Dr. Phil Doesn’t Get it

Normally I don’t watch The Dr. Phil Show during the day but Erika taped an episode yesterday that was a “must view.” Titled “Parents Divided Over Disowning Their Son,” the show featured two adoptive parents and their 24-year-old adopted son, Adam. The father in particular was ready to disown and sever his relationship with his only child. Why? Violent and threatening behavior, substance abuse and several brushes with jail.

Not knowing the complete story, I couldn’t help but see Adam’s behavior as symptomatic, at least in part, of his early life trauma, separation from his mother and subsequent adoption. This looked like classic attachment related behavior, albeit on the extreme end of the spectrum.

The parents shared with Dr. Phil and viewers a laundry list of “diagnoses” and buckets of meds, all geared toward treating symptoms, never the core, and obvious, issue. As much as I cringed at the father’s “solution” to disown his only child, I also sympathized with their feelings of being beaten down and defeated. They seemed to be as much in the dark with their son as we were with Casey, even though Casey’s behavior was nothing like Adam’s, but could’ve been.

What made matters far worse was that Dr. Phil never ONCE mentioned anything about Adam’s early abandonment and adoption, and how that might’ve contributed to his behavior. It was all about treating Adam’s symptoms and behaviors. He even brought in an “expert,” not in adoption but in substance abuse and extreme behavior. They got close to the real problem but only by mentioning disorders Adam may have inherited from his birth parents.

I wonder if Dr. Phil even believes in attachment disorder.

Erika and I were on the show in October 2008 as part of a story about Golden Gate Bridge suicides. I was skeptical about it but wanted to take the chance that we could get Casey’s story out along with the tragedy of GGB suicides. It turned out to be a positive experience. Since publishing The Girl Behind The Door, I’ve been trying to get back on the show, but the young producers we met are long gone. And now that Dr. Phil seems to display ignorance about attachment and adoption, I feel that much more compelled to get on. But self-published authors are routinely shut out from the media in favor of “real” authors with representation.

So if anyone reading this post has any magic channel into Dr. Phil’s staff please let me know. Otherwise I’m stuck with filling out their online “Contact Dr. Phil” form.

33 thoughts on “Dr. Phil Doesn’t Get it

  1. Hi John nice article. Try going on his facebook page. There are many many comments about that particular episode. Maybe you can add your comment and talk about your advocacy. I’m sure the page is monitored and perhaps one of the staff will see it. Also perhaps in the credits after the episode it lists the producers and you can try and contact them. Keep up the good work, John.

  2. There is no such thing as “attachment disorder” in the DSMV.

    There is only Reactive Attachment Disorder in the DSMV (the official “bible” of mental/neurological illnesses), which includes the symptoms listed here:


    None of the behaviors on that list include “threatening behavior, substance abuse” or “brushes with the law”.

    I saw the episode yesterday (home sick) and the now-24 yr old kid featured was an exemplary honor student and athlete (no rages, no legal problems) until age 18 — when he moved into a college dorm.

    Your claim that Dr Phil displayed evidence of “ignorance about attachment and adoption” is based on a medical condition that doesn’t exist (“attachment disorder”) and symptoms that aren’t official symptoms of RAD.

    So while it’s entirely possible Dr Phil misinformed about both attachment and adoption, he did not appear to be spreading misinformation on yesterday’s show.

    • I use the term attachment disorders as a general layman’s term to cover a broad range of issues relating to early both trauma even though “RAD” is the “officially approved” term. I just don’t like the term RAD, how it’s used and misused and too often casually tossed around when there are many undiagnosed factors in play.

      • Fair enough. But listing non-RAD symptoms and criticizing Dr Phil for not understanding attachment or adoption is pretty confusing. Especially as Nancy Thomas, Katherine Leslie and a boatload of others who profess to be experts treating the non-existent “attachment disorder”.

        (I’m not a doctor but do come from a family with a long history of mental illness — a high-achieving, all-around model kid who inexplicably falls apart at age 18 or 20, complete with boatloads of drugs/alcohol self-medication is the textbook onset of a mood disorder).

    • When I went to the link above it is describing symptoms of a child,,,that is only the beginning. John, my reaction was the same as yours,,,I kept waiting for Dr Phil to mention attachment, disappointed he did not.

