Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Concept of Resilience - Another Way to Marginalize the Effects of Family Dysfunction on Children?

Some people are just born hardier and tougher than others. Such individuals are better able to process, handle, and bounce back from stress and can handle more of it - on the average - than other people. They are said to be more resilient. No denying it. 

However, it is also true that at least some of any apparent resilience does not come from having been born with a better innate temperament, but results from having had at least one supportive and nurturing adult family member who buoyed up the person's coping skills as a child. Dysfunctional families may contain some of these folks in addition to other adult members who are more, shall we say, problematic. This helps to reduce the adverse consequences created by the latter.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE's, are clearly shown by a variety of research methodologies to be, overall, the most important risk factors for the development of personality dysfunction (as well as being major risk factors for a wide variety of other health problems). Somehow, however, in reading the personality disorders literature, you might think that defective brains were instead the biggest factor. 

In many previous posts I have discussed several different ways in which this latter idea is falsely argued - such as by looking at how a normal brain processes trauma physiologically and declaring, ex cathedrathat those processes represent some sort of abnormality. I have also discussed one of the major reasons this sleight-of-hand is employed: to avoid holding parents responsible for their problematic parenting and chaotic family interactions. 

It's just not popular to discuss the role of dysfunctional parenting in creating psychological problems in their offspring. The poor dears just cannot take it! Better to blame the victim.

Of course, it is also true that bashing parents and making them feel guiltier, more defensive or angrier than they already do is counterproductive, as doing so often causes them to double down on whatever dysfunctional interactions they had been routinely engaging in previously. Nonetheless, pretending that their behavior has nothing at all to do with their child's problems is just a big fat, ugly lie.

The blog Aces Too High is devoted to discussing the effects of childhood trauma. It usually puts the family environment in the proper perspective in discussing the relative effects of children's inherent, genetic capabilities, the problems their child's innate tendencies present to parents, and the effects on children of ongoing interpersonal trauma and dysfunction.

A recent posting in the ACES blog by Christine Cissy White contains a highly informative and wide-ranging discussion about how vague a concept resilience actually is, as well as about how difficult it is to measure. I recommend reading it. 

She also points out how the concept of resilience can be used as another device for the purpose of blaming the child victims of severe family dysfunction for their predicament and pretending that the parents' behavior is hardly important at all, if not completely irrelevant:

"Many trauma survivors, with experiences that are often minimized, marginalized or medicalized, are often frustrated by what seems like excessive funding for or fascination with resilience. It can seem as though resilience and protective factors can get overemphasized while the prevention and treatment of ACEs ends up sidelined – as though human suffering might be optional if it’s served up with enough resilience." 

Well said.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Genetic Programming Makes Nurture the Most Important Factor in our Behavior: Another Paradox

Claudia Gold, on a post on her Child in Mind blog, mentioned in passing that 700 new connections per second are made in the brains of newborns within the context of caregiving relationships700 per second! 

One of the basic theories behind my psychotherapy treatment method (unified therapy) for repetitive self destructive or self-defeating behavior patterns is that the behavior of primary attachment figures - in most cases, the parents - are, from a cognitive-behavioral standpoint, simply the most important environmental factor in triggering and reinforcing the problematic patterns. And not only when we our children, but throughout life. Certainly more powerful than a therapist could ever be.

I argue that babies come into the world completely helpless and with absolutely no knowledge about how the universe operates. We remain helpless far longer than the young of most species. Therefore, evolution likely proceeded in a way that resulted in our being biologically programmed to wire our automatic and repetitive  behavioral responses in most environmental contests - in particular social contexts - in accordance with what we learn from our interactions with those attachment figures. 

There is much evidence from neuroscience that the brain wiring that develops in this context and remains in the brain is particularly resistant to change through the normal process of neural plasticity. While it is true that later in childhood and adolescence the number of these connections is greatly reduced through a process called pruning, I suspect the ones that are lost are those that are not continually reinforced by the attachment figures.

