Back in 2002, I was a single mother of six – five still living at home. And my 15-year-old son was out of control. The police were regular – albeit ineffective – visitors to our home, but my son’s violent and destructive behaviour went from bad to worse, and we all lived in fear of his volatile, explosive temper.
My ex-husband cautioned me to keep an eye on him: alcoholism and mental illness were rampant on both sides of the family, and my ex suffered from “uncontrollable” rages.
I felt dumbfounded, helpless and confused: How was I expected to discipline a child who has a disorder (or mental illness), whose behaviour was beyond his control? How could I hold him accountable for his actions? I mean, clearly, if it wasn’t his fault…
All “expert” suggestions involved my controlling his behaviour. Impossible. Hopeless. And his (mis)behaviour intensified.
In the fall of 2002, he landed in jail. He assaulted his younger sister and I called the police. I stood in the front hall, paralyzed, terrified, unspeakably sad and embarrassingly relieved, as they handcuffed him and led him out to the cruiser.
He came home briefly, but when his outbursts began to escalate again, I insisted (and the court agreed) that we might all be better off if he went into a group home for a while. At my insistence, the judge included as part of his sentence that he see a psychiatrist for an evaluation and appropriate treatment. At last! After several questionnaires (because this is the scientific method used in the important work of diagnosing mental illness), the results were in: ADD, ODD and conduct disorder. He was prescribed some type of medication (which I later learned he never took) and we were sent home. How simple! Just like that! In a few short hours, I was completely vindicated as a parent.
He spent nine months in the custody of Children’s Aid, which gave me time to reflect.
Ever since a family member became an alcoholic in her early 30s, I struggled to find the line between irresponsible behaviour and mental illness. I was told that she was mentally ‘ill,’ but I saw what she did to create that very condition. So which came first: the ‘illness’ or the behaviour?
It’s incredible to me now, looking back. When I was a child, irresponsible behaviour was irresponsible behaviour, and it was something that I could control – and was expected to control.
If I threw a tantrum, I was ignored or removed – and no one blamed it on a psychological disorder. If I skipped school, I was expected to make up the time – and no one thought to blame the school. No one excused or defended my irresponsible behaviour, and no one protected me or rescued me from the reasonable outcomes of my behaviour. I was never viewed as the victim of my own decisions and actions, and I was held accountable for what I did. Which is why I was even more confused when adults around me began excusing this family member’s irresponsible behaviour as ‘mental illness.’ It’s taken me almost 35 years to sort this out – during which time I brought some interesting and dangerous beliefs to my parenting.
When did we begin pathologizing behaviour? And emotions? And thinking? What ever happened to personal responsibility and accountability? What ever happened to conscience? It would seem our ‘disorders’ have taken the place of our moral and emotional compasses. We can get away with virtually anything now, as long as we have a diagnosis and meds.
Nine months after going into a group home, my son came home. Initially, I was sceptical, unconvinced that a better outcome was possible. How could I trust him to do what he said he’d do? How could I absolutely know that he would be okay and not continue to wreak havoc on our home and family?
A few months before his return, I had the good fortune to join a parent support group: The Association of Parent Support Groups in Ontario (APSGO). And during this time what I learned was that I didn’t have to trust him to behave; I only had to trust myself to be able to handle whatever came up. Aah! I could change my own behaviour!
I began doing things very differently.
There was only one “rule”: “If there’s any violence, I’ll call the police.” Period. I stopped yelling, demanding, nagging, lecturing and reminding and began acting decisively and consistently. If I had something to say, I only said it once – and I meant what I said and followed through.
Miraculously, as my behaviour changed, his disorders disappeared. And I began to understand what parenting is all about:
- It’s no one else’s job to respect my boundaries; it’s my job to set and respect my own boundaries.
- If I have values, then it’s my job to live them, not try to force them on others.
- It’s unreasonable to hold my children to a higher standard of behaviour than I hold myself.
- It’s not my job to tell my kids how to behave; it’s my job to show them – to joyfully live a principled life, to demonstrate those qualities of character that I hope they will embrace.
- The value that trumps all ‘rules and regulations’ is deep caring.
The moral of the story: A psychiatric diagnosis is a poor substitute for living a principled life.
by Sue Kranz, Fall 2008 APSGO Newsletter