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Mental illness In Parents Can Blind Them To Their Children’s Mental Health Needs.


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Dr. Coplan reflects on his own upbringing in an enmeshed and abusive household, and the parallels to Adam Lanza’s childhood.

“I’m only trying to help you, James!” – This was my father’s angry declaration of good intention, no matter how destructive his behavior. Often preceded in a softer tone by “What do you want, James?,” the hint of menace in his voice belying the plain meaning of the words. And, when I was much younger (I can still picture how my bedroom ceiling looked from my upside down vantage point spread across his knees waiting for the strap): “James, this hurts me more than it hurts you!”

I can see now, with the benefit of hindsight, that my father was a deeply troubled and emotionally needy person. His response to emotional tension was to beat the other person into submission – either verbally, or (when I was still small), physically. His declared intention to “help” me was actually for the purpose of deflecting conversation away from his own issues, and asking me what I wanted was for the purpose of baiting me into fruitless argument. (It would have been so nice if he had said, just once, “You have a point there, son. Sometimes I feel the same way myself.” But that was beyond his ability.)

After decades of hard work, and some brushes with near-disaster, I finally have reached the point where I am able to separate my father’s issues from my own. As a result, I have been able to construct an image of myself based on my own behavior, distinct from the image my father held up to me: his “poor, troubled son” (on good days) or “a worthless piece of sh*t” (the rest of the time). But it has taken me a lifetime to get to where I am today.

In hindsight it’s all so clear. But “this is now and that was then” (to turn a familiar phrase on its head). Then, I faced a barrage of charges: “Why do you hate your sister? Why don’t you admit it: All you ever wanted was for your mother and me to give less to her and more to you? You are a sonofabitch who just wants us to put your sister in an institution!” In addition to poor self-esteem (no surprise there), I developed a nasty case of PTSD. Until a couple of years ago, I experienced panic attacks, flashbacks, and out-of-body sensations triggered without warning by the sight of women who resembled my sister. My heart would start pounding and I would break into a cold sweat. I would be speaking, but my voice seemed to be coming from far away; I would have to grip the arms of the chair tightly to keep from falling. In a few moments the feelings would pass, but they could recur in waves. As intense as these sensations were, they were all internal. No one ever noticed or said anything (at least not my wife, who was sometimes with me, and who was always surprised when I would relate my experience to her afterwards). And there were recurrent nightmares, which always centered on me trying to rescue a little girl – a composite of my sister and my daughters – from some terrible fate. (My father may have been screaming in my face that I “hated” my sister, but my unconscious mind knew better.) Insight-based therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy have both helped me immensely. The flashbacks and nightmares have been absent for several years. But chronic stress during childhood produces permanent changes in the brain. (After all these years, I still startle when my wife approaches me from behind, and lovingly puts her arm around my shoulder.) I still do my CBT exercises every day, and in that sense I am a “recovering” victim of chronic child abuse, in the same way that persons who join AA are “recovering” alcoholics – never “recovered.”

I wasn’t the only one who suffered, of course. While I became the object of my father’s anger, my sister with intellectual disability became the object of his incessant and overbearing affection. In many ways my sister’s fate was worse than mine – especially since my sister had limited means at her disposal to resist our father’s advances. At least I was able to leave home as an adolescent, and make my own way in the world. My sister remained under our father’s domination until he passed away at age 92. (How my sister survived all that is another story – one which proves that resilience of the human spirit has little to do with IQ.) My father smothered my sister with attention, meanwhile sabotaging all outside efforts in such areas as independent living or job training, thereby curtailing her development beyond the constraints imposed by the intellectual disability itself. I have previously written about enmeshment. Suffice it to say that my father and sister were enmeshed: They were “one,” emotionally, and my father reacted to any effort to enhance my sister’s independence as a threat to his private relationship with her. And to top it off, our household was socially isolated from the rest of the community, as a result of my father’s hostility toward caregivers, and his “circle the wagons” siege mentality.

What has all this to do with Adam and Nancy Lanza? Just this: By all the evidence in the OCA report, Nancy Lanza had significant emotional issues of her own, leading her to perceive or feign fatal illness in herself, and at the same time leading her to place Adam in a “parentified” role, in which she turned to him to meet her own needs, while keeping Adam’s father, the school, and mental health providers at arm’s length, thereby sabotaging Adam’s ability to function in the outside world, under the guise of “helping” him. No two families are exactly alike. In my family of origin, my father’s maladaptive behavior underwent a split, one child becoming the object of his anger, the other becoming the object of his affection. We don’t know whether that kind of “splitting” may have occurred in the Lanza household. (Adam Lanza has an older brother, but his voice barely appears in the OCA report.) In my family of origin, the enmeshment was father-daughter, while in the Lanza household it was mother-son. Nancy and Peter Lanza divorced; my father and stepmother remained married. And so on. Nonetheless, the disastrous combination of untreated parent mental health issues, parent-child enmeshment, and family isolation, is strikingly similar.

In addition to being profoundly depressed and possibly on the autism spectrum, I suspect that Adam Lanza felt so entrapped by his mother that the only means of escape apparent to him was to shoot his way out. (The renowned British psychiatrist Lorna Wing -herself the mother of a child on the spectrum – includes “vulnerability, cry for help, hostility towards the family” and “revenge” among the factors contributing to violence by persons with ASD ). How the children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School fit into the story I don’t know. But Adam Lanza’s commission of matricide and suicide have visible antecedents in the family dynamic. I see it clearly, because my sister and I lived it – almost.




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James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speaker in the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter. Have a question for Dr. Coplan? Ask the doctor.



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