CHAPTER 3: ACKNOWLEDGING
"The best way for your dreams to come true is to wake up." --Paul Valery
Before proceeding with this chapter, I want you to agree to take whatever parental guilt that you are carrying with you, and, for the duration of the chapter, dispose of it. You can picture it being stuffed into a box which is then buried, you can stoke up an internal bonfire that turns it to ash, you can zap it with a vaporizing laser...whatever works, do it.
Now that you've temporarily jettisoned your guilty feelings, you'll be prepared not only to accept, but also to take heart from, the statement that follows, a statement that is of supreme importance in raising a Good Enough Child: I contribute to the ways in which my child disappoints me and help to make that disappointment happen.
Notice that I am not saying that you are responsible for who your child is, or that it is your fault when she is experiencing difficulties or that you are solely to blame. But it's essential to realize that the behavior of children, and of their parents, does not arise in a vacuum, but is the direct result of the influence that you exert on each other.
Understanding this in the right way can be a very liberating, rather than imprisoning, experience, because once we know more about the ways in which we contribute to our children's irksome behaviors and attitudes, we're more than halfway down the road to feeling less vexed and more positive, and creating the climate for growth and change.
In what ways do we find ourselves creating the very family problems that so plague us? What puzzling mechanism impels us to make our own children into the instruments of our own unhappiness? Why do we sometimes persist in responding to our offspring in ways that so clearly make things worse rather than better? The beginnings of the answers to these questions lie in what we learned in the previous chapter-how we invest our children with qualities and characteristics that may or may not apply to them so as to familiarize ourselves with them enough to marshall the resources to raise them. Now, however, we will take this information a step further, and see how we not only attribute, but also amplify, these qualities and characteristics to the extent that they take on a life of their own.
Becoming a parent requires of all of us what I refer to as a "Reverberating Journey", a pilgrimage into our swirling, murky internal world, a world that ricochets with memories, fantasies and feelings that have lain dormant for years, regretfully or blissfully out of our awareness. .
The process of taking on the life-and-death responsibility of raising a child will invariably create a widespread disequilibrium that blurs the distinction between past and present, between real and unreal, between rational and irrational, between what lurks inside of us and what lives outside of us.
This journey is a necessary and important one, because the emotional energies that are churned up through our exposure to our own children are the very energies we will need to care for them effectively. The profound upheaval that results from the detonation of the depth charge of childbearing can reactivate connections between generations, heighten our awareness of our own childhood experiences, provide greater accessibility to our subconscious, and bring to the surface strengths and qualities that had been buried for years. Parenthood is a time in our lives when we become softened, when we are unusually change-able and teach-able, and because of this it is accompanied by great potential for healing and for creative renewal.
On the other hand, this resurgence of buried experience will not only fuel us, but haunt us. Old sorrows, hurts, anxieties and fears flare up in all of their original potency. We are reminded of recent or ancient struggles and conflicts that we would gladly forget. Long-silent voices clamor for our attention, and the grappling hooks of our unfinished business reach out to us from the deep, pulling us back down to the disturbing psychological locales that we thought we had escaped from.
How does this affect our relationship with our child? Perhaps our most paradoxical yet common parental instinct is to re-create, in our present, the emotional climates and narratives of our past. We do this through enlisting our children to act in scenes that we have artfully, but unconsciously, scripted for them.
By casting our sons or daughters in certain roles, and ascribing to them distinctive attributes, we get them to participate in a drama that, at its most elemental level, is designed to heal us. Our intent is not to exploit them, to ignore, misunderstand or repudiate who they are, but instead to mourn old losses, to grieve old wounds, to shed old burdens, and to re-work old pain so that it doesn't have to continuously get re-played in our relationships with those who matter to us. Through directing and engaging our children in our personal passion plays, we ultimately hope to understand ourselves and to make ourselves understood, to discover and claim, or re-discover and re-claim, who we truly are.
This does not happen magically, but through the reinforcement of certain exchanges between our child and ourselves, and the avoidance or suppression of others. Through our gestures and interactions, we do what parents have always done, which is to transmit a psychological heritage, to convey to our children what we expect from them, and what they are to think of themselves.
That's why D.W. Winnicott, the pioneering pediatrician and psychiatrist, used to say, "There is no such thing as a baby." Because your child is planted in the soil of your and your partner's inner world, and nourished by your collective pool of memories, dreams, and fantasies, his individuality does not exist independently, but unfolds and expresses itself in a way that is profoundly altered and affected by your shared emotional climate.
Let's use language as an example. Babies are cognitive and physically wired to babble, to produce a steady stream of nonsensical sounds that eventually become the building blocks for language. One day you are bent over the changing table, diligently replacing yet another diaper while your one-year-old stretches out his arms and watches you intently, all the while serenading you with a random assortment of phonemes.
Today's vocal assignment appears to be "D" words. As you toss the dirty diaper and start unfolding the new one, the doo-doo's and dee-dee's and doh-doh's tumble forth, until all of a sudden you hear one that sings like music: "Da-da". "Da-da!", you say in response, meeting his eyes, your own eyes shining, lifted as if by magic from the drudgery of diaperdom. "Da-da! That's me!" you exclaim, tickling his tummy and bending your brightening face closer down to his, while he whirls his arms and kicks his legs.
One of the major ways (besides imitation) that babies learn language is through this kind of selective reinforcement of his primitive attempts at verbal communication. The doo-doo's and dee-dee's and doh-doh's got him nowhere, but the da-da was a gold mine. You can bet that for now he forgets about the first three, but shines up that da-da and puts it right in the glass storefront of his linguistic memory so that it can be retrieved at a moment's notice.
Of course, when your wife is bending over the changing table, she'll get jazzed when she suddenly hears "ma-ma" rather than "da-da". And in another culture, where there is a different phonemic structure for "Daddy" and "Mommy", parents will brighten and respond to, and thus selectively reinforce, a different sound. The point is that much of a baby's verbal behavior emerges through a meshing of his innate ability to express himself with his parents' response, or lack of response, to these first expressions. The language that is eventually spoken is the result of the hundreds of thousands of interactions of this sort that take place.
This analogy extends beyond the realm of language acquisition, however. Every behavior that a child displays is in one way or another reinforced by his caregivers, a process that contributes to the unique trajectory that each individual follows. And the nature of that reinforcement, positive or negative, is determined by the emotional strands that entangle the baby, strands that originated long before he was born, before he was even conceived.
Let's compare two women in the earliest stages of motherhood and see how this can play out. Donna loves the feeling of having a child growing in her womb. She relishes the opportunity to create a healthy and loving environment for the growing fetus, and diligently and healthfully "eats for two", while abstaining from smoking and drinking. Uncomfortable pregnancy-related symptoms, such as morning sickness and exhaustion, are experienced by her as reassuring signs that the baby is growing and doing what he needs to do. Foods that she used to enjoy but that now taste funny or create indigestion she somewhat reluctantly, but without significant resentment, gives up.
As Donna starts to show, she delightedly shops for maternity clothes that colorfully call attention to her growing belly. She has a pet-name for the fetus: "Big Guy", which was also the nickname of her father, a former professional football player who is now a college coach. "Come on, big guy, settle down", she says, laughing, when she first starts to feel him tumbling and rolling inside of her. "Big Guy's thinking about Pralines and Cream, tonight," she advises her husband before he heads out for the nightly ice-cream run.
Donna and her husband enthusiastically enlist in a childbirth education class, and regularly practice their breathing exercises in preparation for labor. She prepares her employer for the three-month maternity leave that she plans to take, and dutifully takes her temporary replacement at work under wing, showing him the ropes.
Labor is long and her contractions painful, but the pain is mitigated by her awareness that with each contraction, she is closer to a meeting with the beloved child who, up until now, has remained invisible. When the baby is born, she sees not the blood and mucous, the splotchy skin and the misshapen head, but her beautiful, beloved son. His insistent howls of shock arrive like the melodies of Mozart to her eager ears.
When the baby is nursing, Donna feels both relaxed and stimulated, confident in her ability to supply her son with what he needs, overjoyed by the limitless abundance of her milk. When he repeatedly cries out for her at night, she welcomes the opportunity to be of comfort to him, and because of this is able to temporarily override her own exhaustion and depletion, and nurture him successfully. She wishes that he would begin sleeping straight through, as some of her friends' infants have, but she also speaks with a lactation consultant, who reassures her that nursing babies sometimes take a little longer to string together a full-night's sleep.
When, during teething a few months later, he bites her breast while nursing, she howls and yanks him off in disbelief, but then quickly smiles as she acknowledges another sign of his healthy development, and docks him back onto her breast with a playful warning: "Better not try that again, buster!" Naturally, it happens a few more times, but eventually he gets the message, and she helps him learn to soothe his sore gums with pacifiers and popsicles.
