By Dr. Faye Snyder,
Psychologist, marriage and family therapist and forensic evaluator
Less than one week before 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut I sat with eight children in my RAD Group (children with Reactive Attachment Disorder) who shared a few things in common with one another: contempt for adults and authority, a terror of abandonment, and hatred for siblings and anyone who competed with them for mom’s affections. I frequently look into their eerie little faces that have contemptuous sociopathic smirks or estranged identities. I have learned to see injured souls instead.
Liza Long wrote a blog that went viral, metaphorically entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” [thebluereview.org/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother/], that detailed her problems getting help with her son who sometimes threatens to kill her. In the spirit of her article, I reply: I am Adam Lanza’s therapist. I have treated Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Jared Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho and their mothers too. I understand these children and their moms. Most are in earnest as much as Liza Long appears to be. Most want help and don’t know what to do. First they must learn where things went wrong and understand how it happened.
What Happened to These Children?
RAD children were not born RAD. They were born to love and be loved. Every child I ever met with a propensity for violence was the natural product of extremely painful treatment, usually beginning with being left in daycare too young (perhaps as newborns) and too long (daily, throughout their first years). It was so painful the child drew a conclusion that they were alone in the world, and they gave up on the deepest drive and hope of all, love. They gave up on loving and being loved and cherished. They were not loveable. They decided they were on their own and there was no adult in the world they could trust. They decided never to be vulnerable again because it hurts too much. We all know adults who feel that way. This is why. However, our injuries were small compared to Adam’s, Dylan’s, Eric’s, Jared’s and Seung-Hui’s. It’s relative.
Sometimes a three-month-old draws this conclusion. I have seen it. The infant will arch her back and push away. If the parent tries to make eye contact or talk tenderly, she will wriggle or point to the corner in the ceiling to “change the subject.” Sometimes a two-year-old draws the same conclusion. It is a decision a child forms before the age of three when the seeds of extreme violence are set. By the same token, the seeds of resilient mental health are set before the age of five, the optimal year to let them leave home for a while. It all stems from how they are treated in the beginning years of life. It’s a decision the child makes that can be unmade with the right intervention. Everyone wants to love and be loved if it’s safe, only if it’s safe.
Our evolutionary, genetic design requires a mother’s warmth, holding and interaction. All infants need safety or the feeling of safety. We all wanted to nurse and be cuddled when we were infants. We all wanted to feel gently touched. We wanted to engage with loving eyes and softly spoken words. We all got our identity or our idea of what we were worth and who we were by how we were treated in the beginning. It’s during this period that our temperament is formed, something that turns into personality as more experiences are had.
During the first years our personality forms quickly and our brain develops faster than it ever will again. More happens in the brain during these years. Unlearning and relearning the material of these years becomes more difficult as the child ages.
If we spend our first years with one primary caregiver who adores us, but sets a reasonably high bar for us in terms of discipline and behavior, we become resilient and headed for greatness. If we spend our first years in daycare or with rotating caregivers or parents who are distracted, we form fragile identities. Anything in between produces in-between results. Without a secure attachment we are highly susceptible to future insults. From there, other abuses that most children could adequately handle become a tipping point for these children. As they get older, rejection becomes a trigger, rather, the trigger.
Attachment trauma can be understood on a continuum from severe to ideal. Most of us had early childhoods that fell somewhere in between. Well-bonded children become high functioning and resilient. Poorly bonded children, but those who had it better than RAD Kids, may be more susceptible to wartime PTSD, drugs or a string of hurtful relationships. Their symptoms vary according to the age and intensity of their attachment trauma. RAD children are at the severe end of the spectrum.
This is not about blaming anyone. It’s about understanding the infant’s point of view and our evolutionary design to stay with our mothers through our first years. It’s about how important mothers or primary caregivers are. I have heard mothers say, “I didn’t abandon my child. I went to work to pay for her food.” I so understand. Their intentions were noble, but their infant doesn’t understand. She thinks her mother prefers other places and other people more than her.
