Tuesday, August 8, 2017
So hard to tell why people do the things they do—and when it comes to child abuse, their actions can be especially hard to explain. Everyone who has brought up children knows that there are risk factors for mistreatment. A bad day, an argument with another adults, a child who suddenly acts up, more stress than usual, a headache—these can all add up to at least the impulse to hurt a child. Fortunately for children, most of us, most of the time, have enough self-control to resist that impulse. And, having experienced the impulse, we recognize what might happen when an adult is overwhelmed by life and the intense desire to lash out at a child.
What’s much harder to understand is the systematic abuse and neglect that in some cases go on for years, and in other cases end with the child’s death. These situations are very different from the impulsive smack to the head or the rear. They would seem to require strong motivation and intentions to mistreat a child on a daily, even hourly, basis. Rather than from a momentary lapse in impulse control, these surely stem from a lack of empathy or concern, from a belief that children are property with no rights as human beings, and/or from a conviction that only a stern and painful upbringing can create “character” and insure a productive adulthood. The latter two points may result from the adults’ own childhood experiences and their unexamined acceptance of the views of their own families, sometimes expressed in phrases like “I was always brought up to…” or “My daddy always [fill in blank] and I turned out all right , didn’t I?” (by the way, it is never advisable to point out to that person that he did not actually turn out all right!).
When people who mistreat children point proudly to their family history as justification for their actions, we should be reminded of the fact that historically, children have been punished, or simply brought up, in ways that we now regard as abusive. Locking children in dark closets, washing out their mouths with blistering lye soap, making bed-wetters wash their sheets in icy cold water, withholding food—all of these are part of traditions that go back hundreds of years (although not every family or culture did any or all of these things). People alive today may have experienced such treatment, and if they did not, they probably heard of it from grandparents or other older relatives who passed along their own narratives. These mistreatments may be recognized as “old-fashioned”, but that may or may not make parents avoid them. They may decide that using “old-fashioned” methods is the socially conservative thing to do and therefore admire those practices, which are basically methods of power assertion.
But there are other possibilities too. Whether or not parents have heard of abusive methods through their own family history, they may be instructed to use such methods by other people. For example, as some readers know, the self-appointed foster parent educator Nancy Thomas has for years recommended power assertion techniques such as limiting the amount and variety of food given to a child, removing most furniture and decorations from the child’s bedroom, and requiring that the child ask permission for the simplest self-care actions like drinking water or using the toilet. Thomas is a persuasive speaker, to the point where a licensed psychologist listened to her suggestions and subsequently had her license revoked after a 12-year-old patient attempted suicide ( see https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2015/03/psychology-license-revoked-become.html). And Thomas is apparently not the only one with a taste for power assertion as a child psychotherapy (see https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2010/12/federici-v-mercer-story-behind-lawsuit.html), as another psychologist’s suggestions seem to have jibed with a couple’s decision to treat their adopted son by limiting his diet, keeping him isolated in his room, and painting his windows black.
There are cases that crop up weekly in which authorities have found children harmed as a result of being treated by “old-fashioned” or Nancy Thomas methods of power assertion. Here are two recent ones:
stories/roy-couple-accused-of- holding-children-captive-in- squalid-home-accepts-plea- deal/
In this case, the adoptive parents of three boys ages 7-11were said to have kept them isolated for as much as thirteen hours a day in a locked room, to have tied or bound them with zip ties and to have duct-taped their mouths, and to have limited their diet. The windows in the room were screwed closed and painted black, and the room had no lights, There were no toilet facilities available to the children while they were locked in the room, and they used a furnace vent for sanitary purposes. (A point to be kept in mind when children are described as intentionally urinating in inappropriate places.) The children were further punished at times by having to eat heavily-salted and cayenne-peppered rice; they were not permitted to drink water after 2 P.M. in spite of this.
If these parents had gone to trial, it might have been possible to find out why they thought these methods were appropriate, but a plea bargain means that we will probably never know any more of the background of this case. My own speculation is that these parents went beyond the “old-fashioned” approach by combining so many elements of power assertion, and adding some nontraditional punishments, for example, painting the windows black. I would guess that this behavior pattern was learned either through some formal instruction or in imitation of others who had been instructed.
In this case, adoptive parents kept a boy, then 5 years old, in an unlighted basement room for 12 hours a day for some months. He had a mattress and a blanket to sleep with. There were no toilet facilities, and if he had to defecate he would put the stool into a hole in the wall. The boy’s diet consisted primarily of carrots, which he had to eat before getting any other food, and if he did not finish the carrots within a time limit he was not allowed other food. The mother stated that she did not know it was against the law to lock a child in a room.
In this somewhat similar case, most of the elements seem to be “old-fashioned” ones , and it is possible that the parents had heard about such treatment of children and imitated it in an informal way. The carrot part is highly unusual, however, and suggests some belief about nutrition derived from an “alternative medicine” source, perhaps on the Internet or through some community or word of mouth communication. The mother’s comment about the legality or otherwise of locking the child in a room suggests a belief that anything that is legal is acceptable in parenting-- or perhaps simply a good deal of confusion about life in general.
Are these cases evidence of Nancy Thomas parenting, or just the “trailing edge” of some old practices? Is Nancy Thomas’s success (and she has had some!) due to her ability to ride the coattails of “the way my granddaddy did it”? Plea bargains and the failure of investigators to follow up on these issues has made it impossible to answer these questions with any certainty. If we knew the answers, though, it might be a great help in preventing these cases.
Friday, July 28, 2017
Almost forty years ago, Rita Swan and her husband, then devout Christian Scientists, prayed and watched as their toddler son died without the medical treatment that could have saved his life. Many people would emerge from this experience embittered or self-loathing and turn to drugs or alcohol to sustain them in a lifetime effort to avoid their memories.
Instead of succumbing to bitterness, Rita and her husband created an organization that has worked ever since to help educate parents and to push for legislation and law enforcement countering religious practices that bring suffering and possible death to young children. The organization is CHILD-- Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty. Rita has maintained two websites, www.childrenshealthcare.org and www.idahochildren.org. Childrenshealthcare.org contains material about all the work of the organization over the years and describes a multitude of cases in which mistaken beliefs caused harm to children. The most recent newsletter from CHILD recounts events of faith-based medical neglect in Idaho, and the position of one group of parents that children have no rights, that there are many medical errors made, and that medicine is in any case “of Satan”. This group apparently reports neither births nor deaths of children, so it is impossible to know how many children have died unnecessarily, but there are many child graves on the group’s property.
Rita Swan is now retiring as president of CHILD and the work of the organization is being taken over by the legal scholar Marci Hamilton of the University of Pennsylvania. The new organization’s website is www.childusa.org. Much remains to be done, and in a final letter Rita Swan states that she will continue to work on issues in Washington State, where Christian Scientists are exempt from charges of criminal mistreatment, second-degree murder, and failure to report abuse.