When he pokes her painfully in the eye while reaching out to her from his crib one morning, she winces, but is pleased with his vitality and lovingly grabs him up anyway: "You couldn't wait to get a hold of me, could you, big guy?" she tells him, chuckling, as she carries him on her hip while going to get a cold rag for her eye.
Donna has decided ahead of time, without necessarily being conscious of this, that her baby will reinforce and please her. Even when he doesn't do so in a particular moment, such as when labor is long and hard or when he won't sleep through the night or when he bites her breast or pokes her in the eye, she is able to reframe these encounters in a way that is consistent with her belief that the baby is good for her, and that she is good for the baby. Every thing that he does is defined by this assumption, which is why their relationship at this point is so positive, why he, for now, is the prototypical good-enough child.
Such a baby experiences what psychologists call "a secure base", a trusting environment in which he can depend on his needs being met in a way that enables him to feel physically and psychologically attended to. This frees him to propel himself forward into the world, and to master the age-appropriate tasks necessary to his feeling competent and whole.
Another mother, however, may have a very different response to a similar pregnancy and early childhood. Maura and her husband decide, after ten years of marriage, to start a family, but it is with great ambivalence that she begins gestation. She feels that her body has been hijacked by the fetus, that an intruder has taken over her insides and is parasitically going to deprive her of all of her precious resources.
She alternately binge-eats, stuffing herself because she is terrified that the fetus will take everything that she has, and starves herself, hoping, at some subconscious level, perhaps, to neutralize or counteract his unstoppable expansion. She drinks constantly, as if to flush out the baby's waste products before they completely pollute her, and has to urinate frequently, interfering with the possibility of a good night's sleep, and making her irritable and impatient during the days.
Maura interprets her intermittent flatulence and heartburn as manifestations of the baby's malignant presence, weapons in a murderous battle for who will claim ownership of her body. Every physical symptom that she encounters during these turbulent nine months, even those that may have little or nothing to do with being pregnant, are interpreted as dangerous components of her baby's full-scale assault on her.
Feeling under attack, she fights back, keeping up her cigarette habit despite her obstetrician's warnings about its impact on fetal health, yet simultaneously stepping up her exercise routine at the gym as a way of burning off what refuses to stop growing, to the point where one day she passes out getting off of the Stairmaster.
She, like Donna, comes up with a pet-name for the fetus, one that carries with it an assigned personality: "The Spy". The name suggests that the baby is somehow eavesdropping on her, privy to internal knowledge that she is trying to keep hidden from everyone else. "It's enough, Spy," she complains one night when his intrauterine activity is interfering once again with her sleep. "If it wasn't for The Spy, I wouldn't be going through this," she thinks to herself as her dentist fills a couple of newly developed cavities one afternoon in her first trimester.
Maura lets no one at work know that she's expecting, and takes great pains to dress in such a way that her pregnancy is hidden from view. When her boss finally learns, by accident, that she is due in three months, she refuses to discuss any contingency plans, insisting that she'll be back at work "in no time". Her boss, the father of two small children himself, fortunately recognizes how unrealistic this is, and convinces her to take six-week's maternity leave, with the invitation to contribute to projects that she has a hand in when she has the time to do so from home.
She and her husband enroll in a Lamaze class at the hospital where she'll be giving birth, but she sits and listens doubtfully, distractedly, and doesn't bother practicing: "If it gets bad, I'll be asking for drugs," she informs her sister one afternoon, explaining away her apparent indifference.
Labor and childbirth go quite smoothly, but the baby is born with jaundice, convincing her that the baby had somehow decided to exit prematurely, before his liver could function more efficiently. Meanwhile, the episiotomy that was required isn't healing very quickly: it burns when she pees, and her bowel movements are accompanied by the (unfounded) fear that her stitches will tear. All of this further supports the internal belief that she and the baby were, and are, "bad" for each other. She tries breast-feeding but it goes poorly, and her son's inability to quickly take to her nipple results in her feeling snubbed, rejected: "He's punishing me for not taking better care of myself during pregnancy," she speculates to herself, and moves right into formula feeding within a few days after birth. .
The baby turns out to be quite well-regulated. He gains weight nicely, and is sleeping through the night by the time he is four weeks old, but Maura becomes very focussed on the fact that he doesn't nap much during the day, giving her few breaks to get back to some of the work projects that she had hoped to reclaim during maternity leave.
His cries from the crib during naptime feel accusatory and critical, as if he knows she'd rather be working than mothering. She partially blames herself for his refusal to nap, wondering if her hectic, relentless schedule while he was in utero had somehow "taught" him not to slow down during the daytime, and if he's "getting back" at her now.
Maura also begins to notice that some of her peers' children are beginning to smile, while her son, pleasant as he is, does not. Rather than seeing him as simply lagging a bit developmentally, this data, too, gets factored into her belief that he's angry with her, and that he is expressing this anger by witholding from her.
When the baby accidentally knocks her glasses off one day while she is changing his diaper, she quickly slaps his hand, and after a moment of confusion, he begins to cry, and so does she. One day when she is trying to get some work done at the computer with the baby on her lap, he accidentally falls forward, and his head bumps down against the keyboard, erasing what she was working on. She yanks him back up and screams at him, demanding to know why he can't take naps like the other kids do so that she can finally get some work done. "Why are you doing this to me?" she pleads, holding him tightly against her while they both sob.
The rapidity with which she characterizes his actions as aggressive or demanding or intrusive without seriously considering more benign (and accurate) interpretations suggests strongly that she has foreseen that she will be, and perhaps deserves to be, the recipient of such treatment.
Not surprisingly, Maura's tendency to react to her son with sudden rage leaves her feeling guilty all the time. Because of this, she finds it difficult to set appropriate limits with him as he moves into toddler-hood. Falling into an "all-or-nothing" regime, she alternates between smacking his hands and hollering at him for the slightest mishap, such as a dropped fork or a crayoned wall, and indulging or ignoring the typical toddler behaviors that deserve a teaching response or some consequences, such as refusing to sleep in his own bed at night or calling her bad names when she won't do what he wants her to do. Without limits being set, he doesn't learn as quickly as he should what is and isn't acceptable for a child his age.
Unless the behavior pattern between Maura and her baby changes, he will, over time, come to internalize his mom's belief that he is out to punish her, and find that, without even knowing how and why, he does so. For various reasons that as of now remain out of her awareness, she has cast him in the role of her victimizer, a role that was assigned to him embryonically, before he could even think about it, but that both are contributing to his fulfilling.
Her need to see almost every departure from what she wants him to do as a symbolic statement of his need to rebuke and discipline her will lead to their having great conflict, but in reality he is behaving, and she is seeing that he behaves, in the way that she has insisted that he behave, from the moment of his conception, if not before. By not being good-enough, he is, in reality, satisfying a deep, albeit tormented, need of his mother's.
So, do Donna and Maura remain locked forever into these early-established patterns of interaction? Will Donna always be the model parent of the model child, waltzing serenely through parenthood's breezy meadows, while Maura is consigned to trudge through a desultory swamp of despair?
Of course not. While investing our children with a distinct set of personality characteristics is a part of every family process, the dynamics of this process are never static. Like the tiny bits and shapes in a rotating kaleidoscope, these characteristics are constantly in movement, creating new narratives, new stories, and new dramas as development unfolds. With every turn of the life cycle, another configuration presents, or re-presents, itself.
Children are not wax tablets upon which their parents can write their stories, but active participants in the co-creation of the narrative of which the entire, multi-generational family is a part. Their innate characteristics, tendencies, and vulnerabilities are crucial determinants in the role that they wind up performing. They may vigorously refuse to "say their lines" and sabotage the intended production, they may enthusiastically learn and cooperatively vocalize their parts, or they may come up with some compromise or combination of both responses as a result of the complex chemistry that bubbles between and within the generations.
Let's jump ahead a few years, to the point at which Donna and Maura, both with toddlers, contacted me for help, and see how these playwrights were doing.
Maura made an appointment because her son's temper tantrums were driving her mad. Convinced, as she had been all along, that Eric's very purpose in her life had been to injure her, she was not responding well to his fits.
"I either whack him when he starts up, and then feel horrible about it and cuddle him in my arms, or I give in, just to get him to shut up," she confided, ashamedly. "I know neither one is right, I just can't get myself to do anything different."
In getting some history of her pregnancy and early parenthood, I learned how diligently Maura had gone about assuming and ensuring that Eric and she were at odds, from her interpretation of her pregnancy symptoms, to her creation of his in utero pet name, to how she chose to understand everything, from his erratic napping to his "late" smiles to his lack of physical coordination, as early symbols of his hostility towards her.
