How Are Good Intentions Mischief?
Children want to be helpful and productive. That is how they learn and grow. Many parents and parental stand-ins insist on keeping their young people in a state of discouraging uselessness with good intentions. This is no more than self-serving mischief which we define as anything that doesn’t need to be done. Mischief doesn’t make sense to us. It doesn’t even make sense to the mischief maker. Mischief isn’t sensible or rational. It is non-rational. It arises out of purposes that lie below the level of conscious awareness. We can cope with our well intentioned mischief makers when we know what these hidden purposes are:
“Here, let me help you with that puzzle. “(Subtext: See what a good parent I am everybody?”) ( This is Goal 1: Attention and Service for the purpose of self-validation which will not succeed.)
(Better: “Here’s a new puzzle. Let’s see if we can put it together, you and me.”)
“Give me those scissors. You’ll poke your eyes out!” (Subtext: It’s my job to prevent bad things from happening.”) (Goal 2: Power and Control, for the purpose of preventing disaster perfectly in the future.)
(Better: “Be careful. Don’t hurt yourself.”)
“I told you not to try riding your bike by yourself! I’m going to punish you for disobeying me! I’ll teach you to listen next time” (Subtext: I am teaching the child the difference between right and wrong for his own good.”) (Goal 3: Revenge. Relieving the pain of our anger at someone else’s expense.)
(Better: “It makes me angry when you don’t do what I tell you. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. What can we do about it?” “Put it in the shed till tomorrow?” “O.K..”)
“Forget about it. It’s too hard. We’ll do it some other time” (Subtext: What’s the use of trying. We’ll only fail again.”) (Goal 4: Withdrawal in Helplessness and Discouragement. We succeed in setting an example of discouragement for our child to see and follow.)
(Better: “It’s hard isn’t it. Do the best you can and let me know if you get stuck.”)
This is how we shape the child’s attitudes and behaviors. This is how our good intentions replace the child’s native self-respect and confidence with self-doubt. This is how we eliminate the possibility of positive, productive behavior and leave only the option of making destructive mischief. The irony is that we do it all with the best of intentions.
To top off the irony, we say to our adult child, again with the best of intentions, “Why are you such a lazy bum? Look at you. You should be ashamed of yourself! After all I’ve done for you!”
We still don’t get it, do we. And if we don’t get it, how can we expect our child, our student, our employee, our client to get it?
The antidote to all of these mischiefs and counter-mischiefs is positive behavior which arises out of a context of self-respect. We teach self-respect by setting an example of it ourselves. If we do not have it, we cannot set an example of it for others people to see and follow. We can demonstrate our self-respect by replacing our good intentions with real intentions. Children can feel the difference. Real intentions make their lives happy and productive. They will carry our example of self-respect into the future and pass it on to the next generation. If we do not set the example, they cannot carry it on.
Why Do We Need To Know About Good Intentions?
If we do not understand the destructive effects that these seemingly beneficent intentions have on our relationships at home and at work, we cannot begin to counter their negative effects.
A. The Individual Parent Has Good Intentions.
1. We have just seen how “good intentions” can have a deleterious effect on young children. Parents cannot see the effects of their good intentions on that child because they are deceived by the camouflage of their self-serving concerns. But this is how parents rob their children of their native self-respect and replace it with self-doubt and self-contempt.
2. Parental good intentions have the effect of replacing the child’s healthy, appropriate attitudes with their exact opposites. The child grows up with negative attitudes towards himself, his loved ones, society, his employer and his community.
3. It is the context of self-contempt that predisposes the child to behave negatively and destructively. His negative behavior brings about punishment and other negative consequences which confirm him in his self-contempt. He carries his predisposition to behave negatively into adulthood where he inflicts his abusive tendencies on the people around him if he thinks he can get away with it.
4. In extreme cases of self-contempt, the individual’s behavior has the hidden purpose of bringing about the pain, unhappiness and destruction that worthless people such as himself “deserve.”
B. People In Positions Of Authority And Responsibility Have Good Intentions.
It isn’t only parents. Teachers, counselors, administrators, politicians, police and so on have good intentions for the people they control. Their misintentions turn out to make things worse instead of better. It is as if they were standing in loco parentis on their fellow human beings, as if they knew what was best for everyone by virtue of their superior station in life. There is no basis for this assumption.
In extreme cases, unstable politicians and religious leaders set their followers on a high-sounding but destructive path that has little or no relation to the demands of living in the real world.
C. Good Intentions Make Us Angry.
The good intentions of others make us angry. We don’t know what to do with our anger because these people seem so beneficent. We are reluctant to displease them because of the seeming kindness in their hearts. We need to see that this is not kindness, but rather self-serving, over-compensatory, inappropriate behavior on their part as a our first step to countering it effectively. For instance, we can say, “I know you mean well, that you want the best for me, but I prefer to do it this way. Or, we can say, “No thanks, I’ll be fine.”
D. Good Intentions Can Make Us Violent.
Some people, who do not respect themselves to begin with, are vulnerable to becoming super angry. They are angry at being controlled by well-intentioned but unself-respecting superiors; they resent the well intentioned rules and regulations imposed on them for their own good, as if they were too stupid to make independent judgements on their own. They become super angry when they perceive an injustice in the “wrongness” of a public policy with which they disagree. These controls are often imposed by someone who meant well but had a self-serving power and control agenda below the surface.
The person who becomes violent often has the good intention to right these wrongs by taking up arms against them. We may disagree with his tactics, but we “see his point.” But his point can never be made by using good intentions instead of mature, difficult thought processes. That is how problems are solved in the real world. That is a real intention.
E. We Need To Repair Our Own Damage.
We all had parents! To the extent that our parents weren’t perfect, they made mistakes, too. Their good intentions for us contributed to our present self-doubts, inappropriate roles and negative attitudes. It is our responsibility to identify these carryovers from our imperfect childhoods and bring them into alignment with the demands of the real world. We cannot be as effective in our capacities as counsellors, teachers, parents or spouses until we repair the damage that was done to us. We need to repair the damage in the right way. Too many of us try to repair it with techniques that make things worse instead of better, such as indulging in addictive behaviors, withdrawing from life, escaping into negative excitement and so on.
F. We Have Good Intentions For Ourselves.
Most of these self-destructive techniques are no more than good intentions that we have for ourselves. We bring about our own misfortune when we operate out of mindless attitudes from the past instead of our adult, considered judgment in the present. We must get out of our own way if we wish to live happy, productive lives.
How Do We Get Out Of Our Own Way?
How can we replace our inept good intentions with real intentions for ourselves and our fellow human beings? By doing our Homework. We can catch ourselves in the act of inflicting a self-serving good intention on someone and choose not to. We can catch ourselves:
• Wanting to be liked by pleasing in ways that are inappropriate to the situation.
• Wanting to be more responsible than reality requires us to be.
• Wanting to prevent disasters in the future as if we knew what was going to happen, as if the worst case scenario was the only possible outcome and that it had to be prevented at all costs. We cannot predict the future out of attitudes that formed in childhood.
• Wanting to prove that we are not inadequate by doing more than the situation requires us to do “just to be on the safe side.”
• Wanting to prevent the humiliating exposure of our inadequacy to cope by withdrawing from reality.
• Wanting to get our own way by controlling others for their own good.
• Wanting to ensure a perfect outcome.
These “wants” are all silent good intentions that we have for ourselves. We want our way.
Specifically, we can catch ourselves wanting to give someone what we are sure is good advice: “This is what I would do” or “This is what you should do.” We do not give advice. We find out what is preventing the individual from taking appropriate action in his own behalf. We want to find out
• What is he afraid will happen if he takes appropriate action?
• What attitude is he operating out of and how can it be replaced with a more
• What is his operating attitude towards success? If he doesn’t deserve to succeed, he will find a way to fail and sabotage our good advice. He will then blame us for the negative outcome and he will be right. We have fallen into his dependency trap.