When a child does not have a successful experience with bonding and attaching in the first few years, they tend to become psychologically stuck at that age, like Adam. The most injured are the most immature and fixated on changing or controlling other people rather than seeing themselves as their own resource. Some RAD children may seem like a super-mature toddler, acting like a little Mafioso, but he is stuck too, thinking the way to survive is to order people around. He is headed for trouble and punishment.
My son and daughter-in-law just told me of a couple they met who had an infant. When sharing with this couple their plans for parenthood, a vitriolic debate ensued about the Ricki Lake Show on natural childbirth and how to treat an infant. “Infants don’t think,” the couple said. “They don’t care who is taking care of them,” they insisted. “They aren’t smart enough to care until they are older,” both parents argued. I predict they will have a RAD child.
At the beginning of every violent person’s life there is some version of neglect, even if not abandonment. It could be relentless insensitivity, criticism, disappointment, indifference or a lack of attunement. None of us ever adapts to being someone who is not loveable. It’s a very bitter pill to swallow. He tells himself he doesn’t care, but in his heart of hearts he cares. Actually, he is secretly enraged that he is not loved and protected. He hates to see other children cherished.
The root cause of RAD is abandonment trauma or failure to attach. Physical abuse and sexual abuse are much easier to treat than a core, learned belief that one is worthless or bad. Most of the children have been misdiagnosed already and prescribed inappropriate medication that didn’t work, and the worst part about this is that they have lost precious time. The younger they are when I get them the more successful our work. Time is of the essence, and bonding is supposed to take place in the very young.
Many people think violent children are bad seeds and their parents are victims of these children, not realizing that these violent children suffer excruciating injuries at a very young age. Each of these children is unique and different. Some are arrogant. Most of these children who kill are boys, however we are having an epidemic of “mean girls” too. After the attachment trauma, boys are often disciplined more harshly for their defiance and disrespect of authority. They often engage with other RAD children and begin competing for top dog, and at some point testosterone kicks in.
Some RAD kids are profoundly self-conscious, like most of the mass murdering shooters we recently read about. Some cannot bear to be touched. Some are highly sensitive to certain sounds. All initially refuse eye contact, unless it’s on their terms.
They have come to believe there is something wrong with them, and their experiences with rejection during infancy and repressed rage lead them to believe that they are not only unlovable, but inherently bad or evil. That becomes the essence of their identity, as well as their jaded world view that everyone is out for themselves.
Further, some medications push some patients, even children, into violent states of psychosis, a level they may not have attained without the catalyst of psychotropic medications. In other words, some children arrive at the psychiatrist’s office simply depressed from childhood experiences and leave as time bombs from medication. Others are near a tipping point and psychotropics put them over the edge. Psychiatrists Peter Breggin and Yolanda Lucire, as well as investigating journalist Robert Whittaker and many others, have been warning the public and writing about this phenomenon extensively. These experts have been evaluating medications that put children and adults at risk of suicidal or homicidal psychotic choices. In the meantime, conventional psychiatry recommends medicating these children without testing them first, even though there is a test to identify a person’s reactivity to medications (Lucire: 2011). You might say I am writing about the conditions that can lead to identifying these time bombs or at-risk children with or without medication and Dr. Breggin et al., is writing about what puts them over the edge if they haven't already tipped. To be clear, the children who become diagnosed all have emotional problems stemming from childhood experiences but they arrive at the psychiatrist’s office with an array of backgrounds which aren’t all necessarily RAD. Some have been close to exploding and are profoundly effected by the medication and some never would have harmed themselves or others without the meds.
All have already been or could be dangerous without help. When they get my help and I watch them get better, I know I am doing what I need to do and sometimes I wonder how many lives were actually saved. My real wish or drive, however, is to prevent these unnecessary injuries in the first place with information and brainstorming.
