The murders of 20 young children and seven adults in Newtown, Conn., by 20-year-old Adam Lanza Dec. 14 had a special bitter resonance for Lucy Pritzker, a mother from Scotch Plains.
From the time he was a toddler, her 12-year-old son Samuel (not his real name) manifested behavior “that was very disregulated and explosive to the point where he wasn’t safe to keep in our house,” she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview.
“If you said to him, ‘It is time to stop playing in your room and go to the park,’ he would go crazy and start throwing blocks across the room. He would say, ‘I am going to get a knife and kill you,’ so we made sure no knives were available.”
At one point, she said, she suspected that “either he kills himself or hurts somebody in our family so badly that he will have to live elsewhere.”
Although police have yet to determine a motive for Lanza’s rampage, which began with the murder of his mother in their Newtown home, the shootings have sparked a national debate about care for the mentally ill.
Within days of the shooting, an essay by author Liza Long titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” about her struggle to cope with her son’s mental illness, went viral.
The essay also sparked a backlash, among people who felt those with mental illness were being unfairly stereotyped as violent and worse.
Because “Sam is so healthy now and doing so well,” and because of her agony over the murders in Connecticut, Pritzker said, she feels compelled to speak about her own family’s experience and share her observations about other severely troubled and potentially violent children she believes can be helped.
Her experience has led Pritzker on a career path from school teacher and addiction counselor to an office in Westfield as a therapeutic and educational consultant (www.consultingforspecialneeds.com).
“If a kid is diagnosed at an early enough age it can make a huge difference” in preventing violent outbursts, she said.
Like Samuel, many once-violent children — far more boys than girls — begin showing signs of trouble as toddlers. “Samuel had so much energy and he was always on the go,” Pritzker said. “He couldn’t entertain himself and he couldn’t be away from me. He was always pushing the limits. At one point I realized, this is too hard. It shouldn’t be this hard. Something is wrong,” she said.
Pritzker and her husband struggled to find solutions to Samuel’s behavior.
“We went through hell to try to get him the help he needed,” she said. “We sought out the help of therapists, and everybody blamed us. They said it was a parenting problem. They said we were either too lenient or too hard on him.”
Later, however, “I came to realize it wasn’t our parenting that caused his behavior but that his behavior caused our parenting.”
The right environment
As they reach adolescence, young people like Samuel show signs of anti-social behavior, sometimes including fascination with weapons and a decline in their hygiene. “If you see a decline in their showering every day or not changing their clothes or not brushing their hair, it is a warning sign that something is going on,” she said.
In making diagnoses, Pritzker said, “we need to know why a kid isn’t connecting or following a teacher’s direction. We need to get to the root of what is going on. Once we understand not only where the challenges are but where the strengths are, I can say what type of environment a child needs.”
Quite often, families must confront the possibility that their child will need to be placed in a residential setting. What tends to work for many explosive children is an educational environment “that is less focused on production, on test and reports, on things these kids get in trouble with, and more on what they can contribute to discussions,” she said. “The stress of getting good grades is removed, but their success is still measured. They are made to feel they are valued as a person, that their community needs them.”
After years of fruitless searching, a consultant helped link the Pritzkers with a small boarding school in New Hampshire where their son is thriving. “Samuel is fantastic,” she boasted. “He is off all his medications, he is popular, and he is on the honor roll. The school focused on his strengths and gave him stability and structure that we couldn’t offer.”
In addition, her son is studying to become bar mitzva, under the guidance of a tutor and a rabbi who visit his school from Boston.
“The school is really his community, and even in the woods of New Hampshire, his love for Judaism has really grown.
“And honestly, I didn’t know if he would live to be 13,” she said.
But such institutions are small, rare, and expensive.
“If you can’t afford to send your child to schools whose tuitions start at $50,000 a year, it is a big problem,” Pritzker said. “Sometimes you might be able to find a state institution that might be helpful, but that is not usually going to be the case.
“But children who identify as ‘special education’ are entitled to a free education, and sometimes there are public funds to pay for at least part of a residential placement,” she said. “There may not be solutions available for a family that cannot afford to pay for them privately, and it breaks my heart to talk with a family who cannot afford to do what I know is going to be helpful.”
But, Pritzker added, “my advice is to never give up hope.”