In the nature-nurture debate about psychological behavior problems, for most of them I come down on the side of nurture being far more important than nature. Nature just provides us with a range of possible behaviors and reactions, while both nurture (and thinking - don't forget about that) allow us to choose where in that range we would prefer to reside.

But our nature as determined by our genes apparently does have one all-important function. Interestingly, it is the same influence no matter what the rest of our individual genome (assuming we have intact neural functioning) contains: it dictates that we are highly likely to respond to our nurture in accordance with the feedback provided to us by our parents. Paradoxically, it is nature that makes nurture so damned important in determining our behavior.

So learning about those 700 connections per second seemed to me to be good evidence for this point of view. So I looked up the source and found an article published by  Harvard's Center on the Developing Child. It said that those neural connections "...are formed through the interaction of genes and a baby’s environment and experiences, especially “serve and return” interaction with adults, or what developmental researchers call contingent reciprocity. These are the connections that build brain architecture – the foundation upon which all later learning, behavior, and health depend."

Serve and return was further explained as interactions that shape brain architecture: "When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Motivation and Standardized Testing

In the Viewpoint section on Sunday, January 8, 2016, in the Memphis newspaper the Commercial Appeal (the opinion section with op ed pieces), a white teacher named Carly Fricano wrote a column in which she described a conversation with one of her students. Ms. Fricano works for the heavily African American school district in Shelby County, and the student was named Marquavan, so I am assuming he was African American.

The student came up to her and said, "Ms Fricano, I know you think I'm dumb or something, but I'm not."

"What makes you say that I think you're dumb?" She replied.

"You keep giving me these tests that say I don't know this stuff, but I do. I just don't really care about these tests."

I italicized the last statement because it makes a point I have sometimes made. Even though this story is just anecdotal, I believe it is a valid representation of the folly of using standardized tests alone to evaluate teacher competency, the intelligence of the test taker, their academic achievement, or much of anything else actually. The problem is that there is no way to control for a student's motivation to do well on the test, and without that, you may be getting more of a measure of how little or how much the student is trying to answer correctly on the test than of how much he or she actually knows or is capable of learning.

And teachers do not have a lot of weapons they can employ to help students get motivated to perform well if the student's parents do not care about that either. The parents' attitude is the far bigger problem than that of less-than-competent teachers.

Of course, in saying this I will no doubt be accused of "parent bashing" and/or discounting the sad legacy of racism in determining the attitudes of both the parents and the students. To that I call, "Bullshit!"

Of course the parents play a huge role in determining their children's attitude towards learning. Do you really think that the relatively higher average achievements of Asian and Jewish students are just a result of their having higher average IQ's? That's nonsense. It's the family attitudes of Asians and Jews that is the primary determining factor.

And what about the other nonsense about my discounting the effects of racism in discussing African American student achievement? One can only accuse me of that if they think that I believe that these families reside in some sort of cultural vacuum. Or if they themselves are ignoring the wider context! It isn't only scientists who can be reductionistic.

Actually, it IS the racism that is the larger cause of the attitudes of many African American parents (and of course not all of them have troublesome attitudes - not by a long shot. I just said that, so please do not say I did not).

I will oversimplify the process in order to make it clear, but not really by much: Under slavery and Jim Crow, the latter of which existed for quite some time during my own lifetime, Whites' mistreatment of Blacks was justified on the basis of Blacks being thought of as stupid and lazy and therefore somehow less than human. 

Any black person who tried to disprove that mythology by sticking his neck out and showing how intelligent he really was was ritually and routinely humiliated, beaten, or even lynched and killed. Entire neighborhoods of successful black businesses were attacked and burned to the ground.

Culturally, this understandably led to a lot of fear within Black communities of looking too smart in front of white people, or even among themselves. This fear was then transmitted to the children by the parents - for the kids' own protection from the very real negative consequences, not because the parents had some innate defect or deficit. When these children grew up and had children themselves, they may not have completely understood where the fear had came from originally, but the damage to their attitude about education, success, and intelligence was already done. 

And the ongoing racism of Whites that is still evident all around them reinforces their fears. And so their kids "catch" it.