Of course none of this means that the parents of RAD kids were mean-spirited. Mostly, they have been misguided by bad advice. Some of these parents are regular or almost regular people, or at least they seem so. They may be defensive. They are usually not very good communicators, themselves. They are predictably not open and expressive, as a rule. They are not good with hearing their children’s feelings. They may even be secretive. These characteristics become family traits that impede self-reflection and healing.
Well-intentioned, good people in their lives often give them advice and recommend socially acceptable choices that will hurt their children. Some of these advisers have the voice of authority and are grandparents, pediatricians, clergy, therapists, neighbors and teachers. Their harmful advice, like, “Put your child in daycare,” or, “Take a vacation while your baby is too young to notice you are gone,” may not be obvious to the rest of us.
Once the child is old enough to show signs of defiance and defensiveness, parents often imagine that the problem is genetic and then resort to home schooling, diet changes, or medication, attempting to change their child's behavior, without ever addressing the real root cause: abandonment trauma. It doesn't work. In fact, the child’s behaviors get worse as he gets older.
Some mothers I have worked with recognized the signs early. Others couldn’t face the fact that their children were in trouble until they had to, something we can all understand. Some thought it was a phase and others thought they simply lacked good discipline techniques. Others thought or were told the problem was genetic. Some parents dislike their child and can’t keep it a secret. Some see themselves as victims and their child as the enemy. Some are single parents with more responsibility than they can handle. Others love their child enough to admit they made mistakes as soon as they can find out just what those mistakes were.
Some biological parents insist they are innocent of any mistakes and blame the child. They may say she was always that way, but they just want to know how to manage her. As long as parents blame the child, we won’t get results. When parents accept responsibility, half the battle has been won.
Some of the moms are not biological moms and have adopted children who suffered major abandonment trauma in early childhood. Since their child was adopted, they may be even more likely to think the problem is genetic rather than attachment trauma. Maybe they understood the ramifications of adopting a child with a broken attachment. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they thought they did, but didn’t.
They all have a tiger by the tail.
Getting Help and Becoming Help
Unfortunately, most of my colleagues are not specialized in such cases, so it’s hard to find a good diagnosis and help, especially affordable help. Even our licensing exams no longer place an emphasis on attachment. Residential treatment facilities often do more harm than good, because they create additional attachment breaks.
Some of my RAD children come to see me privately with their moms as well as in the RAD Group. A true attachment therapist will never see the child alone. They will always have the mom or primary caregiver, present. Before I work with these children and their caregivers, I will need to teach and train the parents and ensure there is a support system. They must learn to become therapeutic parents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which requires another adult working to support mother and child. The parents must be up to the task. Their mental health must be good, and sometimes we have to put parents in therapy to move forward with the children. Unfortunately, most parents don’t have the time and/or money.
There is a residential treatment design that would work, but it would take major funding to build the right facility with the right staff to accommodate the children and their mothers. If there were a facility that could treat them together, we could work faster, train parents on the spot, and single mothers could then get help too.
The parents must fully understand that they or the child’s biological parent made hurtful if not wrong choices, even if it was for a good and necessary cause, like affording food, clothing and shelter. Usually the parent and child have developed a history of resenting each other, so parents will need to find compassion in their heart for what they or a previous parent put their child through, if they are to establish the authority their child will respect. They must be willing to model the expression of remorse. Parents will need to apologize to their child for his injuries, both the ones they caused and the ones the biological parents caused. Such an apology tends to settle the child down, but then they look for change. Real change. If the parent can’t manage the show of remorse, I apologize to the child for what she has been through, while the parent watches. When I do that, the child begins to soften, sometimes almost imperceptibly. The parents may see how it works and then find it easier to apologize to their child. This is the beginning of earning trust. From there, the child can learn how to re-bond, how to relate and then the child will accept corrective discipline. It is only from there that the child can be taught personal responsibility.
