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Chapter 3

THE CHILD-FOCUSED FAMILY

 

Basic trust comes from the experience of having loving parents. It is a belief that others can be looked to for help and that even oneself is worth helping. Trust builds confidence. Without that basic, deep sense of being cared for and cared about from the beginning of one's life, there can be no lasting relationships with others.

A child develops trust from repeated experience with emotionally accessible parents. Inaccessible parents, or emotionally distant or rejecting or abusive parents, or parents who have never learned trust themselves, cannot instill a sense of trust in a child.

Such children grow up learning to trust no one.

Theodore Lidz (7) vividly describes the fundamental influence of the family on the development of the small child:

"The family forms the earliest and most persistent influence that encompasses the still unformed infant and small child, for whom the parents' ways and the family ways are THE ways of life, the only way the child knows. All subsequent experiences are perceived, understood, and reacted to emotionally according to the foundations established in the family. The family's ways and the child's patterns of reacting to them become so integrally incorporated in the child that they can be considered determinants of his or her constitutional makeup, difficult to differentiate from the genetic biological influences with which they interrelate. Subsequent influences will modify those of the family, but they can never undo or fully reshape these early core experiences."

 

R.D. Laing (8) also conceptualizes the lasting, deeply penetrating influences of the family. In this dialogue excerpted from his book, Knots, Laing fancifully describes the bonds of love and dependency and uncertainty that flow over into the marriage relationship of the child in later years:

"Once upon a time, when Jack was little,
he wanted to be with his mummy all the time
and was frightened she would go away.

Later, when he was a little bigger,
he wanted to be away from his mummy
and was frightened that
she wanted him to be with her all the time.

When he grew up he fell in love with Jill
and he wanted to be with her all the time
and was frightened she would go away.

When he was a little older,
he did not want to be with Jill all the time
he was frightened
that she wanted to be with him all the time, and
that she was frightened
that he did not want to be with her all the time.

Jack frightens Jill he will leave her
because he is frightened she will leave him.

Jack is afraid Jill is like his mother
Jill is afraid Jack is like her mother."

 

This frank realization by Faber and Mazlish (09) should echo loudly in the hearts of knowing parents everywhere:

"We used to think that by telling a child what was wrong with him, he'd improve. If we called him a liar, he'd become honest; if we called him dumb, he'd become smart; if we called him lazy, he'd become industrious.

Now we know that a child's improvement is based upon treating him as if he already is what he's capable of becoming."

 

NOTE: A Self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to become true. This happens whether the strongly held prediction is positive or negative.

Humans not only respond to the situation they are in but also to the way others perceive them.

 

DEFINITION OF CHILD-FOCUS

A child-focused family is one that has too intense a focus on one specific child.

The tip-off that we are dealing with a child-focused family is the presence of symptoms in a child such as depression, acting out behavior, learning problems or other social or physical problems -- problems that all reflect anxiety.

The child-focused family, however, has difficulty understanding the over-focus because the child's anxiety mirrors the family level of anxiety. The child, in such a situation, becomes the symptom-bearer for the anxious family, a role that primarily serves to redirect tension away from the parent's marriage.

EXAMPLE: If the parents begin to struggle with each other more openly, their relationship may be endangered. The focus on a child allows them to express their disagreement, albeit in a disguised way, around the topic of the child's behavior. As Virginia Satir (10) puts it, the child's symptom becomes "an SOS about his parents' pain and the resulting family imbalance."

Once a problem has been acknowledged by a family, the tendency is to place the problem in either one person or between people in the family relationship system. This can occur in a wide variety of ways but typically a young child is accused of having an innately bad disposition; two children are defined as being incorrigible; or the marriage is defined as a bad one.

Regardless of the particular form that it takes, the amount of excessive emotional investment in focused children is considerable. Such children become increasingly impaired and more demanding in the face of infantilizing, over-focused parenting.

The child-focus process is described in systems terms as the family projection process, about which Dr. Murray Bowen has this to say:

 

"According to our thinking, the mother can function more adequately by ascribing certain aspects of herself to the child, and the child accepts. This is of crucial importance in the area of the mother's immaturity. The mother denies her own feelings of helplessness and her wish to be babied and she projects these feelings to the child. Then she perceives the child to be helpless and to wish to be mothered. The child, and even the entire family, accepts the mother's perception as a reality in the child. The mother then 'mothers' the helplessness in the child (her own projected feelings) with her inadequate self. Thus, a situation that begins as a feeling in the mother, becomes a reality in the child. There have been many examples of this mechanism in families. One mother fed her child when she herself was hungry When she was most anxious, she would force attention on the child and justify her actions by quoting an authority who recommended unlimited love for children. When she was not anxious she would be relatively neglectful of the child and justify herself by quoting an authority who recommended firmness with children. In one sense, by using the child as an extension of herself, the mother was able to take care of her own inadequacies without having to depend on others."