And thus we have the Marquavans of the inner city. 

I am afraid it is up to African American parents themselves to solve this problem, despite the continuing racism by Whites all around them, by taking the bull by the horns and learning how they have been affected, and by starting to start push their children to succeed academically. 

The fact that the odds may be stacked against their children is no excuse. That makes their success more difficult; it does not make it impossible. And the risks of Black success are now greatly reduced from what they had been. Not nearly as many lynchings these days. And please do not tell me that the last statements mean I am discounting current ongoing racist attitudes among Whites, or the fact that law enforcement still reacts with more violence and worse punishments against black suspects than white ones, because the statements simply do not do that.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Who's in Charge in Families, Parents or Children? A Paradox

In a recent column, my favorite parenting columnist John Rosemond asked a mother and father, “Who are the most important people in your family?” They replied, as many of today's parents are wont to do, “Our kids!”

Rosemond essentially read them the riot act:  “There is no reasonable thing that gives your children that status... many if not most of the problems they’re having with their kids—typical stuff, these days—are the result of treating their children as if they, their marriage, and their family exist because of the kids when it is, in fact, the other way around... without the parents, their kids wouldn’t eat well, have the nice clothing they wear, live in the nice home in which they live, enjoy the great vacations they enjoy, and so on.

He added: "This issue is really the heart of the matter. People my age know it’s the heart of the matter because when we were kids it was clear to us that our parents were the most important people in our families. And that, right there, is why we respected our parents and that, right there, is why we looked up to adults in general."

I absolutely agree with Rosemond that the parents' marriage should be the most important relationship in the house—not the relationship between the parents and the kids—and that the parents should be the authority figures in charge. The idea that this is the proper hierarchy within the house is in fact the basis of one of the more effective forms of family therapy, Salvador Minuchin's structural family therapy

On the other hand, I do have a slightly skewed take about the phenomenon of parents thinking their kids should be the most important people in the house that differs slightly from Rosemond.

The part I disagree with him about is when he say that, because of the parents' behavior, it is no longer clear to children these days that the parents are in charge. In fact, our brains are biogenetically programmed to put our primary adult attachment figures in charge. Our very survival depends on it.

When the children seem to be in charge, I believe they are just acting like it is not clear to them who is in charge, and are acting as if it is they, and not the parents. So how to explain the paradox? It may seem confusing, but it is actually quite simple. 

If children do in fact know that parents make the important decisions in the home, and the parents in their wisdom have decided that the children are more important and that the children's choices should be paramount, then who are they to question the parents' judgment? They will go along with it: They will act like they should make all the decisions, because doing so is in line with precisely the important decision the parents seem to them to have made.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Yet Another Drug Company Fined for Off-Label Marketing of Psych Medication

Since I started this blog way back in March of 2010, I have posted several times about big Pharma companies being fined for the off-label marketing of various psychiatric medications. Well, the hits just keep on coming.

The Consumerist was one of several news sources to recently report that: 

"New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the settlement Thursday resolving allegations that Bristol-Myers Squibb improperly marketed and promoted the drug Abilify.
Abilify — the brand name for the prescription drug aripiprazole – is a second-generation antipsychotic prescription drug, commonly, commonly referred to as “atypical antipsychotics,” that were originally used to treat schizophrenia.
According to the states’ complaint, which was also filed today, BMS engaged in off-label marketing, which is the promotion of drugs for uses that are not FDA-approved.
For example, the complaint claims that BMS improperly promoted Ability for pediatric use and for use in elderly patients with symptoms consistent with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
This, despite the fact that in 2006, Abilify received a “black box” warning stating that elderly patients with dementia-related psychosis who are treated with antipsychotic drugs have an increased risk of death.
Additionally, the complaint alleges that BMS violated state consumer protection laws by misrepresenting and minimizing the risks of the drug including metabolic and weight gain side effects and by misrepresenting the findings of scientific studies.
Under the proposed agreement, BMS is prohibited from promoting Ability from off-label uses; making false or misleading claims about the drug; compensating health care providers for attended promotional activities; using grant funds to promote Ability; and providing samples of the medication to health care providers who do not intend to use it for labeled purposes."
Bristol-Myers Squibb settled the claims with 43 states for a total of 19.5 million dollars. That sounds like a lot of money, but for big drug companies, it is actually a paltry sum. Fines like that are considered a cost of doing business

