Book to be released August 1!

Book to be released August 1!
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Raising-a-Psychopath Blog

A reader asked me to comment on the blog “Raising a Psychopath” ( http://raising-a-psychopath.blogspot.com/). For those who haven’t seen it, this blog appears to be by the adoptive father of a child who was adopted at age 6 after many experiences of neglect, abuse, and change of caregiver, and who at age 11 is regarded with fear and anger by the parents and has been in residential treatment for periods of time. The blogger, whom I’ll call FRP (for Father Raising a Psychopath), as his blog title suggests, considers the child to be psychopathic as well as to have Reactive Attachment Disorder. Many of the posts present arguments that FRP has put forward to support his view of the child, “Lucas”.

I have some general comments about the material contained in this blog, but I need to emphasize that I have no reliable information about “Lucas’ or his parents. I have no way of knowing whether the statements on “Raising a Psychopath” are true, or whether there is omitted material that would put a different spin on the statements that are made. Even if I were sure about the veracity and completeness of the blog, I would not want either to praise or to criticize the actions of the parents, therapists, teachers, social workers, etc. It’s too easy to talk a game that you don’t have to walk, as we can see from many of the comments, both positive and negative, on FRP’s statements.

That said, here are some thoughts I had while reading “Raising a Psychopath”.

1. The psychopath thing:
It appears that from the beginning of the blog, FRP identified “Lucas”, who was then about 9, as a psychopath-- he chose this title for the blog, and in one of his posts predicted a timeline of more and more serious misbehavior. Whether or not this was a self-fulfilling prophesy is difficult to say with the information we have. We can ask, however, why FRP was so quick and so sure about this diagnosis. What are the advantages of labeling a boy “psychopath” rather than staying with more ordinary childhood problems like Conduct Disorder or Oppositional and Defiant Disorder? The advantages would seem to be the possibility of declaring the child beyond help and incapable of living in the family home, removing any responsibility the adoptive parents might have, as well as the possibility of focusing all blame or negative evaluation on the child himself.

Many of FRP’s posts describe his thoughts about the evaluation of “Lucas” with Robert Hare’s PCL-YV (Psychopathy Check List-- Youth Version). FRP discusses each of the check list items in detail, and, not surprisingly, concludes that he has a genuine psychopath on his hands. But although he mentions the limitations of the PCL-YV briefly, he evidently has not taken them seriously.

The first limitation is that the check list is not intended for the use of parents. It is to be given by an experienced clinician who can compare an adolescent to many other adolescents seen previously, and who will ideally use an objective approach in which both positive and negative evidence is carefully assembled and combined before a decision is made. No parent can be genuinely objective about their own child-- indeed, if they were, it would be a cause for concern. In addition, FRP already decided that “Lucas” was a psychopath some time ago, so it would be surprising if he did not seek evidence to confirm this belief.

The second limitation of the PCL-YV is that it has been standardized on and is intended to be used with adolescents from 12 to 18 years old. “Lucas” was 11 or less at the time of FRP’s assessment efforts. Yes, of course, 11 is almost 12, but it is not 12-- and at a period when the rapid changes of puberty begin, a few months may make enormous differences in an individual’s abilities and motivations. FRP judges “Lucas” to have unstable personal relationships based on the adoptive mother’s report that “girlfriends” “break up” with him quickly-- at 11 years of age, a period when the more advanced reproductive maturity of girls makes relations between boys and girls labile to say the least.

On this “psychopath” thing, by the way, there are several general points to be made. One is that there are not very many psychopaths, so the validation of a brief check list is a difficult matter. Individual differences in a small group make it hard to establish a general set of criteria. In addition, there seems to be a common confusion between individuals who are sadists and take pleasure, often sexual, in the pain of others, and the psychopath or sociopath who does not care about causing pain, but does so only when it’s convenient--- for example, if a bystander to a robbery might identify the perpetrator and therefore “must” be killed. Finally, the frequent identification of violent offenders with individuals who are sensation-seekers is paradoxical; a reader’s comment on “Raising a Psychopath” says that a psychopath lacks empathy, but enjoys the sensation when another person is hurt, which for me raises the question, if he has no empathy, how does he enjoy the other person’s distress?

