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Why we like to blame parents (mostly moms) for whatever is ailing their kids

Many, many years ago, when I was living in another state and my journalism diploma was newly framed, I was sent by a small newspaper to write a feature article about a program for autistic mothers and their children.
While I was doing some backg

Many, many years ago, when I was living in another state and my journalism diploma was newly framed, I was sent by a small newspaper to write a feature article about a program for autistic mothers and their children.

While I was doing some background research on autism (a condition I’d never heard of before), I learned what psychiatrists believed at the time to be its primary cause: emotionally frigid mothers.

I still remember my utter confusion after I had spent five minutes with the moms and their kids in that program. All the mothers were loving and totally attentive toward their children.

How could the psychiatrists call these parents “refrigerator moms”? (And, yes, that was the term they actually used.)

Dr. Justine Larson
Dr. Justine Larson

Not a new blame game
Of course, as Washington, D.C., child psychiatrist (and young mom) Dr. Justine Larson points out in a recent guest blog for Scientific American, blaming moms for their children’s medical conditions is nothing new. “Historically, parents have tended to be blamed even by medical professionals when there is a set of symptoms not fully understood by science,” she notes.

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The practice of scapegoating parents has been particularly true when the child has a condition with “mysterious” neurological symptoms. Writes Larson:

According to [the influential American psychiatrist Theodore] Lidz in the 1960s, the “schizophrenogenic mother” provided a “profoundly distorted or distorted milieu” in her family, resulting in her child’s development of schizophrenia. Another “proud” moment in the history of psychiatry was the development of the notion of the “refrigerator mother” in the 1950s and ‘60s. Mothers of autistic children were said to have “defrosted just enough to have a child.”
Micheal Yudell, an assistant professor at Drexel University, is one of several psychiatrists who have commented on the shifting nature of whom we “blame” for particular illnesses like autism, depending on the current understanding of the pathophysiology (i.e., how the disease works in the body) of the disease. The child guidance field has similarly reflected a tendency to blame mothers for children’s misbehavior. In her book Child Guidance and the Democratization of Mother-Blaming, Kathleen Jones argues that this tendency to blame individual parents allowed policy-makers to skirt the importance of socio-cultural change to reduce juvenile delinquency.

As Larson explains, we are most likely to point accusingly at parents when we don’t know what causes a neurological condition like, say, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder or depression.  Even Tourette’s syndrome was once blamed on “cold, distant” parents, as the Oscar-winning movie “The King’s Speech” not-so-subtly illustrates.

“Such ambiguity,” says Larson, “leaves a lot of room for mommy blame.”

Parents not totally off the hook
Of course, says Larson, that doesn’t mean that bad parenting has no impact on a child’s behavior:

The tendency to resist blaming parents is … complicated by the fact that, at times, parents do make things worse. It doesn’t take 9 years of medical training to know there’s a problem when a mother is yanking her kid around, smacking him at the slightest snivel. Many children have experiences like this, and lead successful, wonderful lives. But take an already sensitive child, or a child who can’t express himself well with words, or a child that doesn’t have other things he feels good at, and you’ve got a kid that’s going to be smacking his neighbor in math class.

But that’s a much different issue than parents causing a brain disorder such as schizophrenia or autism.

More empathy, less judging
Larson opens her blog essay with a personal story of how medical personnel in an emergency room made her feel at fault for her three-week-old son’s scary bout with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common virus that’s a major cause of respiratory distress in infants.

One of the doctors implied that she was to blame because she had a cold herself.

Lurk in almost any online parenting chat room and you’ll quickly realize that parents (particularly moms) are being made to feel guilty — often by other parents! — about every illness, every behavioral problem, every developmental delay, no matter how minor or inconsequential.

It’s time we stop being so judgmental about those parents with an 8-year-old who can’t sit still, a 12-year-old who can’t stop washing her hands, or a 15-year-old who’s clinically depressed. So much of what we attribute to good parenting skills is really the luck of the genetic draw.

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What we need to be doing instead is providing the resources to help parents — and their children — cope with chronic neurological illnesses and conditions.  We should also be spending more, not less, on the search for the underlying neurobiological causes of these conditions and, of course, for effective treatments.

Larson said her experience during that visit with her son to the emergency room changed the way she looks at parents in her psychiatric practice. She’s honest enough to admit, however, that she continues “to struggle to balance a humility about what we don’t know with a confidence in what we do know.”

“I struggle with keeping the tendency to blame parents in check while at the same time calling parents to task about their parenting when necessary,” she writes. “I struggle with identifying what can be changed at the level of an individual and what requires change at the systems level. I struggle to continue to be willing to dig into these systems problems so that I don’t just go home helpless and hopeless about what to do for kids.”

We’ve come a long way from the days of “refrigerator moms,” but we have a long way yet to go.

You can read Larson’s essay here.