Instead of giving well-intentioned advice, we identify and remove these impediments to action. We reveal to people that they are not powerless and dependent anymore. They have the power of choice; they have adult judgment; their judgment can be trusted now. It is good enough. They have the courage to take appropriate risks. For example, we reveal that they have the option of doing what pleases them. They may not even know what pleases them. That possibility has not occurred to them heretofore. Their Homework, then, is not to take our good advice, but to find out for themselves what it would please them to do and then do it, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
After they have done it, for example, treat themselves to a nice breakfast in a restaurant for a change, we can debrief their Homework. We can ask them how they felt after they did it. We can ask if they felt relief, control, accomplishment, success, identity, maturity, appropriate responsibility, security, independence, liberation, trust in their judgment, equality, courage, living in the present and belonging. These are all components of self-respect which is the antidote to the self-doubt from their childhood. We can even ask, “Was that a good intention that you had for yourself?” They may say, “Yes,” but it wasn’t. It was a real intention to do what the situation required them to do. They earned the right to enjoy this treat after all their hard work. If it were mere self-indulgence, they would not have experienced all these components of self-respect. Having succeeded once, they are in a better position to do it again. That feeling is called confidence. We did not give them this confidence. They earned it. They gave it to themselves.
Another problem unself-respecting people have is that they are unable to express their appropriate needs and wants. Their impediments to accomplishing this task include:
• “I want to avoid displeasing.”
• “I want to avoid looking selfish or inconsiderate.”
• “I want to avoid appearing weak and dependent.”
• “I won’t get it anyway so why bother?”
• “I don’t deserve to get it.”
• “I’d feel guilty if I got it and then have to give it back in the end.”
• “I want to avoid feeling obligated to return the favor.”
• “I’m afraid I won’t ask for it in the right way, that is, perfectly.”
• “There’s no guarantee I’ll get it. I’m afraid to take the risk of failing. I will take my failure personally. It would hurt too much. It hurts less to just do without.”
All of these are negative attitudes and these are all consistent with self-contempt. These are all counter-productive good intentions to avoid the painful disaster that unself-respecting people predict for themselves. This person’s Homework would cut through all of these negative considerations and just ask. That is a real intention. Reality requires that we secure the cooperation of our fellow human beings in a context of mutual respect. But reaching out to someone after all these years is scary. It takes courage, and some of us are willing to take anything but a risk. As adults, people have the power of choice to do it or not. They are in control of the time and place. Asking is not a sign of weakness or dependency at all. It is a matter of interdependence between two equal, imperfect human beings. After they succeed in getting what they want, they will experience all the components of self-respect. It will come easier next time. They are prepared to enter into appropriate give and take relationships with their friends and coworkers. This is called positive cooperation as opposed to negative cooperation which is mutually destructive mischief.
If the answer to their request is no, the individual is prepared for the problem of taking “rejection” personally. Their antidote is the knowledge that self-respect is not conditional upon getting what one wants. This is not a reflection on ones worth as a person. One is a worthwhile human being in spite of ones faults and imperfections, whether the answer is yes or no. We would have preferred a positive response, but we are worthwhile either way. If the negative response makes us angry, we can express our legitimate anger like a civilized human being, “It makes me angry when you won’t lend me a hand when I need you.” This is not self-pity, or a threat of revenge. It is telling the truth about ourselves even when that truth is displeasing. This demonstration of self-respect is often the first step in the creation of an atmosphere of mutual respect in which it is possible for people to give and take as equal members of the human race.
These concepts remain intellectual and theoretical until the individual works up the courage to make a break with his or her unhappy past. These new ideas become incorporated into the newly forming personality in the moment that the individual gets out of his or her own way and does what reality requires them to do. Then these concepts become real.
In doing an appropriate Homework, we heal the heart/mind connection that was broken in childhood. We feel integrated into a new whole that did not exist before. We can do it again. Like anything else, it gets easier with practice.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The simple fact is that for many while there are children in the home, the marriage relationship often seems to be thrown to the background. The schedule revolves around feedings, changing, bedtime, bath time, homework, and on it goes. It is inevitable that just when you think the kids are asleep, and you make a move with your spouse, the baby starts crying or your other child ends up standing at the foot of the bed. Passion wanes. Time for adventure disappears. It is, however, possible to capture time with your spouse before passion fades. Here are a few ideas:
1. Establish a schedule. This is not only great for the kids and their development; it also helps create time for each other. This could be done as simply as scheduling a weekly dinner or lunch date. A coffee break together. Or a regular sexual encounter together (scheduling this does not lessen the passion and heat despite the lack of spontaneity; you can be spontaneous during the encounter). By having something scheduled, you create room for anticipation.
2. Utilize babysitters or family members. There are many very capable teenagers out there interested in earning a little bit of money while you take your spouse out for the evening. The beauty of this option is the kids get someone new to play and interact with, while you get a break together. Be sure to plan out the evening away in order to ensure you don’t return home until after the kids are in bed asleep. That way, if the date has gone well, there will be the possibility of being invited in for an uninterrupted “nightcap.” To create a greater flow towards the end of the date, look for a babysitter that either drives or can get to and from your home easily. An even better option is to utilize family members that live nearby. It is amazing to me the number of couples I have met that have not had their kids stay over night with family members or friends. Not only do you and your spouse benefit from this time, your kids do as well. They experience an expanded range of people who love and care for them. This can set a foundation for greater self-confidence and growth as they develop. It also begins to create a village mindset in the raising of your children. The best thing about the family option is the likelihood that the kids would be out of the house the whole night.
3. Secret signals or code words. It is often difficult to have conversations that may lead to deeper more intimate connections when you are interrupted every five minutes by one kid tattling on the other or needing something from you for their homework or wardrobe. This can be overcome by creating another language or codes to use with each other. This language or code should be based on whatever you would be saying to each other if given the opportunity. If this type of language is not part of your normal dialogue, then it would need to be created all together. It could be as simple as lighting a candle that is centrally located in the home as a signal one of the parties is interested in an encounter. Whether the encounter is sexual or emotional is up to you. Or it could be as complex as learning a second language. How great of a motivation would it be if you were trying to woo your spouse in another language? And if your kids begin to understand the language, they would only discover more about the love and desire you have for your spouse. There are far worse things they probably already know about you.
4. Be a lover to your kid’s other parent. As your kids grow older, there is nothing wrong with informing them of your plans to be alone with your spouse. You don’t have to give all the details, but claim the time you want to spend with your spouse and let the kids know they are not invited to join or interrupt. When your spouse and the marriage are a priority, the kids benefit. In fact, research is now showing that when the marriage is the focus rather than the kids, it is better for the family. I have always believed that the best thing you can do for your kids is to love your spouse. Let them also appropriately see you love them as well. Hold hands, talk, hug, kiss, sit by each other, and cuddle in front of your kids. They may be jealous that they aren’t getting the attention, but in time, they’ll be glad you paved the way for their relationships.
Kids in the home present some obstacles to passion in marriage, but they aren’t the only reason passion wanes. By overcoming the hurdles of kids, you are faced with what else may be going on in the marriage. The kids can provide a buffer for a stale marriage. If that’s the case, more work will need to be done individually and relationally to address the other concerns. Marriage is work. But the things in life that require work are more valuable and more worth it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Ashley was 19. She had been away at college her freshman and sophomore years when her life unraveled again. In high school, she had struggled for several years with escalating depression, drinking, and marijuana use, and the painful feeling that her mother was ashamed of her. Her parents did not recognize the seriousness of the situation until she began to scratch and then cut her arms with sharp objects, at which point her mom got scared and sought help. During senior year of high school, her mom forced her into treatment, and with intensive individual, family and group therapies she become sober and psychologically stable.
Before leaving for college, Ashley was much better. She felt strong, proud of herself, and grateful to her parents for the ways they changed and learned to support her. Ashley even seemed to rise above her past – becoming an informal spokesperson for treatment and sobriety and seeking out ways to help friends and others in trouble.
At college Ashley initially participated in the support system set up for her, but then her attendance at therapy became sporadic. She became absorbed with campus life and seemed to revel in her independence. Ashley told her parents she felt “fine,” and announced that she no longer needed any anti-depressants and had gone off them.
