Interview with Dr. Doug Riley

Interview with Dr. Doug Riley

Editor’s Note: This interview with Dr. Doug Riley was conducted by Dr. James Sutton by telephone in 2003. Dr. Riley’s first book, a bestseller entitled The Defiant Child was followed by another book, The Depressed Child. Both are excellent. You’ll benefit from this rather candid interview with Dr. Riley, a child and adolescent psychologist of national reputation. His most recent publication is entlitled What Your Explosive Child is Trying to Tell You(Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

The photo included here was taken when Dr. Sutton (right) spent a bit of time with Dr. Riley on a spring, 2008 trip to Virginia. 

Sutton: Congratulations on your book, The Defiant Child, becoming a bestseller. That is wonderful. Any thoughts on why it’s been so successful?

Riley: More than anything else, it just hit a chord with a lot of parents. We get calls from all over … I’m sure it’s much like that for you. The one thing we hear more than anything else is, “When did you sneak into my house and write about my kids?”

There’s something about those criteria in both the DSM-IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version four] and the stuff I came up with that parents respond to. More than anything else, I think parents were kind of waiting for someone to say to them: “This is not your fault.” The book said what a lot of parents already knew.

Sutton: I think another part of the reason is because the book is so readable; parents can understand it easily. It’s not difficult at all.

Riley: When I wrote it, I set out to write it for parents. I really didn’t bother me that other mental health people might not read it. I wanted something that was designed for parents. I wanted it to be useable. Some people enjoy the humor that’s in there; others because it’s so straightforward.

Sutton: It is that. Tell us how you got to be a psychologist and into serving young people.

Riley: It really began in a kind of different way. I was in graduate school, taking courses in career development. I was at one point working on a doctorate at Purdue in educational psychology, but I found I was becoming more interested in the personal problems students were bringing to me than I was in what I was studying. Not only that, but in the late 70s and early 80s the teaching market was collapsing as far as university jobs were concerned. So, I decided I was not going to continue in educational psychology there. I went back up to Western Michigan University, where I had done some graduate work earlier. I went into a program in counseling psychology, even had to go back and do another master’s degree in agency counseling. Then I went into their doctoral program in educational psychology. I never looked back. I felt like I had found my niche and what fit my interest.

Sutton: You mean working with young people?

Riley: Yes, exactly.

Sutton: Doug, tell us what you do today.

Riley: I’m almost entirely in private practice. I work with children and adolescents, with my focus primarily being with the individual. I have some of the training in family systems we all get as we go through school, but I don’t see that as my specialty at all. I have some pretty close ties in the community with other practitioners … other psychologists and clinical social workers who are really well-trained in family systems. So when I get involved in problems where the family is the focus, I refer to them. I tend to work primarily one-on-one with teenagers and kids.

Sutton: So you specialize primarily in teenagers … adolescents?

Riley: That is correct.

Sutton: Keeps you busy?

Riley: Oh, yeah.

Sutton: Well, when you read the work of folks like Stanley Turecki, Russ Barkley’s earlier work, and some of the others, they tend to down after age 12 or so. It seems that you’re picking it up from there. It certainly is a specialty.

Riley: Well, I do work some with the little ones, too. But I tend not to go above 18. When I do work with a young one, I usually consult more with the parents about the behavioral methods we’ll use. We have a whole group of little bitty kids who are having trouble around here. They’re my next project; it’s a book called The Tiny Terrorists. It’s about those young ones who are beating up on their parents and whacking other kids at school. We have some things we do with them. But oppositional teenagers are the ones I work with the most.

Sutton: Speaking of that, Doug, what is ODD [Oppositional Defiant Disorder] … I mean in your view and in your work? Why has it become so prevalent today in terms of what parents know … and such a concern?

Riley: Well, in working with these kids a lot, I’ve come to see it as a personality style. A lot of the ODD kids I see have a lot in common in that they tend to be pretty bright and sometimes quite vigorous physically. They like to argue and seem to have an in-born sense of equality with adults. They tend to see interaction with others, especially adults, as a “win” or “lose” proposition.

Sutton: I understand.

Riley: So I think an aspect of the behavior is personality driven. For example, if we went into personality theory similar to that taught by Theodore Millon (I was trained pretty heavily in it in graduate school), there are dependent personalities, gregarious personalities, and so on. So there are some aspects of how we operate in the world that seem to be “hard-wired.” I think this is what oppositional personality is.