No one says that it is always easy to know when it is right to give children medical treatment and when it is right to withhold it. The recent case of the infant Charlie Gard has shown some of the many conflicts over decisions that no more can be done for a child and that further attempts simply prolong suffering. However, arguments based on the ideas that children have no rights, or that a supreme being will be insulted by parents’ lack of faith if they seek medical help, really cannot be allowed to influence either difficult or easy decisions about children’s health care. Nor, in spite of all respect and concern for parents’ relationships with their children, can a community allow parents to make decisions alone while under the enormous stress of caring for a very sick child. We all have a stake in these decisions and the precedents they set for the future.
Rita Swan has done so much to clarify personal and legal thinking on these issues. Thank you, Rita, from everyone concerned with children’s welfare!
Friday, July 21, 2017
From time to time I see advertisements for a residential treatment center known as CALO (www.caloteens.com), or for programs apparently related to this model. The programs provide residential treatment for children and teenagers who, the proprietors claim, are difficult to parent because they suffer from Reactive Attachment Disorder. RAD is said to make them lonely and miserable, unable to “bond” with others, uncooperative, poor school achievers, etc., etc. As occurs all too often, these proprietors note their belief that adoption even at birth is likely to result in these undesirable outcomes.
Let’s have a look at one CALO website, where “our proprietary treatment” is described at www.caloteens.com/message2.html. I want to note first that “proprietary treatment” is a term generally reserved for methods whose details are considered to be trade secrets, statements about which are protected as commercial speech in the United States. Unlike information about research-validated, evidence-based treatments, for which details are easily available if you know where to look, proprietary treatments are difficult and usually quite expensive to learn about-- as a rule, you have to sign up for workshops or seminars or buy material from a suggested reading list sold only through the proprietors.
Material at caloteens.com suggests that a major CALO concern has to do with a rivalry with behavioral modification programs. As is typical of non-evidence-based, commercially driven proprietary treatment programs, the CALO discussion argues that behavior modification, which is seen as a rival, replicates harmful situations that have already affected the children, and that recovery from childhood problems must begin “with the heart” and be followed later by behavior change. It is not stated with any clarity how any “heart” changes can be detected before they are followed by behavior change, and therefore it is far from clear how CALO’s claimed (but unlisted) research basis could have been established.
The CALO website also stresses the need for specialized treatment of childhood mental health problems, and notes that their staff are specialists in treatment of attachment and trauma disorders, as described and trained by groups like ATTACh and the Attachment & Trauma Network. These comments are red flags for the possibility of two difficulties often associated with proprietary treatments.
One is the assumption that some single factor, such as attachment, is the single most important cause of a wide range of developmental and emotional problems; like the bed of Procrustes, this assumption compresses or stretches problems caused by combinations of biological and environmental problems so that they “fit” the chosen bed—in this case, the attachment bed. As has been pointed out by the British psychologists Woolgar and Scott, this sort of single-factor explanation opens the door to choices that ignore not only complex causes, but even simple factors that differ from the chosen cause.
A second red flag has to do with the assumption that the details of a CALO program are of necessity essential for treatment. However, serious work in clinical psychology has for years focused on general or shared factors that contribute to good outcomes achieved through treatments that are different in details. In some cases, such as EMDR, specific details (like eye movement) may have nothing to do with positive outcomes, which probably result from general helpful factors like empathic responses. The CALO claim to uniqueness of its program is thus not likely to be a strong argument for people with training in understanding therapeutic approaches—but it is quite likely to appeal to worried parents.
However, let’s go on to my favorite bit of the CALO website. This is the part about golden retriever therapy and the transfer of “attachment lessons” learned from dogs, to human relationships. Kids in CALO programs take care of dogs; they are said to “learn trust” from the dogs, therefore to understand attachment, and therefore (with some additional, undescribed help) to transfer the attachment they have learned from the dog to a human being. This is quite an interesting idea, but one that makes a common but mistaken assumption about emotional development, and also one that betrays considerable confusion about how attachment works and what an attachment relationship is.
The first issue here is one that I have often termed “ritual reenactment”. The basic idea is that if certain events lead to a positive outcome for infants and young children, those events, reenacted in some way in later life, will recapitulate normal development and correct any problems that occurred when they were wrongly experienced earlier on. This belief has appeared in many forms from Sandor Ferenczi’s “babying” of patients to the methods of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann as fictionalized in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden to Nancy Thomas’s insistence on bottle-feeding older children. None of these methods has ever been shown to be effective, but somehow the thought of a “do-over” continues to have a strong appeal to the public.
But-- suppose that just for the sake of argument we accepted the idea of the “do-over”, would caring for a golden retriever be a way to do this? A comparison of the ordinary and the “treatment” situations says it would not. In typical early development, a child is cared for by a consistent and responsive small group of adults. The adults care for the infant physically, but they also spend much time showing their positive feelings about him or her, working toward communication of child to adult and adult to child, and enjoying play and social interactions that bring pleasure to both adult and baby. The outcome of these experiences is that the toddler stays close to the familiar adult if anything is scary or distressing, can be comforted by the adult hen distressed, and explores new things best if allowed to have contact with a familiar person at will. (This set of behaviors has been summarized as “trust” or as “attachment”, although those terms really apply to a hypothesized inner state that guides the behavior. ) Well before school age, children put their social experiences to work to build a set of ideas about how people interact socially, sometimes called an internal working model of social relations (IWM). The IWM continues to develop, sometimes along new lines, as the child grows and has new social experiences.
How does that set of events compare to caring for a dog? First of all, the roles are reversed. The human being acts as the “parent” and the dog as the “child”. If the boy or girl does a good job of nurturing and playing with the dog, the dog will develop trust in the boy or girl—but certainly not an exclusive trust, especially if the dog is a very sociable golden retriever. The CALO website says that the child learns empathy for the dog and therefore becomes more empathic toward his or her parents, but it is far from clear how either of these things could happen. If a child is a callous, unemotional individual, in what way will doing the work of caring for a dog teach or motivate empathic skills? And, if the child did become able to empathize with a dog, read the dog’s signals, become aware of the dog’s usual needs, even realize that any golden will convey that he needs yet another roast beef sandwich because there really wasn’t any meat in the one you just gave him—how do any of these skills relate to the more complex needs and messages of human beings, the facial expressions, the body language, and all the other factors that influence empathic responses? How do any of these enter into the IWM’s further development? Indeed, if trust and attachment were transferable, there would presumably be no attachment disorders in adopted children, as all (according to the CALO website) must have been attached to adults in the past, even at birth, so they ought to be able to hand that attachment package over to a new caregiver, just as they are claimed to “transfer” attachment from a dog to a human.