I also learned something else-Maura had had an abortion as a teenager after accidentally getting pregnant with her boyfriend. This was something that she had not even shared with her husband. The only ones who had known were her parents, who had carried it to the grave with them. "I told no one, and I tell no one. You're the first person I've ever told, aside from my mom and dad, and they had to know, because they arranged the abortion, and were with me when I had it. I didn't even tell my boyfriend-I just broke up with him without any explanation."
As I gently explored this issue, it was impossible for me to miss the great grief and regret that she still felt about something that had occurred literally half a lifetime ago.
Because there had been such shame and secrecy, she had never had the chance to heal this wound and move on. No wonder Eric had been nicknamed "The Spy" years before: it was as if she believed that by occupying the home of his predecessor, he was the only one who would discover the secrets of her dark past.
Instead, her abortion had become a barrier not only between her and her husband, as long-kept secrets often become within a marriage, but also between her and her son. As we spoke, she acknowledged feeling unentitled to bear the baby whose sibling she had both provided, and deprived of, life during a reckless few weeks in adolescence.
"I have to say that I've carried the guilt of that abortion around forever. And I feel so bad that it's as if I don't deserve Eric, that I don't deserve to feel like a good mom when I was such a terrible mom years ago."
"Looking back, do you think it would have been realistic to keep that baby as a seventeen-year-old?" I asked.
She paused, and then answered. "No-it would've been a disaster. My parents were older parents, they weren't prepared to take on a baby, I could've put it up for adoption, I suppose, but I think I'd be feeling the same way, now. And of course I was in no position to be a good mother at the age of seventeen....I just can't get past the fact that there was life inside of me and I destroyed it."
I shared with Maura my belief that perhaps her need to expiate the guilt of her abortion was accounting for her becoming entrenched in seeing her son as her victimizer.
"A lot of what you've been talking about when it comes to Eric is pretty normal stuff, from pregnancy, to infancy, to toddlerhood-but my belief when it comes to childrearing is: 'What you see is what you will get.' If all you see is aggression and hostility, that's how Eric will come to see himself, and that's what you'll get from him."
"You mean I'm making him into the way he is?" she asked, worriedly.
"To some extent, yes. I suspect he'd be going through a tantrum stage right now anyway, no matter what you had thought or done during pregnancy and infancy. But some of the ways in which you respond to him seem to make things more problematic than they need to be."
I recommended that Maura start making some changes by grieving for the baby who had never been born. To facilitate this process, I had her write a letter to the baby, and to express to him or her the deep sorrow she felt about having "created and destroyed" him/her. I also asked her to revisit the neighborhood where she and her boyfriend had conceived the baby, which was less than an hour from where she was living, and to plant a small flower somewhere nearby "in memoriam".
Maura completed both tasks, and over the next couple of meetings appeared ready to finally unburden herself from the terrible secret that had so troubled her all these years, eventually deciding to talk it over with her husband. Having done so, she was now ready to re-view her relationship with Eric. We discussed some more productive ways to handle his tantrums, such as firmly placing him in time-out and refraining from yelling at, giving into, or hitting him, and within a short time she was pleased to report that she had been enjoying him as never before.
"He really gets it when I set a limit, now, and his tantrums last half as long and occur half as often as they used to. But more importantly, I'm able to see the good in him, something that I wasn't able to do before. The other night he came running up from behind and grabbed me as I was taking some eggs out of the refrigerator, and I dropped them.
"I think before I would've yelled at him, and then felt terrible. This time, though, I caught myself, and realized that he was actually trying to give me a hug. I grabbed a towel and said, 'Let's get to work' and we cleaned it all up together. It was such a great feeling to be a different kind of mom."
No longer having to participate in a punishing drama, Eric was free to be seen, and treated, as a growing boy who needed some instruction in how to handle his mental and physical energies, rather than as a dangerous spy who had been assigned to exact payment from her for a regrettable decision from her past.
What about Donna? Would her son, Ryan, remain in childhood just as unremittingly adored as he was during pregnancy, infancy, and babyhood? Unfortunately for both of them, the answer was no.
Donna was referred to me when Ryan was five because his pediatrician was concerned about her ambivalent follow-through on his treatment for asthma. "She's clearly a bright mom, and loves her son, but it's like she won't take any of this seriously," Dr. Lacroix told me by phone. "Asthma is potentially fatal, but she doesn't keep him on the inhaler when I tell her to, won't use the nebulizer when his breathing is getting tight, and hasn't even gotten ahold of the peak-flow meter that you need to assess this at home. The warning signs are always obvious, and there's plenty of time to intervene, but she's not taking the appropriate precautions. The other day she brought him into my office and he was wheezing so heavily I thought I might have to hospitalize him, and she was asking if he could still go to baseball practice later that afternoon! If we get on top of this now, he'll probably be fine. If not, I fear that it's only going to get worse."
During our first session, Donna told me about what a wonderful boy Ryan had been, and how, "from the very first day of pregnancy, I knew that he was going to be a special kid...I could just feel it." She shared with pride how well she had handled expectancy and early childhood, and how much Ryan reminded her of her father: "He's big, just like my dad, always has been, and he's going to be a great athlete, just like my dad was...I can see it already-everyone does. We put him in a baseball league with kids one or two years older than him, and he's still one of the best players."
When I asked her about his history of respiratory difficulties, her tone shifted quickly and became somewhat clipped. "I think my pediatrician's good, I trust her, but I also think she's a bit on the nervous side with this asthma business. I just don't see it as a problem in the way that she does. So he wheezes some-I do during hay fever season, my husband does when he gets a cold in the winter-what's the big deal? Does everything have to be medicated? Why can't he just have a normal life rather than deal with all of this fuss?"
I asked her more about her father, whom Ryan so strikingly reminded her of, and inquired as to whether he had had any health difficulties. "Well, he's an athlete and coach, so he was usually in pretty good shape. Although he's also a smoker, and has always had this horrible, racking cough whenever he'd get sick. I remember sitting up in bed some nights listening to him cough and cough, it was so scary-I remember wondering if he'd ever stop. But he was hooked, and even though he was a football player, he just has never been able to give it up. It's amazing to me that he's still breathing, frankly, although he's always been into exercise, even now, and he's almost sixty."
In my mind, I started to form a picture. Donna identified her son with her father in many positive ways, such as their both having good size and physical prowess. But in linking her father and her son so closely, she must have also become terrified as Ryan's breathing difficulties stirred up scary memories of her father's breathing difficulties. Not wanting to acknowledge the negative aspects of the association she had made between these two males in her life, she was stuck trying to deny the reality of Ryan's condition, a denial that, her pediatrician warned, could have dire consequences. In trying to diminish the role of asthma in his life by making believe that it didn't exist, she was actually exacerbating it.
To disrupt this potentially lethal process, I asked Donna to talk to her father about his smoking, how he had started, why he couldn't stop, and whether he ever would. Sometimes making a preconscious or unconscious issue conscious deprives it of its power, and, like a wizard's incantation, releases an individual from its hold.
Donna had some interesting things to share with me after this talk. "As I listened to him talk about his smoking, a lot started to come back to me. I had talked with you about how scared I was about his smoking, but I also started to remember how angry I was with him when I was growing up. I mean, here was this great athlete, cheered on by thousands every Sunday, always being lauded as a 'real pro', and all I saw was this guy with a graveyard cough stumbling out of bed every winter morning, and reaching for his damn cigarettes. It would make me sick."
"It would also make you feel helpless," I suggested.
"Helpless, yes-that was the feeling. Like there was nothing I could do, nothing I could say. I remember bringing home my health book from fifth grade one year to show my father a picture of a tar-filled lung, and he didn't even want to look at it, he just said, 'Get it away from me, I know, I know.' Well, if he 'knew', why couldn't he stop?"
"I wonder if some of long-stifled anger that you carried towards your dad is getting misdirected towards your son?"
Donna's face grew crimson. "Do you think that could be?"
"If you were very angry with him, but buried it, and then had a son who reminded you of him in many ways, including with his respiratory problems, it's certainly possible. That might be part of why you're not following doctor's orders, and taking care of him."
"That's awful!" Donna almost shrieked. "What kind of mother would endanger her son because of her anger at her father?"
I smiled. "Just about any kind. I wish I could say that all parents have the capacity to transcend their hurts and sorrows and rise to a saintly level of parenthood, but the reality is that we are all vulnerable. None of us is above tripping over an old piece of business here and there and goofing up."
Donna's ability to recognize the old anger that she still harbored towards her father and incorporate that into a more full-bodied portrait of him drained off the anger that she felt about Ryan's temporarily twitchy respiratory system. She no longer had to avoid acknowledging his condition, and was thus better able to provide him what he needed. When Dr. Lacroix and I spoke a couple of months later, she was pleased to tell me that Donna had been much more compliant, and that Ryan was doing fine, and had not had any major "attacks" since we had last spoken.