Sutton: Some parents might say these kids are “hard-wired” and “hard-headed.”

Riley: In discussing this interview, you had asked me if I really see it as a disorder [Oppositional Defiant Disorder]. I really don’t. I don’t like the idea of “disorder” to begin with. I prefer the idea that there is a continuum, with all these symptoms existing on it. It would range from kids who are just mildly oppositional, happy, little warriors who just like to take their parents on (but when you back them down, they’re still happy as they can be) … all the way to individuals who can look almost antisocial.

Sutton: Exactly. And I think we’re seeing more and more of that with this diagnosis [ODD]. You know … 10, 15 or 20 years ago, and when it actually got into the DSM, it was a much milder behavior than what we’re seeing today.

Riley: Yeah, you’re right. I think there’s something about the way the culture’s headed. You know, I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, or anything like that, but I think that, as a culture we’ve become much more willing to accept aggressive behavior and behavior that is more in-your-face than when I was a teenager. I’m 53, and there are things that just seem to pass for “normal” these days that would not have passed in the rural culture that I grew up in.

Sutton: We would never have gotten away with it.

Riley: Absolutely not.

Sutton: What are some of the primary presenting concerns that parents bring to you? Doug, I’m assuming that, a lot of the time, the child’s behavior is “down the road” a bit before it comes to you.

Riley: A lot of parents end up telling me I’m their “last stop.” They’re usually pretty bright people, who have already used a lot of reason, logic and talking. The thing that I hear over and over and over with the little kids, like from three and a half on up to about six, is that they’re acting out at school, hitting the other students, hitting the teacher and hitting the parents. I’m hearing a lot of that. The thing I hear regarding preadolescents and the teenagers is that they try to argue with everything the parents say. They assume a sense of equality. And that sense of equality and a willingness to always argue with the parents keeps the family in absolute turmoil.

Sutton: And let me share, Doug, that, having looked at a lot of this through the research and written on it a little bit myself, you’re one of the few who has identified this “sense of equality” thing. I think you are right on the mark with it. But it’s not being addressed much from what I’ve seen.

Riley: It really hasn’t been. When I was preparing The Defiant Child, I sat down to make a kind of list of things and behaviors that I saw with these kids. This was a time when there just weren’t all that many resources out there, so it felt like pretty fertile ground. Your book about the “Good Kid” Disorder [If My Kid’s So Nice … Why’s He Driving ME Crazy] … that was out there. It came out about the same time I was doing my writing. It was one of the first resources. Barkley had a training manual that had been out [Defiant Children, a clinician’s manual for training parents]. There was an academic book, I can’t recall the authors’ name right now, but it was on conduct disorder and oppositional disorder by a couple of female psychologists who were very psychoanalytic. Other than that, there was virtually nothing out there other than the DSM.

Sutton: And a childhood classification for oppositional behavior wasn’t even in the DSM until the 1980 version [DSM-III]. So we were all flying by the seat of our pants.

Riley: We were!

Sutton: And at that time, it was called Oppositional Disorder, not Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

Riley: Right. One of the things I kept coming back to in making my list was that sense of equality I would see with them in my office. I ended up having to explain to kids lots of times that they were not equal to their parents. Of course, they hated to hear that, and it would prompt a lot of arguing. Then you could see the whole thing unfold … the oppositional personality. That’s a real key to all of this, a sense of equality with adults.

Sutton: Would it be correct to say that it comes across as a behavioral “arrogance?”

Riley: I think that, with a lot of kids, it really does.

Sutton: Are they initially fearful or uncomfortable that they’ve been “exposed” so to speak?

Riley: Well, the thing I hear a lot is a sense of disbelief … like, “How dare you tell me that I don’t have guaranteed access to everything in the family!” And with kids who are really acting out, I tell them that the have to be careful because the adults own everything and control everything … and if they are displeased with the child’s behavior, the youngster could lose access to it. That’s when you really see the disbelief come forward.

Sutton: I can imagine.

Riley: And the outrage. They are outraged when I tell them that.

Sutton: Well, I’m assuming that, in a situation where there’s a lot of strife and conflict going on in the family, you take the “heat” for it, don’t you?

Riley: Yeah, I’m quite often the “bad guy.”

Sutton: Well, I suppose that’s okay, because they have to live with this kid. “We’re just doing what Dr. Riley says we have to do” … huh?