Since the relatively new developmental trauma disorder fad came on the scene, I’ve been expecting to see fewer extravagant claims about attachment, but it seems that CALO and similar groups are getting all the juice they can out of the mythology of attachment. And, of course, therapy dogs, emotional support animals, etc. are now in fashion, so why not bring in the golden retrievers too?
Perhaps we’re lucky that they haven’t decided to create attachment through pot-bellied pigs.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Communications and interactions between the United States and Russia are marked by suspicions and sanctions these days. Some commodities that used to be readily available in Russia are no longer imported from the West.
Regrettably, sanctions have not prohibited the export to Russia from the United States of various pseudoscientific ideas about psychology and child development. In particular, we are seeing the spread in Russia of the theories and practices of “attachment therapists” and their helpers who subscribe to the use of “Nancy Thomas parenting” with vulnerable children.
Some readers will already know exactly what I am talking about, but for those who do not, I’ll supply some brief definitions. “Attachment therapy”, sometimes known as “holding therapy”, is an implausible, non-evidence-based treatment claimed by its proponents to be effective for certain childhood mental health problems. Advocates of “attachment therapy” (AT) also claim that their principles are derived from the work of John Bowlby, the originator of attachment theory, a framework for understanding the feelings and behavior of young children with respect to familiar and unfamiliar adults. As I have pointed out in other posts on this blog and in various print publications, the beliefs about attachment employed by AT proponents share almost nothing with Bowlby’s theory, but are instead essentially retrofitted to provide a rationale for AT practices such as restraining children physically, shouting at and intimidating them.
Two other points to define here: AT proponents describe adopted and foster children as suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder, a real though rare psychiatric syndrome described in DSM-5 and ICD. However, the alarming symptoms they list, including eventual serial killing, have nothing to do with the symptoms of RAD. They form instead a pattern that I have referred to as faux-RAD , resulting in a counterfeit disorder to be treated with a counterfeit therapy. Finally—and to my mind perhaps most importantly—AT advocates claim that their restraint treatments need to be accompanied by adjuvant methods sometimes referred to as “Nancy Thomas parenting”, created and taught by one Nancy Thomas, a self-identified instructor of foster parents, who recommends limiting the amount and variety of a child’s diet, withholding information as well as food from the child, requiring the child to ask permission for “privileges” like a drink of water or use if the toilet, and so on. These methods, joined with rocking the child like a baby and hand-feeding him caramels (yes, really, but I don’t want to take time to explain her reasoning right now) are said by Thomas and her followers to correct attachment problems that adopted and foster children may have experienced, and as a result to render the children docile, grateful, and affectionate. (The actual results of this kind of treatment in one case may be seen at http://www.wbay.com/cotent/news/Wrightstown-couple-accused-of-starving-adopted-son-mentally-abusing-him-433665943.html --- and this case is not an outlier.)
AT and “Nancy Thomas parenting” (NTP) had their beginnings in the United States, and they have always seemed to me to have a peculiarly American, pioneer spirit, rough frontier justice, snake-oil salesman flavor to them—like something out of Mark Twain. Other countries have their own ways of abusing children (as witness the old German “black pedagogy”), but AT and NTP seem to be genuinely “made in America”. Our British cousins have picked AT up a bit, but on the whole their [former] EU membership made them somewhat wary about legal concerns related to maltreatment.
Now, however, we see Russia picking up AT and NTP with apparent great enthusiasm. For some years. American advocates of authoritarian child treatments have flirted with Russia, occasionally being invited to speak, and occasionally being prevented from speaking. In the last few years, an influx of AT proponents and AT ideas has penetrated Russia—in spite of the very clear fact that Russian adoptees who were harmed in the United States, leading to the ban on foreign adoptions, were in many cases harmed by AT and NTP practices! This connection appears to be invisible to groups of Russians who have hurried to encourage adoption of large groups of children from orphanages and have sustained the belief that they can “fix” these children by following AT and NTP precepts.
What exactly has happened in Russia? I have been receiving a series of descriptive comments from Mihail Able (see comments at childmyths.blogspot,com/2017/07/the-russian-adoption-ban-magnitsky-act.html; scroll down to the comments section, and please understand that Mihail is doing this with Google Translate). Mihail discusses specific families’ problems resulting from their acceptance of AT and NTP principles and practices.
In addition, my friend and esteemed colleague Yulia Massino has been following with distaste news of tours in which Nancy Thomas herself has come to instruct the Russians how they should deal with adopted and foster children. She has made her usual claims of “curing” 87% of children who have come to her as crazed future killers. (For some reason, the numbers 80%, 85%, 87% have great power in AT circles, although of course there have never been systematic studies either of the children’s initial conditions or of the outcomes of NTP or similar treatments -- much less any randomized trials, and much less any detailed publications.) Interestingly, Thomas describes this trip as a “missionary” trip without mentioning the country visited (http://www.facebook.com/ntparenting/posts/1322659427848500).
Following Thomas, there has recently been an exporting trip by staff of the Attachment Institute of New England, an organization that has for many years pushed AT principles and practices. Yulia Massino wrote about this trip on her own blog, http://yuliamass.livejournal.com/232733.html and http://yuliamass.livejournal.com/235689.html (in Russian; use Google translate to read). She pointed out the activities of the two AT visitors, Ken Frohock and Megan “Peg” Kirby, who raised money from sympathizers for their trip and now describe it on the AINE Facebook page and announce lectures at their website http://www.attachmentnewengland.com.
A 2007 press release from AINE (www.attachmentnewengland.com/press.html ) referred to their therapy as utilizing parental eye contact and parental holding of children. The same press release mentioned a presentation by Nancy Thomas and referred to her training with Foster Cline, probably the best-known proponent of intrusive, authoritarian treatments targeting adopted and foster children. AINE has never recanted publicly from these positions; they have in the last few years picked up the most recent terms having to do with trauma, but have not stated any changes in their treatment methods. Although I do not know exactly what they said or did on their trip to Russia, if they were horses I would bet that their track record of AT and NTP involvement would be the best predictor of their performance there.
It seems that a fruitful new market has opened in Russia for the export of pseudoscience manufactured in the U.S. Interestingly, Yulia Massino has told me that the concept of emotional attachment, which “everybody knows” (not always correctly) in the U.S. and U.K., has not been discussed much in Russia. This may leave many Russians open to the impression that attachment, and therefore AT, is a brand new discovery of ingenious Western scientists. Fortunately a new article in circulation by Michael Ivanov may help counter this impression—but I am very much afraid that Russians are not learning from observation of the ill effects these beliefs have had for children in the U.S. You would think they might remember the harm done to Russian adoptees in the U.S. some years ago…
You can see Michael Ivanov's new article at https://www.researchgate.net/publications/318420576_Harmful_Treatments_in_Child_Psychotherapy.
You can see Michael Ivanov's new article at https://www.researchgate.net/publications/318420576_Harmful_Treatments_in_Child_Psychotherapy.
