Dear New Shrink,

My little brother is, and has been, a little monster. While growing up he was constantly acting out and causing problems for the family. But now, he’s in real trouble. He has picked the worst friends and he has gotten himself arrested for not only DUI, but also felony possession of drugs. He could go to prison. I guess I should clarify that he is my little brother. I am seven years older but he is not so little anymore. He is over 6 feet tall and he turned 18 earlier this year. My family is so upset and none of us understand because we are a close, loving family and none of us have ever used drugs or been in trouble. We rarely drink alcohol; only to celebrate special occasions. There was no abuse, physically, verbally or emotionally, ever.

When my brother starting acting up in his teenage years, my parents took him to a psychologist for testing. He was not ADD; he has a pretty high IQ and no apparent learning disabilities. The psychologist did say that he seemed detached and to be lacking in empathy and we agreed that he wasn’t quick to bond as a child.

My mother is blaming herself because she says she was not a good mom when my brother was first born. But we say that it’s not her fault because she had bad post-partum depression. Once she was better, she did everything she could for him and all of us.

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?


Scared for my little brother

Dear Scared,

I am so sorry to hear of your family problems or actually, pain. This is a very painful situation and it is also a very serious one.

There are so many possibilities in terms of what may have caused this. Your brother may have some neurologic abnormalities but I am going to assume and hope that the psychologist your brother saw was a neuropsychologist, specializing in testing of this nature.

There is also the possibility that something traumatic happened to him that you do not know about. One out of six boys are sexually molested and it is so shameful for most that few ever come to their families or friends to ask for help.

The thing that grabs my attention is that he was not quick to bond as a child and that the psychologist found him to be detached and lacking in empathy. There are diagnoses for these behaviors or traits and combined with his recent behavior, some would say that he might have Conduct Disorder, a precursor to becoming a sociopath. This is very scary, to say the least. But what jumps out at me, and I think is worthy of serious consideration, goes back to your brother’s early years when he was first born and your mother was seriously depressed. This definitely is not a matter of your mother being at fault or an indication of her being a bad mother. She should definitely forgive herself and get over taking the blame.

However, a lack of early bonding and attachment could be the culprit here. A lack of attachment, a disturbed attachment or the loss of an attachment has major consequences. The exception to this is if we are fortunate enough to have someone to help us process our grief as soon as possible.

Obviously, infants don’t know, i.e., are not cognizant of what they are experiencing and cannot process it but they do feel it and remember it in their bodies and hearts. A lack of attachment can mean that they never learn to trust attachments and do not form bonds easily. They may bond with other “detached” folks and often use drugs to fill the void. This is not real or healthy attachment; it is only a false sense of family and a way to avoid the emptiness.

The good news is that scientific research regarding attachment has shown that it can literally be turned around with good psychotherapy. We now know if there is a good relationship with the therapist, your brother could actually form an attachment with the therapist and that this experience would be generalized to others, ending with a newfound ability to trust and form attachments. There is also neurobiological research that shows that the brain actually changes when attachments change. It is all contingent on staying in therapy and having a therapist that is empathic and attuned; one that you can actually form a healthy attachment with. If you can get your brother into this type of treatment, his entire life can change.

If you need more information on attachment, please do not hesitate to contact me. Good Luck!

Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and marriage/family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Send your questions and responses to Got something on your mind? Let us help you with your life matters.

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