Reactive Attachment Disorder
Early in the blog’s appearance, a reader advised FRP that “Lucas” must have Reactive Attachment Disorder because his behavior was problematic and he had a history of separation, neglect, and abuse. FRP immediately fell for the view of Walter Buenning and others, that this disorder can be diagnosed easily by use of a check list (conveniently on line), and that its symptoms include failure to make eye contact, “crazy lying”, preoccupation with blood and gore, etc., etc., all of which, untreated, will culminate in serial killing by boys and prostitution by girls (but apparently not the other way around).

This check list is neither standardized for age differences nor validated against any other method of diagnosing Reactive Attachment Disorder. Examination of the criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association shows no overlap between the established criteria and the check list used by Buenning and others.

FRP’s discussion of “Lucas’s” history suggests that while “Lucas” may be quite insecure after his confused and painful beginnings, he is not without attachment or the capacity for attachment. For example, when FRP and his wife had their first meeting with “Lucas”, while he was in a foster home, they noticed that he was not eager to socialize with them. When they took him back to the foster home, they felt he was much happier to be with the foster parents than with them (FRP and wife), and commented that the foster parents were more like grandparents-- while FRP did not explain this statement, I would guess that it meant affectionate and easy-going. “Lucas” showed a preference for those foster parents and appeared more comfortable with them than when away from them; in other words, he exhibited emotional attachment which he had developed over some months in a nurturing foster home. Whatever his difficulties, they are not due to an inability to develop a positive relationship with a caregiver.

Plain old ignorance
FRP’s description of their decision to adopt “Lucas”, and of their feelings as the adoption date approached, suggests to me that these parents share with many others a serious lack of understanding of early development and of the role of relationships in children’s lives. Like many participants in the Zero-to-Three/Civitas Benchmark Study, FRP and Mrs.FRP seem to have been especially ignorant about emotional development. I say this because, like all too many adoptive parents, they felt they could save themselves a lot of trouble--- diapers, night feedings, and all that-- by staying out of the picture until a child was 5 or 6 years old. Then, they thought, they would walk in and adopt, and that adopted child would be EXACTLY like their friends’ children who had been loved and cared for from birth to age 6. FRP and Mrs. FRP could do everything they liked to do, just as they did before, but there would be living in their house an attractive, sociable, charming, and self-reliant child who would play with them when they felt like it.

I’m sorry, but this was idiotic. It was not even realistic from the viewpoint of thinking what their friends’ children are actually like.

FRP’s comments on the blog also suggest that he and his wife did not think it was a problem to bring into their home a child whom they did not actively want or feel sure about. They seem to have been na├»ve about their own emotions, not to speak about the impact on the child of having his lot cast with caregivers who were unclear about what they were doing. And with respect to this, I must also point out the ignorance or indifference shown by caseworkers who did not pursue this couple’s hesitation and make sure all was clear before proceeding. Was it not understood that the couple did not know important things about early development? Or, is it possible that the caseworkers didn’t know those things either?

Well. That’s about enough for now. Just let me repeat (to myself as well as to readers) that for all I know, nothing on “Raising a Psychopath” is true, or just as likely, it’s true but so are a lot of other things.

22 comments:

  1. True or not it revelas an attitude to adoption which is not uncommon and to be deplored where ever it is found.

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  2. Your point is well taken, Von. In fact,if none of it is true, and it's just a sort of free-floating attitude being displayed, that's even worse than if it's true.

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  3. Jean wrote:"In addition, there seems to be a common confusion between individuals who are sadists and take pleasure, often sexual, in the pain of others, and the psychopath or sociopath who does not care about causing pain, but does so only when it’s convenient--"

    I have never seen this distinction expressed before, but it makes so much sense. Serial killers and sexual predators seem more to be sadists, reacting to the pain of the victim, than stone-cold sociopaths.

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  4. I'm afraid to go look at this blog.

    This is truly unbelievable. Contrary to Von's opinion of it being an attitude to adoption which is not uncommon, I would say it's an attitude period which is not uncommon.

    People think of everything as disposable and do not take parenting of any sort seriously enough.

    Biological children and adopted children alike are being devalued and treated as accessories or "obtained" because it's the thing to do by people who are self instead of child centered. It will be the downfall of society, I believe.

    Producing and/or "raising" a generation or more of humans who are incapable of caring about the well being or lives of others because they do not truly value their own.

