Bad Behavior? It May Be More Than Bad Parenting, But Don’t Quit On Us Now

It was easy to see there was something wrong with her child. He rested against her chest like a rag doll, arms and legs dangling from his body like limp string. No one talked about what had caused his condition, but I’ll tell you, there was a lot of talk about what a wonderful mother she was. We all admired the strength and courage Alicia demonstrated by parenting such a difficult child as Nathan. Not one person blamed her for his condition.

My friend Marlene is a different story. Ricky is also a difficult child. From the moment they adopted him at three weeks of age he was colicky and his body would go stiff when she tried to hold him. By the time he was seven he was secretly pinching his sister, stealing from the neighbor children and lying.

Like Alicia, Marlene tried everything she could think of to help her son with his problems. She disciplined him in the same ways she did her other two children, but he was considerably less cooperative and a lot angrier.

When he was very young they tried a “Bonding Therapist”. Perhaps the adoption caused him to have difficulty bonding, and he needed help forming attachments, but that didn’t help. Next they played with his diet. The whole family cut out sugar, fats and dyes, and started taking expensive vitamins, and still Ricky had problems. He had all the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, maybe a medication like Ritalin would help. It did not. Perhaps he was depressed and a little Prozac would help him feel better, but this too had little lasting effect. After countless hours in doctor’s offices, and hundreds of dollars on treatment, Ricky is still a terror. He has a bad temper; he explodes often and is mean to other children.

Now here’s the interesting part to me, no one looks with sympathy at Marlene. I’ve never heard anyone say what a good mother she is to be raising this difficult child so courageously. Unlike Alicia, Marlene actually gets blamed for Ricky’s bad behavior. As a society we seem to feel sorry for parents whose children have physical disabilities, and we seem to hold parents responsible if their children have emotional disabilities.

Part of the reason is that physical problems are easier to see than emotional ones, but that is changing. There is technology that allows us to look inside the brain and watch it function. Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is a computer-generated image of brain activity that allows us to see where sugar is being used in the brain, and this allows us to compare “normal” brains to brains that are not functioning quite as normally.

Not that long ago Schizophrenia was thought to be caused by bad parenting, but with the help of PET Scans it’s easy to see the difference between the normally functioning brain and that of a Schizophrenic. Today, families with Schizophrenic children don’t get blamed, they get our sympathy.

PET Scans are allowing us to see that many behaviors formerly identified as emotional problems, or mental illness, might actually better be referred to as brain disease. There are physical components to many emotional problems. For example, the brain of a person in a depressed state looks different than that of the same person not depressed. The brain of a person with Attention Deficit Disorder looks different than the brain of a person without ADD, and the brain of an aggressive child like Ricky looks different than the brain of a timid child. (How about that?)

The catch is that even though we can see that the brain looks different, in most cases we are still lacking specific cures. Ricky was treated with herbs, prescription medications, behavior modification and psychotherapy, and he is still one mean, angry child. Theses treatments work on some people with brain disease and are worth investigating, but in Ricky’s case it is his family, or the school, or the drugs he tried who get the blame.

I think the castigation occurs because we are uninformed, and because we are afraid. We don’t demand that Alicia put Nathan in training for the Olympics; actually, we don’t demand that she do anything because his limp body is no threat to us. But we certainly expect Marlene to get control of Ricky, because if she doesn’t he could hurt somebody! He could steal a gun and start shooting and one of us might get hit. We want our safety back, and we want Marlene to do something about it. The bad news is that at this point, with some people, we just don’t know what to do. So for all our sakes, encourage Marlene, encourage behavior research, and believe it when you hear that bad behavior might be more than just bad parenting. There is a Hindu proverb that says,

“Help thy brother’s boat across, and lo! Thine own has reached the shore.”