Dr. Murray Bowen, from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

 

The mother in the above example is portrayed as the primary agent of child-focus because most parent-child over-involvement takes the form of mother over-involved with child while father remains distant and peripheral.

The reverse of that usual pattern, however, does happen. A classic example of this in extremis is a father who is sexually involved with his three teenage daughters while the mother keeps her distance, glad enough to be free from his unwanted attentions.

 

WAYS PARENTS OVER-FUNCTION IN RELATION TO AN IMPAIRED CHILD

Typical behaviors include:

Over investment in the personal hygiene of the child
Over investment in the physical health of the child
Over investment in the school life of the child
Constant and intense conflict with the child
Displays of excessive affection towards the child
Forcing the child to take a side against the other parent -- in other words, putting the child in the middle of the marital struggle
Rejection and withdrawal of love from the child
Constant fault-finding with the child
Making unrealistic demands on the child
Constantly telling the child 'how to feel'
Discounting the child's every need, every feeling
Never letting the child go

 

 

WAYS CHILDREN DYSFUNCTION

Symptoms of anxiety in a focused child include (but are not limited to) poor eating habits, nightmares, bedwetting or soiling the self, withdrawn behavior, few friends or no friends, slow development, crying jags, nervous twitches or habits, substance abuse, temper displays, lying or stealing or cheating behaviors, manipulative behavior, aggressive or violent behavior, self-destructive behavior or other destructive behavior, learning problems, unreasonable fears and anxieties, running away, chronic physical complaints, hypochondriacal complaints, apathy, lethargy, and early sexual experimentation.

Although all families have some degree of child focus due to the dependent nature of the parent-child relationship, certain children more than others are vulnerable to be the object of over-focus.

Such children can include:

Illegitimately conceived children
Children born prematurely
Children born after a long series of miscarriages
Children born after a long failure to conceive
The child of an unwanted pregnancy or rape
Children born after the death of another child in the family
Menopausal babies
Children born too close in age to another sibling
Adopted children
First born or last born children
Children of the 'wrong' sex
Children named after a despised ex-spouse
Children who bear the family name-sake
Children born at a particularly stressful time in the marriage
Children born into a marriage sharply reacted to by grandparents
Children who are used to bridge the 'cutoff' between parents and grandparents

 

 

THE MODELING PROCESS IN FAMILIES

A child's characteristic coping strategies depend in large part on the kinds of strategies modeled to them by their parents and by other important family members.

Sometimes what a parent deliberately sets out to model to a child becomes clouded by other, more subtle things that are absorbed by the child instead.

EXAMPLE: Parents may generally model a calm and united front in all their face-to-face dealings with the child and yet, at other times, they may react overtly and openly to the marital tensions that erupt between them. Under the crunch of marital distress they may forget the child for a moment and yell or scream at each other, or openly defy one another. They may also become engulfed in silent distance and pursuit of each other, or collapse into tears and depression or intoxicated behavior in reaction to the other -- all of which the child silently observes.

The alternative is for parents to calmly and lovingly work through their anxieties with each other without all the dramatics, and without engulfing the child in them in any way.

 

Indeed, parents don't really model 'good parenting' so much as they model how an adult acts as a responsible, mature and collected (or not) human being; you know, the stuff that gets communicated to a child when the parent is busy being.

Families are quite as complicated as a Mobius strip with only one boundary. Consider this: a line drawn starting from the seam down the middle of the strip will meet back at the seam but at the "other side". If continued, the line will meet the starting point and will be double the length of the original strip.

Huh?

 

Try Making A Mobius Strip

 

 

FAMILY GAMES

Just as grownups play interpersonal games, children, too, play such games. And like adults, their games have certain rules and actions that are intended to evoke a predictable response from others. These games tend to be repeated in all of the child's social relationships, both at home and in the world.

Success in getting the desired attention ensures that the child's games will persist.

These are a few of the more prevalent anxiety games of childhood:

HE STARTED IT is a game that needs a referee to interfere constantly or the game can't continue. Parents usually protect one child and punish another in this game, or they get caught in the middle.

I AM FRAGILE/HANDLE WITH CARE is a game where the child requires special handling at the threat of 'breaking' if he or she doesn't get the special handling. The child projects a long chin and droopy mouth, teary eyes, and they control everyone.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is a game where there is both a 'criminal' and a parental 'detective.' The criminal leaves clues but when caught denies the act to insure further parental involvement.

