'Mad Men's' Daughter: How Troubled Is Sally Draper?

"Mad Men" and "Nurse Jackie" on child characters with psychological issues.

August 31, 2010, 3:40 AM

Aug. 31, 2010 — -- Sally Draper, the troubled daughter of Don and Betty Draper of "Mad Men," is so busted.

Last week's episode of the cable TV series was a double whammy for the pre-pubescent character, played by 10-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who has also appeared in movies and commercials: She played Sally Field's granddaughter in a spot for the drug Boniva.

Now that the Drapers are divorced -- Betty (January Jones) got tired of Don's (Jon Hamm) philandering and his secret life of stolen identity -- Sally gets shuffled to her dad's apartment for visitations.

Unfortunately, the perennially unavailable dad would rather spend the night with a date. Desperate to look pretty for her absent father, Sally takes a pair of scissors to her hair, does a hatchet job and gets slapped for it by her cold-as-ice mother.

More mayhem follows when Sally, at a sleepover, is discovered sexually touching herself. The episode ended with Sally being escorted to a psychotherapy session with presumably many more to follow.

As television finds new ways to examine psychological issues behind conditions such as overeating, drug-taking or hoarding, children are increasingly part of the mix. How realistic is the depiction of Sally?

Sally's way of acting out is what mental health professionals commonly see in this kind of family situation, said Mona Lisa Schulz, a neuropsychiatrist in private practice in Yarmouth, Maine, and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont.

Because Sally recognizes that her father prefers the company of pretty women, her behavior indicates a need to be attractive so she can receive her father's love," said Schulz, author of "The New Feminine Brain."

"So she gives herself what she hopes will be perceived as a glamorous haircut."

Sally's also lacking an emotionally responsive mother. "A child who has a cold mother sees feeling withheld and imitates that behavior," said Jasmin Lee Cori, a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Boulder, Colo., and author of "The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self Healing and Getting the Love You Missed."

The child's held-in energy needs to go somewhere, however, and acting out is often where it ends up, Cori said.

Sally Draper is not the only television child-character with issues. At the end of last season's "Nurse Jackie," older daughter Grace Peyton, played by Ruby Jerins, was revealed to have been secretly pulling out her hair. Not surprising, it's her bartender dad (Dominic Fumusa) who does most of the nurturing and cooking.

Mom, portrayed by Emmy winner Edie Falco, is generally unavailable and addicted to pharmaceuticals.

Turning Trauma Into a Positive

Compulsive hair-pulling -- a medical condition also known as trichotillomania -- is an anxiety disorder, said Schulz, adding that mom's addiction to prescription drugs is also a way to soothe anxiety.

"Children learn how to soothe themselves from their mothers but, in this case, the mother isn't around much," she says. "The effect is that the child has learned a more destructive way to comfort herself."

On the cable TV show "Weeds," Shane Botwin (Alexander Gould), the teenage son of drug dealer Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), used a croquet mallet to fatally strike a female drug rival. Observing the two women arguing, Shane, once the show's moral compass, believes that the murder he committed was to protect his family. Because of the murder, family members are on the run from her Mexican drug-kingpin husband and the authorities.

Shane's behavior parallels his mother's, Schulz said. "Drug wars involve a warped gang-love mentality, where you kill over territory, and that's the code Shane has copied," she said. "He's learning about relationships in the sociopathic world which is his family."

Nevertheless, there's still hope for children raised in troubled home environments.

"A kid can take trauma and turn it into a positive life," Schulz said. "Children are very resilient."

Even television characters.

One young character who has made the best of an absent biological-father situation is Manny Delgado (Rico Rodriguez) of ABC's "Modern Family." Wise beyond his years, he validates Schulz's optimism.

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