Cover image for Before it's too late : why some kids get into trouble-- and what parents can do about it
Before it's too late : why some kids get into trouble-- and what parents can do about it
Samenow, Stanton E., 1941-
Personal Author:
Revised edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Times Books, [1998]

Physical Description:
x, 230 pages ; 22 cm
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HQ773 .S215 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In this newly revised and expanded edition of the classic guide, clinical psychologist Stanton Samenow discusses the difficult subject of "problem children" with compassion, reassurance, and welcome clarity. He offers concerned parents and professionals instructive insight into the personality of such children and gives practical suggestions for taking corrective, remedial steps--now, before antisocial patterns become entrenched. He also offers advice to help parents of older children cope effectively. While typical children "go through a phase" with occasional flashes of misconduct, it's imperative that parents recognize as early as possible the special behavior of the habitually secretive and antisocial child. Dr. Samenow identifies the seven common traits of antisocial children and refutes the common belief that they don't know right from wrong. In fact, says Dr. Samenow, they know the difference very well, but choose to believe the rules don't apply to them. Parents must learn how to help these kids accept responsibility for their actions. While Dr. Samenow concludes that parents don't directly cause their child's antisocial behavior, they can unwittingly serve to encourage rather than inhibit it. He explains the six common errors that keep parents from intervening effectively, from being plagued by excessive guilt about their perceived role in the problem to totally denying that a problem exists. Dr. Samenow also suggests ways parents can sidestep these errors in the future. Before It's Too Late, updated with the latest findings drawn from Dr. Samenow's experience as an expert in evaluating and counseling juvenile and adult offenders, underscores the encouraging message that there's much that concerned adults can do to correct disturbing attitudes and behaviors if they identify children at risk early enough and act quickly. This reassuring guide offers a blueprint for effective action that can make the difference.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Samenow, a clinical psychologist, tempers the notion that parents and environment are usually responsible for a child's serious misbehavior. How can it always be the fault of misguided parents, he wonders, if other children in the same family turn out to be responsible, law-abiding citizens? Samenow argues that by blaming parents, we don't allow the child to take responsibility for his or her own actions. Samenow shows parents how to break this cycle of irresponsibility. First he bluntly describes the thinking he has found to be typical of antisocial children, from disregarding consequences to lying as a way of life. Then he offers strategies for parental intervention, including the erroneous thinking parents may have to overcome in order to take action. Samenow helps parents identify patterns of behavior, offering numerous comparisons between normal developmental issues and how they differ from the behavior and motivation of an antisocial child. While some of his descriptions are harsh (is it really possible to treat a 10-year-old as the master of his or her fate?), anxious parents may welcome such plain talk. This book is invaluable for parents who know their children are headed down the wrong path, but it may be even more important for parents who aren't sure. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Child as Shaper of His Own Destiny     It seems that as far back as I can remember there have been alarm and despair over escalating juvenile crime. As a child in the 1950s, I heard radio reports about the mushrooming problems with youthful gangs in the big cities. When I was in high school, many of us read Evan Hunter's Blackboard Jungle or saw the 1955 movie based on his book, which graphically depicted teenage delinquency occurring right in the classroom, no longer confined to the streets. In the 1960s, we began to hear about a surge of juvenile crime in areas that had been regarded as virtually crime free. In suburbs as well as in the inner cities, youngsters were dropping out of school, using drugs, and committing crimes. In the 1970s and 1980s, juvenile court dockets became increasingly jammed with criminal cases. According to the Department of Justice, the percentage increases in arrests from 1985 to 1994 have been greater for juveniles than for adults. During 1994 alone, 2.7 million juveniles were arrested.     The first juvenile court, established in Illinois's Cook County in 1899, was designed "in a spirit of benevolent paternalism" and was devoid of the idea that "children were capable of criminal intent." During the latter part of this century, juvenile courts that customarily provided social services in order to rehabilitate rather than punish lawbreakers were faced with an onslaught of children who were not simply wayward youths, but hardened repeat offenders. Providing them with social services--requiring a brief stay in the detention center or lengthier incarceration in a juvenile correctional facility--had little, if any, impact on these youngsters. The persistent juvenile delinquent exhausted the resources of the juvenile justice system and continued to prey upon society. The 1980s witnessed an increasingly desperate outcry for courts to take more extreme measures to contain juvenile crime, which is assuming ever more serious forms. A 1984 federal report asserted that ten years' experience with minimizing punishment and relying on prevention demonstrated that "this medicine has not produced a cure." The emphasis on rehabilitation of repeat offenders has given way to "get tough" policies. Citizens want these youngsters off the streets. More detention facilities have been constructed. Violent juvenile offenders who have been impervious to penalties imposed by the juvenile justice system are increasingly being handed over to courts where they must stand trial as adults. (All fifty states have provisions for trying certain types of juvenile offenders in adult courts.) From 1985 to 1994, the number of juvenile cases transferred to adult courts increased from 7,200 to 12,300. In 1989, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty can be applied to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.     