Stop Blaming Parents and Start Dealing with Mental Illness

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m in shock about the Connecticut school shooting. I blame it on the parents of the killer. If they would have done a better job, including keeping their son away from guns, this whole thing might have been avoided. Why can’t we take children away from people like that and have them raised by truly loving parents?

A: Like you, I see the murder of 26 people as a terrible, terrible tragedy. But I disagree with the rest.

Adam Lanza was a loner had had few friends. But what makes you think his parents were unfit or didn’t love him? Over the next few months, we’ll have important national debates about parenting styles and gun control. I worry, though, that in our rush to find scapegoats, we’ll overlook a far bigger issue: Tens of thousands of parents struggle every day to raise children with severe mental illness.

Sadly, instead of supporting them and ensuring that they get the help they need, we tell them that if they just loved their children more, or did this or that differently, their kids would be fine. Really?

Have you seen the 1956 movie, “The Bad Seed”? It’s the story of 8-year-old Rhoda, an angelic child who lives in nice home with loving parents. But sweet Rhoda drowns a classmate because she wants his penmanship medal, pushes an old woman to her death to get the woman’s Christmas ornament, and kills a custodian who’d figured out the truth. The movie (and the novel it’s based on) explores a simple question: Are there bad seeds—children who are just born bad?

Of course “The Bad Seed” is fiction, and we can only wish that what happened in Connecticut were too. But they share a common element. And so does Liza Long. In an essay called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” Long bravely talks about her own experiences with a mentally ill child who attacked her physically, threatened to kill her with a knife, and more. “I love my child,” she writes. “But he terrifies me.”

In the movie, Rhoda’s mother was so afraid that she tried to kill Rhoda, but ends up killing herself. And I’m sure Adam Lanza’s mother was petrified just before he shot her.

My friend Sam Feuss adopted two older children from Kazakhstan. The orphanage lied about the kids’ ages and covered up the fact that they had severe attachment disorders. Sam did the best she could for years, coping with kids who smeared their bedroom walls with their own stool, repeatedly and violently attacked Sam, and acted out in ways that were harmful to themselves and others. Sam and her husband saw specialist after specialist, spent thousands on every imaginable therapy, and listened to others question their parenting and love for their children. Finally, unable to deal with the worsening behavior and fearing for her own safety—and that of others in the community—Sam took the children to a residential treatment facility that specializes in extreme disorders, where they are finally getting the help they need. Along the way, she found other parents who had similar experiences with their children, including the whispers, accusations, and innuendos.

Nothing I’m saying here is meant to detract from the Newtown tragedy. But blaming, shaming, and shoulda-woulda-coulda does nothing to help the mentally ill children who do such terrible things. And it does even less to help the parents who so desperately need assistance. If we’re truly going to get past this tragedy, we’ll have to confront childhood mental illness head on. Ignoring it as we have done until now won’t make it go away.

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