Towards the end of first semester, Ashley tried to avoid her parents’ calls. When they did speak, she was short with them, refusing to talk about school or therapy. When Ashley came home during winter break, she spent much of her time sleeping and staying in her room on Facebook. Though having agreed and intended to get a job, she became too anxious to follow through the process. When her grades arrived, she could no longer hide that she had failed a course and was on probation. Ashley felt ashamed but promised her parents she would do better next term and go to her therapy appointments.
Unfortunately, the same cycle occurred the following year, culminating in a mounting emotional crisis towards the end of spring semester which she attempted to hide from her parents. When they questioned her over the phone about how she was doing she told them she didn’t not want to talk about it and wanted space. Her parents complied and backed off. When she was home over the summer, however, the signs that she was sinking became harder for her parents to ignore. (The warning signs of her depression included poor grades/failure at school, avoidance, inertia, withdrawal, staying in bed too much, weight gain, lack of motivation, irritability, depressed mood.) Though her words stated otherwise, Ashley had again fallen into the danger zone.
Ashley’s mom, Laura, was a successful surgeon. She struggled with tremendous guilt over her role in her daughter’s emotional problems and failure to heed warning signs that Ashley was in trouble until things were so bad that Ashley started cutting herself.
Laura recognized that, due to her own upbringing, she had been unable to be available emotionally to Ashley and, on top of that, was perpetually disappointed with her. She came to understand that she had tried to mold her daughter into someone more conventional and ambitious, pressuring Ashley to be more like her, thereby giving her the message that she was not good enough.
Ashley’s dad, Tom, was an easygoing guy who generally aimed to please. He loved Ashley very much and gave her whatever she wanted, but did not comprehend what was going on with her psychologically. Tom did not like conflict and feared Ashley’s anger. When she went to college and pulled away, he worried that if they upset her, they could lose her and she might no longer want to come home or no longer want a relationship with them.
Ashley’s mom made remarkable progress in her own therapy during Ashley’s senior year of high school, propelled by motivation and willingness to be honest with herself. This progress was noticeable and quite important to Ashley. By taking explicit responsibility for her own mistakes as a mom, learning to accept and appreciate her daughter as she was, and acting as a supportive presence and guide, Laura played an important role in her daughter’s recovery and helped mend their relationship. Before Ashley went off to college Laura felt good about herself as a mom for the first time, and her relationship with her daughter became more solid than ever.
Once Ashley went off to school, however, Laura began to feel pushed away and their relationship changed. She sacrificed so much to help her and it now seemed to have been wasted effort. As she became aware of Ashley’s failures at school, she wondered whether her daughter was just a slacker, capable of doing better but manipulating the situation to get away with whatever she could. Feeling angry, defeated, and unappreciated, Laura commented that being a mom was a thankless and hopeless job. She wanted to give up and, pulling away in anger, she decided she would stand back and not do anything.
Laura took it personally when she felt her daughter pull away, becoming consumed by an emotional reaction which obstructed perspective on what was really happening. For all of us, executive functions go “off line” when we are triggered into dysregulated emotional states and over-reaction. When this happens, our capacity to respond flexibly, think clearly, and react with good judgment is compromised. When the part of our brain that allows for reflection is deactivated by intense emotion (often originating from unprocessed experiences from our own childhood), instead of being thoughtful about how to respond to children’s needs, we are driven to react automatically and reflexively, as Laura did in her hurt and anger.
When a child’s distress is not taken seriously, and responded to appropriately by the parent, it can fuel an increasingly dangerous situation in which the child feels unconsciously compelled to continue “upping the ante” until the parent shows that they feel something empathically on the child’s behalf. Laura’s failure to recognize Ashley’s state of mind and step in to help led to her daughter’s continued escalation and deterioration, just like in high school when Ashley’s experience of not being “seen” in her pain perpetuated her self-destructiveness. During family therapy in high school, Ashley told her mom that she had felt out of control and driven to cut herself to produce physical evidence of her suffering – desperately hoping her mom would “get it.”
Another problem here was that when Laura was able to step back from her anger, she felt scared and helpless in the face of her daughter’s fragility. She feared that if she took action to set limits, Ashley would be forced to face the truth about her own limitations and might then want to kill herself. The truth was that Ashley was, of course, already aware – at least unconsciously – of her limitations and forced to be alone in it. She needed her parents or someone to step in and take charge.
Attempting to shield children from what they know intuitively to be true usually backfires, impeding the possibility of growth and causing them to feel shame, confusion, and aloneness. Projecting her own anxiety onto Ashley and colluding in a family-wide denial, Laura in effect reinforced Ashley’s sense of shame – and left her feeling unseen again.
Having the courage to face children’s limitations with them and offer help lends courage, builds coping skills, and is reassuring. Despite fears to the contrary, shame is actually decreased when parents are not afraid to face their children (in an non-judgmental way), and do not feel compelled to pretend or hide what is really going on.
What Ashley wished and protested she could do – and even intended to do – did not match her capacities. She demonstrated that she was unable to function in an environment with unlimited freedom and limited structure. She required a setting where help and supervision were built in, where she could not get lost and hide, and fall so hard. And, most of all, she needed her parents to recognize this and not be afraid make hard decisions with her.
Ultimately, Laura phoned her daughter’s therapist who was able to help make explicit what the realistic choices were for Ashley and her family. When presented with limited options for what she could do going forward, Ashley not only seemed relieved but, interestingly, selected the plan with the most structured and contained environment, (a therapeutic residential environment combined with college). This choice was telling and startled her parents – who been too caught up in their own emotions to recognize that, behind Ashley’s protests and demands for independence, was a cry for help and limits. As in this example, setting limits involves using adult judgment to protect children, based on what they can safely handle. Limits and consequences are often confused with punishment, but limits are not “reactive” or delivered out of anger, and differ from punishment in that there is no intent to retaliate and “teach a lesson” or cause the child suffering.
Not long after Ashley was accepted and decided to go to this program, she returned home to get ready. Three days prior to her planned departure, however, Ashley began desperately pleading with her mother that she changed her mind and really did not think this was the right plan for her. She no longer wanted to go. Laura could feel tension from her anger building inside her and a voice in her head saying, “Oh my God, not again – I want to run away.” However, having worked on understanding what happened between her and Ashley leading up to then, Laura was able to step back from this reaction. She was prepared and determined not to make the same mistake this time. However tempting it was, she knew it would be a bad idea to insist or close in on any decision with Ashley in this conversation – as she would have in the past out of anger and her own need for reassurance.
Laura calmed herself by reminding herself that things would be better if she could truly listen and not retreat, be reactive, punitive, or authoritarian. With this approach, Laura learned that her daughter was scared about the road ahead, and worried that she would lose all her friends. Laura was able to be empathic, while holding a calm, confident, but unspoken resolve about what her daughter needed, in effect, creating a sense of security for her Ashley.
At the end of the conversation, Laura matter-of-factly asked Ashley if she wanted to do some packing for the program together and Ashley nodded in agreement. She thought to herself, “Hmm – clearly she still actually intends to go”. To Laura’s surprise, even though she had not given in to Ashley’s begging, her daughter experienced her as supportive and protective, and eventually calmed and settled down.
Afterwards, Laura invited Ashley to go out for a walk. Ashley complained that she was still in her sweats and was “too fat and ugly” to go out. Laura responded by putting on her sweats too and showing up unobtrusively at the entranceway to Ashley’s room. Ashley looked up at her mom and the two of them headed towards the front door for their walk, quietly in step with one another.
Tips for Parents
• Respond thoughtfully and collaboratively with your teen to signs of trouble including: behavior changes, withdrawal, unhappiness, inertia, self-harm, repetitive cycles of academic or other failure, drug/alcohol abuse, shame/hiding. Seek consultation.
• Listen to teen’s behavior, not just their words. Understand behavior as a communication to you – and think about what the message might be. Try the following: If your teen’s behavior told a story, what would the title be? In this case, for example, the title of Ashley’s story might be, “I’m too ashamed to admit it but I’m out of control. Help!”
• Recognize that often through no fault of their own, teens’ best intentions may not carry over into their actions.
