Medical Concerns - The Case of Jared

One of the most common varieties of terrorist parenting is that in which some medical event or condition has affected the child, usually at an early age. Ear drainage problems, bone malformations, growth difficulties, murmurs, or more severe problems like heart disturbances requiring surgery will produce in parents a protective response that can be taken too far or too long. A pattern of attention and concern is developed which then becomes a habit which continues to operate even when the child's needs do not require it. When the child's physical and emotional needs are satisfied, there needs to be room for the child to provide his or her own coping mechanisms to develop personal habits of resilience to deal with a wide variety of problems which will affect the child in the present and future. When the parent is too solicitous, the child may be deprived of the experience of having to cope with his own situation, and expect others to solve all his problems in the future. When special attention is not available, as inevitably will happen, the child raised on too much care will be upset and will likely resent the change in circumstances. Terrorist behavior will tend to occur. To prevent this state of affairs, parents must provide a balanced amount of protection to medically affected children, being careful not to provide more than the necessary help to children.


Jared was 6 years old and in first grade. He was the youngest of three children, but the first with a physical problem that was out of the ordinary. Jared had been born with malformations in his leg structure such that it was difficult for him to walk. Jared's problems required several rounds of surgery and long and complicated aftercare.

In addition to Jared's medical problems, his parents had other difficulties. Both parents had to work in order to pay for Jared's medical bills and to otherwise support themselves and their other children. Jared's paternal grandparents helped out frequently with child care for Jared during his parents' working hours and with before and after school care of the other children.

Assessment & Intervention

Unfortunately, though the grandparents provided great financial relief in this way, they became extremely overprotective of Jared, causing resentment in the other children and conflict between Jared's parents. Jared's father was caught in a crossfire between his parents, who began to see themselves as the experts in the care of Jared, and his wife, who was feeling left out.

The problem was further compounded by individuals and institutions outside the family system. The family doctor did believe that Jared was becoming spoiled and did alert the parents to his views. However, Jared's kindergarten teacher also felt sorry for him and aligned herself with the grandparents against the parents. The grandparents had most of the interaction with the teacher since they were available during the day. Jared got special treatment in school with reduced expectations in tasks assigned to the students, as well as teacher and peer "help" whenever he showed distress.

The situation with Jared began to change when Jared entered first grade. Jared's first grade teacher was a no-nonsense type who expected much of all children, regardless of special circumstances. This teacher had a physically handicapped child herself and gave him little special attention. When Jared began to protest against this teacher's demands, the teacher called the parents to arrange a parent-teacher conference to assess what might be the cause of the problem. Under questioning, the parents revealed the conflicts at home and among the various parties outside the home. The teacher recommended a "collaborative team intervention" at school with all relevant parties present to be directed by me, the ecosystems consultant for the school.

All parties did not attend the meeting that was held a week later. Because of the father's and grandparents' protectiveness, Jared and his siblings were not brought to the meeting. The parents and grandparents were there. The family doctor declined to come. The school provided many participants: Jared's teacher, his siblings' teachers, the kindergarten teacher from the previous year, the school social worker, the special education teacher, and the principal of the school.

I presented my usual material on protection and control, ability and motivation, etc., and led a discussion among the parties. There was much emotion and disagreement. There was a general agreement, however, through an examination of many examples, that Jared could do more than he had been required to do in kindergarten and at home, and that he was not progressing academically and socially as well as he might. The grandparents still thought that pushing him to achieve further would be cruel for such a handicapped child. It was decided by the collaborative group that Jared would be expected to work harder at school and get less special treatment at home. The grandparents were obviously not happy and left the meeting early under pretext of having to be elsewhere.


Jared did respond to his teacher's and parents' elevated expectations. He began to be more cooperative at home and his siblings began to include him. At school, he did show an ability to compete intellectually as an equal, and he began to make more friends. His parents did have to use the bed procedure several times, once as long as three hours, to get their point across. Jared's parents went for two sessions of marital counseling to work out their conflicts over how to deal with the paternal grandparents. They decided mutually to take a stand. They adjusted their work hours to enable them to do all the normal before and after school care for the children. The grandparents were told that their previous help had been appreciated, but that they, the parents, had to make their own best decisions regarding Jared. The grandparents reacted resentfully, at first, by reducing contact with Jared's family, but eventually began to warm up. The school principal focused a segment of future in-service training on the problem of overprotection of children.


Medical problems are certainly cause for parental and general system concern. Failing to be nurturing and responsive to children's special needs is cruel. But children with these problems still need to become strong mentally and motivationally. Doing too much for these children is also a disservice and can have even worse and long-lasting effects in the form of terrorist behavior designed to force the system to continue to overprovide.

More case studies:

Greg | Melanie | Jared | Samantha | Jeremy | Marie | Linda | Michael | Jonathan

For appointments and scheduled consultations, please contact Dr. J. Brien O'Callaghan at or write to him at J. Brien O'Callaghan, Ph.D., 246 Federal Road, C-32, Brookfield, CT 06804