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"I loved being angry. It made me feel very powerful. I loved killing animals because I loved how powerful it made me feel and how much it scared other people. I wanted them to see they were up against a very powerful person. My parents would try to discipline me, but every time I would get even with them so they stopped making me do what I didn't want to do. Now, after a year, I have learned that love is stronger than anger. I never think about killing anymore. Anger doesn't have the lasting power that love does."
A 14 year old recovering from attachment disorder and overindulgence.
The big question newscasters seem to be ending their stories with is "Why?" School officials and others are quoted as saying, "That's one of the great mysteries - how do you identify a student who is going to act out?"
We cannot know what caused the anguish at Columbine High School. What we can do is look at other perpetrators of such violence and see what common thread bound them together. What was similar about them? What childhood experiences did they share? Is there an answer there?
If the population of children I work with as a therapist yields any clues, the answers to both questions are found in early childhood. It is premature and audacious for me to assume any knowledge of the gunmen at Columbine. All I know is that with children in my private therapeutic practice who have killed animals and/or have attempted to kill people there were common markers in their early childhood experience - markers which occurred in the first two years of life. The foundation laid in those early years did not explode into out of control behaviors until age 10 or 11. Nonetheless the common traits and experiences were there to cause individual, familial and societal problems in adolescence.
Adolescence causes a reactivation of issues raised in the first years of life. If the toddler years were smooth and the parents and child enjoyed each other's company, then the years of adolescence will probably be relatively smooth with normal teenage issues present. However, if the early childhood and toddler years were marked with trauma, abuse, abandonment and/or overindulgence and the parents and child did not mesh well, then the groundwork has been laid for severe acting out behaviors during adolescence.
Unresolved losses and pain during the first year of life manifest with intensity during adolescence. Children do not kill because of exposure to violent movies and angry music. They do not kill because they have access to guns. They kill because killing feelings are already within them. They are attracted to blood and gore because the music and the movies are an expression of the deeply repressed infantile rage that has not been resolved and remains hidden in their psyche. Access to guns allows them to kill more people from a greater distance and so increases the carnage. However, the guns are simply the weapon of choice. With or without guns, people with killing feelings will find a way to vent their rage. (Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy did not use guns on their victims.) In order for the debate over what happened at Columbine High School to be productive it must not be simplified to questions about violent movies, angry music, guns and internet access to bomb making instructions. The issue is not about movies, television, music or guns - it is about personality and brain development in the early years of life. It is about the internal processes which make such a drive to kill overwhelming for some people.
Generally, the first representative of society who recognizes there are problems is the kindergarten teacher. By the time a child is ready to leave the home for school at the age of five the child should be able to follow someone else's direction, be respectful, responsible and fun to be around. When these traits are not present the child is already inclined toward troublesome behaviors. The groundwork has been laid by the early home environment and the parent child relationship for the child to play out attitudes and behaviors which can range from congenial, sunny cooperativeness to dissonance and belligerence.
What happens in the home during those first two years of life which is so pivotal to later healthy brain and personality development? The parents are nurturing, caring and present. The child learns from such parents that the world is a safe, nurturing, caring place. The type and quality of the bonding during this critical period reinforces a loving relationship with the parents which directly determines the quality and strength of conscience formation, cause and effect thinking and frustration tolerance. That is why it has been said we can either invest in the play pen or the state pen. Critical neurological wiring in the brain takes place as a result of the child's experiences. This brain development is foundational to how the child will respond in future situations.
Traditionally it has been believed that children who have been orphaned or abused and neglected are the primary victims of poor bonding and attachment in the early years. In our two income society, however, a new phenomenon has emerged. Children are being overindulged by parents who have more money then time to spend with them. The result is that children are being raised in financially secure, but emotionally empty, environments, with little discipline and structure. Currently this most common form of neglect is also the most socially acceptable. The societal ramifications of children who are overindulged and often emotionally left can be as severe as children who are considered attachment disordered due to abuse, neglect, abandonment, and multiple moves.