      • All I can say is that without nitpicking over specific symptoms, all you need to know is that the young man was adopted and exhibited very extreme behaviors and yet the subject was never even mentioned?

  3. Dr. Phil is an idiot. Sorry to be so blunt.he is a TV therapist for uninformed, sorry people. I am always appalled with his responses. Refuse to listen to him or read any published article and amazed he continues to be so uninformed, himself.

    • Yup, but not necessarily on this particular subject.

      On the show, there was ZERO evidence to support the idea that the adopted 24 yo had a non-existent “attachment disorder”.

      Someone is obsessed with his daughter’s suicide and projecting it onto other people’s children.

      Also, the “official” RAD diagnosis has “onset by age 5” as a criteria.

      • “Someone” has a name, lady, and he’s been spending years trying to understand his daughter’s death while educated people on topics like suicide and adoption. Just because a big book doesn’t have a term listed + described on its pages doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I don’t understand why your tone is so angry and accusing. Looks like you might’ve offended Dr. Phil’s #1 fan, John.

  4. Just have to ask…Janette, are you an adoptive parent or adoption professional? I completely support John Brooks on this. I’ve had 16 years as an adoptive parent learning and living RAD, attachment/trauma, childhood trauma disorder or whatever it’s called these days. A few years ago when a TN mom sent her child back to Russia with a note pinned to him, the media exploded (rightly so!). Dr. Phil jumped on that bandwagon but only wanted to show a side of the story that could bring up his ratings. He was willing to show the circus that some of our families have to deal with but refused to identify the core problem…early childhood trauma/attachment. I know this for a fact as some close friends were involved as well as FRUA at the time. Sue Gainor, then Chair of FRUA, paid her own way to represent the organization but the reality was Dr. Phil, or his producers, didn’t really want to hear from the experts…just wanted to show the drama of raising our kids. That’s show business! John…I hope you’re able to get on and have a voice!!!

    • We can debate terminology between AD, RAD or quibble over specific behaviors that aren’t featured precisely in a medical journal. The point is that Dr Phil and other media “professionals” who are not adoption experts never bring up the elephant in the room, seeming to imply that the child’s early life trauma (abandonment and adoption) had zero effect on them, other than biological disorders they might have inherited. To your point, Sandy, I may be imagining this but I believe Phil either doesn’t believe in AD/RAD or choses to ignore it because to do the latter seems to make for better TV.

      • Nope, not a therapist — just a person with a long-standing interest in mental health who is horrified by what adoptive parents subject their kids to in the name of curing their non-existent “attachment disorders” (as distinct from an official, formal diagnosis of RAD). As opposed to providing ACTUAL medical care to sick (with RAD or any other mental illness) kid.

        I am 100% in agreement that RAD is severe mental illness than can (and often is) fatal if not treated in a timely manner. A correct diagnosis is a pre-requisite for providing appropriate treatment. Diagnosing a kid with a non-existent-as-per-DSMV “attachment disorder”? Won’t help. It’s likely Dr Phil didn’t mention the non-existent “attachment disorder” nor RAD on that episode for the simple reason that the young adoptee in question did NOT meet the criteria for RAD, as set out in the DSMV.

        Sadly, there are plenty of adoptees who DO have RAD (as per DSMV), with adoptive parents that love them yet REFUSE to properly treat their kid’s MI. THAT is what I have HUGE issue with.

        A mental illness needs to be treated like a physical illness!

        A kid who falls of a bike, whose elbow swells and is at a funny angle? Needs a walk-in clinic and a doctor. A faith healer alone? Is medical neglect.

        A kid who has symptoms and is diagnosed with RAD? Requires treatment from doctors/nurses for a severe MI. A faith healer alone? Is medical neglect too!

        Trauma mama adoptive parents are the WORST about this. They blog and brag about failing to provide MEDICAL CARE for their kid with a SEVERE MI, by”

        Sending “Dimples” (who has RAD) to a “Ranch” for “Kids” in Montana for 18 mos, where there are no on-site licensed healthcare providers. A kid with a SEVERE mental illness… getting NO TREATMENT AT ALL:


        Adopted “Princess” was adopted out of a psych hospital, had blown out multiple placements and was diagnosed with MIs. Her amommy insisted it was too expensive to hire a therapist (but not to take the girl on expensive Caribbean cruises), even after the kid trashed the house, threatened to kill herself, ran away, dropped out of school and got Baker Acted:

        And then there are adopters who have kids with RAD/FASD/low IQs who they swear cannot connect cause with effect, yet are somehow super-manipulators of teachers, doctors and administrators with graduate degrees. A kid can’t be both. It’s just impossible. This “attachment disorder” crap enables this!