Monday, July 10, 2017
On July 9 and 10, 2017, the New York Times published articles by Jo Becker, Matt Apuzzo, and Adam Goldman on the subject of meetings between Trump campaign representatives and a Russian lawyer during the 2016 election campaign. These articles reiterate a common belief about the Russian prohibition of adoption of Russian children to the United States—they claim that Putin put this restriction in place when infuriated by the Magnitsky Act of 2012 and the sanctions it put on Russia.
It may well be that Putin was annoyed by the restrictions, but concerns about the fates of Russian children in the United States had started rather earlier in both countries. Russian-adopted children had appeared repeatedly in news reports of ill-treatment and even child deaths. In 201l, I commented on this at https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2011/11/nathaniel-craver-case-many.html. In the same year, www.childrenintherapy.org/news.html discussed the USA-Russia Adoption Treaty, with reference to child maltreatment; at that time, Pavel Astakhov, the then-ombudsman for children in Russia, had been asking for continued contact with children adopted from Russia to the U.S. and for continuing their status as Russian citizens. Also in 2011, this issue was discussed at https://phtherapies.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/reactive-attachment-disorder-rad-dispelling-the-myths/. The Beagley case in Alaska, involving mistreatment and “hot-saucing” of a Russian-adopted boy, caused much horrified discussion in both the U.S. and Russia.
All of these very genuine concerns about inappropriate treatment of Russian children in U.S. adoptive families were under discussion before the Magnitsky Act. There is no question in my mind that Russian adoptees, as well as children adopted from other places, were in many cases badly mistreated by adoptive parents who had bought into mistaken beliefs about attachment and about Reactive Attachment Disorder. These parents had been told by “attachment experts” that emotional attachment of children to parents occurred because of power assertion by the parents, and that such attachment was essential to prevent later vicious criminal behavior. The parents believed this, and they did assert power by physical means including withholding food and exposing children to cold and other discomfort. In some cases, they countered disobedience by forcing children to eat or drink large amounts, sometimes causing death.
Pavel Astakhov investigated these problems carefully and recommended prohibiting adoption of Russian children to foreign countries. One part of his reasoning about the U.S. is that this country has never ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children, a distinction that we share only with Somalia.
The point I am making here has nothing to do with the Trump campaign or any election events, of course. I simply want to remind people that the ban on Russian adoption is not a simple tit-for-tat reprisal created by Putin in response to the Magnitsky Act. It was based on very real events in this country, and I could only wish that Americans could ban adoption of American children to persons who are likely to use attachment-therapy related power assertion methods that have harmed children in the past—and are still harming them today.
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
When people talk about evolution of structures and functions or of behaviors through natural selection, they sometimes use an intriguing metaphor. They suggest that human evolution can have a an aspect that can be compared to a spandrel—an architectural feature like an arch that was originally developed as a way to support a building, but that later was liked for its attractive appearance and put to work as a way to decorate a structure. It seems possible that human evolutionary change involves spandrels too, with traits that began with one function later becoming useful in other ways. For instance, eyebrows might originally have been useful for keeping sweat out of our eyes, but now are used in facial expressions and gestures that convey our moods and intentions to people we encounter.
Can young children’s emotional attachment to their parents be considered as a trait that can be “spandrelized”? (Maybe there’s a proper word for this but I don’t know it.) This would certainly not be the way that many people, including quite a few unconventional psychologists and counselors, think about it. It’s commonly, but incorrectly, assumed that once an attachment relationship develops in early life, that attachment stays the same unless something happens to stop it. For example, the death of a parent and subsequent mourning would deactivate that attachment; some “parental alienation” advocates hold that one parent can destroy or at least suppress a child’s attachment to the other parent by emotional manipulation. People who believe in these ideas apparently miss the fact that both attachment behavior and cognitive abilities that are part of thinking about attachment change in the normal course of development, and this contributes to changes in the nature of relationships that originated in toddler’s emotional connections to familiar adults.
So where does the spandrel part come into this? What I am going to say is speculation, just like most of the Just-So stories that are put forth as ideas about the evolution of behavior. But it is possible to make the case that attachment began as a result of natural selection for certain advantageous behaviors, and then later was put to work for other purposes.
Many birds and mammals show some form of “attachment” to parents. Ducklings and goslings, for example, follow moving objects that they see soon after hatching, and those objects are most likely to be their mothers. Whatever kind of object they initially follow, they will during early life follow that same object, and in adulthood will court and attempt to mate with a similar object. This initially serves a protective function and encourages survival, because although a mother duck might not be able to fight off a fox, her behavior against a predator does increase the young duck’s chances of escape. The same consideration applies for young humans, whose curiosity and exploratory behavior could lead them straight to an enemy if they were not “attached” so that they stayed close to familiar adults and avoided strange creatures. Whereas ducks and some other animals form their “attachments” shortly after birth or hatching, humans, who are very immature at birth and cannot move independently for many months, do not show attachment behavior until roughly the time when they might be able to wander away.
Looking at it this way, we can see the enormous survival value for the young of preferring to stay near familiar adults and being wary of strangers and unfamiliar creatures. But within a few years after birth, human children become much more able to judge danger and to keep themselves safer (perhaps not in today’s high-speed traffic, but in the environment of early adaptation). They don’t need attachment for survival in the same way, yet they retain strong relationships with familiar adults under many circumstances, and do this right up until their own adulthood, often modulating into a “reversed” relationship when an aging parent needs the adult child’s care.
Feelings and thoughts about attachment thus lose much of their survival value after the child gets to “school age”, but those feelings and thoughts can be seen as serving new, useful purposes for both the individual and the group-- in other words, attachment has become a spandrel. For the individual, behaviors learned from experiences in the attachment relationship can provide a foundation for understanding other social relationships—that is, they form the internal working model (IWM) of relationships that John Bowlby proposed. The IWM allows the older child and adult to participate in any social relationship with some confidence in assumptions about how social interactions work. The individual does not have to develop new rules from scratch about interacting with any new person he or she meets, and this saves time and energy.
The community also benefits from the attachment spandrel for several reasons. One is that the social rules learned in the early attachment relationship help young adults care for their own children effectively and enlist other community members to help in this task when needed. In addition, the community survives and thrives better when social interactions among members are orderly and constructive, when conflicts and aggressive impulses are modulated by attachment-influenced social rules. For just one more, community values and beliefs are more easily shared and passed on in the context of existing close relationships where they are modeled and implied, than if they had to be taught through direct instruction.
Thinking about attachment after the toddler period as a spandrel can be a helpful way to understand how some aspects of attachment work. But the really basic point is that attachment changes through the course of development, and that toddler attachment, fascinating though it is, cannot be considered to define the nature of attachment later in life.