• Notice your own state of mind. Be honest with yourself and your teen about whether you are reacting out of your own needs, fears, anger, helplessness.
• Recognize that anxiety and worry about teens’ reactions (for example, whether they will be mad at you),should not be the primary determinant of what to do, or the gauge of whether you are doing the right thing,
• Differentiate between letting your teen have autonomy and reacting (in kind ) to their pulling away.
• Recognize when your teen is unable to make good decisions – and step in.
• Remember the power you have to affect your teen, even if privately you feel powerless or not needed.
• Recognize that, though they will say otherwise (and that’s ok), teens feel protected by limits. No one likes feeling out of control without anyone strong enough to help them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Samantha’s mom, Jill, was beside herself. While Samantha was away for the summer at a therapeutic camp, she found a collage Samantha had made – hidden in her room. As a piece of artwork it was impressive – complex, creative, colorful and artistic. But the content was macabre, suggesting fascination with drug culture, dark music, piercings and tattoos. By now, she was expecting and hoping for more from her daughter. This was exactly the type of thinking that led her into trouble in the first place. Overwhelmed with anger and disgust, Jill destroyed the collage. She would not be made a fool of and have these images in her house . Samantha had started getting help last year for drug and alcohol abuse and cutting herself – and according to all measures – seemed to have made tremendous progress . Mother was fairly certain that Samantha had been clean and had been doing well, even feeling excited to return home.
Following this discovery, Samantha’s mom confronted her daughter over the phone and told her to be prepared to find her collage gone when she got home. Samantha freaked out and became hysterical, “I always knew you wanted to get rid of me. All you care about is how you appear. Sorry you’re so ashamed of me and couldn’t have a daughter you could brag about. I hope you’re happy. Even David (past drug dealer) cares about me more than you. Maybe I should just go live with him…”
Samantha’s mom was devastated by this comment, and took it as a personal affront. She vacillated between tears and self-righteous anger. She was mortified by Samantha’s behavior and admitted that she was ashamed of her. “I’m at my wit’s end. Nothing ever changes. She had the nerve to make that collage in my house… And now she seems to prefer that drug dealer over her own home and family…”
Both Samantha and her mom felt rejected and abandoned by one another – and hopeless. Jill wanted what was best for her daughter , but on a deeper level was driven by the need for Samantha to behave according to what would make her feel proud as a mother. The more Jill needed her daughter to make her [mom] feel good about herself, the more alone, ignored, and cast aside Samantha felt (and the more likely Samantha’s behavior would be propelled even further away from mother’s values).
The collage was a window into Samantha’s world. This time instead of acting out her feelings – Samantha used restraint. Through artistic expression, she was able to give voice to and channel her feelings without harming herself. This was a psychological achievement and showed real progress. By getting rid of the collage and showing contempt for what was in it Jill unknowingly turned her back on Samantha and communicated to her that she couldn’t stand to see or know what was inside her.
Now Samantha’s inner world (and pain) was driven further into secrecy and shame, and further from help. Though Samantha appeared angry in her comments to her mom, she internalized mother’s view of her – and was left feeling self-loathing, shame, badness, and despair. To her, throwing the collage in the garbage was tantamount to throwing her away with it.
It’s true, Samantha had never been the kind of daughter Jill had wished for and tried to get her to be. Interestingly, Jill experienced disapproval and criticism from her own mom – who had also always wanted a different kind of daughter. Though she was highly accomplished, Jill never felt good enough and never felt her mom was proud of her. No matter what she did she could not make herself into the person her mother wanted. This was how Samantha felt too. The same dynamic was playing out now- here in the next generation, though not immediately recognizable to Jill because the script was different (since Jill would never have dared to be openly hostile or blatantly self-destructive and defiant like Samantha)- and because of a blind spot.
What should mom have done in the first place and what should she do now? How can we tell whether our reactions are coming from our own unresolved issues versus “legitimate”?
Clues that our own issues are rearing their heads:
When our feeling reactions (anger, self-righteousness, shame) are powerful and require immediate release
When we are certain we are “right”
When feeling the need to “teach a lesson”
When taking our children’s behavior personally
When finding ourselves being repetitive or in a repetitive cycle with our children
When finding ourselves lecturing
(For tips on talking to your teen, please also refer to Guidelines for Parents (CALM) in “Prom Primer: Know Your Limits”)
Jill’s hasty over-reaction caused her to miss an opportunity to get to know her daughter, be close to her and help her, which is what they both really wanted. Had Jill not come to rapid judgment and panicked, she might have been able to praise her daughter for expressing her feelings in an artistic way – and been curious with her about about the collage – how it affected her to make it and what it meant to her. The collage could have served as a conversation piece to bond them. It offered a medium (as art, film, literature can do) to talk about the images and feelings in displacement, and what led her ( or the artist) into that world of darkness– potentially providing enough distance to buffer the topics.
Though at first Jill was certain and thought it was obvious that destroying the collage was the right thing to do, when she came to understand that the collage was symbolically a part of her daughter- an expression of her pain and struggle – she began to feel saddened by how she reacted and less entrenched in the struggle. She loved her daughter and did not want to hurt her or contribute to her feeling bad about herself. She was surprised to learn that although she and her daughter were different in many ways – a chronic source of disappointment to her -and bone of contention between them, in fact she could see that they may not be so far apart in some ways. Jill saw that her daughter was feeling how she often felt growing up in relation to her own mom. Something clicked inside her and she felt for Samantha in a new way. She understood what it was like to feel ashamed and exposed – as an adult this vulnerability from her past resurfaced in relation to Samantha and when faced with disapproval or judgment by an authority figure whose opinion mattered to her. She felt regret and sadness as she recognized that in an unconscious effort to banish shame inside herself – she was unknowingly passing it onto her daughter. In becoming aware of this process, she was able to talk to Samantha with compassion and take responsibility for her own reactions, rather than blame her, thereby allowing a healing process to begin between them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
The relationship between David and Janet was never loving and then rapidly deteriorated after Janet accidentally got pregnant with their son Jeremy, now 12. They separated not long after the pregnancy so Jeremy never had the experience of living with his mom and dad. The relationship between Janet and David became so acrimonious that initially it impeded any possibility of joint parenting. Janet was angry and didn’t want to share Jeremy and though initially David engaged in a battle with her around this, David – 24 at the time- eventually gave up and settled for a minimal relationship with Jeremy. When Jeremy was about 5, David resumed his fight for shared legal custody and won. However, after some failed attempts at parent guidance sessions which Janet initially refused, they developed separate relationships with Jeremy in styles which did not overlap.
Though Janet claimed she wanted David to be more involved with their son, she often sabotaged this, failing to share important information about Jeremy with him- as well as giving him the cold shoulder when they were at school or sports events, and at drop-off and pick-up. In addition, she attempted to manage the details of his relationship with Jeremy, for example, insisting on pre-approving how they spent their time. On the surface she appeared mistrustful of David as a dad, though there was no legitimate basis for this. Though she was obviously still resentful towards David, her behavior also seemed indicative of a general possessiveness towards Jeremy.
Jeremy was 12 but very young for his age. He had a somewhat clingy but ambivalent relationship with his mother – who failed to provide structure for Jeremy and at times behaved in a rigid and irrational way. Jeremy used to have tantrums but as he got older, this behavior was largely replaced with becoming sullen, uncommunicative, or passively defiant when he was unhappy or mad. At these times he did not seem to listen and was difficult to reach emotionally. He also seemed to get unexplained stomach aches during times of stress and conflict.
Jeremy seemed to have a good time on the weekends with his dad and easily became attached to dad’s girlfriend of several years, Sonya. They all seemed to have fun together and Jeremy often asked about Sonya when she did not join them. When David had told Janet that Sonya would be spending some time with Jeremy and his dad, she chastised David and said that his time with Jeremy was supposed to be for them alone and that it was inappropriate. Over the last several months, as David explained that Sonya was becoming a central part of his life and that they would soon be engaged and living together, Janet began making a case that Jeremy was unhappy about spending time with David and Sonya, though she refused to elaborate.
