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To a Parent Racked With Guilt Over Her Criminal Son

Parents should not blame themselves.

Key points

  • Parents grieve, blame themselves for their child's criminality.
  • Parents often are not a primary cause of the child's turning to crime.
  • Children have different temperaments from an early age.
  • Parents need to find a way to have a life despite a criminal child.

“My adult son proclaims his innocence, but I have my doubts,” wrote Barbara [name has been changed], the mother of a son charged with several brutal sexual assaults. Poring over the legal papers, it was excruciating for her to think as she had so many times over the years that “I didn’t help this child avoid such a tragic life.” Barbara recalled, “My son was a delight as a child. I look through his baby book and wonder when things went wrong. What did I miss? The thought that my child caused such pain is unbearable.”

Barbara went on to inquire, “How is it that the same person who recently gave me a gorgeous bouquet of flowers for my birthday could do such hideous things?” She asked me for insight as to what makes a person develop into this type of criminal. This mother pointed out that, despite all three of her children having to cope with her divorce while they were young, two of the three were doing well and were vastly different in personality from her “boy” who was incarcerated.

My response to this heart-wrenching letter follows.

Barbara, It saddens me to hear about your son and your very understandable heartache. All parents have a lot of responsibility in bringing up their children. But scientific studies have shown that it is not a one-way street. The child is not a formless lump of clay who is haplessly molded by others. Children differ from one another within the same family in their temperament – arousal, excitability, sociability, and so forth.

A late colleague of mine, psychologist David Cohen from the University of Texas, wrote a book titled “Stranger in the Nest.” He stated,“Parents have much less influence on a child’s psychological development than is commonly supposed” and went on to say that a “strong inborn potential” can “trump parental influence” so much so that the child seems like a stranger.

You say that your son was a really great kid early in life. You were there, and I don’t challenge that. However, it is true that when the environment provides more freedom (which it invariably does), some seemingly stable, endearing children make choices that go against the grain of society. They reject the best efforts of parents, teachers, and others to guide, educate, and direct them. Instead, they try to control others, become furious when others fail to meet their unrealistic expectations, and come to believe that they are so unique and superior that they can do whatever they please. It is not that they are corrupted by others. Rather, they choose the people with whom they wish to associate and come to look down their noses at their more conventional peers.

A distraught parent like you continues struggling. But no approach seems to work for long. You tighten discipline because your child’s behavior prompts you to do so. He becomes angrier and sneakier. If you loosen up, he takes advantage. You increasingly doubt yourself, lack confidence, fault the child, fault yourself. You are putting far more into this than is your child, who is thwarting your efforts (although he may at times be charming and thoughtful, leading you to further doubt your sanity).

I can imagine how frustrating it is to be baffled as to the “cause” or “causes” of your son’s emerging dark personality. But I think you know that natural and social scientists are not able to identify causes of many human conditions. Almost anything imaginable has been cited as creating the development of this personality.

The fact is that delinquent children and adult offenders come from all sections of society – poor and wealthy, grade school dropouts and college graduates, and from all ethnic and racial groups. When such a person is held accountable for the injuries that he inflicts, he blames other people or circumstances.

His behavior is a result of “errors in thinking” that take a fearsome toll in terms of injury, even to devoted parents like you who continue believing in his potential for good. In most instances, you are likely not his target. He resents you when he wants to keep you out of his life or stop you from interfering. Otherwise, the issue is not you but the objectives that he pursues. Prominent among the errors in thinking are the following:

*The pursuit of power and control for their own sake;
*A sense of entitlement
*Lying as a way of life even when there seems no reason to lie
*A lack of a concept of injury to others
*A chilling capacity to shut off from awareness considerations of consequences and conscience

Although it may be difficult to believe, even the most heinous offenders continue to think they are at heart good people. After committing atrocities, they talk to him about their inner goodness. As one man commented, “If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn’t live.” All his talents and intelligence seldom deterred him from committing crimes. Such a person knows right from wrong. But as one inmate explained, “Right is what I want to do at the time.” Try to reason with a person who thinks this way!

So, Barbara, what do you do? There is no clear answer and very mixed guidance. I am certain that you have taken different approaches from time to time and experienced a great disappointment, sadness and, at times, anger. Even when your son is physically out of your life, he remains your son. Remember, that despite all past consequences to him, he has chosen to persist in his ways. You remain helpless to change what is out of your control. One mother posed the dilemma this way: She said that every time she had hope for her daughter, she was shattered because the girl never changed. But then she added, “But without hope, what kind of mother would I be?”

It is not impossible for your son to change. But he would have to reach a point at which he was willing to look in the mirror and understand the scope of the devastation he has inflicted even on people whom he says he cares for, including you. To change one’s thinking requires intense motivation and lots of hard work over a lengthy period of time. This letter does not permit me space to go into detail about that process. Due to the danger he likely poses to society, such work would have to take place only in a closed facility with such programming.

I advise you to do what is best for you. Take care of yourself. Do not neglect your other adult children, family members, and friends. Staying focused on your son and all the “what ifs” of the past and future will not help him and will only eat you alive.

I wish you the best as you move on in life – and move on, you must. You sound like a wonderful person who has a lot to give to others.


David Cohen. "Stranger in the Nest," NY: John Wiley, 1969.

Stanton Samenow. Inside the Criminal Mind. NY: Crown, 2022.