It's a behaviour—not a disorder!

How do you discipline a teen whose behaviour is the result of a disorder?

Where do you draw the line with a teen who’s out of control? Or a parent? Or a spouse? Or a friend?

For 30 years, I have struggled with these questions, which finally led me to APSGO1—and some useful answers.


Several years ago, when all my attempts at “discipline” failed to produce the desired result and my son ended up in jail, I asked that he receive a psychiatric assessment. He was diagnosed with several disorders, and my relief was palpable: It wasn’t my fault. That’s really all I needed to know at the time. I wasn’t looking for a solution as much as I was looking for a reason for his behaviour that didn’t implicate me.

Was I a bad parent? No. I did everything that the “experts” advised and society demanded—to no avail. Even Children’s Aid approved of my parenting. But clearly it wasn’t working.

But his disorders were only evident when he was with me. With everyone else, he was a model citizen. Did this mean he could control his behaviour if he wanted to? And then, as my behaviour changed, his disorders vanished. Hmm…

Parents are often convinced their teen has a disorder and this is what’s causing all the problems.

But in fact, what these parents are describing are behaviours. And those behaviours, however strange, unpleasant or difficult to deal with, are just the teens’ best attempt to relieve their sense of frustration, helplessness and powerlessness.

As a society, we have become more attached to blaming than solving. The question isn’t “Should we blame?” but “What (or who) should we blame?” Should we blame nature (heredity, disorders) or nurture (broken homes, abusive parents, indifferent communities)? We look back for causes, but fail to look to present relationships for the solution.

This approach absolves us (and our teens) of all accountability and responsibility by providing us with perfectly good and reasonable excuses for why we behave badly and don’t create the lives we want – for why it’s not our fault.

t’s not enough that people do what they do. We have to know why. Why?! Will the behaviour be acceptable if there’s a good enough reason?

These things may all be true – but does knowing that get us any closer to a solution? And is there anything useful we can actually do with that information?

Association of Parent Support Groups in Ontario, Inc.


Treating the medical metaphors of modern psychiatry as literal reflects and reinforces our modern aversion to moral conflict, human tragedy, and plain language.

—Thomas Szasz

Given all of this, is it reasonable to expect my teen to behave differently?

f we view the behaviour as a problem and treat it as a disorder, we are powerless to do anything to improve our teens’ situation. And they will still be expected to manage and get along in the world, whether they have disorders or not.


It may not solve everything today, but it’s a good start!