Monday, July 3, 2017
Now and then I encounter questions about some abusive practices that are done as part of unconventional “attachment therapies”. Adopted and foster children are often the targets of practices advised by non-mainstream therapists, counselors, and coaches of various stripes. The suggested methods can include all or some of the following:
· Limiting the quantity and variety of children’s diets
· Requiring children to “strong sit” tailor-fashion for periods of time without speaking or moving
· Insisting that children ask permission for everyday actions that are normally handed independently after age 2 or 3, such as using the toilet or getting a drink of water
· Punishing children who eat or drink without permission by forcing eating or drinking of large quantities
· Confining children to a bedroom or a basement for many hours, sometimes providing only a bucket for sanitary purposes
· Placing alarms on bedroom and cupboard doors
· Removing all but minimal furniture from the bedrooms where children spend much of their time
These methods are claimed to be directed at creating parent-child attachment and preventing children from becoming murderers in later life—claimed goals that would certainly get the attention of most parents and make them likely to work zealously to do as they are told.
The first problem, of course, is that these methods have nothing to do with creating attachment, attachment has nothing to do with murder, and thus the methods do not treat either mental illness or criminal tendencies a child may have.
The second problem? Well, this is what I want to get at. I hear from worried people who tell me they have seen a sister or neighbor or someone else who seems to be using methods like those above. Sometimes they have reported to child protective services, sometimes they haven’t but wonder if they should—don’t want to get anyone in trouble unnecessarily but don’t like the looks of the situation, etc. What would happen if they reported?
Generally speaking, nothing would happen.
Unless a child is injured or killed as a result of an adult action, using methods like the list above is not illegal. Research definitions of child abuse contain categories that most of those items would fit into, but laws about child maltreatment do not. Like most laws, those laws have the goal of covering as much territory as is needed without getting into too many details. We don’t have laws that say not to lock the child in a bedroom, because such a law could easily be evaded by locking the child in the basement, woodshed, broom closet, or garage instead. A law can’t include all the possible places a child could be locked up. And, we don’t want a law that will punish parents for child abuse if they accidentally shut a door and leave a child locked in until they hear him yelling five minutes later. Many of the things on that list are actions that a parent might carry out unintentionally or in a very mild form. (“You took that extra pancake that your sister wanted, now I want you to eat it!”)
Because we do not have such very detailed laws about child abuse, and because most parents might occasionally do something that was a bit like the items on the list, it would generally be assumed that any parental act that would be considered abusive must pass a pretty high bar-- one that could not be met by insisting someone eat the pancake he swiped or ask permission before eating something specially prepared for a party. As a result, a complaint about one incident of a listed action would not—and probably should not—be given much attention by a child protection agency. Even a set of complaints about many items on the list would probably not contain any one item that would reach that high bar. The items on the list would not even be picked up by a checklist of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are known to be associated with problematic developmental outcomes.
Each item is too little to trigger official action, but many repetitions of many items are likely to form a pattern of experience that includes too much adversity to foster good development. Just as an accumulation of small injuries can lead to untoward physical consequences, it seems possible that repeated psychological injuries can have an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, there is usually no way for a concerned observer to report a pattern of problems; an outsider sees only the occasional event and has no way to know what happens between times. Even if the pattern were carefully recorded, child protective staff may have no mechanism for interfering when each incident, standing alone, looks unpleasant but minor. The parent’s actions may not be “best practice”, but which of us can claim that we always make the best choices? There is plenty of evidence that we just need to be “good enough parents”, and we do not really have clear standards about what is “good enough”.
I would like to propose that agencies and organizations move toward recognizing the patterns of multiple, apparently low-impact, possibly cumulative, but risky, parenting behaviors. At the least, such an approach could prevent some of the child deaths from slow starvation and exposure that crop up in the news with relentless regularity. At the most, such an approach, coupled with parent education and supervision, could improve the chances of excellent developmental outcomes for large numbers of children now at risk.
Saturday, June 17, 2017
In 2014, a young mother who had been evaluated and given prescription medication for a mood disorder killed her two young children (as described in http://www.oxygen.com/blogs/mom-suffocates-her-two-kids-to-death-with-plastic-bags-and-duct-tape; see also Lynh Bui, “Mother who suffocated children with plastic bags and duct tape sentenced to 45 years”, Washington Post, June 7, 2017). She had initially threatened to kill herself and her daughter, and her own mother called the police, who took the younger woman to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. Against her mother’s objections, the young woman, Sonya Spoon, was released with a prescription for antidepressants four days later. Hospital staff apparently did not have information about her threats to the children. A day and a half after that, Sonya Spoon killed her 3-year-old and 1-year-old children by suffocating them, and put the same plastic bag and duct tape around her own head, but then went to get her mother to help remove the suffocating material. The children were unconscious and died later. Sonya subsequently said she did not know what was wrong with her and apologized to her dead children.
Arguments about mitigating circumstances for Sonya Spoon’s actions included the off-base claim that she suffered from an attachment disorder because of having been abandoned as a young infant by her Russian biological family, spending several years in an orphanage, and finally being adopted to the United States. This experience, although very sad and distressing , might well have interfered with her cognitive and language development, but attachment disorder is less likely and in any case would not make her likely to be either suicidal or harmful to others. A factor with a more probably connection to her behavior was a traumatic brain injury from and accident when she was 18—an event likely to interfere with her cognitive abilities and possibly to produce post-traumatic stress disorder. At least one of her children was fathered by an abusive man, who wanted custody, which she resisted. Either in addition to or because of these experiences, Sonya Spoon had perinatal mood disorder—often called post-partum depression, but sometimes continuing well after the post-partum period.
Shifting and negative moods are typical of the days soon after childbirth, but most women experience only “baby blues” in which they feel easily overwhelmed and ready to cry. Many traditional cultures have made sure that new mothers are honored, cared for, and petted during these days, which do not last long. A small number of women experience much more profound anxiety and depression, often focused on whether there is something wrong with the baby, and this may not begin at once. Whenever depression and anxiety are in the picture, suicidal thoughts and actions are very possible, and these may be part of the more severe perinatal mood disorders. Finally, a very small proportion of women experience a post-childbirth period of psychosis which again may not begin at once. They may have delusions of hearing voices that tell them to harm themselves or their children, and some obey. In the famous Andrea Yates case of some years ago, Yates drowned her five young children in the bathtub in obedience to “voices”; she also gave the rationale that she felt they should die and go to heaven at once rather than risking the sins of childhood and adulthood.
Andrea Yates had experienced perinatal mood disorders with each of her five children, but her husband was said to have encouraged further pregnancies. She was found competent to stand trial, a very low bar for which it only had to be shown that she could understand the charges and could work with her lawyer, but she was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity (the death penalty had been sought). Sonya Spoon was also found competent to stand trial and convicted; the judge said some of her actions had been “selfish”.