In my clinical practice, I see youngsters who are referred by juvenile courts, sent by school counselors, and in nearly all cases dragged unwillingly to me by their parents. For the most part, these boys and girls are already knee-deep in crime. As I evaluate them psychologically, I find that their defiance and excitement-seeking began as early as the preschool years and that their criminality is far more extensive than anyone suspects. Their parents are overwhelmed by fear, anger, and guilt. Guilt can be the most devastating emotion, for it often paralyzes parents so that they are unable to take effective action. As they struggle to make sense of it all, the mothers and fathers of these youngsters are positive they must have done something horribly wrong that caused their children to become so irresponsible. But rarely is this the case.     It is tragic that for decades, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and educators have convinced parents that they are chiefly responsible for shaping their children's destiny. Erroneously, the experts have asserted that the child comes into this world much like a totally unformed lump of clay and then is haplessly molded by parents. Millions of mothers and fathers have internalized this message and, understandably, feel blameworthy for everything that goes wrong.     Most of us assume the awesome responsibility for raising a child with a mixture of eagerness and apprehension. It is, after all, potentially the most exciting and fulfilling undertaking of our lives. How crushing the disappointment when we sense that we are losing control, that things are turning out far differently from what we had hoped. Certain that we are the ones who are failing, our confidence in our instincts and skills as parents falters. Convinced that we are to blame, we become angrier with ourselves than with our sons or daughters. But is such severe and unrelenting self-castigation justified? Are we in fact so totally responsible for our children's behavior?     The conventional wisdom claims that if a youngster has serious problems, the parents must be their source. This point of view has been consistent for decades. In 1942, Dr. David Levy stated, "Excessive mother love, indulgence, and overprotection of the child produce personality traits which lead to delinquent behavior." In 1979, Dr. David Elkind said, "I have argued that middle-class delinquency is essentially a reaction to parental exploitation. Such a position clearly places the burden of blame for middle-class delinquency upon the parents." And finally, in 1986, Ludwig L. Geismar and Katherine M. Wood pointed out, "Juvenile delinquency appears to occur disproportionately among children in `unhappy homes' where there is poor communication; marital disharmony; [and] unaccepting, unaffectionate parents."     Yet the daily experiences of millions of parents, as well as a relatively recent body of psychological research, indicate that the child is not a passive receptacle. Rather than haplessly being shaped by his surroundings, he himself shapes the behavior of others. Two researchers in the field of child development have pointed out that any credible model of child development must take into account "the child as an active agent in social transactions." Any parent of more than one child knows that children differ in temperament from birth. One infant may be fussy, irritable, and restless; another may be placid and contented. Isn't it natural for a parent to respond differently to a cranky, colicky baby than to a cooing, quiet one? Whereas most parents try to raise all children with love and to provide them equally with opportunities, they invariably treat each one differently. It could not be otherwise for, from birth, children have different temperaments, personalities, and needs.     Differences in temperament and other possible genetic factors have been largely overlooked as possible contributors to the development of an antisocial personality. One reason for this continuing trend is the belief that if a condition has a genetic component, nothing can be done. This is not necessarily so. Regardless of temperament, people still make choices.     But what does this have to do with crime? A lot, so far as identifying the source of the problem goes. If one were a fly on the wall of my office, one would hear juvenile offenders blame their parents and parents blame themselves for their youngsters' misconduct. As these boys and girls realize just how vulnerable their parents are to feelings of guilt, they level increasingly serious accusations against them. And so mothers and fathers who already doubt themselves as parents become even more guilt-ridden, depressed, and eventually even angry at each other. Some of the families that consult me have already visited other counselors or therapists, and if the parents didn't have enough problems before meeting with these professionals, they had more than enough afterward. This is because many well-meaning counselors and other mental health professionals are convinced that the cause of a child's bad behavior is bad parenting. I couldn't disagree more! Let's look at what goes on in most of the offices where these troubled families seek help.     