Friday, August 12, 2011

Separating the Behavior from the Child

Yesterday, in response to A Checklist to Prepare Yourself, r. wrote:

Maybe you should spend more time focusing on her #3.

Just to refresh everyone's memory (and to save people the trouble of having to go back and look) here's that item from Tara's list:

3. Be prepared to separate the behaviors and mental illness of the child from the child himself.

This is one item from Tara's list that I'm not sure I entirely agree with.  Although this advice may work for certain families and situations, there are other times where I think that advice is very, very bad.

In the interest of safety, there are occasions where one cannot separate the child from his or her mental illness.  If a child is so ill that he makes homicidal or suicidal threats, hurts animals, sets fires, sexually perpetrates on other children, or becomes violent, his behaviors and mental illness can't be divided into some imaginary separate category.  If a child is dangerous, his behavior needs to be taken seriously, and he probably needs to be locked up.

One can't lock up a child's behaviors or mental illness.  Behaviors and mental illness can't be conveniently removed from a child; therefore, it is he who must be locked up, medicated or treated in some way.

Understanding where behaviors come from does not make them any less dangerous.  In the end, it almost doesn't matter why a child is dangerous.  The fact that he is should be enough to get him the appropriate interventions and to keep his family safe.

But of course that's not the way the system works.

I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about this idea of separating the child from the behavior, and I've wondered for quite some time if this isn't just some form of professional doublespeak to convince parents to keep their troubled and dangerous children at home.  This enables them to say things like, "it's not your child that really hates you, it's the mental illness talking."

It's certainly an easy thing for professionals to say, and maybe it convinces some parents to keep going long after others would have given up.  However, trying to conveniently separate people into their component attributes doesn't change their behavior. But even more fundamentally, what makes up the core of a person is the summation of his thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors.

Removing value judgements from the equation and just looking at behaviors, I think everybody would agree that they don't want to associate themselves with people who lie, cheat, steal, threaten or become violent.  If those behaviors are part of a person's regular menu, I'd argue those behaviors are a pretty good indicator of who that person is.

Mental illness may very well explain a child's out-of-control behaviors, but just like in the adult world, I don't believe that it should excuse them from the consequences of their actions.  Every day we as human beings are faced with making choices, and every day we experience the consequences of those choices.  It's no different for the mentally ill, the traumatized, or the disabled.  Even with minds and bodies that don't function properly, they are still held responsible for their actions.

People agree that even the most mentally ill person who commits a murder shouldn't be allowed to walk free afterward.  Maybe their consequence might be slightly different from a sane murderer (state hospital for criminally insane as opposed to prison) but they are still going to face the consequences of the behavior.

Even when people really do want to love and care for their mentally ill family member, sometimes there comes a point where one reaches the breaking point.  I just started reading Ninja Poodles, whose author separated from her bipolar husband.  In  her post, she writes that although mentally ill people are not at fault for being sick, they are responsible for their behavior.

No matter how good the good times are, the bad times of living with a bipolar person are pure hell. It's not their fault that they're ill, but they ARE responsible for their actions. The thing that makes it hard for "normals" to deal with it is that it is not logical. Where we have something happen, and feel a corresponding mood in response to that, a cycling bipolar person feels the feeling, the mood, FIRST. For no reason except that their brain is broken. Upon feeling that mood, they must then cast about externally, looking for a REASON for that mood. If they feel angry, and you're the only one there, brace yourself. You're about to have done something horribly wrong, whether you know it or not.

So are our mentally ill children responsible for their behaviors? I believe, absolutely, that they are.  Do I believe that they should be held accountable?  Again, yes, especially if their behaviors are dangerous.

Frankly, I think that endlessly excusing a child's dangerous behaviors tends to make the problem worse.  Certainly this is true in cases where parents repeatedly ask for help from mental health professionals, child welfare officials and police, only to have the professionals and police say they are just expecting too much from their ill child.  The kids realize that "nothing" is going to happen to them, and they are emboldened to act out further.

Eventually, some of these cases escalate, and people get hurt.  Cases like this, this, this, and  this.

It took me less than a minute to find four cases of adopted children murdering their parents.  If I had the time and inclination, I'm sure I could find a lot more.