Riley: (Laughter)

Sutton: But that’s okay … part of the job.

Riley: The thing I would add to The Defiant Child, because it’s really not in there, is that I try to explain to the kids is that, after they’ve engaged with me, we can go in one of two directions. One is that they can force the parents into using all of the “hard” methods like taking things away and stripping rooms. But the intervention I obviously prefer is that, once the child is doing really well (hanging out with the right kind of kids, doing better in school, and is pleasant to be around at home … one of my bottom-line rules) … I get to sit with them in my office and figure out they can get more money, more freedom and more responsibility than anyone else their age.

Sutton: So when the youngster begins to work with you and the family, then you turn around and advocate for them?

Riley: That’s exactly right. And, you know, there’s a deeper reason for that. I’m sure you’ve see it plenty of times in your own work, Jim. How many kids have you seen who’ve never had enough freedom, money or responsibility who have gone off to college … where the run absolutely run wild and flunk out? Or they’ll join the military, can’t take the responsibility, and get booted out. Or perhaps they’ll go to work after high school and not show up. They assume that sense of equality with their supervisor.

Sutton: Right.

Riley: I had a girl in my office a year or so back who was talking about her supervisor. It was at a fast food restaurant. The girl was sitting there saying (pardon my language here), “That bitch … she thinks she can tell ME what to do!”

Sutton: (Laughter)

Riley: (Laughing) I told her, “Well, of course she can tell you what to do!”

Sutton: Absolutely!

Riley: The thing I love doing with a young person like that is co-opting the whole notion of more freedom, more money and more responsibility. And I’ve gotten a lot of “buy-in” from the kids on that, because they see the alternative as all the tough stuff.

Sutton: Well, you are definitely one of the few individuals across this country who is successful with this approach. And that brings up my next question. I get a great deal of email from parents regarding those counselors and therapists who are just not successful working with oppositional and defiant youngsters. They are good and well-trained professionals, but they struggle with this child. What do you think accounts for the difficulty? I mean, have you experienced this?

Riley: I have. You know, in general, a lot of psychologists ask me, “How is you work with children or teenagers to begin with?” I think there are those psychologists, counselors and therapists who like a more rational setting. The pace of working with an adult is perhaps more predictable and more polite, where you can be more analytical or theoretical. Plus adults are rarely in your face.

Sutton: Well, they’re writing the check, too. That makes a difference.

Riley: Sure. I think a lot of psychologists just like that more. I’ve had some friends accuse me of liking teenagers so much because they do my acting out for me.

Sutton: (Laughter) Well, there’s something to that.

Riley: I agree. But for me, I just like the “spirit” about them, and I like the stuff they’re interested in. It’s just very interesting to me. I think probably the people that I meet, and the people that you meet, who really like working with kids, may be the kinds of folks who were “older” when they were young. So, as they get a little older, they like to be a little younger. There’s just something about the energy one of these youngsters can bring with them into an hour. In addition to being important, it can be pretty entertaining.

Sutton: I can imagine. But there’s certainly the side of it that can be frustrating.

Riley: Yeah, these youngsters can sometimes be very frustrating.

Sutton: Doug, you do something in your work with young people that I want folks to know about. You talk about negative feelings, thoughts and beliefs. Tell us how that works.

Riley: One of the things I do early on with a youngster is encourage them to tell how they are thinking. For example, with the little ones, who are doing a lot of exploding and yelling, I have this technique I use with them. I refer to it as “The Brain Game.” I tell the kid that I’m going to play “The Brain Game” with them … that I’m going to be part of their brain. For example, I was working earlier today with a boy who blows up and throws a lot of temper tantrums. I told him I was going to be the part of his brain that wants to do the tantrums, and that I wanted him to be the “good” part of his brain that doesn’t want to do the tantrums. I told him, “I’m going to teach you how to argue with your own brain.” So I’d go into an odd voice with him saying, “Hey, let’s throw a fit … we don’t care what anybody thinks!” His job was to argue with me, saying things like, “No, we can’t do that. If we do that, we’ll get into big trouble with Mom.” I guess it looks like of funny and silly on the surface, but it teaches the child to make self-corrective statements to deal with their own impulses.

Sutton: Well, isn’t it role-playing of thought?

Riley: It is.

Sutton: Doug, talk a little bit about your concept of “Thought Replacement.” That’s a big premise in your work. Share how you do that with a youngster.