When the youngster is interviewed, he is on the defensive in that he is being asked to account for his behavior. To exonerate himself and possibly to avoid an impending penalty, he deploys a variety of tactics. Besides minimizing the seriousness of what he has done or denying entirely that he has done anything wrong, he cases out the interviewer in order to figure out what that person wants to hear. There may indeed be problems in the family that the counselor identifies as having caused delinquent behavior. Aware that this is the counselor's perception, the child complains that the rancor among family members drove him to act up. Overlooked is the possibility that the family ties have been weakened by the youngster's unrelenting belligerence, sneakiness, and untruthfulness.     The conventional wisdom that parents are to blame for their offspring's delinquency lives on. It represents a central premise of most writings about juvenile crime. A 1994 Department of Justice report states, "Poor parenting behavior, manifested in failure to communicate with and monitor children [is] related to both delinquency and drug use." Which is cause and which is effect? Certainly some parents are negligent about supervising their children and spend precious little time talking with them. By no means, however, do all of their offspring become criminals. Now consider how the antisocial child functions. Having a lot to hide, he rebuffs any attempt by a parent to communicate with him. As one youngster declared, "I communicate to the point that it makes me happy. I don't ask my mom and dad where they go; why should they ask me where I go?" Thus a communication problem exists, one that is established and perpetuated by an increasingly secretive child. As far as the monitoring goes, the parents would have to hire a full-time private investigator to track their offspring to know where they were a great deal of the time.     Most youngsters know that they can gain a sympathetic ear by complaining of mistreatment at home. One boy asserted that his parents were so restrictive that they would not trust him to do anything on his own. He portrayed his mother and father as oppressive to the point of being smothering. The focus then shifted from his misconduct to the alleged overprotectiveness of his parents. What the youngster did not disclose was that at one time his parents did trust him, indeed still really wanted to trust him again. Not mentioned was the critical fact that his mother's and father's distrust developed in response to repeated incidents of his sneaking out of the house late at night, skipping school, and hanging around older youths who were getting into trouble.     In another case, a youngster told a counselor that he was a victim of child abuse. He described in unsparing detail how his mother lost control of herself, pushed him against the wall, and started knocking him around. His mother's behavior then became the focus of attention during the session rather than what he did to provoke her reaction. As it turned out, this mother had demonstrated remarkable self-control until that incident. For months, her son ignored household rules, failed to come home on time, and called her names when she tried to talk to him. Finally she became completely unnerved at two in the morning when he awakened her by wandering in drunk, yelling, and cursing.     In both situations, the youngsters felt exonerated because of the counselors' sympathetic reaction, and the parents were no closer to a solution; indeed, they felt even more distraught than before they sought professional help.     There are also those situations in which no specific conduct by the parent is singled out for censure. Instead, the counselor develops his own theory of family dynamics that he uses to explain and thereby inadvertently excuse the child's misbehavior. In one such case, parents of two adopted boys were told by a psychiatrist that it must be their unconscious resentment at not being able to have children of their own that played a role in one of the youngsters becoming incorrigible. Ignored was the fact that the other child, also adopted, was trustworthy, an honor student, and a delight to be around. Also ignored was the effort these conscientious parents had put forth to help the delinquent--only to be rebuffed at every turn. The erroneous assumption made in each of these instances, and in many others that I could cite, was that the parents were at fault.     In some of the cases I've evaluated, adversities not of the child's making do exist: divorce, alcoholism, poverty, neglect. It isn't surprising that policymakers and members of the helping professions have long regarded the juvenile delinquent as "the understandable product of his social environment." (A former U.S. attorney general asserted, "The clear connection between poverty and the harvest of crime is manifest.") Understandably, upon identifying negative environmental factors, many clinicians, educators, and court personnel regard delinquency as a normal or adaptive way for the child to cope. Professionals may believe that delinquent behavior represents only a neglected child's attempt to compensate for attention that he did not receive in other ways. Or they may reason that a child naturally turns to drugs when he is exposed repeatedly to his parents' drinking and pill taking to alleviate their own anxiety or depression.     It makes good theory perhaps to say that the child's personality unfolds in response to the people and events around him. In my experience, the cause-effect connection is not so simple. Of course, environment can affect behavior, but the longer I have been involved in research and clinical practice, the more I have been compelled to recognize an even more important fact: The environment from which a person comes is less crucial than the choice the individual makes as he responds to that environment.     