Sunday, August 18, 2013

When a Domestic Abuser Kills, No One Should Be Surprised

On Friday morning, police were called to a south Denver neighborhood because neighbors heard shots fired. When they arrived on the scene, they found a man armed with at least one gun and several homemade bombs. He told the police to "bring it on," and then shot one of the bombs, detonating it. The police quickly shot the man in the shoulder, subduing him. He is now in critical condition in a local hospital, facing murder and bomb charges.

He is facing murder charges because, prior to the police arriving, he shot and killed a neighbor and shot and wounded his wife.

It turns out he had a long history of domestic violence, including hitting his wife with the butt of his gun and threatening to kill her multiple times. He also hit their dog, and he had previously been arrested for multiple felonies and misdemeanors.

Court documents revealed a pattern of anger problems, impulsivity, and physical violence in the man. When a gun is added to the mix, it seems almost inevitable that the situation will eventually turn deadly (NOTE: this is not meant to spark a gun control debate--there are millions of responsible gun owners in the U.S. This man is not one of them).

According to the US Department of Justice, approximately 1 in 250 women will experience intimate partner violence sometime in their lifetime. That statistic is shocking. Domestic violence is very common, and when a woman is murdered, she knows her murderer about 70% of the time.

This is a sad story, but it is not surprising. This Denver man, left unchecked, was bound to escalate his violence at some point. Unfortunately, that happened on Friday morning.

Here is a link to video where Cheryl Preheim interviews me about the situation on 9 News:

Click here to watch the video if you are attempting to view it on a non-Flash enabled device.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, August 16, 2013

I'm Sorry: The Four Key Ingredients To A Successful Apology

The more you can look like this puppy,
the better your apology will be.
I am getting closer to finishing my book, How To Raise Boys, and every now and then, I run across information that is too good not to share.

Yesterday, I found a fascinating article published in 2012 in the journal Peace Psychology. A team of researchers examined the types of apologies that work and compared them to apologies that are less successful. Obviously, when you have messed up, you have little control over how the aggrieved person is going to react when you say you are sorry. But, there are four steps you can use to maximize the potential that the person will accept your apology. The researchers discovered these techniques are most important for really big mistakes, although they probably work for minor inconveniences, too.

Here is what you need to do:

1. Show genuine emotion during the apology. You can do this through your behaviors (e.g. crying, looking sad, adopting a conciliatory posture, etc.). Or, you can do this through your words (e.g. "I am really sad that I made you so upset the other day"). If you do not convey your emotion, the words you say will come across as less genuine and less believable.

2. Admit fault. Say, "It was my fault." Or, "I messed up." Or, "I was wrong." By doing this, you are letting the person know you are taking responsibility for your actions.

3. Actually say, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." The person to whom you are apologizing needs to know you are apologizing. Thus, you need to explicitly say so.

4. Try to explain your behavior. This one is tricky. You don't want to come up with excuses or rationalizations. That will make it sound like you are not taking responsibility for what you have done. But, it can be helpful to give some context to your behavior so the person has a better understanding of why you did what you did. For example, you might say something like, "I was really frustrated because I didn't sleep well, and the traffic was terrible. When I finally got to the party, I was in a terrible mood. Then I snapped at you, which you didn't deserve. I wasn't actually mad at you--I was reacting to all of the crappy stuff that happened earlier in the day."

Keep in mind, Step 4 requires you to think reflectively about your behavior and why you acted the way you did. If you don't put any thought into it prior to your apology, this step will not go well.

Another thing to keep in mind: you need to genuinely feel remorse for what you've done for these steps to work. If you don't feel sorry, your apology will probably reflect your less-than-apologetic attitude.

I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18(2), 109-130.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Treatment For PTSD: What Hannah Anderson Might Do To Overcome Her Kidnapping

There is no question that Hannah Anderson went through a traumatic ordeal. The teen was abducted, and she was in close range of her captor when he was shot and killed by authorities. She was then reunited with her father, only to learn that her mother and brother had been killed.