What I have learned in my practice from parents like Donna and Maura is that highlighting your awareness of the scripts that you have written out, and pinpointing the ways in which you, without always being aware of it, maneuver your son or daughter into playing certain roles in your theatrical production, is the surest pathway towards change.
Let's take a look at a couple of other cases in which this took place:
Carl contacted me because of his difficulties picking up and dropping off his three-year-old son Harry at the daycare he had begun to attend a couple of months before. The mornings were tortured affairs, with Harry sobbing, writhing and clutching at his dad, and resulted in Carl heading off to work feeling a wretched combination of guilt and anger. The afternoons were just as bad, but for a different reason: Harry would ignore his dad, and, when Carl tried to get him ready to go, he would throw a tantrum about having to leave, and continue screaming all the way home.
"I swear, it takes me two full hours before I'm able to accomplish anything once I get to work, I feel so exhausted by the morning routine. And then before I know it, it's time to pick him up and go through a whole other routine, which I need another two hours to recover from. I feel like all we do is fight, and then prepare for the next one. And I hate how I feel about him. I mean, I feel bad about leaving him at daycare, but there are kids younger than him there, and kids who are dropped off earlier and picked up later. And they do take good care of him, it's a really great staff. But I'm so sick of the crying and the yelling, already...it's embarrassing, and it doesn't seem fair, and I just don't get it, he should have adjusted to this by now, he's been there for more than a month."
"How does he seem to do at daycare once you've left?"
"I've asked, and, amazingly enough, although you would never think so from how things look when I leave, he does fine. He's got a couple of little friends, and the woman in charge says they play very nicely together. She says that usually Harry will play by himself for a little while after I've left, but then he hooks up with some of the other kids, and joins right in with whatever they're doing, and then he's fine for the rest of the day. Until I come to pick him up, of course. Then all hell breaks loose again."
Clearly, the problem was not with the daycare, or Harry's adjustment to being there. More likely, he was having difficulties navigating the separation from Carl at the beginning of the day, and the reunion with Carl at the end of the day, and hadn't yet mastered how to make these transitions smoother ones.
"How have you been handling things during the drop-off?" I wondered.
"I don't even know what to do anymore," he acknowledged sadly. "I've tried walking him over to some toys, or to some of the other kids, and getting him interested in something else to distract him, get his mind off of it, but it never really works. Once I stand up to get ready to leave, he starts the whining and the crying, and grabs my leg so that I can't walk, and I feel just horrible."
"What happens then?"
"Usually at that point one of the daycare providers will kind of snatch him up so that I can leave, and I try to give him a hug and a kiss, but then he'll grab onto my neck or my hair, and it's literally like he has to be pried off of me. So I'll tell him I'll sit near the door for a while and watch him play, but he doesn't play, he'll just come running back to me, and finally, I'll just have to leave, the staff people are kind of pushing me out the door with the sound of him wailing as I go out to my car. It's just a disaster."
"And how about in the afternoons?"
"Well, that's what's so weird about the whole thing, I mean, you'd think after all of this craziness in the morning, he'd come running over to me as soon as I got there and jump into my arms, but he does the opposite. I'll see him busy with something, and then one of the teachers will say, 'Harry, your dad is here,' and he'll look up and see me and then go right back to what he's doing. And so I head over to see what he's doing, and he acts as if I'm not even there. And when I say we have to get going, and start getting his coat and stuff, he starts shaking his head and saying, 'No,no', and so I have to pick him up off the floor, and I can never get him to put away what he's playing with, he won't clean up, and none of the teachers give me a hard time about this, but I feel like he should be responsible. Then I'm hauling him out to the parking lot with him under my arms kicking and screaming, papers flying everywhere, trying to hold onto his lunchbox and his backpack. I'll tell you, it's a wonder I drive home safely, because he continues flailing about and hollering in the car seat the whole ride home."
"How about when he gets home?"
"By the time I get him inside, he's kind of worn out, and pretty quiet. My wife's usually there around the same time on the days I do the pick-up, maybe a little later, and so she'll take over with him, while I get started on dinner, or he'll watch a video or play with his trucks, and then the rest of the evening usually goes pretty well."
"Does your wife ever do the drop-off or pick-up?"
"Not usually. She only works three days a week, and is home with him on Monday's and Friday's, but on the days she works she has to be there longer than I do. A few days a month when I have an early meeting or a dinner meeting, Susan will take care of it."
"And how do things work when she does it?"
He chuckled sarcastically. "Fine, which is one of the things that bugs me. I ask her, 'Doesn't he get upset when you drop him off? Doesn't he wig out when you go to pick him up?' but, apparently not."
"What does happen?" "She says she's usually in a hurry when she's dropping him off, and she just gets his coat off, puts his stuff in his cubby, plops him on the ground with a kiss, and off she goes. She says he seems sad sometimes, but it really doesn't bother her all that much."
"And in the afternoon, when she has to pick him up?"
"Same thing, basically. I mean, I've asked her how she does it, and she doesn't really know, all she says is that she shows up, wanders over to where he is and joins in for a while, and then they're in the car and are headed home. He doesn't get particularly excited about seeing her, but he doesn't get so impossible, either."
The fact that separations were managed differently, and more effectively, when Harry was with his mom helped me to pinpoint my thinking further. It wasn't just Harry who was having difficulty with separations...it might be his father as well.
Carl struck me as a thoughtful, caring parent who had developed a healthy bond with his son. Whenever a parent who is well-connected with his/her child gets locked into some kind of interminable battle with that child, I usually assume that some drama from the parent's past is being unwittingly replayed. It's the only way to make sense of why an otherwise intelligent person would persist in interacting in a way that inflames, rather than mitigates, a problem.
"How did you handle separations from your parents when you were a child?"
"I don't really recall having any difficulties. I mean, I didn't really go anywhere until I was in Kindergarten...no nursery school or anything like that. But by the time I started Kindergarten, I was probably okay with being apart."
"How about other separations?"
"Well, I know I used to get sad when my dad would go away on business trips, which was every couple of months for a week or so. And for a while, we had a babysitter I didn't like all that much that they'd leave my brother and I with when they'd go out on the weekends, and I wasn't very happy about being left then, either. But I survived all of that, so it couldn't have been too traumatic for me."
I was hoping that exploring Carl's own experiences with separation anxiety as a child might give me some clues as to why he was having such difficulty with Harry's, but found myself without any information that would provide an explanation. For now, I'd have to proceed without having a clear understanding of what was accounting for the problem.
"What do you say to Harry in the mornings as he's getting up, or you're on your way to the daycare?"
Carl thought for a moment. "Nothing, really...the first couple of days I tried to talk it up, telling him what a good time he'd be having, how much fun it would be, but now, I don't even mention it, because I don't want him to start getting upset. He's pretty quiet...until we get in the door, that is...then it's mayhem."
"In the coming week, I'd like you to begin talking about the leavetaking on your way to daycare, before you get there. You can certainly remind him about some of the fun things that you know that he'll be doing there, but you are also to let him know that you understand it's difficult for him to be left at first, and reassure him that you'll be thinking of him during the day, and looking forward to picking him up in the afternoon."
"Don't you think that's just going to get him more worked up?" Carl asked, with a fretful look on his face.
"It's possible, but I think a greater likelihood is that it might help to defuse some of the tension and sadness that he feels, making it easier for him to prepare for being apart from you."
"Do you think that that's really such a big deal for him?"
"Apparently so," I replied.
"Then, how come all the other kids don't get so upset when their parents leave?"
"First of all, some of them probably do. They may be on a different schedule than you and get there before or after you, so that you don't see it. Or perhaps they handle their upset in different ways than Harry does, less dramatically. But every child has to deal with it in one way or another, and some ways are harder for some parents than others."
"Then why isn't he happier to see me when I return? If he's having such a hard time with me leaving, then why does he have to have such a hard time with me coming back? It doesn't make any sense." Carl looked annoyed. What parents don't feel the same way when their children's behavior is so perplexing and exasperating?
"When he sees you, he may be reminded of how angry he was when you left him earlier in the day. He expresses that by trying to 'hurt' you back, in this case, by ignoring you. And," I said with a grin, "it sounds to me like it works."
"So what should I do about that?"
"For now, I'd like you to take your time when you get there to pick him up. Acknowledge him with a smile and a wave, but don't go right over to him. Take a few moments to talk with one of the teachers, or go over and start getting his stuff together without him."
"What am I doing, playing hard-to-get?" Carl asked.
"In a way, yes....what you're doing is giving him a chance to work through some of the mixed feelings he's having about your being back, the joy as well as the anger, so that he'll be better able to re-connect with you when he's ready to."