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  5. From a pessimistic perspective, I suppose we could say that the only reason most parents behaved better in the past was that they saw an immediate benefit to themselves of having competent, hardworking offspring. But the variability of human parenting, between individuals and groups, over time and across cultures, is so enormous that I can't imagine why anyone speaks of it as "instinctive".

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  6. I agree actually Jean. I'm not sure they (parents of the past) necessarily behaved better, as in put in thought about how their kids felt etc. but whatever they were doing seemed to work better than doing nothing, which is what seems to happen so much now.

    It would be nice if the motive was to raise good, caring, self supporting adults for the benefit of the raised child, their future offspring and society and not the immediate benefit to the parent.

    "the variability of human parenting, between individuals and groups, over time and across cultures, is so enormous that I can't imagine why anyone speaks of it as "instinctive"."

    Exactly.

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  7. Isn't there more and more evidence that psychopathology is a neurobiological disorder? Isn't there something different about the way they control their own behaviour and aggression?

    But the author of the blog is convinced that this child's early experiences shaped him. Then he half-alludes to stuff prenatally too. Is this kid FAS too? He says the 14-year-old birthmom was into drugs and alcohol but doesn't give any specifics. Lucas's early years, being shoved from one caregiver to another, would certainly have caused problems, as would the unnamed violent episode that made the news state-wide (first mom's second boyfriend, the scumbag). . . and then there was the foster placement Lucas wanted to stay in. This has got to be the unluckiest kid in the world.

    What's with the statement, The brain doesn't know how to reach for the truth so it reaches for a lie and this kid wouldn't care about the difference anyway. That's basically what he said. Horrible.

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  8. Hmmm, good question about the biological aspects. There certainly have been reports of particular genes being associated with a wide range of "unwanted conduct"--- alcoholism and criminal behavior especially. But so far they don't account for all the cases, and anyway it's not clearly defined what psychopathy is, exactly. My best guess is that we'll end up concluding that these problmes follow a stress-diathesis pattern-- a biological vulnerability magnified by the presence or absence of certain experiences.

    But, as you say, this boy has been through a long list of events that you would expect to trouble all but the most resilient child.

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  9. "In fact, if none of it is true . . . that's even worse than if it's true."
    I totally agree.
    Though either way, this blog is chilling and strange.

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  10. >Jessica,

    "Harry" doesn't conclude "Lucas" is shaped by early experiences. He is convinced it's a combination of various factors.

    *******

    To the author of this blog and this article,

    This is a well written blog with some valid points. I think it's good you wrote it. Many readers of "Harry"'s blog would want other people's opinions on a more in-depth basis than those featured in the comments section on "Raising a PSychopath".

    .....

    I can see what you mean, and I have had the same thoughts. However, I must say that to me "Harry" comes across as an intelligent and sensible being who genuinely wants to do what's in his power to give "Lucas" the best possible start in life.

    It seems to me that "Harry" (and possibly his wife ... that's not easy to determine) ... were perhaps naive and not very knowledgeable when they first adopted "Lucas", but they ("Harry", at least) has learned and done a lot of research about not only personality disorders, but about parenting.

    - He doesn't say this outright, but it seems to me to be in between the lines. Nothing else would make sense given the work and effort he has put into understanding and finding solutions for all the details around caring for "Lucas".

    I can't help but assume that he has chosen to keep his blog entries strictly focused on the topic of being a parent of a child who is clinically a psychopath. And I believe him when he states this with such conviction.

    All that said, we can't know how it really is. It's all about how we interpret the data we have, and how they relate to our own experiences in life.

    To me it doesn't seem completely certain that "Lucas" has RAD. The only incidence that might suggest this is in the event around the toy 'Tiger', and that's not even conclusive because of the more special facets of the episode (any child might react like "Lucas" did when being confronted after having done something of this nature).

    I am not an expert either, but I do have a good deal of personal experience with all kinds of personality disordered people, youths and children. And there have been a small number of psychopaths among them (small number, because there simply are very few psychopaths). In that regard "Lucas" could very well qualify, again, given the information available via "Harry"'s blog.

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  11. Zhawq, my big concern is FRP's ready use and acceptance of checklists that are in one case not for the child's age group and in the other case not age-structured at all. This is a serious mistake, and I would not like to think that other parents would follow FRP's self-confident statements and take the do-it-yourself approach.

