- Sometimes a parent will bring in a child – natal, adopted, foster, etc. — who functions well enough in school and in public, but who has recurrent rages toward the parent at home. Rages only at home, and only at this parent.
- The parent is typically a very nice and kind parent – undeserving of any violent treatment (assuming anyone anywhere is deserving of violent treatment.) So the parent is mystified. “What’s going on? She needs help!”
- A case example walked into my office in Ontario soon after I finished graduate school. A single father complained about his nine year-old daughter. “Sometimes she is fine, but suddenly she’ll be frustrated or upset by some little thing, and she starts attacking me or trying to break something precious to me! I feel so helpless. Why does she do that!?”
- Does she say anything? I asked.
- “Mostly just screaming. Sometimes she’ll say odd things like, “I don’t deserve to be in this family!” or “You hate me!” or “I hate you!” or “You don’t love me!” What should I do!?
- This question, “What should I do!?” is a red flag for most psychodynamic therapists. We know so well that our goal is not to give advice but to help reflect, help with process. However “What should I do?!” is one of my professional weaknesses.
- Too often I head off into advices:
- Try to not reassure, but give Empathy for how she must be feeling….“I tried that.”
- …and be in charge of yourself so there are not TWO dysregulated people in the room…
- “I did that.”
- ….and remember that the more you want to get away from her, the more she needs you nearby….
- “I remembered that.”
- Finally I heard myself rattling off ‘advice’ to an emotionally exhausted parent who needed my empathy for himself – my empathy for how he was feeling, my empathy for how hard he was trying, and my empathy for his own unresolved past traumas.
- I apologized.
- Beginning with the last item, this father’s own traumatic past left him determined to keep things positive for his own child. He dealt with his despair by disallowing any ambivalent feelings of his own such as resentment, until it burst and he would lash out verbally, after which he felt horrible.
- Thus when he felt frustrated at his child’s blind, out-of-control behavior, he would bury his frustration so that it came out sideways – tearful pleadings with his daughter to “Tell me what’s wrong so I can help you!!” and “What is it you want!?”
- And when she of course could not explain herself on a conscious level, but kept expressing her sense of shame and worthlessness preverbally and violently, he would eventually blow up in exasperation, desperately wanting to help.
- This explosion would leave him burdened with shame and fear that he had wounded his child. However it sometimes had the paradoxical effect of calming his child. At last she could finally see in this repressed father some real feelings she could trust.
- I now had a helpful map of their double-bind. In a double-bind, people are stuck in a dilemma: feeling bad if they act, and equally bad if they do nothing. Lose-lose, what do you choose?
- Father could try to be direct about his own anger and resentment, but then would beat himself up for expressing negative feelings to a child, his suffering daughter no less. Or he could keep repressing his own resentments and continue to feel unable to connect to her in her own struggles.
- The daughter was also in a double bind: When I get scared that I’m not lovable, my dad doesn’t get it and wants me to explain it and tell him what I need. But I have no idea how to articulate that stuff – I’m just a kid! — so my sense of being not good enough increases….(begin again)….
- Finally, as the therapist, I also enter the double bind (though I am the one who can best reflect productively on the experience of being there.) Heck, I offered this father my best ideas and advice, yet was repeatedly dismissed with “I tried that.”
- Rather than start arguing with father about whether or not he ‘tried that’ the proper way, my path forward is to recognize my privileged position. I am experiencing what the father AND his daughter experience – frustration, helplessness, hopelessness and the resentment at doing ones best and receiving no results, appreciation or recognition. If my ‘best’ was not good enough for father, perhaps I am not good enough.
- When I can reflect on this, perhaps right away or later in clinical consultation, I feel honored to have been allowed to experience their stuck system for myself. I am grateful for an inside view of the emotional challenge which faces father: to find a way to tolerate standing with old intolerable feelings and reflecting from that place until it is safe for his daughter to recognize her own feelings in him, allowing her to sense (over time) that there is less need to maintain the fierce, defensive walls between them.
- This is the therapeutic potential of allowing ourselves to sit inside any client’s paralyzing double-bind. Just not for too long.
A 12 y.o. adoptee was brought in for bully behavior at school and at home. He was intimidating his new parents and classmates, and was recently charged with bringing a weapon to school — a sharpened stick which he could both use to threaten and technically argue that ‘it isn’t a weapon’. He loved to debate like a lawyer with anyone who would listen – but his strategy was to never give up because his goal was to always win.
The school psychologist had tried a shaming tough-guy approach. He called the boy “a creep!” This attempt to isolate by shame was gasoline on the flames of the child’s negative internal working model. (Since I’m so bad that even the helpers reject me, I’ll go for the gold – ‘success’ is now to be the worst kid ever.)
Because of a long early history of abject maltreatment, he had learned to recreate the “bad kid” response in the eyes of caretakers and other adults in charge. Using kids’ normal, unsound logic – which never gives up a point because they are really craving our attention and closeness – he would engage adults in endless arguments where he would always ‘prove’ the adult to be wrong, unfair, hypocritical, or otherwise unfit.
I think this re-creation in others of the intense feelings of rejection and inadequacy from his own early years displayed the bully’s signature brilliance of forcing others to feel his unresolved feelings for him.
When we were introduced, this boy saw me as simply the latest challenge for his undefeated debating skills. He looked me grimly in the eye.
“So. Do you believe in Creationism?”
Five possible responses were immediately on my plate. But he would have been familiar with only four of them.
A. “Uh…well, I….uh….haven’t really studied it…”
B. “What — now you want to argue religion?! What next!!”
C. “I’m asking the questions here, Buster!”
D. “Yes.” [or “No.”]
My fifth option was to go relational. I could reflect with complete acceptance, AND include my feelings of being at risk of losing a potential friend – a place he had been so many times:
E. [with feeling] “Wow, you want to know my personal beliefs! (Acceptance) Now I’m afraid of giving the wrong answer, because then you might not like me; I like you a lot, but I’m afraid you won’t like ME if I don’t answer right……What am I going to do?! [etc.]”
This was empathic mirroring of the child’s own unspoken fears from similar situations in the past. As we talked, I repeated this in various combinations and permutations, until to argue with me was to reject his own long-sought yearning to be accepted.
As Dan Hughes once pointed out with a smile, “It’s hard for any of us to reject for very long being totally accepted for who we are in this moment.”