Yes, it’s true that the children did get the death penalty, and their terror and pain as they died hardly bears thinking about. But who is really in the wrong here? Does Sonya Spoon deserve 45 years in prison, but the child’s father who did not pay attention to her state of mind is not to be punished? How about hospital staff who did not explore her situation far enough to know that she had threatened the children? For that matter, what about insurance and other regulations that limit the amount of mental health care available even to those who desperately need it? And what about a judge who brought a trivial view of the human mind to the trial by declaring Sonya Spoon “selfish” because she asked her mother to release her from the suffocating bag before seeing to the children? Just like Andrea Yates’ husband and family, these people contributed much to the tragedies, but punishing mentally ill mothers alone is a fine old tradition that apparently must be kept up.
Friday, June 16, 2017
I recently received an email from an anti-abortion group who referenced a recent study about the visual behavior of 34-week fetuses—still 6 weeks before they would typically be born. Although the number of abortions that take place at that point in gestation is vanishingly small, my correspondents wanted to use the study to argue against terminating pregnancy at any point. That’s what they do, so I won’t argue with it, but I’d like to look at the study itself and what it means about early development of human beings.
You can find a discussion of the study in a number of places, but here’s one you might try: www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/06/08/womb-view-fetuses-can-recognize-faces-while-still-inside-mom/102625620/. The researcher was able to shine a bright light through the uterus and amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus and at the same time to do imaging that would reveal how the fetus turned toward the light. What does this have to do with faces? Well, there were two kinds of lights, each involving three dots arranged in a triangle, which adults might perceive as “two eyes” and “one mouth”. The lights were shown either in a position where they looked like the basic elements of a face, or “upside down” so that the “mouth” was above the “eyes’. The babies moved to “look at” the right-side-up face more than at the upside down non-face.
Because the fetuses discriminated between the two patterns by moving differently, it was concluded that they could were reacting differently to things like faces than to other things that were not so face-like. It was that discrimination that led to the statement that they recognize faces while in the womb. It would be less exciting but a good deal more accurate to say that they respond differently to the face-like triangle than to the other. They do not recognize faces in the adult sense of being able not only to tell one actual face from another but even to know which person has which face. No such claims were made, and for good reason. You might as well say that unborn babies recognize point-down triangles as that they recognize faces in the sense that even a three-month-old does.
Under ordinary conditions, there is no light inside the uterus, so an unborn baby has no visual experience whatsoever. He or she has had no opportunity to learn what people, dogs, moons, or crib bumpers look like. Any visual response that occurs—either in the womb or right after a preterm or full-term birth—has to be produced by functions that are built into the visual system as a result of genetic commands to the developing brain. (Brain? Yes, because developmentally the retina or light-sensitive part of the eye is actually a part of the brain.)
The visual system is the last sensory system to begin its development in the prenatal period, so we might not expect vision to be very good at 34 weeks gestational age—it’s not great at 40 weeks or full term. When babies look at faces after birth, they tend to scan the eye areas and the mouth area a lot, but as is shown by all the comments I get from mothers worried about lack of eye contact, the very young babies do not look at faces very much. They just look at them more than they look at other things. Babies in the first month or so after birth are also very limited in their ability to see objects that are too close or too distant, so even then they do not get a lot of time to look at and learn about faces.
So how does it come about that before birth they can “look” at a face-like pattern and respond to it as if it means something special to them? The most likely reason is that in their still very immature brains they already have feature detectors that are activated by a seen pattern. A feature detector is a cell in the visual system of the brain that is connected to a particular part of the retina and responds only to certain kinds of images that fall on that retinal area. This is a lot easier to demonstrate with frogs than with human beings (who tend to excuse themselves when you want to do things to their brains), but frogs have feature detector cells that are “fly detectors” and become activated when an image the size and shape and speed of a nearby moving fly falls on the retina. The frog feature detectors signal the tongue, and zip, the tongue nails the fly. Mammals too have feature detectors, although fortunately they do not make us catch flies with our tongues. Face detectors are among them—brain cells that are activated when the image of a shape that resembles a face falls on part of the retina. Even sheep have face detectors that respond to human faces. Sheep “recognize” faces in the same sense that unborn babies do.
It’s really interesting and important for researchers to show how early and how gradually human sensory and other systems begin to develop. Those systems don’t just “come on line” instantaneously at some point, and although birth is a dramatic event in the course of development, not all developmental changes are closely related to it. However, when the researchers have done their job, it’s also important for the media and their audience not to jump to conclusions about the implications of findings. We humans don’t seem to have feature detectors that respond to exaggerations!
Sunday, June 4, 2017
Yesterday I was listening to an audio recording of an appeals court hearing related to a high-conflict divorce and the wish of two teenage daughters to avoid contact with their mother. The father’s attorney brought up the point that one of the girls was headstrong, obstinate, difficult to persuade, and always had been so. The characteristics attributed to the girl were presented as an argument why the father could not force her to visit her mother, but there was no mention of the role her characteristics might have played in her initial reluctance to have contact with one of her parents.
When children of high-conflict divorces have strong preferences for one parent and avoid the other parent, the non-preferred parent may allege that the preferred parent has intentionally alienated the child and turned him or her against the non-preferred one. This is especially likely to occur if certain attorneys or mental health practitioners or “coaches” are in the picture. These advisers rather piously allude to family systems theory and the need for all members of a family to work together, even though they live apart. They invoke family systems theory as a reason why courts should order changes of custody and forced treatment of children who avoid one parent. They argue that unless a child has a “reasonable” explanation for avoiding a parent, the avoidance must be a result of parental alienation (PA) by the preferred parent; that parent should be punished, and the children should be rescued so they can reunite with the non-preferred parent. (“Reasonable” explanations are limited to substantiated child abuse.)
But let’s look at family systems theory for a minute. This fruitful theory considers all members of a family to bring their unique characteristics into family and dyadic interactions. This means children too, of course—but PA proponents generally focus on the preferred parent, who is described as narcissistic and emotionally disturbed, but who has almost never been seen or interviewed by the person giving this description. Little is said about the personality characteristics of the non-preferred parent, and even less about the personality characteristics of the children.
Going back to the “headstrong” girl described in the first paragraph of this post, let’s speculate (yes, SPECULATE, because no one has really studied this) about how child characteristics could lead to avoidance of a parent even when there was no demonstrable abuse by the non-preferred parent and no intentional or unintentional attempts at alienation by the preferred parent.
What I am about to say has nothing to do with diagnostic categories of mental illness, although a child with real mental disturbance or developmental problems like autism might rather readily come to avoid a parent who did not handle those problems very well. But all children, whether emotionally or mentally typical or atypical, have from the time of birth individual patterns of responsiveness to the environment, created by their own unique constitutions. These patterns are often referred to as patterns of temperament, and although no one could claim that temperament explains everything about personality, this concept is of enormous help to understanding of social interactions and why two people do or do not get along well.