    Using checklists and reading up on Internet material are awfully good ways to fall into the trap of confirming your own beliefs and assumptions. Someone without preconceptions about the child should have the job of diagnosis, if one is needed.

    Even if I were a licensee, which I'm not, I wouldn't dream of making public statements about a child whom I've never seen. You shouldn't either even if there are no ethical guidelines to stop you.

    What, after all, if "Lucas" read this material--- or, heaven forbid, what FRP has written about him?

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  12. Interesting review. I don't think it is possible to validate one thing or another of FRP/Harry's account... so I don't think that is really the point - but it is an interesting read! So all we can do is judge it for what it is worth, and take Harry at his word. He seems earnest enough - but it is a very dramatic presentation (he cites the show Dexter!)

    I don't sense a case of bad parenting - since parenting is a mixed bag, the reactions/methods he either recounts or hints at don't seem all that unreasonable, especially considering the child's patterns. They appear to exhaust a lot of types of reward/punishments.

    The prejudgement thing bothers a lot of people, as does the labeling of "psychopath" at such a young age... I don't have as big of a problem with it, because it's not like we're calling him a serial killer. I think there is a hypersensitivity because we are judging the core element of his person. The greater wrong would be to not identify the potential harm their kid could do - especially if we are a society that values proper social interactions. Clearly something is going on, and I think on these blogs it becomes a matter of semantics. If it's bad parenting, his past, or genetics... he's not learning/understanding how to behave appropriately without supervision. That seems to be clear.

    Waiting for the professionals to diagnose seems to belabor the point... nothing seems to be working all that well. If the goal is for Lucas to be a functioning member of society/not a liability/danger - I think FRP is in the best position to speak on that...

    Just look at the kid's actions and their responses - what more are they supposed to do? Wait for something really bad to happen? Is there anything that will change the pattern? And finally, is a term "psychopath" appropriate for his condition? Maybe, maybe not. Does this kid's moral compass pose a threat to society? I would say, unless something changes, most definitely.

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  13. You discuss your discomfort with the father using a checklist to "diagnose" his son, but you don't mention that a oourt-appointed mental health professional determined that the child scored a 38.9 out of 40 on the Hare Psychopathy for Adolescents. Maybe the father wasn't so far off.

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  14. The use of that test by a court-appointed person is subject to exactly the same criticisms I gave above. Given the same spandex measuring tape, the father and the other person would probably find the same height for the child-- but would it be correct?

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  15. Harry's post gave me hope. True or not, it opened my eyes to some elements of a psychopath I had not yet considered. My son is in middle school and has always been , let's say detached, and now he has allegedly killed an animal. No matter his detachment at times he is a devoted and VERY loving child. So I feel safe that he is not currently a "psyphopath." I just wish there were safer ways to seek help when something like this happens, without having to worry that any effort on our part make things worse for him or implies we think he is crazy. OR some sure fire way to know when we should really put a bolt on our bedroom door?

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  16. Anonymous, if you thought your son had diabetes, would you be trying to make your own decisions about his needs and treatment? If you are sufficiently concerned that you consider putting a bolt on your bedroom door, why have you not consulted a psychiatrist or board-certified clinical psychologist? Such a consultation would allow you to set up an action plan for possible crisis situations, as well as options for treatment if that appears to be necessary. This isn't do-it-yourself stuff, and there are professionals who are capable of helping you (but don't choose them because they're cheap, or local, or tell you that they too have worrisome children). At the very least, the right kind of professional can help you think about this without having to resort to that scary word "psychopath", which doesn't seem to be giving you a constructive approach.

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  17. I agree, and he HAS been seen and is scheduled to meet regularly with a counselor. 

    Its just that she is the "go-to kid counselor" around here. Also, after her meeting us she 'squeezed' him in but was fine with weekly or every 2-week appointments. That worries me that she doesn't get it. I figured in a situation like this they would say something like "I need to see him NOW or right away! Then twice a week for now" 

    When she met with him  for the first time (nearly 2 weeks ago), she had my spouse in the room. My spouse and son both agreed that she spent most of the time chatting about general stuff, including her own family stories. 

    I am glad you mentioned that seeking help does not mean settling for "local". I am going to see where else we can look for help. 