"I don't know," Carl sighed. "You may be right about all of this, but I'm not sure that simply talking with him about things in the morning, or letting him warm up to me in the afternoon is going to help."
"It may not, but why don't you give it a try, anyway, just to see? And I'd like your wife to join us next time, as well, to see what light she can shed on this situation."
Carl reluctantly agreed, but returned for the next meeting even more frustrated than the week before.
"I didn't think it could get any worse, but it has," he began, before he had even gotten his coat off.
"What was going on?"
"He was just as clutchy in the mornings, and unfortunately one of the teachers, the one he likes the best, was out a couple of days because her daughter was sick, so there wasn't even anyone to help me out, it took me even longer to disentangle myself from him. And in the afternoons, he was bad as always. I really can't stand this anymore, I told my wife either she starts taking him and and picking him up, or I'm going to just quit and work at home, or something...I simply cannot go through this all the time."
"How available are you to help out with this, Susan?" I asked his wife.
"Well, it's not easy. I'm able to fill in when I have enough notice, and I don't mind doing it when I can, but I have to be at work before the daycare is even open, and my schedule in the afternoons is just too unpredictable...I can never be sure when I'm going to be able to take off. That's the only way I can keep my schedule to three days a week."
I turned back to Carl. "What was it like to follow through on what I asked you to do?"
"What do you mean?"
I hesitated for a second, not sure if Carl had forgotten. "We had decided that you would begin talking about your leavetaking before you got Harry to daycare, and that you'd take a few moments to let him warm up to you when you picked her up in the afternoon."
"Oh, yeah, that," he replied. "I tried it the first morning when we were in the car, and he didn't have anything to say, and that morning was just as bad as the others."
"Did you give it a few more days' trial anyway?"
"No, not really...I mean, I felt like, 'Why waste my time?' if it's not going to help."
"And how about in the afternoons? Did you do anything differently then?"
"It was more of the same. I guess the thing is, I don't really feel like hanging around there any longer than I have to. By the time I get there, I'm tired and just want to get home, I don't want to stand around chatting with his teacher, or waiting him out."
Whenever I give parents an assignment, I'm listening carefully not just to the results of the assignment, but to how, and whether, they did it. If a parent is frustrated enough to come to me for help, but chooses not to follow through on an assignment that might ease the frustration, it usually leads me to think that the parent has some investment in being frustrated. In other words, why ask your doctor for a prescription to alleviate your discomfort, and then refuse to take it and choose to remain uncomfortable?
If Carl had tried what I had asked him to do for several days, without any positive results, I would have understood his punting it, and giving up. But what I heard was that had only tried the morning talk once, and hadn't given the afternoon "warm-up" any chance at all. Something else was accounting for what was happening.
"You must be pretty fed up with this, day after day," I empathized.
"I can't believe I'm in this position of having a son who can't say hello or good-bye to me without a tantrum. We're not talking about a newborn, here...he's three years old, already!"
"Susan, why do you think things work differently when you handle this?"
"I'm not sure," she responded slowly. "When Carl is busy, and I have to take Harry in, we'll often stop off and get a donut or a hot chocolate somewhere. But once I get him there, I kind of just shoo him over to wherever the kids seem to be playing, give him a kiss, and then take off."
"How does he seem to handle it?"
"Well, he never really looks happy, to be honest...there are some kids I see who are just dashing into the room, they can't wait to get started, but sometimes I peek in the window from the outside when I'm leaving, and I see that Harry's not really joining in, he's just kind of sitting there, staring into space. But I figure that he'll eventually jump in, and, from what everyone says, it seems that he does."
"How about in the afternoons, when you pick him up?"
"I'm not sure. Usually if I'm picking him up, Carl is going to be working late, so I'm in no hurry. I'll hang out with him and his buddies, and I'm good friends with a couple of the other moms, so we'll chit-chat for a bit before we all head out. Also, I usually take Harry out to dinner from the daycare, which he likes doing. I just say, 'Hey, honey, want to go to McDonald's tonight?' and before you know it, he's packed up and ready to go."
"I wish I could do that," Carl said, "but I can't possibly take him out for donuts every morning and dinner every night...we'd all be fat and out of money in no time."
"I don't think the solution is in going out to eat every day," I reassured him. "But it seems separation is a different experience for Susan and Harry than it is for you and Harry."
"So how can we make it better for him and me?" he asked.
Knowing that he had already chosen to ignore the suggestions I had made last time, I didn't answer that question right away. What I was thinking was that each parent was preparing for and responding to the separation in their unique ways.
Susan was making it clear in the morning that she wasn't going to hang around and engage with Harry around his ambivalence about being left. She had said that she could tell he wasn't always happy, but that that wasn't enough to keep her from making her leavetaking brisk. That they usually had a special treat together on the way to daycare probably helped both of them deal with the impending separation. In the afternoons, she wasn't rushing things, but was giving her son some time to re-acclimate to her presence (plus, they often got to go out to eat!).
In the mornings, Carl was continually drawn in by Harry's sadness, making it hard for him to say "So long" in a quick, clear way. This, of course, elicited more clingy behavior from Harry, which in turn elicited more waffling from Carl, and before they knew it, a two-minute good-bye had blown up into a fifteen-minute melodrama. And in the afternoons, he had already rejected my proposal to allow a few extra minutes before contact was expected between him and his son, so that the rest of the afternoon and evening might go more smoothly.
In my quest for a better understanding of why Carl seemed to almost willfully perpetuate this situation despite his complaints about it, I went back to his past one more time to see if I might discover some clues.
"Who, in your family, does Harry remind you of," I began.
"I'm not sure," he began. "In some ways, he seems a lot more like Susan, and members of her family, than of mine. He looks just like Susan, and Susan's mom as well, and his intensity is kind of like Susan's, too, he can get pretty frosted pretty quickly when things don't go his way."
"Anyone in your family that he reminds you of?" I tried again.
"Well, he's kind of like me, I guess, in that he likes to sleep. I could sleep all day if you'd let me, and he's always been that way, too."
"Anyone else that he shares some traits with?"
"Not that I can think of."
At this point, Susan looked over at him and asked, "Does Brad know that you're adopted?"
I looked over at Carl, and noticed him almost imperceptibly nudge his chair back a few inches. "No, I hadn't brought it up," he murmured.
I hadn't ever asked, either, and there hadn't been any moments in our first couple of sessions when his disclosing this would have been unavoidable, but it sure seemed notable that it hadn't come up.
"Could you tell me some more about that," I asked.
"What's to tell? I was adopted when I was only a couple of weeks old. I never knew my birth parents, don't know anything about them, and don't really care to. I loved my adoptive parents, and have always felt that they were my real parents. That's really all there is."
While adoptees vary in the extent to which they want to know more about their lineage, I was struck by how completely uninterested Carl appeared to be about his origin. Usually, there is some desire to learn more about one's birth family, at some point along the developmental spectrum, even if things have gone well in one's adoptive family.
"Sometimes adoptees give new or additional thought to their birth parents when they become parents themselves. Has that happened for you?"
"I don't think so," he replied quickly.
"What about those dreams you were having while I was pregnant?" Susan offered. "The ones about the mystery woman?"
Carl smiled sheepishly. "Well, I kept having this dream when we were expecting Harry-dreams of this woman I called 'The Mystery Woman'. It was weird, because she was definitely one of those dream people, she was kind of scary but kind of loving at the same time. But she'd show up in my dreams and she'd always do the same thing."
"What was that?"
Carl squirmed. "Do I have to tell you?"
"Only if you're comfortable doing so."
"Jeez, Carl, it's not that bad," Susan said, poking him lightly with her elbow.
"Oh, okay...She'd put her finger in my belly-button and wriggle it around in there."
"How did you understand the dream?"
"Well, I didn't, really, but I was telling one of Susan's friends about it once, and she said that she had learned that expectant parents sometimes have dreams about their ancestors, and maybe it was my birth mother showing up in my dreams."
"Did you figure out why she kept touching your belly-button?" I wondered.
"Not really," he laughed, "That part remains a mystery."
"Not if you remember that that's the closest connection you have with her," I said. "It's the part of you that took in what she had to give you during her pregnancy with you."
"I hadn't thought about that," he said, as if in a reverie.
I let him ruminate about this for a few moments, and then asked, "Can you allow yourself to feel connected with her now that you're a parent as well?"
"I guess it's never occurred to me to do so. I never felt any real kinship with her."
"You do, now, however. And you also may be feeling a kinship for yourself as her son."
"That may be why the drop-offs and pick-ups at school are so hard...because you're replaying a painful separation that occurred a long time ago, the one between you and your birth mother."