In my experience, there are several reasons why a child would be so disaffected with society that he or she would want to blow it up and kill everyone in it. One is the child has been overindulged. The other is that the child has an attachment disorder. While their causes are opposed to one another, the results can look exactly the same. When they are coupled together the result for the child can be mindless violence. Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer were attachment disordered. John Hinckley was overindulged. All had murder on their mind.
Overindulged children grow up believing they are entitled to more than they are getting. Parents are so thrilled with their offspring they leap to move heaven and earth so their precious child will have every advantage. The child's wish is fulfilled before it is even expressed. Lessons, toys, travel, tutors, camps - all are available to the child. The parents, in their zeal to make sure their child does not suffer from low self-esteem, gush over every accomplishment. Rewards, for what others believe may be somewhat minor achievements, are abundant, far in excess of their true value. Photos abound to document all activities as if everything the child did was worth fixing in memory forever. Often children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder do not have ADD at all. Rather than an attention deficit disorder they have an intention deficit disorder (Foster Cline). They are so used to be being catered to and entertained, particularly by television, the classroom environment is boring for them. They are not used to being forced to do anything and paying attention in class is not on their agenda.
At the same time there are few expectations placed on the child to be reciprocal. Chores are not assigned, or, when the child balks, the parents back off and do not demand compliance. Often both parents work and they do not want to spend what little time they have in the evening together arguing about getting a child to follow through on a task. Over time, the child loses track of where he or she fits in the process of getting their needs met. They have no meaningful role in the family. They do not have to do anything in order to get what they want. Rather than their self-esteem going up, it goes down as they see themselves as recipients of continual largess, not reciprocal partners on a team. They begin to feel incompetent, not competent. The unintended, yet underlying message, from the parents is that the child is incapable of getting his or her own needs met or helping the family. Rather than being happy and grateful for their parent's generosity they become hostile dependent. They take everything their parents give them but are angry about it because they know that it infantalizes them and makes them less capable of providing for themselves. The more dependent on their parents for their happiness they become, the more powerless they feel to make themselves happy and effect their lives in positive ways, and the more they have to assert their power in hostile ways.
Children who are over indulged lack conscience development. They have a conscience but do not need to use it as their parents have a tendency to rescue them from their mistakes. They lack cause and effect thinking as they get what they want without any effort on their part. They do not learn how their efforts contribute to their well being. Often they refuse to follow through on parental expectations and still receive what they want with no negative consequences. Lastly, they tend to have little frustration tolerance as they get both their needs and desires met faster then they have opportunity to even ask, much less suffer from waiting. In order for parents to keep peace they instantly gratify their child's demands. They follow the path of least resistance. The result of overindulgence is the child becomes increasingly demanding and the parents find it easier to give in than make demands in return. "No" becomes a four letter word. A therapist might diagnose the child as being "oppositional defiant."
At school, on the highway, and on the job children who are severely overindulged play out their lives in predictable ways. They do not tolerate teasing, correction, or demands. They do not see how their behavior has contributed to the response they are getting from others. Their response to what they see as violations of who they are is extreme and feels totally justifiable considering the circumstances. Because they are not expected to contribute or give back in any way they tend to have huge amounts of spare time on their hands with no constructive direction on ways to fill it. Thus they have plenty of time to plan and carry out revenge oriented activities against those who they believe have crossed them.
For their part the parents become totally confused. They work hard and they give and give and give and the child never gives back. They stare at each other in the evening and wonder why their child is angry all of the time when he or she has everything life could offer. The parents see keeping their child happy as their job and if they do their job right then their child will be happy. If their child is not happy then they must try something else. They don't realize that parenting without discipline is a form of abuse and neglect. They just know they did their best and something very horrible, unforeseen by them, inexplicable to others, happened. Parents who overindulge their children are victims of the law of unintended consequences. Their intent was to love their children and provide for them as best they knew how so the children would grow up to be healthy, happy and productive. The result was the exact opposite.