Subsequently, in the car prior to a visit with dad Jeremy became sullen, asking his dad if Sonya would be there, stating that he didn’t like Sonya. David was surprised since Jeremy had seemed excited and happy when they were all together, and this had never come up before. David did not know what to make of Jeremy’s feelings and could not get Jeremy to explain himself.
David responded to Jeremy by pointing out that Jeremy seemed to like her when he was with her. Privately, he wondered whether Janet might have told Jeremy that she disapproved of Sonya. Then it occurred to him that maybe Jeremy needed more time alone with him. He quickly suggested that they do something alone – just the two of them – if Jeremy wanted. Jeremy did not respond and was quiet the rest of the trip. He greeted Sonya flatly when they got home and got on the computer to play games. A few hours later David asked Jeremy if he wanted to go out for ice-cream with him. Jeremy ran to find Sonya and asked if she could come too. They all had a good time. Various renditions of this scenario recurred over the next few months.
During this time period, on one occasion David let Janet know that he planned to attend Jeremy’s baseball games and might bring Sonya. When Sonya and David arrived at the field, the two of them and Janet took positions on opposite ends of the stands. Jeremy was on the field at the time and the game had not yet begun. When he saw his dad he excitedly ran over to him and Sonya from the field and started talking breathlessly. Once the game started, Jeremy glanced towards the stands. Shortly thereafter, he stopped playing, complained of a stomach ache, and had to go home.
What is happening here? We can all probably easily recognize this story as a clear case of a child being put in the middle between divorced parents.
But what can be done?
David sought counseling because he felt confused and frustrated, recognizing that this situation was but one of many to come. He felt helpless to have any impact on his son, leading him to feel discouraged and despairing. Jeremy spent so much more time with his mom. David knew it was hopeless to resolve issues with Janet because he had tried and failed so many times. Janet did not seem curious about Jeremy’s experience and was either unwilling or unable to reflect on her own experience and impact on Jeremy.
How can we help David and his son?
In spite of his doubts, David’s relationship with his son is critical and will in and of itself have a significant impact on Jeremy’s development. David’s energy should be positively channeled into developing and enhancing his relationship with his son.
In his worry and confusion, David struggled with whether he was hurting Jeremy by having Sonya join them. He wondered whether he could trust his reading of Jeremy. Was Jeremy having fun when he seemed to be having fun? If he was, then why would Jeremy say that he didn’t like Sonya and act sullen?
How should David handle the situation when Jeremy says this to him? When he took a rational stance and disputed what Jeremy was saying, or took it at face value, neither approach worked and Jeremy would become withdrawn and more sullen.
How can we understand Jeremy’s behavior? Jeremy was confused about his inner experience because he sensed – as all children do- the emotional state of his parents. In this example, he sensed the palpable tension between his mom and dad at the baseball game – tension which was barely tolerable even for David. No one was available to help Jeremy manage his feelings. He -adaptively – developed a stomach ache, in the absence of any other way to articulate or escape the situation.
David accurately perceived that Jeremy seemed to freely enjoy his relationship with Sonya before that relationship took on other meaning for his mom. Whether or not Janet directly stated to Jeremy that she disapproved of Sonya, Jeremy could read his mom’s strong feelings and internalized her emotions and state of mind, blocking his own perceptions and feelings. Jeremy appeared depressed and withdrawn as he unconsciously expressed his mom’s perceptions as if they were his own. This depressive mood did not lift when David willingly offered to spend time alone with him, without Sonya. Jeremy’s sullenness, and its persistence in the face of David’s responsiveness to what Jeremy said he felt, communicated the deeper message below the surface of Jeremy’s words.
Jeremy’s reaction was created by having taken on his mom’s feelings, while disavowing his own, creating a state of constriction, detachment, and lack of vitality. When Jeremy said that he didn’t like Sonya, David could have said to Jeremy in an empathic way, “I know it makes mommy unhappy when you spend time with Sonya and you don’t want her to feel bad. “ (This would only be helpful if said without any unconscious intent to retaliate and blame or judge Janet. Otherwise, it would simply compound Jeremy’s confusion.) When David noticed Jeremy having fun with him and Sonya, David could have brought that to light in the moment… “I see you’re having fun today!” Later, David could have expanded on this and begun to articulate the conflict for Jeremy …”I know it makes mommy unhappy when you spend time with Sonya and you don’t want her to feel bad. But you’re allowed to have fun.. and it’s ok to have your own feelings and opinions – even if they are different from mommy’s or from mine.” Of course, in order for David to be successful in reading his son and helping him consolidate his experience, David needs to be of clear mind, unencumbered by his own feelings towards Janet and any anxieties he might have about how Jeremy feels about Sonya and their relationship.
Jeremy needed his dad’s help to understand what he was experiencing, and not simply take his words at face value or dispute them rationally. Parents cannot rely on their children to explain to them what is really going on. It is the parent who must discern what is happening and impart their interpretation of what the child is experiencing. If his dad could tune in to what Jeremy is struggling with and elucidate it for him, Jeremy would feel immediate relief and clarity. If David repeatedly resonates with and articulates what Jeremy feels, this will strengthen Jeremy’s sense of himself, his ability to read and rely on his feelings and perceptions of others, and bond him to his dad – protecting him from falling into a desolate state of ambiguity and confusion. The more developed these capacities the more resilient Jeremy will be in his relationships, and the more he will be able to protect himself versus have his inner experience hijacked by others.
Children can have qualitatively different attachments with each parent. Research consistently shows that a secure attachment with a parent or other trusted adult can ameliorate the effects of troubled attachments and trauma, creating new experiences and new pathways in the brain. A secure and attuned attachment ignites the development of capacities in the child which are necessary for understanding and relating to others and oneself as well as regulating mood and feelings. Such capacities are created and fostered by parents who are self-aware, able to reflect on their own experiences and state of mind, and clear enough of emotional baggage to be present and thoughtful in how they respond to the child the majority of the time.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Drew, 19, and Steve, 20, were close brothers raised in a volatile family. When Drew started getting into trouble in college, their mom arranged for the brothers to live together in an apartment, hoping that Steve could watch out for Drew. This solution backfired; the boys acted out family-related power plays. Physical confrontation escalated along with family-related conflict and hostility. At this point, the mom sought help.
Mom and Dad’s Perspective
Kate was an immigrant from Italy who, more than anything, wanted a better life for her children. She worked tirelessly to earn money for their education.
Consistent with the old-school style of authoritarian parenting with which she was raised, Kate demanded devotion and obedience. She was very involved with her sons and, though caring, she was also high-strung, anxious and unrelenting when they didn’t perform – yelling, threatening and lecturing – reminding them of her very real sacrifice and suffering on their behalf.
Drew perpetually disappointed and upset Kate. He failed to live up to her expectations and often lied to appease her. She worried about his ability to be independent, responsible, and protect himself. Steve, on the other hand, was seen as the ideal son: high-achieving, responsible, and aggressive. She constantly compared the two of them.
Both Kate and Don, the boys’ father, had frequent, explosive outbursts and acknowledged that, at times, they were physically abusive to their boys. Don had a short temper and unpleasant disposition, often angry, entitled and humiliating toward Kate and Drew. He was only minimally involved with the boys and didn’t attend therapy.
Brothers: Steve and Drew
With family, Drew typically was argumentative and defiant, defensively reacting to criticism and attacks for failing to measure up. Otherwise, Drew was friendly, good-natured and sensitive. He had a palpable longing to be loved, and a chameleon quality designed to get it. Drew’s sense of worth was tied up in how he appeared, always needing others’ approval, and often feeling insecure, anxious and bad about himself.
Drew had come out as gay in high school. In college, he tried to emotionally break away from his mom and flaunt his separate identity. Seeking admiration and celebrity, he began to dress in a flamboyant and revealing style, posing online in sexually provocative photos, and behaving in ways that put him at risk to be victimized, which he was.
In college, Drew became involved in mutually obsessive relationships in which he was dominated and controlled. In these relationships, he was unable to hold his own or break away, leading to the downward spiraling of his grades, family relationships, and friends.
Growing up, Steve acted as man of the house, protecting Drew and their mom from their dad, who picked on Drew. Steve also actively defended his brother from bullies at school.
