Way beyond tantrums: What it's like raising a child with 'no impulse control'

It's called 'conduct disorder,' and there's no cure... but there is hope.
by Donna Freydkin / / Source: TODAY

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This was more than the notorious terrible twos and threes so many parents complain about, those turbulent years of full of outbursts and mood swings.

Immeasurably, indescribably worse. Amy Cluley’s son was nearly four when she said she understood and acknowledged that something was very, very wrong.

For starters, her son barely slept. And when he flipped out, over anything, there was no calming him down, she said.

“He wouldn’t just get mad and get over it. He would cry for 20 minutes, screaming, yelling, throwing things. He cried for four hours one time because it was raining outside,” she said.

Searching for mental health help

Cluley said she searched and searched for someone, anyone, to help her. To no avail. She said that either her insurance didn’t cover the doctor, or doctors simply weren’t willing to work with her because cases like her son's are difficult to treat. Parents can connect via a private Facebook group called Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder. And she found help close to home.

“I reached out to a lady in our parish who was a psychiatrist and I told her I could not go without sleep anymore. She gave him a medicated plan. We saw another doctor who diagnosed him with a brain disorder. The regulatory brain disorder means that the portion of the brain that regulates everything you and I do, like impulse and emotion, doesn’t work,” Cluley said.

Amy Cluley Mothers of Sparta conduct disorder children parenting
Amy Cluley on Megyn Kelly TODAY TODAY

She joined other parents on Megyn Kelly TODAY to talk about raising children with "conduct disorder," and how to reach out for help. In addition to running a Facebook group, which deals with conduct disorder, some of these parents have banded together and founded STOPP, which stands for Society for Treatment Options for Potential Psychopaths.

As for Cluley, does her son, now five, have empathy? “Sometimes. But it’s not regular,” said Cluley.

“I have a perfectly functioning daughter who is perfectly functioning in society. If it was a parent issue only, I’d have two children who were off the chart. When I encounter someone and he is convulsing about whatever it is that set him off — this one lady asked me to get him under control — I said, ‘May you never be touched by mental illness because this is my life and I am not a bad parent.’"

Understanding conduct disorder

According to the The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, conduct disorder in children refers to children and adolescents who “have great difficulty following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. They are often viewed by other children, adults and social agencies as ‘bad’ or delinquent, rather than mentally ill.” And most terrifyingly, conduct disorder in children can lead to violent behavior in adults, something that is never far from Cluley's mind.

Cluley's life today is a cloistered nightmare of isolation, she said. There are no drop-off playdates, no outings to the movies. “Either I stay home or my husband stays home. You can’t take him out without having this fear that something will happen,” she said.

She’s terrified that as he gets older, her son will become increasingly dangerous to himself and others. Right now, she’s not afraid of him, she said. Yet.

Afraid of the future

"Not at five. What is he going to do at 15? All I know is that he has no impulse control and no regulation of emotion,” said Cluley.

Her daughter is 14 and, says her mom, doing great, all things considered. “But it’s hard for her,” said Cluley.

Most of all, Cluley is frustrated by the lack of resources available to her family, but is hopeful that maybe, things will change and her son will get the care he needs.

“My husband had colon cancer last year and we’re out of the woods. When my husband had that, intervention was needed. We knew what to do and where to go. No one is giving the same attention for intervention and treatment to my son,” she said.

But there’s hope, says Dr. Kent Kiehl, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and law at the University of New Mexico. He uses MRIs to screen prison inmates for signs of psychopathy to help find a treatment. And he hears from parents frequently, asking for help.

Amy Cluley Dawn Davies Mothers of Sparta Conduct Disorder children
Amy Cluley, with "Mothers of Sparta" author Dawn Davies, on Megyn Kelly TODAY TODAY

'You can cultivate empathy'

His advice: “I try to refer them to a local clinical psychology group at a local university nearby, where they might have experts who may be able to help them. A lot of individuals are trained with the understanding that there’s no treatment,” said Kiehl. "There’s lots of different parenting techniques that have been shown to be helpful, rather than having a negative effect. Parents who are really, really patient and not authoritarian have been shown to have the best effects. Just like you learn how to read, you can cultivate empathy.”

But, cautions Kiehl, “There’s different types of empathy.” And he’s referring to what he calls “thoughtful empathy: How should I be thinking about things? Individuals with these traits can develop ways to stop and think and understand what’s in their own best interest. Not getting in trouble is in their own best interest and they can choose not to. They have a diminished capacity for free will but they are able to be helped.”

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