Let's talk about the "latchkey child" who does not have anyone at home to supervise him after school. In one such case, a mother held two jobs to make ends meet. Her two boys did not see her until late in the evening. Because they had little direct parental supervision, it was not surprising to a social worker that one of the boys drifted out of the neighborhood, engaged in shoplifting, vandalized property, and finally was arrested as he was leaving a store concealing stolen merchandise. But before drawing any conclusions, let's examine the entire picture. This conscientious mother had made arrangements for the boys to go to a neighbor's home each day after school. There they were to do their homework, then play in the neighborhood. The mother would call each afternoon to talk to both boys. If the boys wanted to do anything out of the ordinary, they were to call her at work for permission. One of the boys never posed a problem. The other regarded the freedom inherent in the situation as license to do whatever he pleased. So here was a situation of two boys who grew up with the same mother, in the same home, in the same neighborhood, and who had the same opportunities and temptations. But each chose to react to his environment in a different manner.     One might argue that these children were not truly neglected, that others are cast adrift without any supervision. Let us consider such a case. When a social worker finally visited the dilapidated inner-city residence of two elementary school boys, she found no adults present in the squalid apartment. The only food in the refrigerator was a dry, hardened piece of chocolate cake. The boys were removed from this environment and placed together with an affluent foster family where the parents not only nurtured them as though they were their own sons but also provided superb opportunities for a first-rate education and cultural enrichment. Now the boys are adults--one is practicing law, the other is in the penitentiary convicted of a series of armed robberies. As I investigated the background of the latter, I discovered that he had received preferential treatment from his foster parents, in that more attention and money had been expended on him in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to help him change his increasingly antisocial patterns. The responsible brother required no extraordinary measures to motivate him to obtain an education and establish himself in a career. Here was a situation in which two brothers experienced the same severe deprivation, but responded in a radically different manner to subsequent opportunities.     In another case, a counselor assumed that a child turned to drugs because the parents had provided poor role models by drinking and using tranquilizers. It is difficult to dispute the desirability of a parent's integrity, perseverance, compassion, and other positive qualities. And yet every reader of this book probably knows of a family where the parents have been loving and responsible, but in which one of the offspring rejects those good role models to follow a path totally different from his siblings (who do pattern themselves after the parents). Conversely, I have known parents who are poor role models but whose child, instead of identifying with them, identifies with other people in his environment whom he admires. In one family, the father was in jail and two of the sons had been incarcerated. The mother was struggling to maintain her own emotional and financial stability. The youngest child in the family, when asked why she did not fashion her behavior after the antisocial role models prevalent both in her family and in the neighborhood, responded in three words: "I wasn't interested." She had observed the world around her and concluded that she would be like people who were doing something constructive with their lives. Had she ended up in a life of crime, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals would have found it understandable, perhaps even excusable, because of the adverse environment in which she grew up and the terrible hardships that she had faced. Instead, she chose to turn her back on the drugs, the crime, and the poor examples within her own family, and to live responsibly.     The point I am emphasizing is that children make choices . Although they do not choose the environment in which they are raised, they do choose how to deal with it. Does this mean that I believe that what parents do has no impact on their children? Not at all! Most of us who are parents try to be good role models. It is important that we endeavor to practice what we preach. Usually our children internalize the values we endeavor to instill in them. But this happens by choice, not by passive absorption.     That children make choices might seem self-evident. But how often this simple fact is overlooked when they are in serious difficulty and people are casting around for explanations. There are children who make a series of choices not to live within legal, moral, or social bounds; they have contempt for rules and ignore others' expectations. What other youngsters thrive on, they find insufferably boring. In an interview, one such girl told me that the kids who attend classes and don't use drugs are "missing out." For her, and others like her, life is most worth living when they are doing that which is forbidden.     The human mind desires to make sense of things. After the fact, mental health professionals are skilled at providing explanations. There is the gag that if you come early to your appointment with your therapist, you are anxious. If you come late, you are resistant. And if you come on time, you are compulsive. There are ready explanations for everything. But such explanations often are more clever than they are correct. And so it is with explaining delinquent behavior. We keep coming back to theories that have been accepted for decades. We say that it is the parents who are at fault. Or society at large that shuts children out of the mainstream, causing them to fail so that they commit crimes to achieve recognition. Or we claim that specific outside forces corrupt them, such as their peers, television, or the movies. But these theories explain little about origins or motives of antisocial behavior. Worse still, they are misleading, even dangerous, because everyone and everything becomes the culprit, except the actual perpetrator of the crime .     