Steve proudly considered himself “the alpha male,” coming across as loud, aggressive, and stilted as if lecturing. He had an intensity, dominance and perseverance reminiscent of his mom.
Steve behaved in a paternalistic and arrogant way toward his brother, acting as co-parent and agent of their mom. As they got older, this dominance and loyalty to their mom led to increasing fights between the two willful brothers.
Power Plays between Brothers
This cycle intensified after they moved in together, escalating into physical brawls, as Drew felt ganged up on and put down. Seeing himself as in charge, Steve used his authority and physical strength to try to force Drew to behave as he deemed appropriate, including around the house. Drew rebelled and fought back. Though weaker and less physically powerful than his brother, Drew wouldn’t back down, but inwardly became increasingly panicked.
Therapy initially involved Drew and his mom, but evolved into sessions with the brothers alone.
Children internalize blueprints from the family. Experiences in the family become imprinted in the brain, serving as templates for future relationships. In this family, aggression and threats were used to force obedience. The mom also used emotional force in the form of guilt and shaming.
Drew and Steve learned that the only roles available in relationships were perpetrator and victim, dominance and submission. In this dynamic, power is abused, and force is used to control other people in order to manage one’s own anxiety and helplessness.
Both boys internalized this blueprint. They submitted and accommodated to what was expected in an instinctive effort to keep their mom from getting upset. Doing so also protected themselves from physical and psychological threat.
Children’s Responses to Rigid Parental Expectations
On the outside, Steve became the man his mom wanted – obsessively driven and protective, with a reflexive survival instinct to dominate and attack. Underneath, however, Steve felt anxious, empty and lonely. He was also unsettled by the awareness that he was easily triggered into a detached anger and ability to get out of control.
Unlike his brother, Drew couldn’t develop the image or behaviors expected of him, and felt inadequate and ashamed. He learned to lie, and alternated between accommodating and rebelling. Insisting that no one could stop him from being himself or make him into someone else, Drew developed an “identity” based on needing to prove he could defy his family’s values and attempts to control him. In doing so, however, ironically he took on the familiar role from which he was escaping, in which he was the object of others’ fantasies – desperate to secure love and affirmation, but betraying himself.
Steve felt terrified and helpless as he witnessed his brother setting himself up to be victimized. His efforts to force him to behave not only failed but inadvertently trained Drew to be submissive in close relationships, and tempted him to break out and do the opposite of what the family wanted.
Steve felt protective of his brother and cared deeply about him. But when they talked, he lectured and made fun of him, modeling himself after his mom. Feeling overpowered and judged, rather than cared about, Drew shut him out and counterattacked, rigidly determined not to submit. This defense provoked Steve into asserting more dominance, perpetuating a battleground and stalemate between them.
Effects of Growing Up in a Stressful Environment
Steve and Drew were driven by a chronic sense of agitation and reactivity as a result of growing up in a highly stressful, chaotic environment. With looming emotional or physical threat, children are catapulted into a constant state of hyperarousal. This state perpetuates ongoing activation of survival instincts such as fight and surrender, persisting into adulthood even when threat no longer exists. Overwhelmed physiologically, and armed with a paradigm of rigid relationships, Steve and Drew were unable to extricate themselves from a battlefield mentality.
Therapy helped Steve and Drew see that they were re-experiencing the pervasive anxiety and power struggles they internalized growing up. As they recognized this, and saw that their fights were fueled by trying to fend off being overpowered or shamed, they no longer felt so divided. Also, when Steve recognized that his approach was reinforcing Drew’s inability to hold his own in other relationships, he was determined to learn more effective ways to relate to him.
Learning to Communicate Differently
Coached to use a softer tone and express caring directly, Steve began to reach his brother emotionally in the sessions. In turn, Drew became less defensive and more cooperative, and began to see that resisting others was not always the way to be true to himself.
Leveling the Playing Field
When the brothers first moved in together, the therapist empowered Drew to temporarily be in charge of household decisions, letting him know that he was on his honor to consider what was fair and take care not to abuse his authority. This strategy was designed to change their power dynamic, and give the brothers experience learning to consider the concept of fairness and respect for one another’s autonomy.
Respecting Autonomy and Learning to Negotiate
When being introduced to the concepts of negotiation and persuasion, Steve was instructed to practice making requests and tolerate the possibility that Drew might say “no.” They learned how to recognize the beginning signs of agitation and step back to calm themselves before engaging in conversation.
One night, dressed in a skimpy outfit, Drew woke Steve asking him for a ride to a party in town. Steve felt his anger beginning to boil. He felt held hostage and was outraged seeing Drew dressed this way. Steve knew that if he let his brother take the train looking so provocative, Drew would be at risk for danger. But he felt jerked around and didn’t want to be seen with his brother dressed that way. Previously, a predictable power struggle would have erupted in which Steve would make fun of and attack Drew, who would protest, “You can’t boss me – I’m my own person.” In the end, one or both would get physically injured, or Drew would run out and in fact get into trouble.
This time, Steve remembered how it usually played out. He calmed himself – attempting to step back from his survival instincts and commander-in-chief mentality. Instead of attacking his brother, Steve asked Drew to make a deal with him: in exchange for the ride, Drew would put sweatpants and a sweatshirt on for the ride. Drew initially started to engage reflexively in a control struggle, but Steve did not take the bait. Aware that they could persuade but not control the other, or use physical or psychological force, they managed to stay in the mindset of negotiating. Neither was happy having to compromise. But they smiled proudly as they told this story from the perspective of brothers on the same team.
Therapy helped Steve and Drew become less polarized and see that they struggled with counterparts of the same dynamic and that they were not so different from each other after all. As the brothers learned to solve differences together without force, they experienced a true sense of empowerment and the possibility of freedom from the inner world of the past that entrapped them.
Negative Effects of Authoritarian Parenting
Power plays can unconsciously protect people from a feeling of separation, loss of control and helplessness. But demanding submission and obedience can backfire. It can teach children dependency and automatic behavior and discourage the development of problem-solving, judgment and autonomous thinking. Requiring children to surrender themselves leads to the development of a false self, precluding authentic relationships and impeding the development of identity and self-reliance. Further, forcing obedience breeds aggression, resentment, and the need to escape through disobedience or becoming submerged.
Ultimately, in this case, Kate was able to loosen her hold over her sons, recognizing that she was unintentionally passing on family dynamics that created aggression, fragility and division instead of strength. As these patterns were made explicit, they could be changed, freeing Steve and Drew from expectations that did not fit them, and creating a space among them to accept and navigate differences.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Sabrina, 18, was a freshman away at college. Shortly after she arrived at school she found out that her parents had just split up. Sabrina also soon discovered that her dad had been having an affair since she was in high school, and was still involved with the other woman.
Sabrina came across as superficially tough and apathetic but her hurt and desire for connection were just beneath the surface. She said she had no idea why she felt so bad – so depressed and anxious – and that there was no good reason for it. However, when the topic of her dad came up, Sabrina became visibly distressed. She was adamant that she didn’t want to talk about him, didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and “didn’t care” – but often ended up talking about him anyway. Also, Sabrina frequently commented that if she met her dad’s girlfriend she would “punch her in the face.”
Sabrina’s attitude towards her dad was a change of heart from how she felt towards him growing up. Even though he wasn’t around all the time, she felt a strong connection and identification with him. In this regard, she talked about how she was never a “girly girl ” like her sister, and how she and her dad were both good at math and science.
Sabrina always did well in school until she went off to college. She was caught off guard this year when she began feeling homesick and out of her element – lost in a large school in the engineering department. Sabrina was noticeably hard on herself, hating that she was “weak and pathetic” and criticizing herself for not being able to focus on her work or get better. Her depression made it hard to concentrate and she found herself constantly ruminating, “What if I fail?” and worried about disappointing her parents. The pressure led to a repetitive spiral of poor grades and increasing panic, guilt and shame. Sabrina became uncertain of what she was good at or interested in, losing her focus and direction.