    I should clarify that (as noted above) I am not JUST using the Internet, but it has been a useful way to research possibilities and theories. Every parent of any sick child has to continually make decision of their own on. I am far from letting the Internet make them for us. The hope is just to be as informed as possible along the way. :)

    As to the story; 

    To me "Harry & Lucas" is what a parent might experience and how they dealt with it. For that I am grateful it is there. Your notes on it are so very helpful & dead-on. You confirmed some things that came to mind when I was reading it: 

    - The blog's title was created before the official diagnosis - unless he changed it at some point? Or he drafted most of the post off-line and later posted them over time? Regardless he did seem to label the child  quite early, based on just one or two events, traits or history. 

    - inaccurate or conflicting descriptions of emotions of lack of. 

    One question that occurred to me: Do adopted parents get to know THAT much of the child's history? "Harry" seemed to know an awful lot right off the bat, including details of the bio-logical mom's relationships? 

    Anyhow thanks for the reply. 

    Dem

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  18. Dem-- I'm glad to hear you're looking for professional guidance on this. But once again, you need to see a practitioner with serious training. Someone whose background is in "counseling" or "marriage and family therapy" or "school psychology", or who is a "licensed mental health professional" may be helpful for minor family problems, but if you are concerned about potentially-serious emotional disturbance, you need to see a licensed M.D.,or a Ph.D., or Psy.D. with licensure in clinical psychology. That person may later be able to work with your present counselor to save you money and travel time.

    No, adoptive parents don't usually know that much history. Maybe this was a private arrangement or even an open adoption? I haven't been able to figure that out from the blog.

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  19. Thank you Jean for articulating (in a very reasonable way as well) a lot of the many thoughts that have flown through my mind while reading that blog!

    While reading through everything I felt a mixture of emotions. Disbelief - wondering if this were true or not, knowing that pretty much anything can be possible and not wanting to judge if it is true. Horror - at the casual way "FRP", as you say, describes the way he and his wife decided to adopt, and specifically a child with needs to some degree when they quite obviously had/have no experience and do not want to spend the time or put in the effort for the emotional support as well as the fact that he would post all of this for people to read. Regardless that names were changed, this is extremely personal and there are significant details that should stay within the family and the proffessionals. It shows such a lack of respect to "Lucas".

    The turning point in my belief that any of this could be true was with the court appointed letter. First - having read professional reports myself, that was not the writing of a professional. Second - official letters such as that should NEVER be posted publically, whether or not the official's name is removed.

    I still believe there is a slim chance it is true and am not totally discounting it, but whether it is or not the attitudes that come across and the various messages and implications within that blog are extremely disturbing.

    Thank you again for your thoughts!

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  20. Mostly I agree with your comments, but one thing:

    "a reader’s comment on “Raising a Psychopath” says that a psychopath lacks empathy, but enjoys the sensation when another person is hurt, which for me raises the question, if he has no empathy, how does he enjoy the other person’s distress?"

    This makes no sense. Most people find other people's distress *aversive*, because empsthy causes them to feel an echo of that distress themselves. If seeing someone else's distress doesn't cause you to feel an echo of that distress, then you's be capable of enjoying it instead.

    Are you perhaps confusing cognitive empathy (knowing what someone is feeling) with affective empathy (having the right emotional reactions to their feelings)? Because those are two entirely separate things, and psychopaths only really have trouble with affective empathy. In contrast, autistic people have poor cognitive empathy but normal affective empathy, meaning they often don't understand how others feel but if you explain it to them they will care.

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  21. I see your point, but if you don't know what another person's feeling is, what is there to take pleasure in? Are you thinking that the "psychopath" just thinks the person's behavior is funny, as the rest of us might laugh at the Three Stooges? Or would you suggest that he or she takes pleasure in a random way at identifying other people's emotions, whether positive or negative?

    Can you refer me to material that supports your statement about the psychopath's ability to identify others' feelings? How has this been demonstrated?

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  22. This kid Lucas is acting out the only way he knows. Coming from a person who grew up in a similar situation, he does know how hed really impacting this family. He is broken but can ne fixed, I did dome horible things as a child that I even now can't explain why. I just got help in the gorm of a very loving family who didn't judge and applied reassurance to the correct behaviors. These kids just need love and guidance, from strong willed people.

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