Riley: I typically use that term with older kids, but the concept is still the same. You’ve got to get down to the set of beliefs that’s driving the behavior. This stuff has come down to all of us, some of it from Ellis, Beck, Michenbaum … people like that. The thing that I’ve tried to do in my own work is to teach parents that it’s okay to say to a child, “You’ve got to learn to think about this a different way … not only do you have to behave differently in situations like this, but you literally have to think about it a differently.”

Sutton: Interesting.

Riley: For example, I had a teenager in here the other day; he’s notorious for blowing up. The reason he blows up is because he assumes everyone in his class thinks badly of him. Of course, when he goes to class and notices anyone looking in his direction, he immediately thinks they’re making fun of him, or that they don’t like him.

Sutton: “What are YOU looking at?”

Riley: There he goes. And he’s a pretty good size guy. If he wants to do some damage, he can. With him, I’ve had to get into the idea of, “What really is the chance that everybody’s looking at you all the time? They’ve got their own lives to lead.” Once he could accept the idea that he could think about it a little differently, I tried to get him to come up with things he could “replace” that thought with.

Sutton: Right.

Riley: The idea of “Thought Replacement” kind of goes like this. All of us were raised by parents who said, “Don’t do that!” But they rarely ever suggested what we could replace the behavior with. Sometimes we would be confused. When someone said, “Don’t do that,” we didn’t know what else to do … so we kept doing what we always did.

Sutton: And we just kept on getting in trouble for it.

Riley: It’s like saying to a youngster, “You shouldn’t think like that,” then failing to give them alternative ways to conceptualize what’s going on.

Sutton: William Glasser, in Reality Therapy, calls that the concept of “next time.”

Riley: I don’t know Glasser’s work all that well, but I can certainly see where he would use that notion.

Sutton: A focus on “next time” refers to how can we help a child focus on what they can do to create a more favorable or less painful outcome the next time they encounter a similar situation or circumstance.

Riley: Sure, it does, and it can work.

Sutton: Let me just pick out one of the “Thought Replacement” statements from The Defiant Child. I’m paraphrasing, but it would be something like: “If adults who try reason and logic are ignored, they will only move to stronger measures.” Would the message to the child be, “Why do you want to make it hard on yourself?”

Riley: Exactly.

Sutton: What would possibly be their rationale to want to experience more pain? And I’m assuming, too, Doug, that the challenge is to get them to experiment with doing something differently … and getting the parents to recognize their efforts as they try to improve.

Riley: You’re exactly right. When they see a child behaving differently, it sure helps for them to notice it. And when I talk to parents about how their child is thinking, they often ask me, “Well, how do you know what he’s thinking?” The answer is simple; I ask the child: “What are you thinking?” And I do my best to help them from there.

Sutton: This brings up behavior at school. I’m convinced that, too often, only behavior is the focus, not the thinking behind it. I guess what I’m saying is that this whole notion of “Thought Replacement” would be good for school counselors, special education teachers and folks who work every day with these youngsters. Doug, these are great folks who really love young people, but I’m not sure they have much of a handle on it yet.

Riley: Yes, that’s a need. In some of our correspondence you talked about the idea of putting together some protocols for doing exactly that sort of thing. That’s a very, very good idea. It would help present alternative ways for students to conceptualize, in different ways, what’s going on around them all the time. Again, kids can sometimes get “stuck” in one way of thinking about a situation. It would help to work on that.

Sutton: This whole comorbidity issue [a child having two or more co-existing conditions or disorders], how do you look at that … defiant behavior with other conditions, such as ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] or depression … or other things?

Riley: I think it’s a really big issue. In my work, I’ve had to learn not to jump in too fast when presented with negative behaviors. I’ve seen figures everywhere from 35% to 75% regarding ADHD youngsters also presenting oppositional behavior. And kids who are depressed express depression differently than adults. They blow up, they get angry, they yell … they can be mistaken as being oppositional, just as the ADHD ones can.

Sutton: Definitely.

Riley: You know … Ross Greene’s work with the kids who blow up so much [The Explosive Child]?

Sutton: The inflexible-explosive child?

Riley: Yeah … a lot of those kids get mistaken as being oppositional when they’re actually suffering from an anxiety disorder. They’re so obsessive that they can’t shift gears at all … and blow sky high.

Sutton: And it’s really important that educators understand that. Many of those students, once you get them to task, they’re fine. But it can be tough getting them to switch or change, or move to a different room … or whatever.