    • The “experts” you are citing aren’t actually “experts” in adoption or mental health — they are not licensed healthcare providers or researchers not have they published their findings in peer-reviewed journals.

      They’re adoptive parents who ignore advice from licensed healthcare providers and then get really, really upset when something bad happens to them or their kid.

      What could you or John add to the Dr Phil show?

      You think doctors / therapists don’t get early trauma — but have nothing to support your claims.

      You claim a non-existent “attachment disorder” caused the 24 yr old adoptee featured on the Dr Phil show. You claim the guy had RAD… despite him not actually displaying any symptoms of RAD.

      You want sympathy for your kud’s plight? Money to subject her to unproven treatments/therapies that have not been demonstrated to be safe or effective enough to be covered by insurance?

  5. Pingback: Dr. Phil Doesn’t Get it • SJS

  6. Stumbled upon this website – I am Adam’s mom and want you to know that we will be forever grateful for the help Dr. Phil gave our family. We were lost and I didn’t think our family had a chance of mending – by the grace of God we were contacted by the show’s producers to air our story. This journey has been a healing process for our family and, without Dr. Phil’s help, who knows where we would be today ?? Adam is clean, sober and has just returned to complete his senior year of college. Origins Recovery Center in South Padre Island, TX was instrumental in Adam’s treatment and care and provided Adam an opportunity to address his addictions and begin the process of understanding his disease, his destructive behaviors and work through healing and focusing on his future. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers – we are taking it one day at a time 🙂

    • HI Karen – I’m so glad Dr Phil was able to help you. As an outsider I was disturbed about the lack of attention on Adam’s adoption, but was hopeful that in the process of connecting with someone Adam and you could get the help you need. Thank God for all of you!

  7. Thank you for having this discussion in the open – as an adult adoptee I am always deeply saddened to hear about adoptees who are struggling, and still, society doesn’t get it.

    When well meaning adoptive parents, mental health professionals, and society at large so desperately want to believe that adoptive families are just like everyone else, it only compounds the wound.

    I’ve watched the Dr. Phil show since it first aired and I agree that he does a great deal of good.

    I also agree that he just doesn’t get it about the pain adoptees face; most people seem to prefer the happy ending scenario, sadly, the statistics, and the personal experiences of adoptees don’t bear this out. We have a higher incidence of substance abuse, mental illness and suicide.

    With the large number of people seeking Dr. Phil’s help who happen to be adoptees, you would think he would begin to piece it together. Sadly, he remains unaware – clearly we still have much work to do regarding adoption competency for mental health professionals.

    Sadly, the adopted child, to use Dr. Phil’s phrase, picks up the tab for the decisions of adults, and has no voice. It is my hope that adoptees will do the work that is required to find our voices and speak out about our shared experience of grief and loss, imprinted on us at birthand negated by those around us – requiring constant adaptation and hyper-vigilance, leading to a profound sense of displacement, detachment, and low self-esteem. Because the trauma happened at birth, or shortly thereafter, we don’t realize that our behavior is a reaction, rather than a core element of self, a subtle but important distinction, and I wish that every adopted kid could be educated about this – we don’t realize that everyone doesn’t carry the same burdens.

    I would like to see Dr. Phil air an Adoptees Speak show, where we say what is on our minds and let the public in on our experience. John, I would be happy to partner with you on this. Karen, I hope Adam can find an adoptee support group in order to connect with people who speak his language of loss, pain, grief, and adaptation. Please know that there are many of us who have learned how to cope and thrive. I am a middle aged mother of 2 grown children who has been married 34 years. Although I was successful professionally, the impact of adoption on my life was pervasive, but I did not recognize it until doing some important work with an adoption competent therapist.

