What to do about the “bad” kids…?

ninjas stop

A while back I received a comment from a reader that has challenged me to formulate a useful or constructive response.  The question, about what me might be able to do to help sociopathic kids, read as follows:

“Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve been putting off facing my now nephew who is now a disturbed young adult. He has intermittently attempted to contact me during this time. My procrastination is partially due to a vague feeling of guilt about not having done more to help him during his childhood. But the other, and perhaps more compelling reason for avoiding him has to do with a more troubling enigma. Let me explain.

Starting from a very early age and continuing on into early adolescence he had many broken attachments from caregivers. In addition to that he and his family must have moved to different locations more than a dozen times. There were signs that he was troubled as might be expected of any child under those circumstances – mostly stealing, lying, vandalizing. Over time, the behaviors worsened to the point of starting fires, truancy, fighting and on at least one occasion animal abuse. All of these occurred before even reaching middle school and only worsened later on. He also had learning disabilities that impaired his school performance. Over time, my sister began insisting that something more profound was wrong with him. She used terms like “bad seed” which enfuriated me every time I heard it. I felt that he was being blamed far too much for his behavior without addressing the root causes.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began thinking that my sister was right. Could my nephew be a sociopath? During grad school while studying child development and reviewing some of the literature on sociopathy it began to dawn on me that my nephew fit the profile. He manipulated and hurt so many people with no sign of contrition.

What can I do to help him while minimizing chances of inviting needless trouble and heartache? My sister and many others have resorted to shutting him out completely. And on some level it seems that I’m doing the same thing. But I’m not okay with this. With the exception of my nephew’s father, he has become a pariah to everyone who has been in close proximity to him for any length of time.

So Bruce, these are my unanswerable questions: what is the most loving way for a parent to handle a situation when his or her child shows evidence of real sociopathy? Is that child and those around him or her doomed to experience extraordinary pain and misery?”


These “unanswerable questions” were still rolling about in my mind when I came across a piece in the New York Times about a new program being tried in the Chicago public school system to address and decrease violence—something a bit unconventional and also expensive (see the story at http://tiny.cc/QWzUs).  I was heartened by this program for several reasons:  firstly, it is attempting to blend science and statistics (by looking at who exactly is most likely to be hurt, and targeting these potential victim/perpatrators who often turn out to be the same cohort) with compassion and a more sophisticated approach; secondly, in being expensive the program offers some metric on where we are placing collective and communal attention, and this alone gives a glimmer of hope.

Much of the actual violence that befalls children happens outside of school grounds, and the problem of sociopathy and violence is inevitably wider than the schools—and reflect societal issues of poverty, discrimination, oppression and exploitation (let’s face it, kids in poor areas are hugely at risk, and it can hardly be said that it’s “fair” to be born poor)—thus an attitude and ethic of engaging the problem with some feeling rather than “tougher limits” seems long overdue and likely to work (at least as well as the previous approaches).  This emerging stance of intelligent compassion may reflect a zeitgeist that is no longer able to watch a sixteen-year-old non-gang-involved kid get beaten to death with wood planks just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And when it is no longer out of sight (thanks to cell phones and You Tube) it is clearly in mind… and we are slowly waking up to the truth that every child is one of our collective children (including the “bad” ones who, for better or worse, are part of the group that we humans cannot escape from or deny). 

One thing I learned as a group home therapist was that in a six-bed group home at any given time it would seem as if we had five generally “good” kids and one “bad” one (the instigator, the bully, the drug-addicted one sharing his addiction with the others, the criminal one sneaking out to steal cars or mug people, etc.).  Yet it seemed that as soon as we determined that the “bad” one “needed a higher level of containment” (i.e. we were done with them for the good of the group), we would pick a softer, sweeter kid (who maybe we all unconsciously felt was more deserving of the opportunity to leave MacLaren Hall, or the current, more restrictive level facility they were in, and perhaps would be more gratifying and less destructive to work with), but no sooner would we have our six kid dream team than a previously “good” kid would step up to be the “bad” kid.

Observing this pattern repeat over time, it made me more deeply consider the meaning of books like “Lord of the Flies” and “Heart of Darkness.”  I realized that as individuals, families, groups and nations we tend to project the Shadow (the “bad,” but really the parts of ourselves we are unconscious of).  My work with kids in the system inevitably reminded me of aspects of myself in adolescence, and while I can’t be sure I helped many of those kids (as their situations were rather dire and progress tended to be measured in millimeters), I know that they “helped” me learn how to be a better therapist and a better parent.

I’m enthused about the Chicago program because it subtly intuits that love must balance limits, and that we can’t really identify and lock up or punish the “bad” kids precisely because they are us.

In a final note, if you find yourself parenting, teaching or counseling “bad” kids, please keep in mind that they are exceptionally ungratifying, at least initially, to work with.  This is largely because they have typically been hurt, shamed and rejected and so act in ways that ensure further rejection and punishment AS A DEFENSE against being soft and vulnerable and being hurt and rejected as they probably were as small children.  “Bad” kids are better understood as severely wounded, and thus walled off from empathy and compassion.  They are genius at finding our buttons, vulnerabilities and insecurities and pushing right on them.  Yet if we understand that they way they make us feel—disgusted, repelled, frightened, shocked, horrified and angry—is pretty much a direct down-load and unconscious transmission of the very ways that they feel, but cannot express, or even consciously feel, any longer.

The key with kids like this may be the act of faith that there is still a feeling being inside the shocked and burned-out shell.  Prevailing wisdom still holds that sociopaths are beyond help, that empathy broke or failed to develop, and they are just too dangerous for the rest of the group.  In theory we want to give everyone a chance… until it comes to playing with our own kids.  The least we can do with these unanswerable questions is to keep considering them… and we can keep an eye on this project in Chicago and see if it proves successful.

So, let’s dedicate today to compassion for “bad” others and the recognition that WE are the good and the bad folks—and to sending good wishes to all those involved in the project in Chicago from the kids to the adults engaged in helping.

Namaste, Bruce



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