laura....I was moved by Liza Long's plea in her post "I am Adam Lanza's mother" but bothered by her approach to her son. Couldn't that be part of the problem? Or is he just a boy whose problems are too big to do anything about except to medicate him or lock him up, like the Sandy Hook shooter?"

No baby is born a murderer. We all know that Nancy Lanza's 20 year old son shot her several times in her bed with her own gun, then drove to an elementary school to commit mass murder. We can only speculate, at this point, about what led up to this event.

Shortly after, Liza Long made waves with her post " I am Adam Lanza's mother," in which she described two incidents in which she put her 13 year old son in the hospital, first for threatening her with a knife and subsequently for threatening to jump out of her car. Long says that unless we talk seriously about funding for mental health services in this country so that every family that needs help gets it, we will have more horrific tragedies. Amen.

My heart goes out to Liza Long. And my heart breaks for Nancy Lanza.  Every parent who hears these stories must also be aware that if things were different, we could be in their shoes. Just as we could be in the shoes of the parents who are mourning the loss of their children last Friday.

I can only imagine that Lanza's life with her son was incredibly difficult. Kids don't suddenly become mass murderers at age 20 without any warning. The babysitter who looked after Adam Lanza when he was ten years old says he had terrible tantrums. Even a psychotic break has warning signs, and this was not just a psychotic break -- which does not lead to violence in most cases -- this was an enraged young man. That kind of rage is virtually always preceded by years of scaring those around one with threats and rages. Prior to his rampage, Lanza was reportedly seeking to send her son away to some sort of specialized school that could offer appropriate supervision. Clearly, her life with him was very difficult and she felt like she was out of options.

Given all this, I can't help but question Lanza's judgment for keeping assault weapons in her house and for teaching her son to shoot them. But what I don't question is that she loved her son.

Long also loves her son, and feels like she is out of options. She has insurance, but says she can't find mental health services for her son. She is doing her very best, without support, to keep her other children safe and be a good parent.

Unfortunately, she's clearly been given some bad, if standard, parenting advice, on punishment. We all know what it's like to get to the end of our rope, and parents of difficult kids, understandably, get there much sooner. Long can be commended for staying calm in the face of her son's defiance and swearing. But the conventional parenting advice of threats, consequences and punishment isn't serving her or her son. Research shows that approach always erodes the parent-child relationship and makes kids less likely to cooperate. Limits are essential, but they need to be accompanied by empathy, so the child knows the parent is on his side and is more willing to take direction.

In the example Long gives in her post, she gets into a showdown with her son about whether his school will allow certain pants. She ends up driving him to the hospital to be sedated. What a scary, sad, unnecessary, struggle.

First, isn't that a limit she could have left to the school? Like homework, kids will take correction about a school policy better from a teacher than a parent. Why not say "Hmm....you sound pretty certain about what you think is the school policy. That's not my impression of what the policy is. Let's do this. Let's bring the other color pants in the car with us, just in case they tell you that you need to change."  Why not look for win/win solutions and let the teen keep his dignity? You don't have to attend every power struggle to which you're invited.

Second, Long's son has clearly decided that his mother isn't on his side. Unfortunately, that's what happens when we set limits without offering empathy. Now, maybe Long is simply worn out and just can't summon up any empathy at that moment. We've all been there. And we are only seeing one interaction. But it's the one she is choosing to share with us to show us how impossible and mentally ill her son is. So it seems critical to point out what this incident shows us if we see it through the boy's eyes. He feels pushed around, misunderstood, terribly alone. Even this difficult child might respond to empathy.

Again, we don't know if this child is mentally ill; Long has never mentioned that in her past blog posts about him and she says he is not receiving mental health services. But even if he is mentally ill, it's important to point out that most people who are mentally ill never act out violently. The big issue here is this teen's rage. And rage is exacerbated by feeling powerless and misunderstood. I'm not blaming Long; this is the way our society tells parents to raise their children. But that's the reason I'm writing this post. Let's not just assume such a kid is too difficult to reach. Let's give parents the tools to reach him.  We could start by empathizing with his desire to wear a different pair of pants, and exploring that. Maybe he's worried about standing out, about being bullied? Wanting to assert some autonomy? We don't find out, because his mother apparently doesn't ask. You can see the disconnect between them, and that leads, predictably, to defiance from a child.