She is likely to be struggling with symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, which can include anxiety, depression, anger, shame, nightmares, and hypervigilance to her surroundings. Most times, when a person has Acute Stress Disorder after a trauma, the symptoms go away on their own. But, when the trauma is severe enough, the symptoms remain. Sometimes they even get worse. It can eventually turn into Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Although Ms. Anderson's ordeal was indeed traumatic, it started and ended relatively quickly. That is a good sign for future recovery--the longer the trauma lasts, the harder it can be to work past it.

Ideally, Ms. Anderson will start meeting with a therapist soon. There is a particular type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that research has shown to be highly effective with individuals with PTSD and acute stress. It is referred to as Exposure Therapy. Essentially, the therapist works with the client to repeatedly "expose" her to her traumatic event, typically by having her describe it in detail. The therapist then helps the client quell her anxiety while she is discussing the trauma. Over time, the anxiety from the event diminishes and the trauma loses much of its destructive power over the individual. And, the sooner this type of therapy is initiated, the better the potential outcome.

My hope is that Ms. Anderson and her father both engage in psychotherapy soon in order to begin the healing process.

Here is a 9 News video where I discuss this issue with Kyle Clark:

Click here to watch the video if you are viewing this on a non-Flash enabled device.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sex, Lies, and Cellphone Video: 43 Year-Old Man Allegedly Murders Two Teenagers in Adams County

Will Ripley interviewed me as part of his story that aired last night on 9 News.
9 News investigative reporter Will Ripley reported yesterday on a double homicide in Adams County. According to police affidavits, neighborhood teenagers would frequently spend time at 43 year-old Billy Otto's house, where he would offer them alcohol and gas money. One evening, Mr. Otto solicited one of the boys for oral sex, and a friend caught the solicitation on his cell phone.

Those two boys then decided to try to get some money from Mr. Otto. They allegedly told the man they needed $10,000 apiece in order to keep from going to the police with their incriminating video. At that point, Mr. Otto allegedly grabbed a gun from his bedroom, shot and killed the two teens, drove their bodies to rural Colorado, and buried them on his family's property.

The two teenage boys made a horrible decision, and what there were attempting to do was illegal. Nevertheless, they did not deserve to die for their mistake. My heart goes out to their family and friends, who are likely struggling to make sense of the gruesome details of their deaths.

What is truly heartbreaking is that those boys should never have been put in that position in the first place. According to Will Ripley's report, neighborhood teens all knew that Mr. Otto's house was a place to hang out and drink alcohol. Additionally, a number of adults in the neighborhood also knew this was happening.

When a 43 year-old man is willingly spending time with teenagers and buying them alcohol, there is something wrong. A normal man in his 40s does not want to be friends with young kids. It is quite possible Mr. Otto was emotionally immature and sexually attracted to the kids he was inviting over to his house. His behavior is similar to the behavior of sex offenders who "groom" their victims by being nice to them and slowly crossing inappropriate boundaries one step at a time. Although the teens who were hanging out with Mr. Otto didn't realize it, they were putting themselves in an extremely dangerous situation. They were dealing with a man who was likely impulsive, immature, and unpredictable.

Here is a link to Will Ripley's story. He interviewed me as part of his investigation into the matter:

Click here to watch the video if you are reading this on a non-Flash enabled device.

Although the majority of adults who hang out with teenagers, invite them into their houses, and supply them with alcohol are not going to kill anyone, it is still extremely important to understand how dangerous those individuals might be. At best, they are emotionally immature. At worst, they are impulsive and flirting with the idea of crossing major boundaries with their teenaged "friends." As soon as parents or friends discover such a person is in their neighborhood, they should report the situation to the police. There is nothing cool about a grown man luring kids into his house with alcohol, and the authorities need to deal with that person immediately.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What Happens When A Therapist Breaks A Client's Confidentiality? My 9 News Interview On This Topic

Last year, just before the Presidential election, 20 year-old Mitchell Kusick had an important conversation with his therapist. He was having homicidal thoughts, and he told his therapist about them so that he could get the help he needed. He did exactly what he was supposed to do.