LYING is a game of power where no one wins. The child lies when the truth is obvious to everyone.

TWO POTATOES is a game that revolves around the dinner table when a child refuses to eat. The dinner hour degenerates into a session of pleading, threatening, bribing and foot-dragging. The child auctions off each plate of food [or each bite] for privileges and presents while the parental role is to fear that the child will starve or suffer malnutrition.

 

These kinds of scenarios gain attention, demonstrate power, punish or get even, and they inflict a sense of powerlessness in the parent; and they are the predictable effects of the child-focus phenomenon where parental anxieties are funneled too intensely in the direction of a vulnerable child.

They do not, as some parents argue, spring spontaneously from the cobwebby and unpredictable depths of the child's core.

 

They reflect the nature of the parent-child relationship in the same way that one sees oneself reflected in a mirror.

 

 

THE MATTER OF DISCIPLINE

In discipline it is not so much what we do with a child that counts, so much as what he or she does with the disciplinary experience they are exposed to at the hands of parents.

Parents need to be concerned with the impact of a particular disciplinary strategy on future events. This is more than the likelihood of a problem behavior repeating itself because children behave based on how they feel.

Parents must also take into account the child's emotional response to the disciplinary exchange. Why? Because parent-child interactions deeply affect how a child comes to think about him or herself and they set the stage for later adjustment as an adult.

FACT: Disciplinary matters do not exist in a vacuum. They are embedded in a complex web of emotional interactions that emanate from marriage relationships and flow multigenerationally. The more anxious a marriage is the more anxious the ensuing parenting will be.

FACT: Parents tend to struggle more with their children when they are anxious.

 

The hardest lesson for anxious parents to learn is that they must like their children but they need not have an urgency to be liked by them every single minute of every day. Fearful of losing a child's love, some parents dare not deny them anything including control of the home.

This can be an especially debilitating processn the case of physically handicapped children.

Bottom line: A parent's life anxieties get in the way. Their reactions to the child reflect their own emotional needs. One could say that the sum total of successes and failures in parent-child interactions, including disciplinary actions, is a measure of parental stability and emotional maturity.

 

Methods of discipline and the particular tactics chosen by parents reflect two important things: they suggest (1) how a parent feels about him or herself, and (2) how parents handled disciplinary patterns in previous generations.

A chronically angry parent will use harsh and angry disciplinary tactics. An emotionally dependent and passive parent will react weakly in disciplinary exchanges. An ambivalent parent will react ambivalently. A parent that feels comfortable and secure, and nurtured, will not feel threatened or angered by their child's behavior, but rather will deal with that behavior calmly and neutrally, and reasonably.

Parental strategies are modelled multigenerationally. An example of this is the father whose son was dying as Child Protective Services was interviewing him. He had beaten his son unmercifully for a small infraction and the son was in critical condition in the local hospital's ICU Unit. When asked why he beat his son he said, "If it was good enough for me, then it is good enough for him."

We can pass on only what we know.

 

 

PUNISHMENTS TO FIT THE CRIME

There are other things to bear in mind when contemplating matters of discipline.

It is not a particularly good strategy, for example, to try to find a punishment to "fit the crime." It might be theoretically possible yet it is rarely successful, or even useful. It also asks a great deal of a parent who is reacting anxiously to their child's monumentally stressful behavior.

Thinking on one's feet is fraught with peril because most children can easily manipulate anxious adults during such periods of turmoil.

It is best to develop a standard set of disciplinary consequences that are well-practiced and that make the parent feel secure, something he or she can trust to always leave them in control.

 

In general, room confinement for behavioral infractions works best.

This is especially true when the room utilized for confinement is devoid of age-appropriate amusements and is such that the parent can be reasonably sure that the child will be held captive there against his or her will. It is of no value when a child has free-rein to come and go from the appointed space.

Social isolation is an extremely effective deterrant with children of all ages when it is used consistently and in sufficient doses to make an impact on the child. Many parents worry about the effects of confinement psychologically, not understanding that the confinement actually helps preserve the parent-child relationship. Closing a door between parent and child under the crunch of the moment prevents the emotional intensity from escalating further and, most importantly, it gives everyone time to calm down.

Although we are using the example of confinement to modify the child's behavior, note that it serves to also modify the parent's behavior. A calm parent is a far more reasonable and functional parent. The break from the child simultaneously controls the child while it puts the parent back in control of the situation.

The other thing to keep in mind, and this concerns teenagers, is the fact that that they don't become behavior problems over night. It just looks that way to outsiders who only see the end of a long line of behaviors that reflect a gradually deteriorating parent-child relationship.