Often this scenario is part and parcel of the two income family. While the parents are out earning the money to obtain for themselves and their child the standard of living they desire, the home is emotionally and physically empty. During elementary and middle school years the child comes home to an empty house. While the parents may observe behaviors which are not what they would hope for or expect, they are not terribly alarmed and so life goes on. By high school, however, the child stops coming home.....or uses the empty house as a staging area for other activities which might not meet with his or her parent's approval. By the time the parents become alarmed the relationship is so stretched the parents exercise little or no authority over the child. While most teens go through a period of time when they challenge the value system of their parents, the overindulged and emotionally empty teen becomes the antithesis of their parents expectations. (For example, they emulate Hitler, who represents the opposite of a leadership style which makes their present affluence possible.) They overcompensate for their feelings of powerlessness of earlier years by demonstrating how powerful they can become in negative ways. Additionally, the late adolescent has replaced the primary parental relationship with peers and has little investment in responding to parental wishes. Therapy at this point is 8 - 10 years too late.
The myth that children can thrive in the absence of their parents is pervasive in American society as parents sacrifice their children on the altar of largess. In two income families where both incomes are essential for survival, the child is often expected to pitch in with chores, dishes, meal preparation in order to take some of the load off the hard working parents. The contribution of the children is vital to the entire family's well being and everyone knows it. Mom wants to be home, but can't. By contrast, in two income families where one income would be sufficient if the standard of living was lowered, the message to the child tends to be quite different. Out of guilt and/or fatigue, often parents do not ask the child to help out. The child becomes irrelevant to the working of the family. The message to the child is that Mom could stay home if she wanted to but doesn't want to. It is not a priority for her to spend time with the children. Because money is more available, it, and what it can buy, is substituted for emotional presence of the parents.
Some of the symptoms of children who are overindulged and oppositional defiant follow. The more traits and the more severe they are the more severe the problem. Children growing up and characterized as being "spoiled" are on the less severe end of the spectrum and are merely unpleasant to be around. They make very poor spouses, employees and parents. demanding clingy no sense of boundaries low self esteem huge entitlement issues and the belief that the world owes them has conscience - but doesn't use it - knows what parents want and do the opposite hostile dependent - bites the hand that feeds them sneaky angry low frustration tolerance little cause and effect thinking won't comply on parents terms, parents give up trying non reciprocal - don't give back - parents do all the giving, child does all the taking
There are many reasons why a child could have an attachment disorder while being raised in a "normal" home. A sudden separation from the primary caretaker due to a severe illness or hospitalization of the child or mother, or the death of the mother, can cause the child such emotional suffering due to feelings of loss and abandonment that emotional damage could occur. (Kaszyinski was hospitalized at six months and his mother said he was never the same afterwards.) Inadequate day care or change of day care providers could affect the child. Day care which occurs too early in a child's life and goes on for too much of the child's day stresses the bond. An undiagnosed or painful illness such as ear infections or colic which the mother cannot relieve can cause a break in the child's bond to her. Chronic depression on the part of the mother makes her unavailable emotionally to her child and leaves the child reacting by creating a sense of distance as well. Multiple moves such as those found in foster care and adoption could cause attachment problems. (Bundy was left in a foundling home for the first three months of his life.) Unprepared mothers with poor parenting skills leave children with a sense that no one is in charge who can keep them safe and that effects their view of the world. Lastly, and most obviously, abuse and neglect, can cause attachment problems. Any or all of these situations can cause a child to "shut down" and not develop the ability to trust, love or care. Some of these events parents have often dismissed as benign, without being aware of the hidden trauma the child has experienced.
We are now experiencing the first generation of women, now giving birth and raising families, who did not have a mother home full time during critical periods of their development. These young women, since they did not experience it, have no sense of the essential role they play in their children's lives and so do not even question the value of substitute care. They accept it as a given that children will thrive away from their mothers. Such is the unforeseen legacy of feminism. Children are being left at younger and younger ages for longer and longer periods of time and the assumption is that they will thrive. Women are feeling better about themselves and their children are feeling worse.