Studies of temperament suggest that the patterns unique to an individual in infancy are stable and are still present at 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and into adulthood. Naturally children do not continue to express their temperaments in the same ways as they get older, because they mature and learn to behave conventionally, but they do retain basic constitutional characteristics. For example, the person who cried a great deal and was easily distressed as an infant will not cry so much as an older child but will still show more negative mood quality than most other children of the same age.
Research on temperament has focused on characteristics that make an infant difficult to care for. Difficult infants tend to have negative mood quality, to react intensely to internal or external events, and to be slow to adapt to changes. They are often distressed and are hard to soothe. They need a lot of time to get used to new situations like starting out-of-home child care. Because these temperamental characteristics are rather stable, we can predict that these difficult babies will also later be the children who go to the beach all summer but will not go into the water until Labor Day, who cry when there is a clown at the birthday party, and who need to be taken to visit a new school several times before opening day so they will be able to cope.
So what does all this have to do with avoiding the non-preferred parent? Again, let me say that this is pure speculation on my part, because as far as I know work on PA has largely ignored child characteristics (I have just seen one reference to this factor in an on line paper by Bala and Fidler.) But a plausible hypothesis can be offered: children who have the temperament of difficult infants may bring to high-conflict divorce an unusual readiness to prefer one parent and avoid the other. A tendency to a generally negative mood quality pushes such children in the direction of disliking whatever new situation they find themselves in. Intense reactions predispose them to strong distress that may be very difficult for them – or for either of their parents—to tolerate. The factor of poor adaptability means that these children will take a good deal of time before they can feel comfortable with changing circumstances, including new living conditions and contacts with parents’ new romantic partners (and possibly those people’s children). Children of difficult temperaments need appropriate parental support to help them deal with the world and eventually master the skill of looking beyond their own temperamental reactions, but in high-conflict divorces the chances are that neither parent will immediately be able to provide such support. The entire situation seems designed to cause such children to decide that they can only tolerate what is happening if they can choose one parent and stay with that person.
Yes, I’m speculating when I hypothesize about how child temperament may be relevant to PA. But I’m not speculating when I say that family systems theory would demand attention to child characteristics. The question is, which characteristics are the ones that interact with high-conflict divorce to create avoidance of one parent? Temperament is a strong possibility, but not the only one.
N.B. Readers may notice that I don’t speak of children “rejecting” a parent. I believe that language plays into the sense of humiliation and frustration that motivates some non-preferred parents to believe that the former spouse has manipulated the children. To speak of “avoidance” seems to me to make the issue less personal and more focused on the child’s needs and feelings.
Thursday, May 25, 2017
When people write in to this blog with queries (or expostulations!) about children’s behavior problems, it’s frequent for them to mention that their school-age children still wet themselves in the daytime or urinate in strange places, and that some even defecate in their pants or in some hidden place that is revealed only by the smell. Frustrated and angry, the parents often feel that the children are doing these things intentionally as hostile actions toward the adults (and often the parents think that such hostile actions would be a sign of an attachment disorder—but I don’t want to get into that today).
As it happens, a child clinical psychology listserv that I participate in has recently been having a discussion about exactly this. One member had written in to ask for suggestions about working with a ten-year-old girl who was defecating in her pants. An interesting discussion ensued, and I want to summarize some of what was said and elaborate on some of the ideas.
A most useful point made by several people was that many of the children with these behavioral elimination problems were never completely toilet-trained in the first place, and the behavior of those children is an indication of their lack of mastery rather than their hostile intentions.
Consider what happens when a functional, “normal” family toilet-trains a child. First, the fact is that the parents have been communicating to the child for many months that there is something special about elimination. It’s not like drooling or even like spitting up. There is an emotional response to urine or feces, a strong motivation to clean them up and get rid of them, that is communicated to the baby by attentive, engaged parents. They sniff the baby or peek down her diaper to see what needs to be done. When changing a dirty diaper, they pay attention to the diaper and not the baby, complaining quietly if the baby kicks and gets her heel into the mess. Caregivers talk to each other in front of the baby: “Did she poop?” “yes, and what a smelly mess it was!”. If the baby is just wet, the diaper change is much more relaxed and probably involves some smiling, talking, and playing. In all these ways, a well-cared-for family baby is learning for a long time that something about elimination is special and important, and that urine and feces are different.
Well-functioning families also pay attention to whether a baby seems ready to be trained, whether she seems to be aware of bowel or bladder pressure, and whether she has the words to ask for help. Caregivers “talk up” using the potty or toilet, with the reward of big-girl or big-boy underwear held out for encouragement. Once the child has some success in managing elimination, adults follow him around reminding him, asking if he needs to go, paying attention to cues like dancing the “potty dance” or passing gas that indicate elimination is about to happen. They give careful instruction on the use of toilet paper, and may give boys paper “targets” floating in the toilet to practice their aim. Toilet “accidents” may or may not be punished, but certainly adults tend to respond to them with some degree of exasperation once they think a child has mastered the basics and just needs to pay attention.
These common and effective methods of toilet-training only happen under certain circumstances: The child is being cared for by people who have the time and energy and motivation to do the job. The child is being cared for by people who know him or her well, understand the child’s language or other communication, and are not completely distracted by other needs or obligations. The caregivers are thus able to be consistent and to predict elimination, so the child is helped to understand what events are likely to follow certain internal sensations. After all, to be completely toilet-trained, a person must be able to recognize internal cues and to understand the time available to get to the toilet once certain sensations occur. A child is not completely toilet-trained if he has to depend on others to tell him when to go.
As you can see, all this work by caregivers is not so likely to happen if a child has been passed from foster home to foster home, has been in the custody of an adult who uses drugs or alcohol or who is physically or mentally ill or who lives in a frightening environment. Some adults in these circumstances will focus on punishment following inappropriate elimination as their main toilet-training strategy; this is not only emotionally problematic but would be difficult to do effectively even by a skilled user of aversive methods. In addition, caregivers who use punishment in this way often do it inconsistently and out of irritation—even when a child defecates in a recently clean diaper.
Although some children may become completely trained under those conditions, others will not. Later in their lives, in school or in an adoptive home, toilet “accidents” may occur repeatedly and even may appear to be intentional because children do not seem to feel guilty or concerned. By that time, negative attitudes of adults and of other children to the child himself or herself, not just to the toileting problems, may begin to have effects on the child’s mood and behavior, further complicating the difficulties.
So what to do when this situation has developed? The first consideration is about medical problems that may cause toileting difficulties. (As one participant in the listserv discussion I mentioned earlier said, the causes are often thought to be volitional, but they are probably biological.) Urinary tract infections may be involved. As for inappropriate defecation, strange as it may seem, these children are sometimes suffering from constipation, with hardened feces held in the intestines, but softer feces passing around the hardened part and being passed involuntarily or leaking. This problem may have developed because children are afraid to use the toilet or because it has been painful to pass hard stools and the child is actively resisting this. If constipation is a problem, children may need to be treated with stool softeners and with changes in diet that can return them to a healthier elimination pattern.