Behavior problems flourish under conditions of anxiety and they become acute with sudden escalations of anxiety. It is the anxiety that is being acted out whenever behavior problems become manifest.

The fact that a child or adolescent is the one doing the acting out is a tip-off that one is dealing with a child-focused family.

There is little real value in the modification of just one person's behavior. Each person in a family is connected to every other family member, and their functioning depends in large measure on how everyone else in the family is functioning at the moment.

 

 

WHAT KIDS NEED MOST

Raising children is not an easy task even under the best of circumstances. It is a task that takes time, patience, good humor, flexibility and a significant degree of parental maturity.

Yet it takes more than just those few things to raise a healthy family. Other things must also be present to ensure the best prospects for one's children:

 

Kids need firm, consistent limits with strictly defined behavioral boundaries. They need to experience consequences for their actions, both good and bad, and these consequences must be meaningful at the same time that they serve to preserve the parent-child relationship.
Kids need clear, direct and unambiguous communications from adults in a manner that nurtures their spirit and motivates them to joyfully experience the world around them.
Kids need continual exposure to opportunities to develop a sense of self. They need to learn ways to express themselves and to communicate to others their deepest and most pressing thoughts and feelings.
Kids need space to grow and develop all aspects of the self. This requires a degree of benign neglect on the part of the parent wherein the child is allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them. It also requires the parent to have more to live for than simply being there for the child. A developing child needs a parent who has a primary source of emotional nurturance apart from him or her.
Kids thrive in a climate of low anxiety in the family. They need low-anxious parents who are freed-up enough emotionally to handle their own life stresses without engulfing children in them.
Kids need to be modelled effective coping strategies that allow them to confront the challenges of life comfortably and calmly. They need to learn ways of coping that soothe the spirit without putting a lid on their emotions.
Kids need to experience early on what it is to have togetherness with space within it.
Kids need parenting from a consistent source. This can be from two natural parents, from only one parent, or from adoptive or foster parents. The chief requirement is the presence of a parental figure who nurtures the child through the early, developmental stages of life and who doesn't abandon the child prematurely or unpredictably.
Kids need to feel connected to all living members of the extended family, not just to a select few in the immediate family. On-going contact with the multigenerational family throughout one's life is important and vital to one's emotional health.
Kids need permission to openly and unabashedly enjoy themselves. They need to grow up feeling comfortable with all parts of the self including the physical self. They need to know that it is important and necessary emotionally to connect intimately with others outside of the self in ways that freely and fully express self.
Kids need parents who are in viable and nurturing contact with their own parents so that the generations may connect and interact.
Kids need encouragement and assistance with the process of leaving home in a way that celebrates their leave-taking and marks it as a special and profound time in their development as a young adult.
Kids need parents to focus on solutions and options rather than on problems.
Kids need to learn that the most important thing one can do for another is to listen to them, which is something they learn best by having parents who genuinely listened to them.
Kids need to feel loved and to be told that they are loved in clear and direct and unambiguous ways, with great frequency.
Kids need sufficient resources to minimize the number of reality stressors in their lives such as ample food and other sustenance, relief from the elements, and protection from eternal dangers; for only then can they grow and flourish with abandon.
Kids need good humor in their childhood years so that they can grow up with a sense of humor that will get them through the rough spots in adulthood.
Kids need to grow up with the feeling that they are in no way responsible for the quality or nature of their parents' marriage, and that they will never have to take one or the other parent's side in relation to the marriage.

 

 

QUALITY TIME WITH KIDS

I have had many occasions over the years to talk with twelve and thirteen year-olds about the time they spend with their parents. Interesting things always come out of such discussions.

Foremost on the minds of most of youngsters is the lack of time their families have to spend together. Busy fathers who are away at work for long hours and mothers in graduate school or working out of the home, or parents who work together in a business that requires long hours away from home -- these kinds of things make family life feel fragmented and illusive.

Of course, kids manage. One young man said he figured it was that way in every family. Another said his father was a doctor and he understood why it was that his dad had to be away from the family so much. That didn't make his absence any easier, he said; he just felt that it made him feel less rejected by it. One pre-teen talked about the problem that absent parents presented in her family. She and her siblings had to fend for themselves much of the time, which created conflict among them that spilled over into the time when her parents were home. When asked how she felt about her parents being gone so much, she said it made her feel lonesome.

Youngsters voice a strong need to have more quality contact with their parents, even if only to have daily mealtimes when everyone in the family is present and accounted for. This is what they said when asked what kinds of things they wish for most:

Cuddle time before bed
Watching a movie together with a big bowl of popcorn
Taking long walks and talking about things
Lots of hugs
More time with grandparents, wishing also that they lived closer to them
Wishing that their parents got along better with their grandparents

 

Kids intuitively understand that family cohesiveness is important in life. Even though they don't always know how to put it into so many words, kids also know that they are missing something of great importance when they don't have it.