    A couple of key resources that I hope will be helpful to you and your family:

    The Primal Wound, and Coming Home to Self, by Nancy Verrier – foundational for adoptees
    American Adoption Congress (AAC): http://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/; the 2015 meeting will be held in Boston, check their website for dates, it is very empowering to be surrounded by so many adoptees and to speak openly about our experiences. I hope Adam can attend. The conference is open to all members of the adoption triad/constellation so please consider attending yourselves – but it would be terrific for Adam to find kinship with other adoptees.

    Best wishes to all of you.

    • Well this has generated a lot of discussion which just tells me that this is a topic that strikes a nerve. I’ve been trying with local media (notably KQED-FM/NPR which I assumed to be a natural) to feature discussion of this topic. Unfortunately it’s tough to get the attention of producers, columnists, reviewers and reporters with a self published work. They prefer people with “official” representation and otherwise ignore your emails and calls. *sigh*

  8. Hi,

    It is important to understand that the media (print, radio, TV, film) has an agenda. That agenda at this time is pro-adoption. Adoptee voices are routinely dismissed because adoption is being promoted as a “good”.

    Obviously no child in the world – if they had a vote – would vote to lose all contact with their genetic kin forever. That concept is absurd. Additionally, it is highly useful to those who want to control thought, behavior and action to have as alienated and unattached a populace as possible. For these reasons, adoption continues to be pushed.

    It is well known that child abandonment is hugely traumatic to the abandoned individual and it can result in all sorts of addictions and problems later on. This is not a secret. This was common knowledge prior to the “change of tactic” in social work circles in the mid-1950s.

    Of course, Dr. Phil knows the consequences of it! Of course! But that is not what he is being paid to promote! Of course, he does some good in what he does, he also does a lot of damage. But, most of all, and more than anything, he does what his boss(es) pay him to do (don’t all ‘good’ ’employees’?)

    Just stopping by again to see what you’ve been up to and send you a little love. ❤ Your work and ideas are correct and valuable and I hope they get more visibility … just don't expect too much from modern media other than continued support of the well-financed agenda.

  9. Why does adoption continue to be promoted as a “good” rather than family preservation? This is a topic that deserves more investigation. It is obvious to even the most casual observer that there has been something of an attack on “traditional family values” for years now in mainstream media. One reason for this is that unattached individuals are easier to control. Another reason is that committed and functional families are more likely to produce people with strong, independent minds, who are less likely to “drink the koolaid” and “swallow lies”.

    Another concept that is consistently presented in media in various ways is that of “dehumanization” and devaluing human life. We are “just another animal” (e.g., the “human zoo”) or we are a commodity (e.g., baby-selling, human trafficking).

    If babies are “interchangeable” … what makes family bonds so important then? What makes me giving you my baby any different than me giving you my new SUV? In fact, as we saw in the Veronica Brown-Capobianco case, her mother literally sold her for cash and a new SUV! It’s all the same, right? We are just biological machines, not special to the Creator as older philosophies have suggested.

    If adoption were to become accurately viewed from the adopted individual’s perspective by society, it would end as a practice, and it would be widely reviled. Same goes for sperm-donation and surrogacy. But these are billion-dollar “industries” where people are products, and many people just “want to be parents” or they want to make $$ more than they care about anyone else.

    It is also well known that DNA is a powerful language. How can one “know themselves” if they cannot see any of their biological “software” (DNA) in action? How can they know what they will look like when they mature, if they will live a long time, what their health outcomes might be, or what their talents and abilities are? Astrology can help with this, and astrological language and archetypes map directly to DNA.

    One can never be fully at peace until they know where they came from and the story of their origins. It’s simply not possible. Otherwise, why – pray tell – would a 70-year-old care to meet their mother and family? But, this type of situation is in the news every day. DNA matters!!! Self-knowledge matters. The unexamined life is “not worth living” cautioned Socrates.

    The very foundation that enables someone to be a peaceful, ‘attached’, whole human being with a vested interest in the welfare of their community is eroded when that individual is taught at their most vulnerable that even the most sacred of relationships (mother and child) means nothing in the world in which they have incarnated. And, they, in fact, are treated no differently than a new SUV (and sometimes the SUV is valued more by their own mother!).

