“We are terrified our child will grow up to seriously hurt someone,” the US mum tells Mamamia. “We are afraid we will be demonised when this happens and everyone will ask, ‘But where were the parents?!’
“In America, most of us fear our children becoming school shooters. In England, parents are afraid their children will knife someone to death. The particular kind of violence we fear may be different, but we all fear our children will grow up to hurt someone despite our years of screaming for help.”
The support group that Quillan started on Facebook four years ago is called Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder. It has around 800 members, including “quite a few” from Australia.
Conduct disorder is the diagnosis that these children have been given, but Quillan doesn’t like the term, because she doesn’t think it gets across the seriousness of the condition. She sometimes uses the expression “potential psychopath”, although she agrees it may seem very harsh at first glance.
“We’ve certainly had a few people baulk at it,” she adds. “But make no mistake. Left untreated, CD can turn into psychopathy. And that is something we should never forget.”
Quillan says most parents in the group realised there was something different about their child between the ages of two and four. Some came to the realisation during babyhood.
In Quillan’s case, her son started physically hurting her when he was less than a year old. As he grew older, he was constantly harming other children. He wasn’t invited to parties, and parents would avoid them in the park. For years, she told family, friends and doctors that she thought there was something wrong with him, but no one believed her.
The Victorian Department of Health’s website describes conduct disorder as a set of problem behaviours seen in children and adolescents.
These include aggression towards people and animals, law-breaking behaviour such as theft and arson, lying, lack of empathy, and refusal to obey parents or other authority figures.
According to the website, children with conduct disorder often start life as irritable and temperamental babies. The disorder is twice as common in boys as girls, and is usually diagnosed between the ages of 10 and 16. If left untreated, children with conduct disorder can grow up to have mental health problems, to develop an addiction to alcohol or drugs, or to live a “law-breaking lifestyle”.
Quillan says other signs parents notice in their kids include lack of remorse, impulsive behaviour (or “daredevil” activity), a need to win at all costs (including cheating) and manipulation of parents or siblings.
“But I would say one of the biggest markers would be that parenting strategies don’t work,” she adds. “‘Normal’ children will respond to marble jars, sticker charts, etc. Our kids don’t.”
Children with conduct disorder will often be kicked out of school after school.
“It can even start as early as daycare,” she says. “One summer our son was kicked out of every single summer camp he went to. He attended a different camp every week. Sometimes he was kicked out by Tuesday.”
Quillan says getting a diagnosis is often a long process.
“Most professionals are worried about ‘labelling’ these children, so they won’t diagnose them when they are young, when it could make the most difference.”
Parents have reported being punched in the face by their child, or having their child go after them with a hammer. It can be an “incredibly lonely” existence.
“There is no one you can talk to that understands,” Quillan explains. “You are fighting a war inside your house every single day, a war other people blame you for. You have to be on guard 24 hours a day because you never know what might happen, what your child might do this time. You never get a moment to relax in your own home. It’s exhausting.”
One thing that does help parents of children with conduct disorder: having the support of other parents in the same situation. That’s why it means so much to parents when they come across Quillan’s support group.
“I cannot tell you how many parents have posted about the tears streaming down their faces as they finally connect with a group of people who understand what they are going through and don’t judge them as parental failures.”
There is also another group for parents and professionals who want to come together to talk about conduct disorder, Coalition for Healing Conduct Disorder.
We quizzed psychopath expert, David Gillespie on how to tell if your boss is a psychopath. Here’s what he had to say.