Kids need encouragement.

Troubled kids have troubled relationships with their parents. It doesn't have to be the obvious kind of trouble like abusiveness, although that can happen. Indeed, on the surface many families look pretty good and do 'family' things together like going to church and all living in the same household; and everyone being together on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But on the [inside] things can be quite different in families.

Some families never spend quality time together. Some parents and kids never talk about important things together. Some families never sit down for a leisurely meal together. In families characterized by a chronic state of tension, just to talk and touch each other in nurturing ways is no longer a possibility.

Kids die a little inside as they gradually absorb the tensions in the family. They withdraw into themselves little by little until one day they wake up in a state of depression. Or they act out their tension in angry ways, lashing out at those who have more going for them. The home is no longer a safe haven in families where parents and children cannot resolve their tensions.

The antidote to interpersonal tension is the ability to reach out and touch someone.

Being able to freely touch and be touched in nurturing ways is critical to a child's development. Words and gifts and opportunities from parents are nice but nothing has more impact than simply being hugged by them, not just on special occasions but often.

Most families would benefit from talking less and touching more.

 

 

THE QUESTION OF ADOPTION

Parents wonder about a great many things when they are considering the adoption of a child. These are some of the more prevalent things they think about:

QUESTION: Is it bad to be an adopted child? Adopting an infant into the family is as wonderful as having a natural birth in the family. The parent-child bonding process in an infant adoption is identical to that which occurs between natural parents and children. The adopted child is shaped and affected by the very same emotional and environmental forces that impact all other members of the adoptive family. If there is any difference between an adopted infant and the natural-born children, it is mainly in the eyes of the beholder.

QUESTION: What about a child who is adopted at an older age? In these kinds of situations the older child brings with him or her an emotional and relationship history that may be quite different from the one that characterizes the newly adopted family. Generally speaking, the older a child is when adopted the more relationship losses they have experienced. The fact of adoption means that they have, for one reason or another, been taken away from natural parents and perhaps even siblings. This can be anxiety-provoking and they may struggle to make sense of it. They are also very often left with the feeling that nothing in life is permanent.

Indeed, they will sometimes fight the urge to get close to the new family, fearing that this relationship will also collapse. Although the effects of this can be minimized over time with loving and careful handling by the adoptive parents, it is not an easy or simple process to go through. The adoptive parent, in such cases, needs to be even healthier emotionally than the average parent and, if the truth be told, not everyone has the special skills necessary for the job.

QUESTION: Why do adoptive children often grow up wanting to find their biological parents? It isn't true that this happens often or in all cases. When the adoptive parent-child relationship has been a deeply nurturing and rewarding one, there is little interest on the part of the child in unearthing their past, let alone in cultivating a relationship with the long-lost biological parent.

The search for natural parents tends to happen when the adoptive parent-child relationship has been a conflictual or otherwise unsatisfactory one. The child sets out to find their original family that at least promises to be more nurturing. However, such parent hunts rarely turn up what the child is seeking. By that time, most natural parents have moved on in life and do not take kindly to the intrusion of a grown child they probably never admitted to having.

The best advise for such a child is to stay put, and to try to find some ways to make their relationship with the adoptive parents more nurturing. This is no small task and it demands that the adoptive parents do their fair share of the changing and communicating.

QUESTION: Should adoptive parents be concerned about the adopted child's genetic history? Far too much emphasis is placed on the so-called 'bad genes' that adopted children bring with them. When this is the concern, the child's emotional makeup is usually the focus rather than his or her physical self. A genetic focus is a fairly predictable posture taken by adoptive parents who have failed to develop a nurturing relationship with the child. In desperation they turn to the matter of the child's genes and then summarily blame everything on them.

If you listen carefully, you will hear such parents say things like "Oh, Johnny's mother must have been a real bad apple, just look at him!" Or, "It was the luck of the draw that I ended up with a child like you. I'll never be able to understand you."

Parents pass behavioral and emotional coping strategies on to children through modeling, not through the genes. The fact that a parent focuses on the child's genes says less about the child and more about the adoptive parent's inherent (and misguided) anxieties.

 

The adoption of older children can sometimes turn into a blame game for this reason.

QUESTION: Which family is more important for the adoptive child, the adopted one or the natural born one? This is a question that is often asked by adopted children themselves when they meet with a therapist for help with troubling life problems.