Sabrina didn’t tell anyone what she was going through and felt lonely and isolated. She didn’t want to talk to her dad and felt protective of her mom, fearful of burdening her. Sabrina mostly pretended things were fine, though occasionally dropping some conspicuous hints to her mom about wishing she (Sabrina) were dead.
Sabina’s mom, Deb, was in the throes of grief and depression following the breakup of her marriage. She wanted to help Sabrina and seemed loving but, at the same time, needed her daughter to be ok and was generally oblivious to what Sabrina was going through. Deb often gave quick advice or geared the conversation to her own problems, not taking seriously Sabrina’s expressions of desperation about whether she could survive.
Sabrina’s dad, Sam, was a high achieving, very successful engineer He held Sabrina to similarly high standards, confident (as she had been) that she would flourish in a related field. He seemed to love Sabrina more than anything but was somewhat emotionally immature – clueless about how to manage their relationship. Though he frequently came across as critical, reactive and not easily empathic or tuned in to feelings, he also seemed ingenuous, and was himself easily hurt.
Sam expressed his love and caring for Sabrina by giving her money and advice. On the one hand, he seemed to feel guilty when he recognized how much he hurt her by having the affair. But – on the other- he was mad about her ongoing anger towards him, arguing self-righteously that he, also, was entitled to happiness. Sam was very focused on wanting Sabrina to meet his girlfriend and be friendly with her – which would help his life be less divided. “Why should Sabrina be mad at her? And how long do I have to let her be mad at me? Plenty of families go through this. This can’t be all my fault. She’s just manipulating me into feeling bad. Sabrina’s problem is that she likes to blame everyone else but herself for her problems and failures.”
Sabrina was shocked, confused and devastated at the news of her parents’ divorce and her dad’s affair. She experienced her connection with her dad as having been severed, Disoriented by the thought of her dad as disloyal, she no longer could -or wanted to- identify with him and was too hurt and mad to let herself feel any connection to him. But the angrier she was, the more badness, guilt, and depression she felt. In addition, because the affair was secretly going on while she was still at home, she also felt she could no longer trust herself and her own instincts.
Children internalize how their parents see them and their expectations.
Sabrina’s adjustment to the pressures and challenges of college was impacted by the breaking apart of her relationship with her dad, an important part of her identity. Growing up, she internalized her dad’s positive view of her, as well as his criticism, high expectations, and easy disappointment in her. This relational pattern, combined with Sam’s inconsistent presence at home, was a recipe for a strong but insecure attachment to her dad even before the current episode. With this fragile foundation, Sabrina was especially vulnerable in the wake of rifts and loss in relationships.
Children come to experience themselves through the eyes of their parents – shaping their attitude towards themselves. Sabrina’s anger and disconnect from her dad, particularly in a context of failing grades, thwarted her ability to hold in mind the sustaining support of his positive view of her. She became progressively anxious and immobilized in the face of academic demands – taking on the role of “critical dad” with herself.
On the surface Sabrina blamed her dad for what he did and said she’d never forgive him. However, she was also quick to defend him and insist he was not the cause of her problems, maintaining that there was just something wrong with her. Sabrina initially refused to have me talk with her dad or allow him to join a session to begin a dialogue with him. She said it wouldn’t make a difference anyway because he would never apologize for what he did, or for anything – for that matter, acknowledging that an apology could be something that might help.
Anger and indifference may be self-protective.
Sabrina’s opposition to trying to work things out with her dad allowed her to maintain a self-protective posture of anger and indifference. Despite her protests, however, she eventually gave in to the part of herself that longed for connection, and agreed to allow me to talk with both parents and participate in sessions with each.
In family therapy with her mom, Sabrina told her mom how she felt. With help, Deb was able to recognize the importance of tolerating her daughter’s pain, and was able to be present with her in her distress, rather than deflect it. This helped Sabrina feel “seen” and comforted, lessening her desperation, but still not making up for her broken relationship with her dad.
Therapy With Dad
In individual sessions, Sabrina’s dad seemed eager to understand his daughter and repair their relationship. At times, he struggled – retreating to the original story he told himself about her being at fault. However, like Sabrina, Sam easily felt bad and guilty, making him want to run away. Both Sabrina and her dad tried to ward off the self-loathing and pain that accompanied their guilt, vacillating between feeling bad about themselves and then using anger at the other to escape these feelings.
Sabrina’s shame and self-recrimination, however, was a reaction to the internalized critical voice of her dad, not the result of any actual wrongdoing.
In Sam’s case, unlike Sabrina’s, there was “legitimate guilt “ – a built-in response of conscience designed to alert us that we did something wrong and betrayed our own morals. When guilt turns into self- loathing or self-punishment, however, it loses its utilitarian, evolutionary function by turning us inward towards our suffering – rather than outward towards making amends in relationships.
What should dad do to make things better?
Sam needed to bear and “own” the legitimate part of the guilt he felt, instead of projecting it in the form of blame, or sinking into despair.
Doing so would allow him to begin to truly take responsibility for his actions by accepting the consequences – his daughter’s anger at him. In this way, a space would be created for Sabrina’s feelings and the burden of her guilt for having them would be lifted.
Sabrina needed her dad to feel bad about what he did, not primarily so that he could be punished and suffer, but as a way to get him to “know” her experience of hurt and rejection– which she had no other way to communicate.
Through the unconscious process of projective identification, Sabrina tried to get through to her dad – making him feel bad and pushed away, the way he made her feel. Once Sam was able to recognize this behavior as a communication he needed to receive, rather than react to, Sabrina became noticeably calmer and more contained.
As he understood these dynamics, Sam felt more empathy for his daughter and was able to apologize for what he did and express regret. He realized that Sabrina’s anger did not mean she really hated him, or that he had to suffer and couldn’t allow himself to also be happy. This awareness, along with recognizing that accepting her feelings was the only route towards mending their relationship, freed him up to tolerate however his daughter felt towards him, even if it was unpleasant.
Sam learned to notice Sabrina’s anger and respond by telling her that he “got” that she was mad at him and why– and that, in spite of it being difficult for him, he was ok. Concurrently, he began working towards allowing himself to feel remorse without self-recrimination.
Sam also recognized that he had imposed his own standards for himself onto Sabrina, pressuring and constraining her. He owned up to having been critical of her and pointed out to her that he could see she learned this from him. He told her he thought she was now treating herself the way he had treated her – demanding that she meet expectations, or suffer demoralization. Taking ownership of ways he treated Sabrina allowed these powerful patterns – now in an orbit of their own inside her – to potentially free up and become available for change.
Sam struggled to accept that Sabrina was a different person from him. He wanted to embrace that, let go of needing her to be someone else, and help her develop in her own right. Sabrina in turn began spending more time with her dad. Though reluctant to trust him, or seem forgiving or praiseworthy of his efforts, she was noticeably less resistant to him and less tormented within herself. With this progress, Sabrina was able to accept help from her dad and address the other issues in her life.
Tips For Parents
• When your child is mad at you, or says he/she hates you, remember that these are states – not permanent conditions or truths.
• Take a leap of faith. Reassure yourself that teens will likely “come back” to you. Remember that this will happen sooner if you can accept, and be interested in, how they feel and not need them to feel otherwise or lecture them about your own feelings. (How teens handle their anger, however, is another issue and is “your business” in terms of what is acceptable or not.)
• Try not to be reactive or defensive – this will likely escalate or prolong how your teen is feeling. Recognize that hurt is often underneath anger. Try to manage your own feelings of rejection and anger.
• Know that equanimity in the face of your teen’s anger is privately comforting and sustaining to your teen. This composure is a reminder that the relationship will not be destroyed if they are angry and that your love is not contingent on their reassuring you.
• Consider your teen’s perspective and your role in the situation. Take responsibility for your part and apologize. Remember that you are a role model.
• Prepare yourself for your teen’s anger towards you and practice. Picture “holding your own” – reminding yourself that this is difficult but that you can tolerate it, and that your teen’s feelings now do not mean she will forever hate you.
• When your teen’s anger is received as a communication (vs acted upon), and then you as a parent understand and articulate it back to him/her, the feelings can be “digested” rather than harbored or acted out.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Everyone tells new parents how hard it’s going to be. But you can’t really know till you’re there yourself, sleep deprived, wanting to do your best at this very important job, and always feeling overwhelmed by the demands. This is an especially hard time for couples.
