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The Parent Trapped


By Katherine Ellison - February 11, 2011 - The New York Times

San Anselmo, Calif.

I WANT to believe I have little in common with Julie Schenecker, who the police say confessed to killing her two “mouthy” teenagers.

Ms. Schenecker, who was indicted on charges of first-degree murder on Thursday, lives in Tampa, and is married to an Army colonel. I live near San Francisco, and am married to a newspaper editor.

She, blond and tanned, drove her children, Calyx, 16, and Beau, 13, to soccer and track meets. I’m brunette and sun-deprived, and drag two sons to violin lessons and Hebrew school.

We most likely never would have been pals, even on Facebook, where, poignantly, Ms. Schenecker has 394 “friends.” And yet what haunts me even more than the terrible photos of her being led off by the police, her eyes rolled back like those of a spooked horse, is what we’ve shared: a frightening record of anger toward our children.

What strange evolutionary quirk makes adolescents evoke such powerful rage in their mothers? Alone, like Ms. Schenecker, night after night with my argumentative sons while my husband was working away from home, I’ve felt that fury rising from the soles of my feet, at the sight of a carefully made meal thoughtlessly dumped in the sink or, worse, a little brother scratched and bruised.

While my older son, who has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, is something more than the usual adolescent provocateur, let me be clear that not even in my wildest dreams have I ever imagined shooting him. Still, pushed to my limits, I’ve done things that I know full well have been dangerous and harmful — mostly yelling, but also, during a few explosive fights, pushing and slapping. And abundant research on family violence shows that I’m far from alone.

Uniquely awful as the killings of the Schenecker children were, the all too familiar themes in this story make it urgent that the hectic debate about their mother moves off the pages of social network sites and into our places of worship, doctors’ offices and city halls.

It chilled me to read that the police questioned Ms. Schenecker for slapping her daughter three months before the killings — behavior that I’ve unfortunately shared with millions of other American parents. In a 2007 study of 141 adolescents, published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, 85 percent reported that they’d been slapped or spanked. Moreover, the latest government records show that more than 121,000 cases of physical abuse against minors were reported in 2008.

Even as corporal punishment is declining in social acceptability, about 7 in 10 Americans agreed, in a 2004 survey, that children sometimes need “a good, hard spanking.” This came despite mountains of studies establishing that such tactics do children much more harm than good, increasing the risk of anxiety, depression and addiction. Moreover, it’s easy for spanking, slapping and swatting to escalate — sometimes even to the point of deadly violence.

My husband and I passionately oppose corporal punishment, which helps explain why my blunders alerted me that I needed help. I ended up devoting a year and thousands of dollars to getting such help, from therapists and honest friends.

I spent much of the year learning about A.D.H.D., a condition I soon realized that I shared with my then 12-year-old son. Among its classic symptoms are conflict-seeking and hot-headedness. Humbling as it was, I ultimately heeded friends and professionals who encouraged me to shed my fantasy of being the victim of a raging, impossible child, and own up to the ways I was contributing to our fights.

There were other therapies as well, including neurofeedback and medication for me and my son, financed in part by an ever-expanding equity loan. Today, while we still argue, we’re out of the danger zone, though I can’t stop worrying about how many other parents lack the rare advantages I’ve had to get us there.

The mad housewife is a reliable comic icon, her trials trivialized as boredom and cabin fever. It’s hard for most people to accept that mothers — even maybe their own mothers! — can be unloving, and sometimes unsafe. Which helps explain why killings like those ascribed to Ms. Schenecker, among some 200 American mothers who kill their children every year, always seem so surprising.

It’s easy to write these cases off as freak results of severe mental illness. But most of these women’s stories also include a lot of ordinary stress and social isolation, the fallout from divorce and the dispersal of extended families. Increasingly cut off from real-time conversations, mad housewives find solace in e-communities, where “life” is so much more soothing and predictable than dealing with teenagers. While news reports say Ms. Schenecker was seeking help from real-life counselors in the weeks before the killings, her Facebook page, with its pretty family photographs and homilies, is a portrait of polished denial.

Amid the debate about whether social networks are depriving us of healthier, non-virtual encounters, a University of Texas study last fall claimed that Facebook was not supplanting such interactions. Perhaps that’s true, but one thing I’m sure of, from my own lucky odyssey, is that all the poking and tagging in the world can’t compete with a pair of real-time eyes when it comes to noticing that someone needs more help than she’s getting.

Katherine Ellison is the author of “Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.”