It can be answered like this:

For the average person adopted in infancy, the adoptive family is the family of consequence. For a child who was adopted at an older age, i.e., age 5 or 6 or older, that child has two families to be concerned with although the one he or she has lived the longest with will be the primary family for them.

 

Adoption does not erase the effects of the family of origin experience where a child has had time to develop relationships with natural parents and/or siblings. Some of those relationships will go forward in life with them, especially the most treasured ones. For the most part, however, that heritage only enriches the child's experience if he or she can learn to put it into perspective and accept it as yet another very interesting facet of themselves.

As to the question of what to say to a child who has been adopted, when the time is right the average adoptive parent needn't fear. Where love is strong and the relationship is healthy and open between parents and child, the 'revelation' of adoption is no big deal.

Only anxious parent-child relationships embrace it with great emotional fanfare.

 

PARENT BURNOUT

Parent burnout is a term used to describe the experience of feeling totally overwhelmed by the task of parenting.

It describes a state of exhaustion resulting from excessive demands on the parent's energy, strength and emotional resources, such that the parent can no longer adequately cope. The parent feels frustrated and angry and very negative and critical of his or her child; and they feel like lashing out at the child over things that suddenly loom larger than reality.

Everything the child does seems to move the burned out parent ever-closer to the brink of parent-child relationship disaster.

Parents in a state of burnout tend to be characterized by one or another (or all, in some cases) of the following behaviors:

Angry and bitter verbal struggles with the child
Hostile silences aimed at the child
Total withdrawal from interaction with the child as if he or she has given up trying to cope with the child
Outbursts of rage directed at the child that may include throwing things or physically hitting or shoving the child
Severe physical beatings
Tearful, desperate and endless verbal tirades with the child

 

Although the parent exudes overt hostility, buried beneath that hostility are feelings of guilt and anxiousness about his or her reactions to (and affections for) the child. Lke all parents, he or she wants to reach out to the child and nurture and be nurtured by the child if only they knew how to do so.

Parent-child relationships of this kind spring up neither suddenly nor unpredictably, nor can they be blamed on someone in particular, including the child. They flow out of the larger family relationship history.

In general, whenever a parent's relationship with a child becomes excessively negative and conflictural it signifies an erosion of connectedness and intimacy in that parent's marital relationship. Indeed, the more negative the parent's dealings with the child, the more intense the disintegration of the marital relationship.

 

Disintegration of a marriage and the ensuing loss of intimacy is anxiety-provoking, particularly in cases where the spouses have a history of being overly-dependent and fused. When the more dependent spouse realizes how distant the marriage relationship has become, they panic, and they react by displacing the marital anxiety onto a vulnerable child.

The most vulnerable child becomes the focused child, i.e., the child that is most emotionally bound up with his or her parents' marriage for some reason.

If the marital tensions are moderate and sporadic, the parent-child conflicts that ensue will also be more moderate and sporadic.

The point of burnout comes when a marriage is in extremis. That is to say, the parent-child disaster follows on the heels of marital disaster.

It is important to remember that 'disaster' maritally is often quite invisible to outsiders. It is borne out of an essential flaw in the intimate zone that connects one spouse with the other.

 

The human emotional system adapts well to finite bursts of intensity but, when the intensity becomes chronic and unrelenting, something ultimately has to give; and what gives is but the tip of the iceberg in most cases.

 

THOSE MOST VULNERABLE

Some parents/spouses are more vulnerable than others to the burnout process.

The most vulnerable are those who, as children, grew up in homes where love did not exist or where it was never adequately expressed. They grew into adulthood desperately in need of some tangible signs of love, so much so that even the slightest loss of intimacy is seen by them as catastrophic and is reacted to anxiously.

Their negativity toward the child provides some relief in the sense that it allows the parent to ventilate pent-up marital tensions. This is, of course, a misguided effort to try to somehow preserve a floundering marriage. The process entails great energy depletion that, when unchecked, leads to emotional exhaustion.

How does one cope with such a situation?

Parents have needs, too. When those needs are not met, the parent cannot function well in any role, let alone in the parental role -- which is surely one of life's more demanding roles.

A parent's adult intimacy needs must be met before they can cope with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, a great many people endure chronically tense marriages.

After a while, such spouses learn to keep their distance from each other in an effort to preserve whatever peace is left between them.

Tender, intimate touching between accessible spouses defuses stress better than any medicine. Tender touching is calming and nurturing and it is one of the most important sources of nurturance in adulthood.

 

Programs aimed at helping parents in the throes of burnout are misguided if their effort is simply to help the parent be a better parent, where the focus is only on the ways the parent can improve their interactions with the child.