A lot of people who had great relationships before baby find themselves arguing more, feeling resentful of each other, feeling rejected or abandoned by their partner. If you’re coming into parenthood in your thirties or later, it may also be difficult to adjust to the changes in scheduling. One of you may have stopped working, and you’re feeling the financial pressure. You may not have the support of family or trusted friends and feel like you have to do it all yourself. If you both go back to work, then you may feel worried about childcare or guilty that you’re not with your child enough. And, while tending to the needs of this vulnerable, little person, it’s all too easy to neglect each other, not to mention yourselves.
It’s helpful to recognize that this transition comes with a lot of unexpected stresses. Often there are elements you could never have predicted. You or your spouse may have post-partum depression or anxiety. The baby may have difficulty feeding, sleeping, or some other distress you couldn’t anticipate. You may not have realized how childbirth and parenting would impact your sex life. You may feel resentful of the changes – but also guilty for feeling bad.
A lot of new parents have an idea that they have to pretend that everything is fine, even to themselves. Complaining may seem like you don’t love your child, or that you’re somehow not up to the task of parenthood. Sometimes couples don’t even talk to each other about these feelings, and neither one knows the other is going through the same thing. They end up feeling isolated. Or they fight about cleaning or money, not realizing that what they’re really feeling is lonely and overwhelmed.
If your relationship has suffered since the baby was born, it’s essential that you make some changes right away. When couples ignore problems, they tend to grow rather than to resolve. Talk to your partner gently about how you’re feeling. Don’t attack or criticize. Instead share how hard it is, how different from what you expected. Tell your partner that even though you seem angry or distant, really what you’re feeling is exhausted or overwhelmed. Tell him/her that even though you love your child, you miss the time you used to take for granted, time together and time for yourselves.
Sometimes these conversations are difficult to have on your own. It can feel scary or risky to open up and let yourself be so vulnerable. It may be hard to find the time without distractions to really listen to each other. Your partner may be too defensive to hear you. Or you might not know how to phrase things – so they come out wrong. It may just feel like there’s too much water under the bridge.
If you need assistance getting your relationship back on track, you might want to meet with a counselor who specializes in couples therapy – someone who has a lot of experience working with new parents. Therapy can help you clarify what each of you is feeling, wanting and needing. It’s a place where you can learn effective communication skills. In the process, many couples find a new sense of peace and equilibrium. They find it easier to turn to each other when the demands of parenting get overwhelming. They have more empathy and understanding for each other. They recognize that even though there are times when they can’t give each other what’s needed in the moment, there is still a deep bond of love, concern and friendship.
Couples who take care of their relationships live longer, happier lives and have happier, more secure kids. So don’t hesitate to get the help you need to strengthen your marriage.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Parents may have a clear vision of their child’s “potential.” When this is discrepant from kids’ actual performance, they may fear their children’s futures. Even more unnerving is when kids don’t share these visions or worries. It’s enough to make any parent want to shake them into shape.
“Potential,” however, must incorporate personality, developmental and emotional factors which impinge on resilience and capacity. For example, bright kids may get poor grades when they are unable to withstand pressure, or when energies are consumed by urgent concerns such as fitting in socially or fear of failing.
Why is it so important that our kids live up to our expectations of them?
The obvious answer is that we want what is best for them.
But what we see in children and what we need them to be may be confounded by fears and biases from our own upbringing. Unconsciously denied or disowned aspects of ourselves can be projected onto others, even our kids, and seen in them. When this happens, a conflict that really exists within ourselves is responded to in others. For example, if we feel trapped by responsibility and commitments, we may feel contemptuous of a friend who is making more frivolous choices — thinking, “I would never do that,” but maybe secretly envious.
Worse, if we see evidence of such triggering traits in our children we may get anxious — and then fooled into thinking we are acting strictly on their behalf. If we’ve always had to be “strong” — in control — or “perfect,” we may react to kids’ apparent lack of discipline, because we learned to experience these behaviors in ourselves as unacceptable. We then easily become determined that our kids prove themselves, which helps us feel less anxious, regardless of the actual effect on our kids.
I am reminded of a man — a brilliant engineer, from a family of academics. He was pushed hard to succeed, but later became depressed, lamenting about why his own son, a creative, unconventional kid with a sharp wit and warm spirit, wasn’t very driven or disciplined in school, unlike his brother’s kids. Secretly ashamed of him, he continually feared whether his son would make it in life.
Father described himself as a “nerd” growing up — he studied a lot but, bullied by his peers and socially awkward, he was lonely. In his struggle to help his son who had learning and emotional problems, he was pained by feeling ashamed and critical of him. In working with teachers, he came to learn that his son was a hero at school, risking his own social status to defend kids from being bullied and, though not always well behaved, boldly stood up for justice. The father’s feelings and perceptions of his son changed (as did the boy’s) as he came to feel an essential truth about his kid — that he not only had strengths the father did not but, also, that had his son been his classmate growing up, he would have protected him.
What are the effects on our children of our disappointment or satisfaction with them?
Children come to see themselves through our eyes. Research shows that brain and emotional development is shaped by the interpersonal rhythm between parent and child. Psychologically and neurobiologically, they form their sense of themselves and ability to regulate emotions from how we see and relate to them and ourselves. They internalize our reactions to them, which become the blueprint of how they react to their own mistakes, frustrations, successes, disappointments. Fortunately, brains and minds are molded by experiences throughout life.
We can detect when unconsciously disguised agendas have made their way into our reactions and judgment because we feel a determined, rigid and anxiety-driven need for a particular behavior or outcome from our kids. We can help children learn to bear frustration and disappointment –by bearing it ourselves — letting go of the temptation to rescue them from failure, and maintaining faith and perspective. Responding from positive motivation and acceptance rather than fear will help kids do the same.
Kids are most likely to do their best when parents set realistic goals consistent with kids’ interests and personalities, and focus on valuing and developing their unique strengths. Once the stakes are not so high, it is easier for kids to take initiative, test themselves and persevere without being held back by fear. If children come to see themselves through our eyes, taming our own anxieties and expectations will allow them to flourish. Then we may have the fortune to find what they offer which — though perhaps not what we had expected — is a gift engraved with their signature.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Distinguish between feelings and behavior. All feelings are permitted (you don’t have to love your sister, you can wish she’d never been born), but actions must be limited (no hurting, kicking, biting).
Understand the reasons for sibling rivalry. Each one of us–adult or child–wants to be loved uniquely, not equally. Most of us would not be eager to share our spouse with someone younger or cuter!
Don’t intervene UNLESS SOMEONE IS GETTING HURT. TRY whenever possible, to let them work out their disputes by themselves. When you must intervene, do it neutrally and evenhandedly, without accusing(blaming) one child and absolving the other. Make a strong brief statement, such as “There will be no hurting.” or “I will not let one child I love hurt another.” or “You have a choice. Either you can settle it yourselves, or if I have to intervene, you’ll both be punished.” However, if they are so angry or out of control that they need to be separated, a time out is warranted.
Avoid asking “WHO STARTED IT?” That question assumes that one child is guilty and the other one is innocent. “There’s no such thing as an innocent sibling” is generally a good rule of thumb, unless the younger one is under 18 months and can’t fend for himself.
Remember that kids often ENJOY fighting. It’s not boring. And when or if you’ve got a moment’s peace, it’s a great way to get you off the phone or away from what you’re doing so you can focus on them!
Encourage sharing, but realize that it’s hard to do. It goes against nature, because it often means getting less. When you have to share your M&Ms you get fewer for yourself!
Total fairness is impossible. No matter how much you strive for fairness, kids may still say “it’s not fair”. So treat them according to their needs, not the same. For instance, if one has a birthday, she’s the one entitled to receive presents.
Tattling, should not be permitted, since it’s usually to get one’s sibling in trouble. However, if your child comes to you because his sister or brother is hurt or in need of help, that’san exception to the rule.
And don’t forget to notice when they are NOT fighting.
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