"Oh, come on," he answered, skeptically. "I was two weeks old! How traumatic could that have been...and it's not like I was sent to an orphanage...my parents were ready to adopt me, all the paperwork had been done, and they took great care of me."
"You were two weeks old, but you'd had two weeks' familiarity with your mother outside her womb, and another nine months' familiarity inside. You were intimately acquainted with her sound, her smell, her feel, her movements...yes, you were well taken care of by your parents, but you still felt, without knowing why, that you were taken away from the only person you'd ever known, your first beloved. A feeling that powerful doesn't ever go away."
"So why is it coming up now?"
"Probably because, now that he's in daycare, this is the first time you and Harry are having to experience a real separation from each other. Up until now, you've remained together-now, you're not. And it's hard on both of you."
"How can I make it easier?"
"Sometimes we play out scenes from our past to gain a better understanding of them. I think the scene at daycare is so hard because in it you identify both with your birth mother, and with yourself as an infant. In leaving Harry, you're re-experiencing what your mother might have felt in leaving you with a new family. And in interacting with Harry in a way that seems to lead to his being more, rather than less, upset, you're re-experiencing what it might have been like for you to have had to say good-bye to your birth mother. It could be that just being aware of this possibility will help you to change how things go, even if you don't fully agree with me or comprehend it."
Rather than jump back into making suggestions about how to handle the mornings differently, I asked Carl to do some more thinking about his connection with his birth mother to see where this led him.
He returned with some new insights. "I think there's probably some truth to what you were saying," he began, "because I remember that I was studying Biology in high school, and learning all about genetics, and I was talking with my mom once and said, 'Gee, I wonder what genes I have from my birth mother,' and she got this funny look on her face, and just didn't say anything. And it made me feel maybe I shouldn't think about my birth mother because it would upset my mom, and so I just kind of sat on it the whole time."
"That's not an unusual response...adoptees often feel great loyalty and gratitude towards their adoptive parents, and don't want to risk another loss by doing something that might antagonize or anger them. You might have been protecting yourself by disavowing any acknowledgement of your 'other' heritage."
"You're right," he said. "I mean, it's not that I'm about to go on any search to reunite with her or anything, right now. But since we opened that door last session, I've been wondering a lot about who she is, if she's still alive, who my dad was...all of that stuff. And I realize that there's another bond, there, that I haven't been aware of, and that Harry has another grandmother somewhere out there...and that really blows me away."
"How have things been going with Harry?"
"Better, actually. I went back to the first idea you had, talking with him as we're driving to school, and I think that's led him to be a little more settled when I leave. And I'm not sticking around so much, either, I finally got it through my thick head that hanging around and trying to comfort him was only making things harder for both of us. He survives when Susan leaves him, he'll survive when I leave him, too.
"And for the afternoons, I came up with a great idea...I bought him a special Beanie Baby that I only give him when I pick him up, and for the ride home, and once we're home I take it back and put it away. And he lights up now when he sees me come in with the beanie baby, and comes right over to hold it and hug it. And I make sure he's got a little time to play around before we leave."
Carl's decision to utilize a special doll to help Harry make the transition back to him was a touching one, because, to me, the doll represented both Harry, and Carl as a little boy, comforting both of them, and helping them to cope as they dealt with the inevitable feelings of loss that separations engender.
As he came to understand more about the ways in which he was contributing to the very problem that he was so troubled by, and the history behind why he was doing so, Carl was better able to find new solutions that worked better for him and his son.
Judy called me to schedule an appointment to address the chronic sibling rivalry between her two daughters, a conflict that had seemed to be worsening over the previous several months. Kristin, who was 12, and Denise, who was 10, had "fought like cats and dogs since Denise was born," according to Judy, but things had gotten so bad that, during a recent fight, Kristin had chased Denise around the house brandishing a kitchen knife.
"Here we are with both kids moving into adolescence, and I still don't feel that I can leave the two of them home alone," Judy complained. "I feel silly trying to arrange a sitter for when I go out on a date when Kristin's already old enough to begin doing some babysitting herself, but they really can't be trusted to be alone. The last time I tried it, all I did was go down to a neighbor's house for a party, and within the hour Denise had called me, crying, saying that Kristin had thrown a book at her and hit her in the face and her eye was starting to swell. That was the end of that night out."
Although I know of very few same-sex siblings that close in age who aren't engaged in some sort of on-going warfare, it was clear that these two girls were not progressing towards some sort of mature reconciliation as they grew, and that, as they both got bigger and stronger, the potential for more serious physical harm would increase.
I first met with Judy, a single mother whose former husband had remarried and moved out of town, to get some background, and to learn more about what she had already tried so that I didn't wind up having her repeat interventions or approaches that had already been unsuccessful. She said that, from day one, Kristin was perturbed by her little sister's presence. "Kristin was like Angelica in the Rugrats," Judy recalled with a chuckle, "constantly tormenting Denise, in her face, making her cry, and this was when she was just a baby. As she got older, it just got worse and worse. It seems like she'll do anything to get on Denise's nerves, and at this point, Denise almost expects to be tortured-I feel so sorry for her."
"What is Denise's role in the conflict with her older sister?" I inquired.
"What do you mean?" Judy wondered.
"Well, by the time children are as old as these two, each of them plays some part in a fight. What do you think her part is?"
She was quiet as she pondered this, a delay which led me to think that the drama in which Kristin played the role of unrelenting aggressor and Denise played the role of passive, blameless victim had become so routinized that no other scripts were being considered.
Finally, Judy piped up with her answer. "I think Denise just tries to avoid her sister because she knows she's going to wind up getting pounded, in one form or another."
"Really?" I asked, suspecting that it had to be more complicated than this.
"Yes...I don't ever see Denise provoking a fight with Kristin, she seems to want to just keep to herself, and avoid getting tangled up with her."
"How have you attempted to intervene over the years?"
"Well, I've told Kristin over and over again to stay out of Denise's hair. I've given them separate rooms, and I try to minimize their conflicts as much as possible. They were always fighting over the CD player, so I bought each of them their own. But then they started fighting over the computer, and I really can't afford to buy two computers, so I set up a schedule in which they each have different windows of time in which they're allowed to use it, but somehow that never seems to work, Kristin always takes over and Denise just sort of gives in. And the same thing happens with the phone, too, we only have one line, and between calls from their friends and needing to use the Internet, there's constant arguing about whose turn it is, and who gets to do what. It's really exhausting." Judy took a deep breath and sighed sadly.
"Aside from trying to help them avoid conflict through separating them, what else have you tried?"
"I've certainly punished Kristin when she's been physical with Denise," she responded. "I'll send her to her room and I even grounded her for a weekend after she had pushed Denise into her room, and Denise fell backwards and bumped her head against the wall."
"Was she badly hurt?"
"Not really, as it turns out, but I was kind of worried, she was lying there with a dazed expression for a few minutes, and I thought I'd have to take her to the hospital."
"What did the grounding consist of?" I wondered.
"Well, she wasn't allowed to play with friends that weekend. Although now that I think about it I did let her go to her friend's birthday party that Saturday night...It didn't seem fair to not let her go to a party and wind up punishing her friend and her friend's parents, who had already paid for the tickets to the movie they were going to."
It was striking to me that aggression of the sort that Kristin had been displaying, such as knives being brandished and books being hurled and forceful shoves that resulted in injuries, had not been responded to with any consequences beyond being sent to her room and an intermittent and lenient grounding.
My next step was to invite the girls to a meeting in my office with their mom. Kristin, true to form, immediately tried to take charge of the session. "Mom says we're here because I don't get along with Denise, but you don't know what it's like to live with Denise," she began.
"Tell me what it's like to live with Denise," I asked.
Kristin didn't hesitate for a second. "She's just such a pain, she's always doing what I do, whatever I watch on tv she starts watching on tv, whatever music I listen to, she starts listening to, whatever I start wearing, she starts wearing. She's like a little clone, and I know she's doing it just to get on my nerves."
"Some find it flattering to have somebody imitate them so closely," I commented.
"Your sister must really look up to you."
Kristin seemed momentarily caught off guard by my observation, but quickly regrouped. "Well, I just wish she'd get a life and stay out of mine. I don't need her copying me all the time. Somebody should tell her to watch her own tv shows and listen to her own CD's and pick out her own clothes. And she's always telling on me. The moment I glare at her or yell at her, she goes running to Mom, saying I'm going to hurt her. She's always hanging around watching me, waiting for me to do something wrong."
Already, in the first two minutes of the session, Kristin had provided me with another perspective on her relationship with her sister. In her eyes, Denise was not a blameless victim, but a tattle-tale, a subtle and insidious usurper, draining her of her uniqueness and thwarting her specialness by so diligently mimicking her.
Denise was more difficult to engage. "Tell me about some of the things that you like to do that are different from what your sister likes to do," I asked her.