When parents learn that it’s not their child’s fault how they are and agree to make the commitment necessary, I coach these heroic parents in what to do. They provide the home environment that will heal their child and I become just a guide. I don’t treat the child, and the child doesn’t get to bond with me. They treat their child. The child bonds with them, maybe even for the first time. Again, this is more difficult with an older child, but still possible, if we can persuade him how he must learn vulnerability and to surrender in order to heal. We have techniques that lead to regression where the bonding can begin. I can also tell him true stories or show him footage of strong men, successful men who were vulnerable, such as the late General Schwarzkopf, who cried for his troops and later said, “I would never trust a man who doesn’t cry,” It is necessary that RAD kids can see and believe that real winners know how and who to trust and learn that they must earn respect.
Even though I am not a hands-on therapist, so the mother can be, I run my RAD Group for parents and child. I am the teacher or coach for both parent and child, and I model for the parents how to relate to their child. In that venue I am the boss. I have to be. There is no opportunity for debate, nor should the children see it. Sometimes I discover that the parents are a bit RAD themselves, modeling in front of their children a lack of respect for authority. Thus no one gets to take me on, but anyone can ask questions. I’m not on a power trip. I am modeling healthy authority and strong parenting. I seek to become the authority the child learns to respect and then the parent becomes that authority too. Finally, teachers, principals and police become the authority the child will respect.
In the RAD Group parents meet other parents and a support system begins. The children meet other children like themselves, and they learn to socialize with peers first. They are also members of a Kids’ Group, that is, a relationship skills workshop for more regular children, a different group that teaches relationship skills, ethics, how to have a clean argument or disagreement, how to solve problems, how to assess for people who can be trusted, and how to be trustworthy.
Hopefully, the older children who used to see me privately return at the beginning of adolescence again to maintain their level of mental health as they enter puberty, a disruptive stage for children, especially those with a RAD history. I tell them they have returned as veterans to help younger children, as well as to become vigilant about any possible relapses brought on by adolescence. It’s a self-awareness skill they will need again when they become romantically involved and when they become parents.
Understanding Adam Lanza
I listen to the experts on television say they have no idea why Adam Lanza did what he did. It’s hard to hear.
I listen for the information I would need to form a hypothesis. The thing I want the public to understand and hear the most is how his first three years went. Did he spend the first few years of his life in daycare or with multiple caregivers or with a distracted parent, with whom he could not securely bond, or was he simply abused as an infant (probably not)? Journalists do not seem to seek such information about his early years. Perhaps, it’s taboo. But I have clues.
I learned from a newscast that a friend of his mother said Adam’s mother, Nancy, volunteered in the classroom he shot up, and once she even took him there. I learned from a tabloid that he would sometimes demand that she sit outside his bedroom door so he could sleep. I learned that another source said he couldn’t handle school because he couldn’t bear to be touched by anyone. I heard that his mother had a favored son, who turned out healthier. I read in a tabloid that she was checking into putting Adam into a residential facility of some sort. I learned that she believed the world was coming to an end on December 21, and I learned that she kept assault weapons. Everything I heard was familiar to me. It all fit.
My Tentative Hypothesis
I have formed a tentative hypothesis based upon the only available information, however limited, that goes like this: Adam’s mother did not hold him or cuddle him in the first months of his life. Who would know? Perhaps she had postpartum depression or she worked and someone else cared for him, leaving him in a crib. In any event, without this touch, he developed intolerance for being touched and a mechanical-like personality. He learned to bond with things instead of people as an infant and he developed a fragile identity, concluding very young that he was perceived as worthless by others. As he grew older he learned to socialize with video games instead of people, leading to a childhood diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and an adult diagnosis of Schizoid Personality Disorder. If he indeed heard voices, as one tabloid claimed, then perhaps he suffered from Schizophrenia. My cases of Schizophrenia and ones of successful therapists I have known have all included the following childhood ingredients: (1) insufficient touch, plus (2) invasive dialogues with the child about his thoughts and how he should think, and finally, (3) bizarre or mind-warping parental choices. Paranoid children and adults experienced unpredictable verbal or physical threats.