His therapist, Dr. Corey Candelaria, did what he was supposed to do, as well. He worked with Mr. Kusick. He placed him on a 72-hour mental health hold to get him into a hospital and to increase the likelihood that Mr. Kusick would not act on his thoughts. As part of his duty, Dr. Candelaria also notified the authorities of his client's homicidal thoughts.

The problem in this case was in the nature of Mr. Kusick's homicidal thinking. In addition to wanting to kill students at a high school and one of his friends, Mr. Kusick mentioned that he wanted to assassinate President Obama, who had been traveling to Colorado frequently just before the election.

It is a federal crime to threaten the President's life, and Mr. Kusick was interviewed by the Secret Service while he was still in the hospital. He was then sent to a federal correctional facility and charged with a crime.

Mr. Kusick accepted a plea deal yesterday, which includes time served and probation. He has also agreed to continue in therapy. It could have been worse for him--he was facing up to five years in federal prison. He will still have a felony on his record, however.

When a therapist breaks a client's confidentiality, it almost never ends in an arrest. It sometimes ends with the client getting angry with the therapist for violating his/her trust. It often ends with the client in a hospital against his/her will for a few days. But, it rarely ends in a felony conviction.

Psychologists take confidentiality very seriously. It is the foundation of the therapeutic relationship, and it is one of the main reasons why therapy works. Clients need to be able to trust that they can say anything to their therapists without having it revealed to anyone else. In the instances when a therapist is required to break confidentiality (danger to self, danger to others, grave disability, child abuse, and sometimes elder abuse/at-risk adult abuse), there is always the chance that the therapeutic relationship will be destroyed. It is still important to break confidentiality in these instances, but it is not always in the best interest of the client--the typical rule of thumb is that the need to protect a client ends as soon as there is some sort of serious public danger.

9 News Political Reporter Brandon Rittiman covered Mr. Kusick's story yesterday, and he interviewed me about confidentiality. Here is the video:

If you are attempting to watch this video on a non-Flash enabled device, click here to view it.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Simple Way For Parents To Help Their Kids: Cooperate!

Do you want to raise kids who turn into superheroes as adults?
As many of you know, I am (slowly) writing a book tentatively titled How To Raise Boys. The goal of this book is to give parents practical, concrete, and research-based advice on how to teach boys to get along with others and remain in control of their emotions.

In my research for this book, I ran across an interesting study from 2010. Two psychologists reviewed and statistically analyzed more than 50 studies on 'coparenting' and its effects on children. I am going to include this study in my book, and I thought I would give you a preview...

Coparenting is the psychological term for raising a child with another person. That person can be a spouse, but it does not have to be. Anyone who takes an active role in raising, caring for, and disciplining your child might be considered a coparent. The hallmarks of effective coparenting are cooperation and agreement. If the caretakers agree on parenting techniques and cooperate in raising the children, the thought is that those children will be better off.

On the other hand, problematic coparenting is marked by conflict between caretakers and triangulation. Triangulation is a concept where one caretaker and the child align against the other caretaker. Imagine a scenario where a dad tells his child not to pay attention to the mom's discipline because it was too harsh. Do you think that child is going to respect the mom's authority after that? And, do you think the mom might start to develop a little animosity toward the dad? That, in a nutshell, is triangulation.

This is the type of family situation that provides
good job security to future therapists

As you might imagine, the meta-analysis from 2010 concluded that positive coparenting has a healthy effect on children. Agreement and cooperation on parenting techniques leads to fewer problematic behaviors in children. They are less aggressive and less defiant.

Positive coparenting also leads to more prosocial behaviors. Children will have more friends, and their relationships will be healthier.

Interestingly, these positive coparenting effects are stronger for boys than they are for girls. Although both boys and girls are better off if their caretakers coparent in a healthy way, boys will benefit from it more than girls will. Conversely, boys will suffer more negative consequences than girls in situations where caretakers are not cooperating and are conflicting about parenting practices.

