Q “How can I reshape my son’s personality from a loud mouth to a normal kid? I hate the way he behaves… always loud and annoying?”
A few years ago, we saw two young men who presented what on the surface was a similar drug and alcohol-related problem.
The older one was 29-year-old and the younger was three years his junior.
Their parents were successful bankers who had curved an influential niche in middle-class society in Nairobi. They belonged to several leading clubs, drove modern cars and lived in the suburbs of Nairobi in what any glossy homes magazine would have on the front page.
The first son had problems with school authorities from as early as the parent could remember. He was by all accounts the most disruptive boy in class and much as the teachers did their best to have him sit in front of the class, he had no shortage of naughty things to say and do.
High school saw him change school five times, always for causing trouble.
He drank alcohol from the age of 14, was a heavy user of cannabis by 16 and in spite of being described as intelligent, he dropped out of school. He got a job as a clerk in a microfinance institution, where he manipulated the system and stole a large amount of money and travelled abroad. He was involved in many fights when drunk, stole cars and money from his parents and by the time we saw him, he was facing many assault charges. The most serious being when he broke his girlfriend’s arm when she told him she was pregnant and did not want to go through another abortion.
He was arrested and brought to us when he tried to sell drugs to schoolchildren near his home. When we saw him, he was smartly dressed, seemed pleasant and spoke with confidence.
He blamed the whole world for all his family, financial, academic and criminal problems.
The whole world was bad to him, including all the girls who kept getting pregnant. The teachers were worse because they made him fail exams.
He had no sense of remorse and stated that the police could do what they want with him “because they are all stupid people”.
He did not regret the fact that he may have led his brother into trouble because he was the supplier of cannabis and other drugs. The word callous starts to describe this man who could not show a relationship that had lasted more than a few months.
In consultation with other colleagues, we formed the opinion that this young man showed features of multiple drug abuse in the context of a personality disorder.
Treatment of personality disorder is at best very difficult. We told the family as much and most surprisingly they understood the problem before them.
The last we heard of him was that he was in prison in a neighbouring country, where he was found guilty of drug trafficking.
Change in personality can only happen very slowly. Our view as a team is that we have a man whose life is characterised by antisocial behaviour, which forms part of his lifelong personality.
The younger brother had a very different story, a good hardworking boy all his life, who went through primary and secondary school without any academic or social problems but dropped out of university in the second year, on account of drug and alcohol abuse, just like his brother, people said.
We concluded that although both were using drugs and alcohol, their cases were completely different in that one, had done well up to the age of 21, while the other had shown personality problems right from childhood.
We diagnosed Schizophrenia in the younger sibling and put him on treatment. He got better in a few months and stopped using both drugs and alcohol.
He graduated and soon pursued a master’s degree.
The formal diagnosis was that of Schizophrenia presenting with alcohol and drug abuse.
The key difference between the siblings was that the younger had had a normal childhood and adolescence, while the other had “personality problems” from the beginning.
Much as you may try to change a person’s personality this might be a huge challenge. Depending on how old your son is, you might take a more practical approach and seek to modify his behaviour and attitude rather than personality.