"I play the clarinet, and she doesn't," Denise said softly. "And I don't eat pizza all the time like she does."
"So there are some differences between the two of you," I affirmed.
"I guess," Denise said, just as softly, then looking warily over at her sister, who shook her head disgustedly.
"What are some of the ways you've made a distinction between the two girls?" I asked Judy.
"They each have different chores to do," Judy replied, "Kristin has to set and clear the table, and get the trash and recycling together the night before they get picked up. Denise has to clean the cat litter and empty the dishwasher."
"Which she never does," Kristin added quickly, "She lets the cat litter go for days at a time, you can smell it all the way upstairs from the basement."
"Is that true?" I asked.
"Well, she's pretty good about the dishwasher, but I don't really know if she's cleaning the cat litter or not since it's in the basement, and we're not down there that much," said Judy.
"Trust me, she doesn't," Kristin said curtly, and I looked over to make eye contact with Denise, contact that didn't elicit any response.
"Is Kristin good about doing her chores?" I wondered.
"For the most part, yes," answered her mom. "I mean I have to remind her some times, and she can be pretty grumpy about it when it means stopping what she's doing to get the recycling or the trash outside, but she does okay with it."
"Is there a difference in the privileges that each of them is entitled to?" I inquired.
"Kristin has a more active social life, so I guess I let her do more things with friends. Denise just doesn't have as many friends, and doesn't ask as much, so there's a difference there. I kind of wish Denise would have more friends, actually, she spends a lot of her time alone."
"What about things like allowance and bedtime?"
"My sister and I have the same bedtime," Kristin snapped, "I'm in middle school and she's still in elementary school and she gets to stay up as late as I do."
"Honey, you also have to get up half-an-hour earlier than her...that's why your bedtime's the same," Judy interjected.
"But we had the same bedtime last year, and I wasn't in middle school then," Kristin confidently replied, clearly having thought out the injustice of the current set-up.
I couldn't help privately admiring her lawyerly persuasiveness.
"It's like I can't win," Judy said, tossing her hands up in the air helplessly.
What I could see almost instantaneously was that the picture that the mother had drawn for me didn't have much in common with the picture that the girls had drawn for me. Judy saw a taunting, domineering older sister looming over and threatening her innocent younger sister. But what I saw was an insecure girl on the cusp of adolescence whose mother was not recognizing the extent to which she felt intruded upon by her younger, more compliant sister, and the ways in which she felt as if she was unfairly held more accountable than Denise was.
The frustration and anger that constantly simmered as a result of this situation was inevitably boiling over at the slightest irritant, making her feel even worse about herself. But nobody was making sure that she was adequately instructed in how to manage this anger and frustration in a way that was safe and appropriate, so the cycle continued, leaving all three of them feeling miserable.
One approach that I'll often try initially in a situation like this one is to help find ways to distinguish the siblings from each other in a way that elevates the older sibling, diminishing the need for the fights which are often designed, at least by the eldest, to accomplish the same goal.
I began by asking Judy to consider establishing a later bedtime for Kristin, even though she had to get up earlier than her sister, as a way to create some "space" between the two of them.
"But that's just going to tire her out, and Kristin can be a real bear when she hasn't had enough sleep," was Judy's instant response to my idea.
"I can understand your concern about that, but even if it's just a half-hour later, I still think it would be worthwhile in the long run. And she doesn't have to stay up that late, you're just telling her that she's allowed to."
"I'll have to think about that one," Judy said, "I'm just not sure I can sanction a later bedtime, and I'm not going to move Denise's earlier: that's not being fair to her."
"How about allowance?" I asked. "What are you giving them these days?"
"Denise gets three dollars a week, and Kristin gets four," Judy answered. "Of course, that's if they're doing their jobs."
"How is that being monitored?"
"We try to stay on top of it," she replied.
"Kristin complained that Denise is not really doing the cat litter very regularly," I reminded her.
"I wish Kristin had something better to do with her time than keep track of Denise's chores," Judy said. "She should be busy enough with her own responsibilities, as far as I'm concerned."
"But it's sounding like she perceives things as being unfair in terms of what's expected of her."
Judy almost exploded: "Everything's unfair to Kristin! If I ask her to do one of her jobs over, she says I never ask Denise to do things over. If I praise Denise for something, Kristin says I treat Denise better than I treat her. I'm so sick of her complaints already! It's like she still hasn't gotten over the fact that she has a younger sister, and I think it's time for her to grow up and deal with it already."
As Judy had come to me for help, but did not appear at this point to be interested in accepting the help that I was offering, I felt that there might be some underlying reasons why the sibling conflict was in place. Because siblings are our closest relatives, the sibling bond is a powerfully complex one, and always influences our subsequent relationships in one way or another. Many times our history with our own siblings is the filter through which we view the new sibling system that we create when we have more than one child.
In obtaining some background, I learned that Judy was the oldest of three, followed by a sister and a brother. Her relationship with her younger sister seemed to be a mirror image of Kristin's relationship with Denise. "I was a very quiet kid, sort of nerdy, but both of my younger siblings were much more intense, and my parents seemed to gravitate more towards them than they did to me. My younger sister was this tomboyish hellion who was like a black hole, absorbing everybody's attention with all of her problems and talents--she was smart and difficult all at the same time. And she kind of bossed me around, because she was so much stronger. And my younger brother wasn't quite that intense, but he was my dad's favorite, it's like my father finally got the son that he wanted, so Dad pretty much focussed on him and ignored me, because I was quiet."
It was clear that the conflict between Kristin and Denise was at least partially an echo of a dynamic from Judy's past. Although the similarity didn't follow birth order, there was still the situation of one sibling-Judy-playing second fiddle to a sibling (actually two siblings) because she happened to be much quieter, more "nerdy".
The question that needed to be answered now was in what ways Judy's sibling history was exacerbating the conflict between her daughters. To my way of thinking, the relationship between Kristin and Denise, as it stood now, had an important function for Judy. By siding with the more vulnerable Denise against the more aggressive Kristin¸ she would give to Denise what she wished she could have gotten from her own parents, thus symbolically redressing what she had experienced as an injustice when she was a child. In other words, she needed Kristin's aggression in place so that she could ally herself with Denise against an enemy and thereby right the wrongs of the past.
However, Judy's side-taking was obviously creating problems between her two daughters that might otherwise not have been there. Kristin wasn't learning to rein in her anger and was continually embodying the role of "bully", and Denise wasn't learning to assert and defend herself, and was embodying the role of "victim". And bullies always seek out victims, while victims always seek out bullies. But until the hidden "value" of this parental approach was exposed, it was my belief that Judy would remain reluctant to make any meaningful changes-she was getting too much out of it.
With this in mind, I scheduled an individual session with her to explore these possibilities, and to see if I might help to dislodge her perspective a bit by painting a more variegated picture.
I began by empathizing with her childhood plight. "It must have been difficult to grow up in a home in which you were relegated to such an auxiliary position."
"It was. I sometimes felt that I didn't even belong there, with all of these intense people storming around. And it was embarrassing at times to feel so intimidated by my younger sister."
"Do you feel that way about Kristin sometimes?"
Judy hesitated, fingering her pocketbook. "I guess I do. I mean, I wish she wasn't such a firecracker all the time, it's like she's always ready to light up and go off."
"It must be difficult to see her vulnerability, then."
"What vulnerability? I've never seen a more self-assured twelve-year-old in my life."
"Aside from your younger sister," I replied, and Judy smiled, catching my drift. "She may appear self-assured, but I don't think she'd feel so threatened by her younger sister if she was all that confident."
"Do you really think so?" she asked, in a more open tone of voice than I had ever heard before.
"Yes, I really think so." I responded. "Why else would what Denise does or doesn't do bother her so much?"
"I just never saw her that way," she responded, sounding a little mystified.
"You had described your sister as very intense. What is she up to now?"
"Well, she's had a pretty hard time of it, actually. She wound up going into the Army, where she was quite happy, but then she left the Service after a few years, and has been pretty lost since then. She married, but now is separated, and she hasn't really latched onto something that she sticks with, even though she's already in her mid-thirties. And she's got so much going for her, she's so bright and so strong."
"But despite all of her strengths, and despite all of her bravado as a girl, and how intimidating she was for you, she apparently has some vulnerabilities, too."
"I guess so, based on how her life is turning out."
"So maybe you can see Kristin in the same way."
"I think I can," Judy said, after a long wait. "I remember one time when I sent her to her room after she was doing her usual awful things to Denise, and I walked in and she was just lying on her bed with this incredibly sad look on her face. And I asked her for what must have been the thousandth time why she mistreated Denise all the time, and she just looked so forlorn, and said, "I don't know, Mom, I don't know." It was the only time she didn't defend herself or attack me or her sister when I had disciplined her."