Given cases like these, I think it's incredibly unwise to try to creatively separate a child from his behavior, because the behavior reflects who he is as a person.  Can a child change?  Possibly.  But trying to create some imaginary distinction between a child and his behavior would be like trying to separate my cockatoo from her tendency to scream.  Cockatoos scream.  It is what they do.  Still, that doesn't prevent me from giving my bird consequences for her behavior.  If she's sitting on my shoulder and elects to shriek in my ear, she'll be removed and placed in her cage.  She's learned, over time, to mitigate some of her more undesirable screaming, which makes her much more pleasant to be around.

If my bird can learn not to scream in my ear and not to crap on my shirt, then a child ought to be able to learn how to stop threatening and hurting others. He may very well have all of those feelings behind the behaviors for the rest of his life, but at some point, he'll have to learn to control them, or he will end up locked up somewhere.

And that's really the rub.  Either a mentally ill child can make it in the free world or he can't.  If he can't, he should be locked up, not only for his protection, but for the protection of others as well.

Understanding the causes of bad behavior is certainly important, but continually excusing them doesn't address the real problem.


  1. Trying to comment again, I think Internet Explorer is out to get me. Trying with Firefox now. Anyway, I always try to remember that Bug is Bug, not just her mental illness. It doesn't mean I excuse her behavior, but rather that I love her, even when I hate how she acts sometimes.

  2. What Baggage said.

    I'm not familiar with the blog that you originally referenced to, so maybe there's something in the backstory that lead you to read #3 this way. But absent that, I think it could be said that you may have missed the point.

    I read #3 to be about having empathy and being able to have positive feelings for a child despite the negative behaviors--not about whether the child should be locked up to protect herself and others.

    I would say that you separated the behavior from the birds when you originally brought home your abused and traumatized birds and chose to take the time and have the patience to love them despite the fact that they rejected you and hurt you. When your blind bird (was it Bitey?) had a habit of biting people, you didn't decide that he was a bad bird and hate him and want to get rid of him. You saw that his biting behaviors were a defensive mechanism he had developed because his blindness left him vulnerable and because he had been hurt in the past. You showed empathy. You saw the behaviors as just that--behaviors. They may have been inextricably connected to the bird's back-story and the things that shaped him and that continue to influence him to this day, but you didn't see them as the sum of who the bird was. And even though the bird wouldn't ever be normal, you didn't hate him for it.

    Note that it's not about whether the bird should have been allowed to be around small children despite his biting habits. It wasn't about whether there should be consequences when he bites (some form of operant conditioning) to help him learn not to bite. It was only about whether you were able to show empathy and compassion and understanding and be able to love the bird.

    That is what special needs parents and "trauma mamas" usually seem to be referring to when they talk about separating the behaviors from the child. It's not about whether the child gets locked up or not.


    P.S. -- You and your readers have gone back and forth on this in the past. The summer of 2009 especially comes to mind. I don't expect your response to be any different now. I suspect that you will reply to this comment in a way that dismisses the possibility of you feeling loving towards Danielle, given her behavior. It is what it is. But though you like to link to other people's writings to justify your frustration, I will say that in that particular point of view, you're not in the same boat as the majority of the bloggers and I do think you're in the wrong. And if you're truly incapable of loving or feeling empathy for her, maybe there is something going on with you that you should at least acknowledge, so your newer readers (who don't have access to the archives) can read with an understanding that you might be what in English class was called an "unreliable narrator."

    Note that I'm not saying this means that you kid doesn't have problems, but that you may in fact be one of those cases where the parent really is part of the issue. Standing up for trauma mamas doesn't mean these situations never arise. I took everything you said at face value too for the first two years or so I read your blog. It is only over time--and with the help of some of your wife's posts--that it became clear to me. Unfortunately your newer readers don't have access to the archives.

  3. Separating the two is a great way to remember that you can find ways to love your child and manage challenging difficult behaviors that are the result of the mental health problem your child has at the same time. This comes naturally to some, not so to others.

  4. You bring a lot of perspective to my thinking. You always have a way of making me think about my perspectives on things, and I really appreciate that!

    You are correct in your statements with how that could be dangerous, and it definitely cannot be locked into some imaginary box. Damn, I'd be rich if I could figure out how to make that work.

    I think Baggage has giftedly restated what I was ultimately trying to say..."Bug is Bug, not just her mental illness...I love her, even when I hate how she acts sometimes."


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