That parent's emotional core needs recharging and, until it is adequately recharged, the parent-child relationship will continue to flounder.

The re-establishment of marital intimacy is by far the best preventive measure and it is the only one that can create the conditions for the emotionally charged parent-child relationship to improve.

 

A TIME FOR LEAVING HOME

A difficult transition period in the life of young people is the time for "leaving home."

This is the point in their lives when they must manage to become self-supporting and independent of their families so they can move on to the next stage of the family life cycle.

For the emacipating child, that next stage is young adulthood. It is a time that demands (a) the establishment of an identity apart from the parental family and, (b) the cultivation of strong and lasting, and intimate, emotional ties with others.

Leaving home is something we all must do and yet it is something that not every young person successfully manages to do.

 

Problems erupt in many families at this time. At one extreme (12) are those young people who make trouble for themselves or others by acting out in the world in harmful ways; pumping themselves up with drugs or alcohol, or leading vagrant lives. These young people have managed to physically leave home but in a destructive and vengeful way.

At the other extreme are those young people who never leave home, who become apathetic and helpless and fail to support themselves.

 

Both kinds of young people are failures at learning how to live normal, healthy lives because both have failed to disengage from their families in appropriate ways.

 

Young people exhibit other less dramatic, but equally serious symptoms of failure in their efforts to leave home.

SOME EXAMPLES: They may fail their freshman year (or first semester) of college and return home to live, citing feelings of 'not fitting in' or not liking their professors or their fellow classmates, whatever. Some may even change schools a number of times, always falling back on the parents to bail them out.

Other common symptoms of leaving home difficulty include ambivalence about getting a job or their failure to keep a job.

Some express grave indecisiveness about 'what to do with the rest of my life' that, in turn, triggers grave parental anxieties about what they are going to do with their children for the rest of their lives.

In some cases, they even experience guilt feelings at the thought of leaving a dependent parent home alone. Such dependent parents may overtly encourage the child to leave home, all the while silently tugging at the child's heart strings; unspeakably telling the child not to go away. These children never do go away and -- how can they?

Last, but not least, is the young person who goes directly from the parental home into marriage without ever experiencing time for independent living.

This young person brings all the emotional trappings of the parental home with them into the new marriage, including all the unresolved issues between parents and children from a generation back. More importantly, they tend to organize parent-child kinds of spousal relationships that closely replicate the ones they had with their parents, not ones that healthy functioning, adult-to-adult spouses have.

Husbands, in such cases, tend to treat their wives like daughters in the same way that wives 'mother' their spouses. Such spouses take turns being infantilized by the other in parental kinds of ways.

The act of stepping from the parental home immediately into a marriage at least looks like one is successfully leaving home, even though it is a pretend version of leaving home. But the child in such cases has never had to prove that they can function on their own and that, ultimately, spells trouble for them.

 

A healthy disengagement from the family of origin is the most important thing we can do. It begins early in life in a family that values the development of comfortable autonomy in its family members. Such families cultivate individuation and encourage accessible, flexible and open relationships between family members and between the generations. And their children grow up and out of the family at the leaving home era of life without ever having to emotionally cutoff from their past.

The expectation on the part of all family members is that leaving home is an enriching, inspiring, exciting and healthy thing to do; something that everyone in the family, in turn, will successfully do.

 

To leave home successfully means to be able to function emotionally, socially and financially without ever again needing to fall back on the security of the parental family. It also means having a capacity for enduring and intimate adult relationships that co-exist comfortably with one's family relationships.

The leaving home process is tethered to all other important relationship processes in the family. In other words, healthy parents who prize autonomy and a sense of self do not come by that by accident. They had parents who prized autonomy and a sense of self, as well.

The failure of any family member to successfully leave home is a barometer of anxiety, not just in the vulnerable child but of the larger multigenerational family. It is a tip-off that things are not working well in that family.

 

 

PREPARING A CHILD FOR LEAVING HOME

Leaving home is something that all of us must do if we are ever going to function adequately in the world.

First and foremost, parents must accept the fact that one day their child will be leaving home. Not all parents accept this, however, and a certain percentage of such children never do leave home as a result of this. Acceptance means that the parent gives up the need to be an 'eternal' parent who never lets go. They recognize the need to prepare the child for when they will be on their own.

How do they do this?

They acquaint the child, very early on, with non-familial babysitters. These family 'outsiders' broaden the child's world view and help him or her to learn that people other than the family can be trusted to be kind and caring towards them. Usually when 'sitter' problems arise, it's due to the parents' anxieties about leaving their child with someone; and these anxieties then get communicated to the child who reacts anxiously.