Riley: So we have to bring that whole OCD [Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder] spectrum into it. Those kids, when they blow, can blow massively because they’re hanging on by their fingernails sometimes.

Sutton: Exactly.

Riley: So a differential diagnosis is just really important before you go treating the oppositional stuff. In my first meeting with a child, and well into the second one sometimes, I’m pretty hesitant to suggest just a whole lot of interventions … especially limiting or punishing types of interventions … until I’m relatively clear we don’t have comorbidity with other things.

Sutton: We need to let the reader know, too, that the bottom line is control.

Riley: Yeah, it certainly is.

Sutton: If the child has control over their behavior, then we deal with it as if they can change it. And if they don’t have control, then they need some assistance and help with that, also.

Riley: That’s right.

Sutton: What about oppositional and defiant behavior as one manifestation of depression. I know this gets into some real tricky diagnostics but, about ten years ago, Dr. Kenneth Wenning and some others did a landmark piece of research where they went back and re-assessed youngsters who had been diagnosed as ODD. They were looking for comorbidity … other conditions or characteristics that would be significant. The research showed that, in their opinion, at least 50% of those youngsters met the criteria for depression.

Riley: I’m not aware of the research, but I can certainly believe that. A lot of the kids I meet who are oppositional, or even on the surface of it might fit the criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder, are what I referred to earlier as “Happy Warriors.” They sometimes like to fight with everybody, they like to argue and they’re at their best when they’re arguing. But when you get them behind closed doors and begin to probe into self-concept a bit, they often don’t feel good about themselves. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not popular enough. Or perhaps they’ve gotten a hard time from peers at school that has affected them. They’re angry, and they’re acting out that outrage through their oppositional behavior.

Sutton: Absolutely. What is your greatest frustration when you’re working with oppositional youngsters and their families.

Riley: Well, once it’s clear to me that they’re really ODD, the thing that’s the most frustrating for me is that a lot of parents, for whatever reason, just don’t set firm limits and consequences. They’ll take a stab at a time-out or removing a privilege, or saying to a child that they need to act differently. The child will put up some resistance to that and the parents will say, “Okay, this doesn’t work!” So the greatest source of frustration frankly is the fact that they often will not to stick to a plan long enough to allow it to work. It’s funny; I can ask kids what my life would be like if I didn’t follow the rules or work hard or give my best effort. And I ask them, “If I quit working and lost my house, would I be able to safely go to sleep at night if my wife could get her hands on a baseball bat?” You know, they all laugh about that, but there’s just this whole certain set of behaviors that I have to do. And kids know intuitively that there are certain things that they really should be doing. Of course, they don’t want to do them, so if the parents don’t hold them to it, they’re not going to do it. So my biggest source of frustration is when parents just won’t follow through. And we all know parents these days who are working two jobs, and they …

Sutton: Are tired.

Riley: Tired and worn out.

Sutton: Obviously, we’re not in the business to beat up on parents. They’re exhausted much of the time. It is difficult … especially when you have one of these youngsters in the house. Doug, do you ever recommend that a child be placed outside the home … at least in the short term?

Riley: When I run into situations where kids are truly acting out … representing danger to themselves, danger to others (including the parents), or one of those sad situations where the parents are absolutely at odds … a non-functional marriage, there are times when I recommend the child be placed outside the home to rescue the child. And in other cases, I’ve recommended it to rescue the parents. I’ve worked with teenagers who have said to their parents, “I’m going to kill you after you go to sleep”, and things like that.

Sutton: That’s a terroristic threat they could carry out, so you have to take it seriously.

Riley: With those kids, I don’t hesitate to recommend something that is a bit more long term. But here in Virginia, there’s very little insurance resource to support that level of treatment.

Sutton: That is true … that is true. Something I’m recommending more and more is group home placement. These aren’t necessarily therapeutic environments, but they’re highly structured … family-like cottage arrangements with houseparents. It’s working beautifully.

Riley: Yeah … I like those settings. But here in Virginia, we really don’t have many of those. When I lived in Michigan, we had excellent resources up there, and others I’ve know about, but not much here were I live now.

Sutton: Doug, have you ever encountered a situation where you felt like you failed? I know that’s a tough question, but speaking from personal experience, those are the experiences that cause us to grow the most.

[Dr. Riley gave two great examples. For the sake of brevity, we’re including only one of them.]