Behavioral treatments are also useful, especially if a child has found defecation painful and needs to be rewarded for sitting on the toilet at first and later for defecating there. Frequent reminders and rewards, given in an encouraging and nonpunitive way, are needed until the child has some success.
If urinary problems are not caused by medical issues, the problem may be that the child has not learned to associate the sense of a distended bladder with urination soon after. Encouraging the child to drink large amounts of fluids and then measuring the urinary output (with a bucket or some other device) can call his or her attention to the connection between the two.
Children who have toilet difficulties of these kinds may also have other mood or behavioral problems, including defiant, oppositional, or callous-unemotional behavior, but it is probably a mistake to assume that the toilet behavior is just another aspect of defiance or opposition. The two kinds of problems are likely to have different causes and to need to be treated differently.
Need I say that when children are locked in their rooms, or when door alarms are used so that they have no free access to toilet facilities but must use buckets to eliminate or wait as long as they can, difficulties in controlling elimination are likely to emerge even if they were not present before? Limiting foods, as in the peanut-butter-sandwich-and-milk routine advised at one time by Nancy Thomas, is likely to play into any tendencies to constipation. Incidentally, I understand that the said Nancy Thomas, now touring Russia to spread her beliefs, is recommending that children with poor bladder control must wash their clothes by hand with cold water and vinegar; this is not likely to accomplish anything but to increase anxiety and lessen the child’s ability to control urination.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Readers of blogs and quasiprofessional websites will be familiar with the practice of calling children “psychopaths”. Readers of professional psychology and clinical social work will find this terminology strange and sensationalistic; they will be accustomed to the use of terms like “callous-unemotional (CU) behavior” or “conduct disorders”.
Many of the ideas associated with the “psychopath” label are zombie ideas: they are dead, but they won’t lie down—and they accomplish certain kinds of work for the people who use them. The current (June 2017) issue of the Atlantic magazine features an article full of zombie ideas about children’s aggressive and angry behavior and is entitled “When Your Child is a Psychopath” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archives/2017//06/when-your-child-is-a-psychopath/524502/). This article recounts frightening stories about children obsessed with anger, taking pleasure in hurting others, and becoming more dangerous as they grow. These children are different from others, it is stated, because their problems are genetically caused and cannot be treated (except, maybe, a certain residential treatment program might be a bit helpful).
“When Your Child is a Psychopath” is one of a large group of scary-exciting bedtime stories for adults; these focus on the Bad Seed concept, that children may only appear to be innocent, and that some of them are just waiting for the opportunity to do us in. For parents of quite well-behaved children, these tales are thrilling accounts of how bad other people’s lives are, a sort of inversion of the equally-loved stories of serious child abuse with torture and sex. The good parents know that they are okay when they read these things. They would never do such bad things, nor would their kids, and in their hearts they believe the problems are caused by the bad parents rather than by genetic factors.
For parents of sometimes-aggressive, occasionally-antisocial children (i.e., most of us), the Bad Seed stories provide a chance to think how bad things can be and to breathe a sigh of relief that ours are not as bad as that. In addition, the stories present the possibility that whatever problems the future holds, it may be genetics that cause them—these parents (most of us, again) are absolved from blame if that’s the case.
Parents of really callous-unemotional, antisocial children probably do not get much chance to read, but if they do read the stories, they can take comfort from the idea that they are not the only ones with these problems.
So, you see, the Bad Seed stories offer something gratifying for everyone. Of course, there’s a serious difficulty connected with the fact that they are probably not true. And there’s an even worse difficulty in the possibility that such beliefs will cause parents and practitioners to act in ways that will cause additional trouble for the children, for instance failing to seek treatment for the children and/or the parents because they accept the idea that antisocial behaviors are not treatable. The children can also be affected negatively by these ideas, perhaps assuming that they will never be able to control their impulses and that they will inevitably commit crimes and go to prison or worse. (There is quite a flavor of Attachment Therapy in this; it’s reminiscent of practitioners who tell children “unless you cooperate, you are gonna kill somebody some day!”)
As it happened, on the day I read the Atlantic article, I also opened a new issue of the journal Child Development Perspectives and found two useful articles commenting on antisocial behavior in childhood. The first article, by Dale Hay, had the title “The early development of human aggression” (CDP 2017, Vol. 11(2), pp. 102-106). Hay referred to genetic factors in aggressive behavior, but pointed out that aggressive tendencies resulted from a combination of genetic make-up and maternal sensitivity. Although all typically-developing children are capable of physical aggression by the second year, toddlers are more likely to develop increased aggressive behavior if their families live in poverty. Mothers who have been depressed during pregnancy, who have shown antisocial behavior themselves, and who react with hostility to their children’s displays of anger are more likely than others to have children who behave antisocially. Hay also noted that after age 2 years there are increasing differences between boys and girls in physical aggression. A group of factors acting together may make boys increasingly aggressive during early childhood. These would include the facts that girls mature more rapidly, that boys are more likely to have neurodevelopmental problems like ADHD, that parents treat boys and girls differently, and that young children prefer to play with peers of their own sex, which makes them likely to imitate and learn gender-related habits of aggression. Clearly environmental factors affect the development of angry, aggressive behavior, and when this is the case it should be possible for treatment to alter the pathway of development—contrary to the claims of the Atlantic article.
The second article in Child Development Perspectives was written by Rebecca Waller and Luke Hyde and entitled “Callous-unemotional behaviors in early childhood: Measurement, meaning, and the influence of parenting” (CDP 2017, Vol 11(2), pp. 120-126). Waller and Hyde pointed out that many children show early angry, aggressive behavior, but most stop this; the important question is why some continue and show long-term antisocial attitudes and behaviors. This is a complex question and the article is a complex one, but Waller and Hyde make some comments that I want to emphasize because of their relevance to the claims made in the Atlantic magazine. They noted that particular language about callous-unemotional (CU) traits (in which I would include the word “psychopath” as applied to children) “could have unintended consequences, especially given its origins as an extension of psychopathy in adulthood, which clinical lore (falsely) purports to be inborn (i.e., purely genetic) and even untreatable. Such notions are problematic when applied to young children, particularly when some children with high levels of CU traits benefit from treatment. Moreover, using the word traits [or other words like “psychopath”—JM] carries a risk that treatment providers, parents, or children may inadvertently receive iatrogenic messages about stability or untreatability, which become self-fulfilling prophesies”—as therapist and parents avoid treatment or seek it with no real expectation of benefit, and children understand themselves to be members of a special and dangerous group of human beings and follow the associated “script”.
It is unfortunate that the Atlantic chose to publish an article on an important and interesting topic, but did so without weeding out the zombies (excuse this mixed metaphor, I don’t know what you do to rid yourself of zombies). Let us hope that the effects of these ideas do not show that problems can be mediagenic as well as iatrogenic.