Children adapt well to most things when the parents deal comfortably with them.

 

The same goes for entry into school. Children who cling to their parent's side and refuse to let go have lived, to date, in a highly dependent relationship with a parent who also has been unwilling to let go.

Preparation for the first day of school actually begins with the child's first tentative steps beyond Mother's watchful view -- when the child reaches out to other children. That first effort at age two sets the tone for the things that will happen later on at school.

 

The wise parent always thinks first about letting go. Even though their lower lip may silently quiver, the wise parent encourages the child to go into the scouts, on band trips, on the plane to Grandma's, and on that first long bike ride downtown. They arrange for all kinds of opportunities for the child to experience the world without them to the degree possible. When that parent's turn comes around to be a room mother at school, she does it at another school, or at least in another classroom other than her child's classroom. The wise father coaches a team other than his son's soccer team.

These are the kinds of things that must be done in order to prepare a child for leaving home.

Parents must also expect that, after a certain prescribed date, the child will find a way to leave home. Typically this coincides with the child's graduation from high school.

Kids who go to college on 'scholarships' from home are not considered emancipated until after college graduation when they are finally, financially and emotionally, on their own. This is the 'cushy' way to leave home because it elongates the process for the child and gives the parent a few more years to be a parent.

In any case, very child should finally manage to leave home soon after the age of twenty-two. With every delay thereafter, the risk increases that they will never leave home.

Like the robin that pushes her feathered charges out of the nest, human parents must do this, too.

NOTE: Even the most ambivalent and misguided young person can suddenly find it within him or herself to gather up the means to go once the parent has decided that it is time and gives permission for them to go.

As Kahlil Gibran says in his timeless book, The Prophet (13):

"Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls."

 

 

ETERNAL PARENTING

A myth of 'Eternal Parenting' permeates a great many parent-child relationships.

It is a myth that says a child can be 'grown up' only in the eyes of the rest of the world; in the bosom of the family he or she must forever live up to parental standards of belief and conduct.

This relationship process is reflected in many ways:

 

By grown children in their forties or fifties who still call their parents "Mommy" and "Daddy"
By grown children who pretend that they don't smoke whenever their parents are around
By grown children who agonize over 'what Mama will think' if their marriage fails
By grown children who tremble at the thought of having to confront their parents about something, anything
By grown children who hide the booze before every parental visit
By grown children who find themselves dutifully back home at every family holiday or every Sunday for dinner whether that's where they want to be or not

 

One notorious outcome of the eternal parenting process is reflected in what happens when the eternal parent becomes old and frail; they very often find themselves at the mercy of grown children who are suddenly thrust into the parental role and have some paying back to do.

The eternal parent becomes the crabby, dependent, anxious 'child' in contrast to the grown child's new role of controlling and over-functioning 'parent.' The degree of paying back behavior is in direct proportion to the degree of eternal parenting that the grown child has had to endure.

In some families the consequence for the eternal parent are quite extraordinary.

You're still not sure what eternal parents do? They try to tell their 25-year old son how to manage his life and money. They react negatively to their 30-year old son's new bride, saying that she's "Just not right." They look through the closets and drawers when they visit their 50-year old daughter and son-in-law, or move the furniture around so things will look better. They never run short of ways to tell their grown children how to better do things.

They also interfere with the discipline of the grandchildren, noting their years of experience in such matters. They insist that every legal holiday is also a family holiday, letting everyone know that those who don't show will suffer the consequences. They are also the one's who try to get their grown child to call a psychiatrist for the grown child's spouse who isn't (apparently) living up to the family's standards.

I remember one diminutive mother who never, ever let her three grown daughters get together (anywhere) without her also being there. This is another example of an eternal parent.

Healthy parent-child relationships revolve around a finite period of parenting that terminates when the young person emancipates.

 

The previous parent-child relationship at that juncture becomes an adult-adult relationship characterized by mutal respect, autonomy and non-advice-giving. The two generations may not always agree with each other on matters of belief or behavior but there is a concerted effort to accommodate and adjust to each other so as to allow for each other's diverse world views.

Adult-adult relationships flourish over the years and beget generations of equally positive parent-child relationships. There is no FLIP-FLOP of roles as the previous generation grows older and the aging process is generally much calmer.

Most importantly, contact with the younger generations is much more differentiated.

 

 

References for Chapter 3:

(07) Theodore Lidz, The Person

(08) R. D. Laing, Knots

(09) Faber and Mazlish, Liberated Parents Liberated Children

(10) Virginia Satir, Conjoint Family Therapy

(11) The Moebius Strip

(12) Jay Haley, Leaving Home: the Story of Disturbed Young People

(13) Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

 

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