For example, the first 30 minutes after a child returns home from school the child is vulnerable to open contact with a parent. It is an optimum time to discuss what happened during the day, how the child is dealing with events, and how the child could deal with situations differently, an unparalleled time to communicate the parent's values along with the cup of hot chocolate. It is a precious time to feed a child something refreshing that communicates, along with the words and presence, how much the child is loved. By the time the child has been left alone in the house, or brought back from day care after work, mom is busy throwing together dinner and dad is reading the paper. When a parent says, "How was your day? the child is engrossed in something else and responds, "OK." "What happened?" "Nothin." The reachable/teachable moment is gone.
Future tragedies can possibly be averted if parents, teachers and mental health professionals are informed and proactive during the elementary school years regarding the symptoms of attachment disorder and the warning signs that a child has been dangerously overindulged. Many people were aware these young men at Columbine had emotional and behavioral problems. The students interviewed had a litany of descriptors for the teenagers which revealed numerous problems were present. If the issues were obvious to their peers they certainly must have raised the concerns of adults at some time during their short lives. Someone doesn't go into a school with bombs and guns at age 17, killing 13 others before committing suicide, without indicators of emotional instability being present. Those indicators were present for a long time if people knew what they were looking for.
A common trait among those who kill people is that at some point in their life they killed animals. When children are left unsupervised there is no way for an adult to know whether or not animals are dying in their wake.
The more traits and characteristics from the following list a child exhibits the more chance that reactive attachment disorder exists and the more severe the problem. The classic symptoms of attachment disorder are:
* superficially engaging and charming to other than parents
* lack of eye contact on adult's terms
* indiscriminately affectionate with strangers
* destructive of self, others and material things
* cruelty to animals
* chronic lying
* no impulse controls, looks hyperactive
* learning lags with normal intelligence
* lack of cause and effect thinking
* lack of conscience
* abnormal eating patterns, gorges food
* poor peer relationships
* preoccupation with blood and gore
* preoccupation with fire
* persistent questions and chatter
* abnormal speech patterns
* triangulation and manipulation of adults
* false allegations of abuse
(List developed by Dr. Foster Cline. A scoreable survey which incorporates the above symptoms is available by contacting Deborah Hage, MSW.
Often, however, the difficulty is not identifying that a problem exists but determining what to do about it. Despite the enormous amount of love which their parents have for them, children with reactive attachment disorder or severely overindulged and oppositional and defiant do not tend to get well on their own. Love is not enough, if it were the children would be well. Play therapy, talk therapy and conventional children's treatment programs also have little impact on the behaviors and attitudes. Indeed, often such ineffective treatments make the situation worse. In order for treatment to be effective the child must be put in a position where remaining angry and acting out in anti-social ways becomes less attractive than changing. The treatment must figuratively "put the child in a steel box with a velvet lining". Putting the child in a position where the internalized rage, grief and fear can be vented in a safe and acceptable manner, with no one getting hurt, is pivotal to treatment. Confronting the child on his or her behaviors and forcing accountability while being warm and nurturing takes highly skilled attachment therapists. Most mental health professionals, counselors and therapists do not have the training for such work. It is very expensive and insurance often does not reimburse for it.
The national organization of therapists who do have the credentials for the work is called ATTACh. For more information about practitioners in various areas of the country contact ATTACh at 703-914-3928, or www.attach.org.
What is important is that the issues must be addressed early, the earlier the better. While it is possible to treat adolescents the task is made immensely harder by their size, their age and their emotional stage of development. Adolescents are, by psychological design, at a stage of personality development where their life task is to separate from parents. The goal of attachment work is to forge a greater bond with the teen's parents. This is counter to the life task of the child. Dr. Greg Keck of Cleveland (440-230-1960) has had some success with attachment work with older teens and adolescents.
