Parental Misconceptions

From a toddler's height to a teen's work ethic to an adult child's marriage, a range of studies shows that moms and dads may be among the worst judges of their kids. But there are deeply adaptive rasons for parents' enduring misperceptions.

Adolescence Disorder

Guess what? Our lives are just a series of diseases.
Stanton Peele, Ph.D., J.D.
This post is a response to What Happens When Mothers Don't Feel Motherly? by Stanton Peele

My last piece, on the expansion of post-partum depression beyond the period after birth, beyond women, and beyond depression is about defining parenthood as a disease state.  It might have been called "Parental Disorder." Indeed, a follow-up article in the New York Times to the one I was commenting on is titled "The Trauma of Parenthood." It builds on this impression that parents are primed for mental illness simply due to the fact of becoming parents.  According to one study, 42 percent of new mothers and 26 percent of new fathers display clinical depression.  And remember when newborns used to be called little bundles of joy!

All of this is doubly ironic because it used to be standard wisdom that the toughest point in parenting was dealing with an adolescent.*  I certainly can name parents who found their child's infancy a delight and who went on to experience the same boy's or girl's adolescence as much, much more grueling.  Indeed, nothing in the recently discovered misery of new parents rules out the possibility that parents of adolescents have it even worse–that those who were depressed when their children were born become even more depressed, or that those who escaped depression then only delayed the onset of this newly uncovered parental emotional disorder by 13 years.

All that remains is to define the corresponding experience of the child as mental illness. Voila, done!  In surprisingly literal terms, an article by psychiatrist Richard Friedman in the New York Times has done this. Entitled "Why adolescents act crazy," the article isn't about why teens seem crazy.  It is about how they are diagnosable. Friedman informs us "that the brain circuit for processing fear–the amygdala–is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety."  This phenomenon goes along with recklessness, which surely exacerbates their anxieties.  (This article rapidly rose to become, and remain, "most emailed" at the Times.)

So the teen years are inherently programmed for anxiety disorders–diagnosable via DSM.  And, to top it off, the standard treatments for anxiety disorders (which Friedman seems to dislike from his tone) are useless: "Anxious adolescents may not be very responsive to psychotherapy that attempts to teach them to be unafraid, like cognitive behavior therapy, which is zealously prescribed for teenagers."  What does this leave?  Anti-anxiety medications?  The idea of massive diagnosis and dosing of kids for anxiety is doubly strange since Friedman questions why we dispense a vast sea of stimulants to teens, which are prescribed for kids due to diagnoses of ADHD.

What is every parent's nightmare? You might have said at one time–say the 1950s–that it was that a kid would become wayward, or a juvenile delinquent. (The modern, Park Slope–where I live–version of this fear might be that they won't get into an Ivy League college.)  Then you might have said from the 1960s on that they would use drugs.  The latter has been transformed into the fear that your child will become an out-an-out drug addict, as detailed in David Sheff's Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction.

But that's not the new worst nightmare.  The new worst nightmare is that your child will become a Columbine-like mass murderer.  And the embodiment of this fear has now appeared in the person of Peter Rodger, the father of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people near UC Santa Barbara last month.  Peter Rodger says that his son hid his mental illness from him–although, in fact, he had been in mental health treatment much of his life.  Accordingly, the senior Rodger is now devoting himself to helping others "recognize warning signs of mental illness within families to help prevent mass killings."

I can't say what this means for parents.  Should they all live in fear that their quiet, unobtrusive child (that would seem to be only boys) is just waiting to ignite and go on a murderous rampage?  Let's just say that this new parental anxiety isn't likely to lessen the fears, anxieties, and–yes–emotional disorders of modern parents.  It would seem that being a loving, thoughtful, nurturing, child-centered parent is not enough to get you through the minefield of having children nowadays.  So does–or will–having chidren itself become a "marker" (Peter Rodger uses this term) of mental illness?

Which is where we started this post.  And that was already not a pretty picture.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program.  You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.

* (July 8, 2014) A survey of more than 2,500 Americans found that parents of teenagers and single parents are equally stressed about raising their kids, barely less than people who experience dangerous work situations or with an income of less than $20,000.

Parental Misconceptions