The much-cited role of peer pressure in criminal behavior is a prime example of the fallacious cause-effect reasoning that continues to be prevalent. Yes, peer pressure exists; it is an important aspect of life nearly from womb to tomb. And it is true that most children want to belong to a group. The pure, unvarnished truth is that people choose the company they keep. Children want to belong, but they choose the groups to which they want to belong. One father despairingly said to me that if his son saw two groups of kids, one that was talking about sports, rock music, and school and another that was speaking in profanities about teachers, discussing drug purchases and what girl was an easy mark, his son would invariably choose to be with the second group. In short, children do not get pressured haplessly into embarking on a life of crime. They make deliberate choices to do so!     Violence in the media has long been regarded as a causal factor in criminality, especially juvenile crime. I have never known of anyone who turned into a criminal because of what he watched. The impetus to commit crimes resides not on the screen, but in the mind of the viewer. Most people who watch violence, whether it is prizefights or graphic homicides depicted in dramatic programming, do not act out what they see. If a child who is already criminally inclined watches a crime enacted in detail, he may imitate it. However, for every boy or girl who sees an act of violence and then commits a "copycat crime," there are millions of other viewers who would regard the same program simply as entertainment and give it no further thought.     At this point, the reader may believe that I am letting parents and society off the hook too easily. He may further conclude that while crime prevention is a desirable objective, I have written off societal efforts to achieve it. On the contrary. If I thought that society (parents especially) could do nothing preventive in this regard, there would be no reason to write this book.     I don't contend that a child's environment is completely irrelevant to his engaging in criminal conduct. There are certainly external conditions that either can inhibit or facilitate a person's inclination to break the law. If drugs are not available, a child will not become a drug addict. If stores fail to provide surveillance and do not press charges when a person shoplifts, more shoplifting will occur than if strict deterrent measures are taken. If parents ignore irresponsible behavior by their child, it is likely to persist. Yes, there are things that can be done. But, don't forget, it is the child who ultimately makes the choices.     A special word needs to be said about guns. The Department of Justice reported that during a thirteen-year period (1983-1996), "Gun homicides by juveniles have nearly tripled." No one could reasonably dispute that violent crime increases when guns are easy to obtain. In an environment where youths can easily lay their hands on a firearm, however, most will not use them even if they feel they must carry them for self-protection from predators. In any case, it is the individual who chooses to obtain the gun.     This is an era in which personal responsibility is increasingly emphasized. In psychology and psychiatry, there has been a gradual trend away from relying on deterministic (psychoanalytic) concepts of human behavior and on remedial measures based on those concepts. Yet while currently much is said about holding people accountable for their behavior, whenever one reads about antisocial conduct, the inclination still is to place the locus of responsibility outside the individual. My objective in clinical work has been to help the antisocial individual change the way he thinks so that he will change the way he behaves. But in working with parents and children, I recognize that there are things parents can do before they reach that point of desperation at which they call upon outsiders such as police, courts, or therapists.     In no sense do I move away from my findings that irresponsible and criminal behavior are the results of choice. I do not blame parents for "producing" criminals because they may be deficient as parents. But I do recognize that there are errors parents make that could be avoided as they try to help their children become responsible citizens, errors that may in fact reinforce the behavior they wish to inhibit. I shall discuss these later.     My purpose in writing this book is to help parents recognize the forerunners of what could become an established pattern of antisocial conduct in their children. More specifically, I will identify and describe thinking patterns of children and their parents that underlie or facilitate antisocial behavior. Recognizing that parents cannot control many of the choices their children make, I shall recommend ways that they can foster a habit in their youngsters of making responsible choices.     I must make clear that I do not intend to label young children as criminals. Rather, just as we strive to identify early in life many types of problems (physical handicaps, learning disabilities, emotional problems), so too we ought to strive to identify and help children who are at risk of injuring others and causing untold misery both for themselves and others because of an undeveloped sense of responsibility. Copyright © 1989, 1998 Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.