Children Without a Conscience

In the previous article, “The Unbonded Child: Fury Unleashed”, a true story was told about a young teenage boy who became violent towards his parents. While we have all heard about the vicious crime of child abuse, its counterpart, parental abuse, is rarely discussed.

Parental abuse is when children, typically adolescents, continuously scream and swear at their parents and frequently tell lies about them to neighbors, teachers, and even the police. A popular ploy many angry children use today is to make false claims of child abuse when, in fact, it is they who have been abusive to their parents.

Obviously, there are many possible explanations for parental abuse. Sometimes angry kids are striking back at abusive parents, or have been taught violence by parents who themselves are aggressive. Some parents may covertly condone and encourage violent outbursts by their own weaknesses or fear of standing up to an angry child.

But there is still a whole group of children who have been reared by good, God-loving parents, who seem to do exactly the opposite of what their parents have taught them. These children will lie, steal and even hit their parents. Whereas other children in the family may be well-behaved, one child may inexplicably choose a different path.

These angry, defiant youngsters seem to have no conscience. They know right from wrong but consistently choose that which meets their own immediate desires. If others are hurt by their actions, it doesn’t matter. These children replaced the moral standards they have been taught with their own hedonistic desires.

The concept of “bonding” provides a workable theory to explain why some children might be continually verbally and physically assaultive to their parents.


The phenomenon of bonding is poignantly described in Magid and McKelvey’s book “High Risk: Children Without a Conscience” (1987, Bantam). In his book, Dr. Magid integrates research over the past fifty years and provides a fascinating insight into the dynamics underlying bonding and attachment.

Bonding begins when a child has a need. The need may be that of being hungry, needing a diaper change, or being lonely. A child communicates his need by crying and fussing and he shows anger and rage if his needs are not met according to his schedule. When a child’s need is lovingly met, usually by his mother, he experiences gratification and relief; more importantly, he develops a felt sense of being loved and cherished.

The first two years of life are the most important for a child’s future well-being; it is then when the foundation of his capacity and desire to love is established. Fortunately, for most children, the first two years after birth consist of an infinite number of loving moments during which they are caressed, talked to, and played with by at least one caring adult. The infant learns to recognize the sight, sound, smell, and taste of this very special person and he enjoys, indeed seeks, the comfort of being tenderly held by this person who makes him feel so special. How blessed is the child who has other adults, and even older siblings, inundating him with “warm fuzzies” of being physically and emotionally caressed.

Once a child is bonded and attached to a particular individual, that person’s opinions and desires become very important to him. For example, when an attentive and loving mother teaches certain beliefs and values, the bonded child eagerly listens and absorbs, for he is actively seeking to please this person whom he has learned to love so dearly.

The Unbonded Child

How is bonding disrupted and why would a child not bond to a parent? Why would a child become physically or emotionally abusive to someone who is trying to care for him?

The normal bonding process can be weakened or ruptured in a variety of ways. Thousands of children never experience the loving stimulation from a primary caregiver, but instead suffer a continuous state of physical and emotional deprivation. Some children are sexually or physically abused while others are neglected for hours and days at a time.

But for many unbonded children, lifelong emotional scarring occurs in more subtle ways. Perhaps the child was placed in an incubator shortly after birth for an extended period of time with little opportunity for tactile stimulation. Maybe the parents are themselves suffering from physical or emotional problems which forces them to focus on their own needs, at the expense of their child. Some children silently feel abandoned at critical developmental times such as when a parent dies, or leaves the home due to divorce.

Older adopted children are particularly at risk for becoming unbonded, and incapable of giving and receiving love. Too many adopted children have been stripped from their birth parents only to then be placed in a series of foster or adoptive homes where their stay is tenuous. Many of these emotionally damaged children unconsciously learn to push others away with their defiant behavior, rather than deal with the anticipated rejection they are convinced will occur.

Unbonded children are typically self destructive in their attempts to protect themselves from the piercing pain of being rejected. They engage in exactly the type of behavior which precipitates their ultimate fear, rejection.

Unbonded children have learned in infancy that they are helpless in their attempts to have their needs met. As they mature, their anger and rage never seem to be appeased but only to escalate as they frantically attempt to find a resolution to their physical and emotional state of discomfort. Depression and hopelessness often add fuel to their generalized rage which will eventually erupt upon those around them.

These precious children who have been extensively physically or emotionally abused or deprived of continuous, loving attention during the first two years of life are the ones most likely to fail to bond. They are angry and in pain and they are always trying to prevent further hurt by pushing away those who want to help the most.

The emotional mixture of rage and depression is the impetus for hurting others. Unbonded children can successfully insulate themselves from feelings of abandonment by striking out at others, but they pay a very high price. Insulated children have deprived themselves from being fully functioning human beings: they neither can give nor receive love. These are our “unbonded” children.

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Lawrence B. Lennon, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and Clinical Director of Lennon & Associates, PC. and The Family Bonding & Attachment Center. Copyright 1991, Revised 2000

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