As his rage and fantasies of retaliation grew, without understanding them, he developed an identity that he was evil or “the devil.” His abandonment issues manifested in fears his mother would leave him, even though he developed some ability to detach. He was allowed to live in a dungeon-like basement or bedroom, possibly absent sunlight and views of trees, clouds and birds. Why? Was he kept from people because it was too difficult to teach him to socialize? Or did letting him play video games to his heart’s content provide her respite? Did she struggle to get him into relationships with people? It appears that she enabled him to withdraw, probably without any idea that this choice would create more harm.
Perhaps when he was still young, Adam’s mother saw that he wasn’t doing well, and some maternal “instincts” kicked in. Maybe she knew what she had done or hadn’t done, but didn’t speak about it. Maybe she had no idea what she had done. In any event, he began to tell her how to treat him, like RAD children do. She apparently complied to some extent or perhaps a great deal. In some ways she let him be the boss. Maybe she was emotionally unavailable to him and then available and then unavailable and then available, creating more expectations for Adam and more tension between them.
There was a healthier older brother (who must have had more bonding healthier adult personalities have enjoyed some degree of bonding; if not a secure attachment with their primary caregiver) to whom she probably compared Adam when she was trying to inspire him to try harder. Maybe the older brother was jealous of a second child because he didn’t get all the affection he needed, so possibly he picked on Adam. Maybe not, but there appears to be some evidence of animosity between them, especially on Adam’s part. One could understand it would be frustrating to have Adam for a brother. And it would be threatening to Adam to have a higher functioning brother.
If she actually did check into institutionalizing Adam and he knew it, it would have been extremely provocative. It would have been that rejection trigger. Perhaps she should have just done it without warning, if she was going to do it. Sometimes parents have their children picked up. This is a relatively common technique used to put teens into Wilderness Therapy, sometimes a very useful tool in turning RAD kids around.
Wilderness Therapy is very expensive, about $30K, but my impression is that Adam and his mother lived in a large home, almost estate size. They probably could have afforded Wilderness Therapy, where the child learns to cooperate and interact to survive, as well as to air his feelings to someone who cares. In the meantime, parents are given parenting lessons. If Wilderness Therapy turns down a child, that would be a huge red flag.
Why shoot up a classroom of kindergarteners? If his mother took him to see the classroom she visited when she left him so often, for no pay, preferring to be with these children rather than him, as she had done in his infancy, this would be the reason why Adam Lanza targeted that class. He thought she favored those normal children over him. That must have burned inside of him, causing excruciating pain.
Without bonding, he had little, if any, empathy or compassion for others. It is the experience of bonding with our primary caregiver that gives us intimacy, empathy, compassion and a conscience. If he had been sufficiently bonded to her as an infant, he would not have been threatened by this act. The less secure an attachment the more volatile the adult. Insecurely attached babies become adults who lack resilience, teenagers who get pregnant, stalkers, dangerous domestic partners or killers, depending upon the degree of infant neglect and the other types of experiences they have, especially when they get older and it becomes time for discipline.
For some children, the lack of bonding leads them to accept friendships from strangers who molest them. It can also exacerbate parents and lead to brutal punishments. The icing on the cake for Adam may have been his mother’s catastrophic philosophy of life and her possible shared apocalyptic belief that the world was coming to an end soon, coupled by her affinity for violent weapons. This would meet the mind-warping component that creates Schizophrenia. To live in an environment of expected doomsday, amongst assault rifles, is a mind-warping environment. I imagine such ideation was schizogenic or to be more clear, mind-fucking.
Once again, why did Adam Lanza shoot up a classroom of kindergarteners? My tentative hypothesis can be summed up thus: He suffered from a profoundly insecure attachment and was unbearably rageful. He was jealous of the children he killed and assault weapons were the way to go.
I cannot help all the Adam Lanzas and Eric Klebolds, but I ask that journalists become part of the solution. I can hope journalists will learn to ask the most important questions about the child’s first years and get the information out to the public at large. If it becomes common knowledge how we innocently create killers in our homes, the public will begin to become part of the solution and we can learn how to prevent these tragedies.
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