Cultural Support for Parents
Part of the treatment which must occur if such tragedies are to be averted is a change in the way the American culture supports families. Modern culture does not support mothers staying home with their babies. It preaches and teaches that mothers are not important and children do just as well in day care as they do with their mothers.
Due to fears of child abuse, there are forces in our society which disempower parents as the final authority in the family. Because most parents are not abusive their authority in the home is curtailed along with the authority of those parents who are abusive. The result is chaos in the family. Mass media representatives of American culture endorse violence, premature sexual activity and happiness through consumerism. Most parents have to continually fight these values and end up giving in out of fatigue.
At the same time, professionals, who are trained to look for abuse behind every family's front door, often align themselves with the child and against the parents. They allow children to blame their parents for actions which they alone are responsible for. They believe a child's/student's interpretation of what has happened at home and allow themselves to be manipulated and conned by children in their care. They do not support parent's efforts to have their children do chores, attend worship, curtail television and movies and set limits in numerous other ways. False charges of abuse by children who seek revenge against parents who enforce discipline are believed. Youth put in offender programs are in such programs because they have lied and stolen and in other ways demonstrated their untrustworthiness. Yet there are adults who believe they can establish a trusting relationship that no one else has been able to establish and so believe the child over the protests of those who have known the child much longer and who warn about the triangulation and manipulation which is occurring. Parents who want to keep a child home from school or an activity in order for the child to work off a consequence which the parent imposed for an infraction of the family's rules are chastised.
In numerous ways the role of parents in a child's life has been challenged and diminished by the forces of society.
Another key piece to treatment is clear diagnosis. Some of the symptoms for attachment disorder can overlap symptoms of hyperactivity disorder, mood disorder, thought disorder and/or oppositional defiant disorder (often the result of being overindulged). Obtaining a clear diagnosis is extremely important and can only be done by someone who is familiar with all five psychiatric disorders. A therapist or mental health professional who does not accept or understand the complexity of attachment disorder or being overindulged is not in a position to rule it these out as diagnoses.
Diagnosis is also critically important as it serves as an indicator of whether or not a medication would be helpful in lessening the behavioral and emotional impact of the disorder. Attachment disorder is rarely present in a child in isolation. Generally there are concurrent diagnosis which must be addressed as well. While there is no medication formulated to minimize the issues of attachment disorder, the accompanying disorders do tend to respond positively to medication. By minimizing the negative impact of a mood disorder or thought disorder the attachment disorder is helped as well. An expert in the field of differential diagnosis for children with attachment disorder and the medications which most frequently help at what dosage is Dr. John Alston of Evergreen, Colorado. When children are on the right medication at the right dose they sparkle. They are genuinely happy, not merely chemically restrained.
Further Resources (the first three are available through amazon.com):
Conscienceless Acts, Societal Mayhem by Dr. Foster Cline (excerpt)
High Risk: Children Without a Conscience by Carole McKelvey & Ken Magid
Attachment, Trauma and Healing by Terry Levy and Michael Orlans
These next two are available through Deborah's purchase page
When Love is Not Enough by Nancy Thomas
Therapeutic Parenting, Its a Matter of Attitude by Deborah Hage
Numerous articles on other aspects of early childhood development and how to enhance it are also available.
Children who are seriously overindulged to the point where they experience few of life's real expectations, set backs and disappointments, can become as dangerous as those diagnosed with a severe attachment disorder. Attachment disorder is from not enough and poor quality attention from a primary care giver in the first years of life. Overindulged results from too much of the wrong kind of attention, too many possessions and not enough discipline. The recipients of either can become dangerous to society as they lack good conscience development, have no cause and effect thinking and have little frustration tolerance.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to stop 17 year old perpetrators of senseless tragedies. Action must be taken much sooner than that to correctly identify, accurately diagnose and effectively treat children who are at high risk for conscienceless acts. It is the responsibility of all in the mental health and education fields to become familiar with the symptoms of attachment disorder and overindulgence and act early to prevent victimized children from growing up to be victimizers.
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