The Isolating Life of Parenting a Potential Psychopath

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but what do you do when the village shuns you?

A boy holds his arm in front of his face while holding hands with a woman
mrs / Getty

Parenting a child with conduct disorder is the loneliest thing I know.  Conduct disorder (CD) is a diagnosis given to children who have an ongoing pattern of troubling antisocial behavior. The definitions are all very wordy—but the simple version is that a child who gets this diagnosis might grow up to be a psychopath.

When my son got his diagnosis, I wasn’t surprised. He started physically hurting me when his age was measured in months, rather than years. Consequences did not deter him. For years I told friends, doctors, teachers, my own parents that I thought there was something wrong with him. No one listened. Parents at the park started avoiding us. My son was never invited to parties or included in fun activities. Not that I blame them—he was constantly harming other children. But American culture rarely blames the child who is acting out; it blames the child’s parents. Too often, I heard, “If it was my child I would never let them get away with this.” Eventually I stopped trying to connect with other parents. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but what do you do when the village shuns you?

Back in 2014, when I started Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder (PCCD), a Facebook support group that now has about 800 members from around the world, there were no support groups dedicated to parents of children with CD. I called medical experts looking for one; even the people treating and researching these children did not know of any. I was shocked at first—there is a support group for everything. And then I realized why. In order to form a support group, someone would have to put their name on it. And no one wants to come forward as the parent of a psychopath.

But I had just moved to a new town where no one knew me. I wasn’t working, either, and therefore didn’t have any colleagues. Back then, it didn’t matter if I put my name on it—I already felt isolated.  So I set out to create the community I wished I had.

In the four years since I clicked “Create Group” on Facebook, I have watched PCCD grow from a membership that could be counted on one hand to a community that now needs several other admins to run it. I have read probably tens of thousands of posts at this point. I’ve lent an ear to new members and pointed them toward reading material and local resources. We share research and vent to each other, just like any other support group. But members also share what they do when Child Protective Services comes to the house. Or how they were able to get a child with CD into inpatient treatment, a very difficult task. A lot of research is being done on CD, but there is little in the way of actual help. So, for the time being, we are sisters and brothers in an impossibly miserable parenting situation. Our children are often violent toward us or to their siblings. Most of them lack any meaningful amount of empathy, and regularly try to manipulate us. Pretty much every parenting strategy we try with our children fails. Often, the most we can do is offer each other virtual hugs and an “I’ve been there.” But that’s not nothing. Because the biggest thing we have in common is how alone we were before we found each other.

Though PCCD has been around for nearly four years now and is just about to reach its 800th member, as far as I know, only three of us have ever met in person. Dawn Davies (the author of the parenting memoir Mothers of Sparta), Sarabeth Grossman, and I all met for the first time in March for the taping of an episode of NBC’s Megyn Kelly Today. While Sarabeth shared her story with a national audience, tears in her eyes, I reached over to take her hand. During the commercial break it occurred to me that this was a potentially unprecedented moment: one parent of a child with CD holding another’s hand to share in her pain and offer solace. Just being physically present together with someone else who understood felt like a miracle.

Also miraculous was the feeling of sharing our experiences with others. My life, and the lives of other parents in PCCD, are full of lies. And I don’t mean the pathological lies our children tell. I mean the little white ones we tell when someone asks us how our day was. Marci Pelayo, a fellow member of PCCD, told me, “It’s easier to just smile and say, ‘I’m great’ than to actually attempt to explain the pain that consumes me.”

Kelly Conley, another of my good friends from PCCD, echoed the sentiment: “You can’t really go to work on Monday and respond to ‘How was your weekend?’ with ‘Well, my son punched me in the face,’ or ‘He went after his dad with a hammer.’ You feel so totally alone.”

But for the first time, in a corridor in a New York City high-rise on a chilly Wednesday morning, three of us were not alone. And I felt a sense of hope and community I had never felt before.

After the show aired, PCCD got a flood of requests to join from people who had seen it. One of those new members, Laura Harp, posted in the group about the moment she saw us on the show. “The second I heard these women speak I broke down and cried. For years I have dealt with these struggles in isolation. Friends and family have tried to help along the way, but they could never truly understand. Even miles away and through the TV I felt an instant sense of community, belonging, and understanding. I FOUND PEOPLE!!! … The support and kindness that has flooded over me [in PCCD] has been astounding and overwhelming. I feel like some of the weight that this tragedy cemented on me has been lifted. I can actually breathe better than I have in years!”

Back in that corridor, after taping the show, holding each other’s hands while we cried, Sarabeth gave me one final hug, and pulled away. She told me she didn’t want me to leave her alone again.

I took her by the hands once more and told her what this community has helped me realize: that we’re never alone anymore.