Third, you can see how Long's parenting style of trying to control her son's behavior with punishment is sabotaging her influence with him.  She sets a limit. He curses at her. Now, most parents would respond as Long did, with punishment to "teach him a lesson."  But this kid certainly knows that cursing at his mom is off limits. It's a red flag that something's very wrong between them. What if the mom could stay calm and say "Ouch! You know we don't speak to each other like that in this house!" but then add "You must be very upset to speak to me that way....Let's figure out a solution that works for both us of about the pants."  Later, once the problem is solved and everyone is calm, she can bring up his cursing.  She can connect with him, try to understand why he lashes out like this, help him with the emotions driving his outbursts. Once he feels understood and respected, he's more likely to offer her understanding and respect.

I know, this boy has some big issues, and that kind of approach is really hard for parents, especially with such a difficult child. She'd almost certainly need the help of a good therapist, which is why we need to take seriously her plea for better mental health services for families. All parents, but especially parents of kids with challenges, need better support. But we need to support parents and kids not just with counseling services and, if appropriate, medications. We also need to teach parents basic parenting skills of setting limits with empathy, and connecting instead of punishing. The facile answer of "showing the kid who's boss" by slapping a punishment on him just doesn't give parents the help they need, because it's guaranteed to increase the kid's sense of powerlessness and rage. Don't take my word for it. Let's see how it played out.

Instead of calming the situation and listening to why her son is so upset, Long inflames it by threatening her son with a punishment. The resulting drama shows us a relationship based on threats. He ups the ante by threatening that he'll kill himself.  She threatens him with institutionalization, and follows through. He spends three days in the hospital, which he describes as her sending him to hell. We're spared the details, but we can imagine the indignity, the medications, the increasing rage. Next time, unfortunately, we can expect him to lash out more violently.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Long's parenting style has created her son's issues. Clearly, her other kids don't have these issues, so he has some innate challenges that would be incredibly difficult for any parent. It's clear she loves him, and she's doing the best she can.  Quite simply, we -- the rest of us -- have failed her and her son. She needs support she isn't getting. In addition to not being able to get the mental health services they need, she is lacking basic information on parenting that might turn things with her son around. Tragically, the conventional parenting approach she's using is backfiring, because kids with special challenges need a strong connection with their parents MORE than other kids. The kind of parenting Long is doing destroys the trust between them, which is the only lifeline he has to heal the chip on his shoulder.  Kids who are hurting inside are the ones that lash out.

No baby is born a murderer. Yes, some young children are incredibly difficult. But any expert will tell you that psychopaths are exceedingly rare. So virtually very child responds to empathy, even if their brain doesn't work quite like yours or mine. Every child wants to connect with us, including kids on the autism spectrum and kids with oppositional defiant disorder.  Kid whose brains aren't working right can tax even the most patient parent, but even those kids respond to feeling understood and cared about. When kids act out,  it's a sign that they're hurting, a cry for help.  Of course we need to set limits. But threats and punishment just drive them away. If, instead, we can help them them with their emotions, they can begin to learn to self-regulate. And if we can stay connected, they'll WANT to cooperate. This kind of parenting starts with compassion and connection, not controlling and punishing.

Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to heal those hurts when children are small then when they've reached the teen years. We're standing by, watching kids like this grow up, while their problems get so big we don't have many answers beyond medication or prison. We're throwing away children who could have been healed with early intervention. We've failed Long and her son.

And we as a society are failing parents in general by advising them to punish instead of connect. Sure, conventional parenting will work on most kids. In fact, my rough estimate is that probably 70% of kids  can be raised virtually any way you want, short of outright abuse, and they'll come out okay. Maybe not thriving, but functioning. But where does that leave the other 30%? Kids with an innate challenge, like Adam Lanza and Liza Long's son? Those children need more help then we're giving them, more help than their parents know how to give them.  As Liza Long says, if we as a society don't figure out a way to support parents and children better, we can expect more tragedies. Let's heed her warning.

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