With this in mind, I can offer the following suggestions:

1. Talk with your coparent: Have a conversation about what is working with your kids and what needs to change. Make sure you come to some agreement on parenting styles. If you make any changes, make sure you both commit to work on them.

2. Have your coparent's back: When kids hear you say, "I agree with Mom on this. You are in big trouble, kiddo," they know they cannot manipulate their way out of a bad situation. They then transfer this non-manipulation to their peer relationships.

3. When you don't agree with your coparent, talk about it away from the kids: There are times when you will make a mistake. Or, your parenting partner will make a mistake. "No more television for the rest of the summer" may seem like a good disciplinary tactic in the heat of the moment, but you might quickly realize it is going to cause a lot of problems in the future and is not the best way to handle a bad situation with your child. By discussing this with your coparent out of the child's earshot, you can agree on a new course of action and then present it to your child in a cooperative manner. For example, you could say, "You know, son, when Dad told you 'no TV for the rest of the summer,' he was angry. He and I talked about it later and we both realized it was too harsh of a punishment. Instead, we think no television for the rest of the week is more appropriate."

4. If you can't agree with your coparent, some brief family counseling might be helpful: Raising your children is one of the most important things you will do. You and your parenting partner are trying your best to do it properly. But, if you both have strong ideas on what will work and those ideas are in conflict with one another, you might need an objective person to help you sort them out.

What other suggestions do you have for cooperative coparenting? Any cautionary tales?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Language Of Psychopaths

Ariel Castro, heading out of court after a hearing earlier this year.
In preparation for an interview on 9 News yesterday about the sentencing of Ariel Castro for more than 900 counts related to his abduction of three Cleveland women, I watched the full statement he gave at his sentencing hearing.

It seemed as though he truly believed what he was saying about himself, but his interpretation of reality appeared to be heavily skewed. He said he was not a monster and had no intention of kidnapping anyone. The fact that he ended up kidnapping three women and keeping them chained in his house, while physically and sexually assaulting them, did not matter to the defendant--he was a good person because he never intended to do those things.

He went on to talk about his addiction to pornography and masturbation. He talked about how he only hit his ex-wife when she deserved it. He never referred to the three women he held captive for more than a decade by name. He only referred to them as "the victims." At one point, he even complained about the stress of holding a full time job and then coming home to his "situation."

Mr. Castro showed very little emotion during his statement, and his lack of insight into himself and the situation was evident.

Without fully evaluating the defendant, I cannot offer a diagnosis of his condition. But, it is probably safe to assume, at the very least, he shares traits common among people who are psychopaths. Over the years and during his public court trials, he has shown narcissism, lack of empathy, an inability to relate to others, a warped sense of reality, and the shocking ability to treat people as a means to an end rather than as full human beings.

These traits, and his verbal statement, got me thinking about the type of language that psychopaths use. In February of 2013, researchers from Cornell University and the University of British Columbia analyzed the speech patterns of 14 psychopathic murders and 38 non-psychopathic murderers when they were talking about their crime. Keep in mind, all of the people they interviewed had been convicted of some type of homicide crime.

What the researchers found is interesting: Psychopaths used more language that indicated a cause-and-effect thinking style than the non-psychopaths. For example, a psychopath might day, "I hit her because she mouthed off to me," as opposed to, "She was mouthing off and then I hit her." Psychopaths also focused more of their crime speech on "material needs" like "food, drink, [and] money." They spent less time talking about social engagement, family, and religion. They also said "uh" and "um" more, and they tended to talk more in the past tense than the non-psychopaths.

These are words of cooperation. What would a
psychopath's word cloud look like?
This was obviously just one study with a limited number of participants. But, it helps to highlight what we already know about people with psychopathic tendencies: they tend to have problems relating to other people, they think in a rational manner, they feel justified in their actions, and they are more focused on their own material needs than they are on emotional and societal needs.

And that describes the content of Ariel Castro's court statement fairly well.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Hancock, J. T., Woodworth, M. T., & Porter, S. (2013). Hungry like the wolf: A word-pattern analysis of the language of psychopaths. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 18(1), 102-114.


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