"So there really is some sadness in there-sadness that might be camouflaged by her anger."
"I guess that could be true," she said hesitantly.
"It sounds like she could really use some help controlling herself."
"But why does she always reject that help?"
"Maybe she needs more help, or a different kind of help. For example, it doesn't sound like there are any real consequences for her behavior. Even when she got grounded, she wound up going to a birthday party that same weekend. Not much of a punishment for treating her sister so violently."
"Do you think I need to be tougher?"
"I think you need to be firmer, and to follow through on what you say. Without positive or negative consequences to help motivate them, it's hard for kids to learn how to behave differently. We were talking a moment ago about how your sister turned out. It makes me wonder how you think you've turned out?" I wondered.
"I think I could've used some of my sister's strength," Judy said, laughing. "My life's okay, but I feel like I missed a lot of opportunities because I didn't have the self-confidence to pursue them. My marriage didn't work because I was such a doormat-I put up with stuff I should never have put up with, and I think my husband finally got tired of stepping on me. I never developed a career, and I could have, it's just that I didn't really believe in myself, so I'm stuck working as a classroom aide, and counting on their dad's child support checks." She looked me straight in the eye: "I have a lot of regrets."
"Perhaps you'd like Denise to feel a little more self-confident than she does, so that she doesn't grow up with the same regrets that you have," I offered.
"I'd love for her to. But how can she in the face of Kristin always torturing her?"
"You could see Kristin as providing Denise with the opportunity to become stronger and more assertive."
"How is that going to happen?" she asked.
"By refraining from rescuing her from Kristin all the time, and providing her with the skills to take care of herself. And by modeling that strength yourself in your dealings with Kristin."
"I don't know...sometimes I don't feel that we rescue Denise enough."
"I think she's rescued too much. I think that you've inadvertently convinced her that she can't handle Kristin by constantly blaming Kristin and positioning her as the bully and Denise as the victim."
"I don't want that to happen."
"Then you'll have to accept the possibility that Denise contributes to these conflicts, too."
"How does she do that?"
"By sliding on her responsibilities, such as the kitty litter, and not being held to task. By running to you whenever there's a conflict brewing with Kristin rather than trying to solve it herself. By not developing a social life of her own and relying too much on her interactions with her sister to provide some adventure in her life."
"So you're saying that they each have some changes to make."
"Exactly. And you can help to make those changes come about by looking at their relationship in a more balanced way. Following through with meaningful consequences for Kristin when she's not behaving appropriately, in tandem with building up Denise's capacity to defend her boundaries, will be the best thing for both of them."
Sensing that Judy now had a more balanced perspective, we went back to the drawing board to create some better ways of handling things.
In an effort to acknowledge the age difference between the two girls, Judy did agree to let Kristin have a later bedtime than Denise, and to earn some "bonus" allowance money for cooking dinner twice a week. Denise, too, was entitled to some bonus money, but hers would be earned out of the house, by becoming a mother's helper in the afternoons for a neighbor who had recently given birth to her third child. That got her out of Kristin's hair several afternoons a week, and also gave her the opportunity to develop her social skills.
A clear rule was established that any time either girl physically attacked the other, there would be a loss of phone privileges for one week. I suggested this because "grounding" Kristin tended to be as much of a punishment for the rest of the family as it was for Kristin, and was likely to make things worse because it threw her and her sister into more, rather than less, contact with each other, something that wasn't good for either of them.
Also, however, the girls were told that for every week that neither of them complained to her mother about her sister, Judy would deposit five dollars into an account that could be used for a joint purchase that the girls agreed upon, dependent on their mother's approval. This was designed to help Kristin think twice before she began to torment Denise, and to help Denise think twice before she ran to her mother for assistance.
It also gave the two girls something to work towards collaboratively, and provided them with the opportunity to negotiate as relative equals. I was aware that the joint purchase was more likely to be Kristin's preference than Denise's, but at least Denise was accorded some significance, and given some say, in this decision.
Not surprisingly, both girls quickly tested their mom's perseverence. Within a week after establishing these ground rules, Kristin twisted Denise's arm in an effort to get Denise out of what she (Kristin) had designated as her favorite chair in the family room, and Denise had gone running to Judy with the news. No five dollars that week, and phone use was restricted for Kristin for the next seven days.
But within a month's time there was a marked decrease in the conflict between the girls. Kristin was much less antagonistic towards Denise, and while she had only cooked dinner one time, she was less combative and more helpful in general. Denise was enjoying her job as mother's helper, and was significantly less whiny about her sister's bullying tactics. And the girls had decided to work together towards earning a television set for the basement that would be just for them and their friends, a decision that Judy was comfortable with, and that, she acknowledged, would probably help keep them all separated from each other as well.
"I finally feel on top of this situation, and it's a big relief," she concluded at our last session.
Learning more about her own contribution to the sibling struggles had helped her to find more decisive ways of managing them.
EXERCISE FOR CHAPTER THREE
In this exercise, you are going to select a problematic behavior or attitude that your child demonstrates, and look at how you may be contributing to it, and why you might be doing so.
Once you have chosen a behavior or attitude to examine more closely, describe how you respond to it, and what your child's response to your response is. See if there is some cycle that gets set into motion based on your responses to each other.
Now, see if there is something about your child's behavior or attitude that reminds you either of yourself, or of someone in your present or past. Who was s/he named for?
Whose birthday is close to his/hers? Who looks or acts like him/her? Was s/he born close to the anniversary of someone's death? Is what she does something that you weren't allowed to do? Is what she doesn't do something that you were supposed to do?
Try to determine if some aspect of your own experience is being replayed with your child, and to understand what is motivating you to re-invoke that experience.
Now, come up with a response to your child that would be different from your more typical response. It could be something that you do more or less of, something that you add to or subtract from your parenting-it doesn't matter, as long as it is atypical. Think about what it would be like to implement this response, and how it would change the reciprocal exchanges between you and your child. If it seems like it's worth a try, go ahead and do it, and see what happens.
Here's how one parent completed this assignment.
Maria contacted me because of her concerns about her 8-year-old son's interactions with his peers. "Domingo doesn't seem to play with anybody, and he gets bullied constantly. I volunteer at the playground at his school and when they're out at recess, he's either by himself, or being pushed around by somebody."
What follows are her answers to the questions in the exercise:
I deal with this by trying to get him to be more assertive. I've told him he has to join in some of the games on the playground, the soccer game, the football game. I've told him he's got to stand up for himself. I had him join the youth soccer team in our neighborhood, but he's not really into it, and the game just seems to go right past him. If he ever gets near the ball, some other kid takes it away in no time.
His response to all that I've tried hasn't been noticeable. I don't see any change in him, and if anything, as the other kids are getting bigger and stronger, he seems to be falling behind even more, more of a loner, with fewer friends.
- I don't think this reminds me of me. I was always pretty social, and while I wasn't the most popular girl, I wasn't all by myself, either. And I hung around with a group of girls, so I never was singled out to be picked on. If anything he reminds me of one of my younger brothers, Ramon.
He was very shy and I had to defend him a lot against some of the kids who picked on him when we were growing up. I think it was a little embarrassing for him that his sister had to stick up for him, but if I didn't, he would really get nailed by the other kids.
So maybe I'm trying to toughen Domingo up so that he doesn't get taunted as much as my brother did, because my brother was pretty unhappy about it, and I don't want Domingo to be unhappy.
- I suppose I could stop lecturing Domingo about being stronger with his peers. He doesn't seem to be listening, and it doesn't seem like it's having any impact.
And I guess I could also invite just one friend over. There is one little boy I've noticed him hanging around with at recess-they don't do much together except look over Pokemon cards. Maybe I could get his name and number and invite him over.
As Maria and I went over her assignment, it became clear that her efforts to build her son's assertiveness were backfiring, and making him feel less, rather than more secure. Her recognition that Domingo was linked, in her mind, with her younger brother was notable because Ramon turned out to be gay, something that Maria still had a difficult time accepting. She had probably begun to associate diffidence with homosexuality since they were both merged in her younger brother-no wonder Domingo's shyness and submissiveness made her so anxious.
Maria's instincts, however, were quite good. Domingo was not the type of kid who was going to charge out onto the soccer field and become a leader. He was most comfortable doing indoor-activities with another quiet friend. Starting there, and building his social skills and self-confidence slowly would be more likely to result in his ability to defend and assert himself than would being lectured or forced to participate in competitive sports.
As Maria came to understand the ways in which she had burdened her son with the emotional baggage of her feelings about her brother, and as she began to create smaller, but more doable, vehicles by which Domingo could develop socially, her concerns about him began to fade, and his connections with his peers began to improve.