Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels.
Mother: “Jamie asked for a special privilege to extend his curfew from 11:00 to 1:00 tonight, but it is the third time this week he has asked for this. My husband thinks it is good that he is asking us instead of just disobeying the curfew. I just said, “So what are you going to do with Jack and BJ until 1:00?” Jamie stormed out of the room and went to talk to his father. His father said, “Sure, OK, have fun and be careful.” “Be careful!” If we trusted that he would be careful, we wouldn’t be in this situation. He has done dangerous things. Those kids he has been hanging around with are big trouble. I think one of them is dealing for sure. But he won’t speak to me now – only to his father. His father says, “Let me deal with it!” But what does that mean? I guess it means set no limits at all. He is afraid to say no to him. That makes him the good guy and me the bad guy. I am always the bad guy. He acts as if he hates me. I feel as though I have lost my son.”
Father: “She is so negative and judgmental that I can’t blame Jamie for avoiding her. I hear them downstairs getting into it and I want to shut the door and pretend it isn’t going on, but I am afraid for him. She gets Jamie so upset; I don’t know what he will do. So I try to go down and intervene. That only makes her enraged at me, and he just leaves. Don’t get me wrong. She has been a good mother in many ways. I know she loves him. But I don’t know why she can’t leave him alone. She really doesn’t listen to me when I tell her to give him space, to let me handle it. She just has to control the situation.”
Son: “I really can’t stand her. I feel bad about it, but just being around her is too much for me. She doesn’t understand me at all. She wants me to be someone that isn’t me, like some of the kids of her friends. She is always thinking the worst about me. She won’t let me have any freedom, won’t let me be with my friends – and she criticizes my friends – says really bad things about them. She thinks they are criminals or something. All my friends think she is crazy. They don’t want to come to my house. I just have to stay away. Sometimes I think I will run away. Just to get away from her.
How do we understand this situation? This mother and father have such different points of view. As a matter of fact, you could describe their points of view as “polarized” – extreme, without any elaboration in between. Would you be surprised to hear that both mother and father have the capacity to be reasonable human beings, have friends, function well in society? I would not. Something has disrupted their relationship and has disrupted the functioning of the family. Nothing tears parents apart more than feeling helpless when their child is in danger. Remember John Bowlby’s “Attachment Theory”? He thought that the primary motivating factor in human behavior was the desire for safety, security. His theory takes the perspective of the child.
But it is not that one-sided. In real life, Bowlby’s theory is just as valid for the parent as for the child. I would say that the primary motivating factor in parenting behavior is keeping their child safe. When children are very young, parents are highly stressed when their child has a medical illness or steps into the street in front of a car. Some parents of teenagers tell me with tears in their eyes about a childhood illness when their child reached out to them and they were able to comfort him. That felt so good, so right. How they wish they could “make it better” in the same way now. But in the case of an adolescent, the situation is much more difficult. The teenager wants to “do it myself’ even more than when he was 2-yo, so the parent can’t just swoop in and take over and make things better. Yet, some teenagers are just as unable to “do it myself” as they were when they were 2, and the consequences of letting them do it themselves are much more dire.
One reason for teenager’s poor judgment – among many – is the pruning of the brain that takes place in adolescence. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls judgment (an over simplification as are all such attributive statements about the brain), is undergoing disorganization for the sake of adaptive change. Before the adaptive change is organized, the brain’s functioning is disrupted. That’s why many – but not all – teenagers take crazy risks that they never would have taken before. Jamie’s parents are afraid that he is in danger, and indeed he is. But what can they do to keep him safe? Their options are many fewer than when he was small.
There are many other reasons that families fall apart when teenagers have problems. Sometimes the parents begin to behave in problematic ways that make the teenager feel like a failure, a bad kid, or unrecognized for who he is. In fact, some parents have always had tendencies to have unrealistic expectations for their child or lacked a degree of empathy for their child’s inner life, but these vulnerabilities didn’t have the same impact as they did when the child tried to come into his own in adolescence. Another reason is that the parents have always had deep fault lines in their marriage, and when their beloved child started to suffer, these marital weaknesses were amplified in response to the pull to polarize that is generated by threat. In fact, this polarization is often – maybe even usually – a family pattern from early on, one parent (usually the mother) taking the role of the bad guy and the other parent (usually the father) taking the opposite role. In addition, beginning independence is such a watershed in one’s life that one’s own experience (the “way I did it”) is often stirred up
Jamie’s Mind: Jamie thinks that BJ is cool because he is on his own, living with other guys, making his own money – so what if he is dealing? Is it his fault more than the kids who buy the drugs? He doesn’t have to listen to his mother. She doesn’t bug him about school because he doesn’t have to listen to her. Ever since she moved in with her boyfriend, BJ has been on his own. Sometimes he comes to school and sometimes he doesn’t.
Jamie has struggled in school since about third grade, when the curriculum became more challenging and he started to get real homework. His mother helped him then. She checked his school bag to make sure she knew what his homework was and that he had all his books. She went over all his assignments with him. Sometimes when he got too discouraged or too tired she did some of it for him. She said the main point was that he learns the material, not that he torture himself. It did feel like torture. As the schoolwork got harder, things got worse. He left some of his assignments at school just so that he wouldn’t have to look at them. He convinced himself that he didn’t have any homework some nights even though it wasn’t true. He started to sleep when he got home from school. He was tired from texting his friends late at night, but he also wanted to escape from his life.
Where can we start to help this family? There are many “ports of entry”, but here I would like to talk about Jamie’s parents. Both Jamie’s parents love him and desperately want to help him. Yet, they can’t seem to break out of this destructive pattern of polarization. As a psychoanalyst I am aware of the value of understanding unconscious processes and the importance of one’s own parenting experiences on one’s behavior as a parent. Exploring one’s past experiences as a child is key. On the other hand, I also believe that things are not going to change fast enough with this approach. The way to change is to break the pattern that is keeping the destructive cycle going. I also like to talk in terms of “breaking” the pattern because it connotes aggression, and it takes aggression to make this change. Let’s look at some ways this can happen.
I am going to refer to the “original bad guy parent” as “OBG” and the “original good guy parent” as “OGG”. In order to break the pattern, the OBG has to immediately stop the BG behavior and the OGG has to step into the limit setting position, setting him or her up to be the BG. On the surface this seems simple; it is anything but simple. There will be huge resistance from both parents to this change. The resistance is driven by anxiety.
One way of beginning is for the parents to make a temporary plan about how to handle a hot button issue, such as curfew. The plan should be temporary to make it easier to agree. It is something that is going to be tried out. For example, “we are going to allow two extensions of curfew per week”. Then when the teenager presents the challenge, the OBG has to disappear and allow the OGG to take over. After the OGG negotiates something with the teenager, the two parents should not communicate about what happened for a period of time to allow both of them to manage their emotions. If possible, it is better to wait until the next day. When they talk about it, they should try very hard to avoid criticizing each other. If one slips and criticizes the other, the other should just remind him or her once of their agreement not to criticize. They should give the “temporary plan” about one week if possible. Then they should review the plan and decide if they want to change it. This process will take multiple iterations in order for it to work, but it can work.
What about getting professional help? It is a good idea to get professional help, but it is hard for professionals to deal with this situation. That is because the professionals tend to get pulled into the polarization and see one parent as the bad guy and the other as the good guy. They know they should not succumb to this temptation, but they often cannot avoid it. The parents can help by looking out for this tendency on the part of the professional and both of them objecting to it. If only, the OBG, points it out, it just strengthens the bad pattern.