Riley: Well, it can happen when you lose your objectivity and your therapeutic distance, and I suppose we’ve all done it.

Sutton: Absolutely.

Riley: For instance, there’s a situation called “counter-transference,” which is what the therapist is thinking about the client or patient secretly and privately [negative thoughts]. It can interfere with what they’re doing. And kids, especially oppositional ones, can hook you so well. They have “radar” for your soft spot … then put their finger on your issues.

Sutton: [Had a flashback to the movie Good Will Hunting and how Will hooked the psychologist (Robin Williams) … counter-transference]

Riley: And another thing, at least for me, is when I have jumped to a conclusion too quickly … believing that what was going on was oppositional and defiant behavior only. I’d just swing into some of the methods that I’d written about, then later realize that there was much, much more going on in the family than I had uncovered or realized.

Sutton: A dysfunctional family kind of situation?

Riley: Yes … and the youngster was acting for some reasons that were really legitimate on the face of it. And I had not delved into that.

Sutton: Doug, it occurs to me that teachers deal with that everyday, and don’t know the circumstances at home from within the education environment. If we can fix some of that, we could see a change in the child, whether we do much with the child directly or not.

Riley: I believe we could.

Sutton: Your follow up book was The Depressed Child, was it not?

Riley: Yes, it was.

Sutton: How has it been received?

Riley: It’s been received really more quietly than I anticipated. Personally, I’ve always been keenly interested in depressed youngsters throughout my professional career. The book has gotten some good reviews, but it has never sold as well as The Defiant Child by any means. And we’ve just not gotten the calls on it that we’ve gotten on The Defiant Child … still. In some ways it has taught me that, at least in the public’s eye, the defiant issue is a whole lot more vital than depression. That really surprised me. When you stop and consider how many depressed kids there are, it’s an astronomical number. As it has turned out, at least in my experience, the public’s interest is much more with the defiant issue.

Sutton: Well, perhaps it’s because of what defiant kids are doing. And, aside from self-destructive behavior, depressed youngsters are just hanging in there are and are not creating as much overt difficulty. At least that’s the way I see it.

Riley: I think you’re right on that.

Sutton: Do you see depression as a growing concern in young people today?

Riley: Yeah, I do. For example, here in Virginia we have these things call the Standards of Learning tests … the SOLs. One joke I made in the book was that, when I was growing up, SOL had an entirely different meaning. So why anyone would name a statewide achievement test that, I don’t know. But I met a third-grader who told me that, if he didn’t pass the SOL test, he was going to kill himself. See what I mean?

Sutton: I really do, and can back that up with some of my own experiences with young people.

Riley: I see kids struggling with so many things these days. Here in Virginia, for example, and I’ve heard that it is similar in some other states, I encounter kids who are scared to death about their chances of getting into college. The academic competition is so keen. The Baby Boomers’ kids are going through the system now. Colleges near where I live have not built more dorms or anything; they’ve just made it harder to get in. So I see a lot of kids terrified by that.

Sutton: That’s tough.

Riley: You know, if you and I had talked 20 years ago about sending our kids to high schools that had armed guards and security cameras, we would have thought it was something from a Ray Bradbury science fiction novel. Yet that’s the reality of it today. The availability of drugs, alcohol and firearms is phenomenal. I see kids responding to all of that. So, I think the depression issue will only get larger, not smaller. When you put kids under intense pressure, because they’re so young and so egocentric, they think that, if they’re having trouble, it’s got to be their fault. They feel there’s something wrong with them. That crashes a lot of them into depression because they’re under so much stress.

Sutton: They personalize way too much.

Riley: They do indeed.

Sutton: Doug, you mentioned your current project, The Tiny Terrorists. These youngsters are a big concern in the schools, of course. And they carry every diagnosis you can imagine. But one that keeps cropping up is Childhood Onset Bipolar Disorder. That is controversial. What is your view on it?

Riley: The bipolar stuff scares me. When I was in graduate school, we were trained that it was mainly an adult condition, although I’ve gotten used to the idea of bipolar teenagers. I don’t mean to sound critical of that book, The Bipolar Child, I’m sure you’ve seen it. I think it’s a very good book, but they explain almost every behavior in there as being related to bipolar. The criteria list they use to constitute Bipolar Disorder … well, …

Sutton: It’s vague.