    As shocking as it seems to be to many, babies are people too, so it behooves one who is interested in having a happy family and happy offspring to handle their ‘children’ with the same respect and understanding they would give another adult. Obviously, one must tailor needs and actions in an age-appropriate way, but I am talking about respect. Do you rape, abandon and beat the crap out of your neighbor when you are upset? Well, then, for best results, don’t do that to your ‘kid’!

    Children learn what they live. Should we be teaching them they have no more value than an inanimate product, and that their most basic needs are unimportant if they conflict with someone else’s desires? Do you want someone who believes those things about themselves to be part of your family? Would you expect a person with those beliefs to be perfectly “healthy” or compassionate or well-behaved?

  10. I had wanted to post a reply, because I didn’t intend to make you feel badly in any way. I think you’re great, and your daughter needed to be adopted. You were a strong and deeply caring father. I would have given a lot to have had parents like you and Erika.

    The problem is not adoption. The problem is relinquishment, and then lack of information all around. It may not be possible for around 60+% of adoptees and birthmothers to integrate that experience w/o effective relief, and for many, only actual knowledge and understanding and/or interaction can provide that relief. Children should not be sold and women with viable parenting skills should be supported to keep their children, not give them as a gift. Gifts are for things. Adoption is for orphans, like Casey.

    Take care and be well.

  11. I am an adopted mom of three sisters. All were in the foster system and I was not a foster parent but adopted all three 8 years ago. Things were going well until two years ago when we hit adolescents, now I am needing some major help. My husband and I recently divorced, my oldest daughter is in CPS care with Bio Family temporarily and the younger two are having issues. Everyone in my life, friends/family are staying clear of the girls and I out of confusion and an inability to help. I am feeling very alone in helping my girls through the teen years and overcoming attachment issues, self esteem and trust issues. We make so may steps forward then have huge slips backwards that are devastating for us. Any help would be very much appreciated.

    • I don’t know what kind of specialized adoption oriented help you’ve looked for but you might start with the Resources page on my blog where I’ve posted all the sources for everything I learned about adoption. Certainly not all inclusive but a good start. There are support groups and Facebook groups where you can find a community of others grappling with what you are. I assure you they are many. I’ve just found in my own journey that it helps to know you’re not alone and can at least commiserate and compare notes with others. Good luck!

  12. Very interesting, all the cooments, jjust having watched the said programme myself now, but has anybodyconsidered the possibility of the fact being that the father, Tim, may somehow have been/be extremely jealous of the son, Adam’s, relationship with Karen, mother/wife to the point that this may have adversely affected Tim’s fatherly relationship with Adam? Perhaps compounded by what can some times be inordinate and overwhelming mother’s love for a son to the detriment of a Fathher/Husband? Hence the Father, Tims, seemingly unreasonable deali gs with his son? Just some thoughts from an arguably much mothered son with an equally unreasonable, (but still special father). Interesting to see any comments on these thoughts…….

  13. Sadly I’m not surprised at all at Dr. Phil’s response to this child and the situation at hand. I remember seeing countless therapists growing up and not one addressed adoption trauma, grief, loss, or attachment issues at all.

    I’m 41 and there still is not much understanding about it like there needs to be, nor therapists that can help kids or even adults work through these very deep seeded issues that go all the way back to conception.

    Adoption agencies don’t acknowledge these issues because their more worried about making the profit that goes with the selling of the babies, than they are what happens if the babies grow up and have issues. All adoptees experience trauma from the separation of mother and child. It needs acknowledged from a very early age and healing and therapy can happen. When that trauma is ignored is when the behaviors start, anger, rage, sadness, etc.

    Pre verbal we don’t have a lauguage for our grief and loss and no way to communicate it aside from crying and being fussy, and angry. As we get older were told to be thankful yet our hearts are torn in shreds missing our first mothers. More anger and out bursts and of course no one ever acknowledges adoption.

    Sad sad sad and not much has changed since I was a kid. Great post and I always wondered if Dr. Phil “Got it”. You cleared that up for me. I watch him on occasion. ♡

  14. What I don’t like about him is that he insists on abusing children just to teach them a lesson. Abandoning them at wilderness camps where they could potentially die or stripping their bedrooms of all that makes them unique which could emotionally scar them for life. He has two grown sons of his own so he should know better. The results of his “treatment” are devastating in the long run.

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