Riley: It IS vague … and I think people are leaning on biological arguments to much. What’s going with a lot of the little kids is that the parents are often worn from working two jobs, or they have several children, or reconstituted families [with the remarriage of the parents], or single parent situations … the parents are faced with a lot of tough choices to make. They might have a child who is just stuck in narcissism. That child is acting out all over the place.

Sutton: That probably happens a lot.

Riley: The thing that we get a lot of “bang” out of here at my office occurs when I break a little one’s behavioral world down into two phases. “You’re either acting like a BIG kid or you’re acting like a LITTLE kid,” I say to them. There is no child out there who wants to say their acting like a little kid, not even the three and a half year old tiny terrorist. They’re always going to say, “I’m a BIG kid.” Not only that, they fantasize about being big. The counter point to that claim, “I’m a BIG kid,” is tell them that, as long as they’re acting like a big kid, we’ll let them do all the things big kids get to do. But if they’re acting like a little kid … having fits and stuff like that, we can’t treat them like a big kid. Now, that has a little bit of an edge to it, but the youngsters understand it implicitly.

Sutton: Excellent.

Riley: So I end up doing a joking-based treatment with these kids … in which I say things to them something like, “Look, you know that if you’re going to act like a little, bitty kid, we can’t let you watch the big kid cartoons, like “Sponge Bob” and stuff like that … you’re going to have to watch little kid cartoons, like “Tele-tubbies”. And I play with them like that.

Sutton: The wake-up call.

Riley: The wake-up call. I’m an amateur artist. I draw all these weird-looking aliens for them on my computer, and I make signs for them that say: “Big Guy (or girl).” I let them know that next week when they see me that, if they’ve been in the “Big Kid Zone,” they’re going to get aliens or paper airplanes that I make for them … or signs for their door. I have them call my office nightly to report on their behavior for the day.

Sutton: They leave you a message?

Riley: They leave me a message every night. I come in the next morning and check ‘em. Sometimes it’s like, “Hey, Dr. Riley, I had a really Big Guy day at school.” Other times they might tell me they were a “Little Kid.” You know, when you split their universe, that’s their thinking anyway. Kids, especially the little ones, don’t see shades of gray. It’s either black or it’s white.

Sutton: That’s exactly right.

Riley: Anyway, the intervention capitalizes on that, and we’ve have a lot of success with it.

Sutton: Doug, as we wrap up, I just wanted to ask you about your family and your plans for the future … whatever you’d care to share.

Riley: My wife, Debra, and I have two sons, 15 and 17, and anything that doesn’t have to do with work is wrapped up in them. One son is so visual it isn’t even funny. He wants to be a director some day, so he and I can spend hours and hours talking about movies. My other son has a scientific kind of bent. He says he’d like to be a dentist one day … he likes fine kind of work. He’s also an amateur archeologist, likes fine detail and discovering … things like that. Life’s entirely wrapped up with those boys right now. Past that, I’ve not looked too much into my next phase. With the oldest one getting ready to go off to college … it’s going to hurt. So I’m getting close to some transitions myself over the next couple of years, but I don’t know exactly what they’re going to be.

Sutton: And that’s another chapter of another book, I guess. Doug, if folks wanted to contact you, perhaps to do some training … you do training, don’t you?

Riley: I do … yes.

Sutton: Or work with parents or folks who work with young people … or purchase your books. What would be the best way for them to contact you?

Riley: The can call me here at the office regarding training and the workshops I do already. For instance, I’ve done a number of workshops for the juvenile justice folks here in Virginia. That’s one of the things I do quite a bit of training in.

Sutton: Okay.

Riley: I’ve done a more limited number of trainings for schools and mental health clinics, but anyone interested in that can get hold of me at my office. The phone number is 757-833-8144. They would speak with Debra, who is my wife and the person who runs the office. We get calls from parents from all over the place. What we do is set up consultations with parents on a fee basis to speak with them for an hour about their child. A lot of folks will read the book, but want to talk to me about the specifics of their situation.

Sutton: By phone?

Riley: Yeah, we do a fair amount of that. The books are available through any large bookstore … Barnes and Noble … Amazon publishes reviews from parents … they’re a good source.

Sutton: Excellent. Doug, we thank you for your time and all your input. It has been very informative, and I wish you continued success. You are a valued resource.

Riley: I appreciate your interest in my work. I enjoyed the interview.


Dr. Douglas A. Riley

710 Denbigh Blvd

Newport News, VA 23608