As readers know, I am rabidly against the use of antipsychotic medications in non-psychotic children, which is unfortunately becoming more and more common. However, I must admit I have negative feelings about that black box warning regarding the use of any (not just Abilify) antipsychotic medication in patients in nursing homes with advanced dementia due to Alzheimer's disease or other severe brain conditions. 

Things have gotten to the point where docs are afraid to prescribe these medications even in such patients who are actively psychotic with hallucinations and/or paranoid delusions, for which there are no other effective treatments.
Even in non-psychotic demented patients, antipsychotic meds are often the best agents for controlling assaultive behavior in this population. Unlike other sedatives, they do so while only minimally exacerbating memory and cognitive deficits in these people. Our society seems to want to pay nursing assistants only the minimum wage to take care of our impaired family members as they age. Long-term facilities are very expensive as it is. Not only that, but we under-staff them as well. While there may be psychosocial interventions which would reduce assaultive patients with dementia, we do not want to pay people to provide them.

Given those conditions, what is left? Medications, that's what. Do we really want to expose underpaid and overworked caretakers to dangerous aggressive behavior from patients who basically have no life anyway - just to prevent a tiny percentage of them from dying a little sooner due to the medications' cardiovascular side effects? Time to either pay up or shut up.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Parents and Adult Children React to My Descriptions of Borderline Family Dynamics

Parents and Adult Children React to My Descriptions of Borderline Family Dynamics

In my post about the family dynamics of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I describe the role of the spoiler. A child or adult child of a family that exhibits the family patterns described in my posts on this subject begins to behave in ways which turns things around. The child invalidates the parents' efforts to "help" or "take care of them" in nasty ways. He or she essentially responds to invalidation by making comments that invalidate the parent right back. 
The reason the children do this is because they believe the parents need a child to be a target for their anger, and volunteer for the gig. They give the parents just cause by behaving in unreasonable and infuriating ways.
When it comes to the people who make comments on my posts on this and similar subjects, it always fascinates me how parents usually think I am putting all the blame on them for the family problems, while the adult children with the disorder react to the exact same post by thinking I am putting all the blame on them! 
Family systems therapists used the term punctuation to describe these types of reactions. People take something that is an ongoing problem created by continual reactions to feedback from two people with each other, and look at just one isolated segment of it - thereby breaking up a process artificially into misleading cause and effect relationships. They then react accordingly.
Of course, there are readers who do see the whole of the patterns in their lives but still do not know how to put a stop to them. In many cases the problems continue in spite of honest declarations of personal responsibility and even apologies -because there continue to be underlying issues that remain unaddressed.
I have reproduced two comments and my replies which illustrate these phenomena quite well. The first comment doubles as a description of spoiling behavior which illustrates it far better than I ever have.

The Blame Game
Submitted by A Mother of a Possibly BPD Child on November 6, 2016 - 11:39am
Regarding blaming the parents for "invalidating" feelings: I think it's a dangerous idea that all feelings are valid. Does anyone truly believe this?
When you are dealing with someone whose thinking is so distorted that they misperceive all your motives and react to your natural withdrawal as abandonment after they have been screaming abuse at you for an hour, you will just distort your own thoughts if you try to get into their head. If I say to my daughter "When you told me X it hurt my feelings," she often perceives that as an attack and starts to mock me: "Oh did that hurt your feelings? POOR YOU!" This can often escalate, and soon she is telling me what a horrible parent I am. That she is in so much pain that she'd lash out at me like this (again) does *not* mean I was abusive to her. She did not learn how to talk that way from us. We would never say something like that, even though she tells other people that's how we talk to her, and she probably believes we do. We did not cause that pain. Her mind did.
And this is the crux of the matter: just because someone perceives something as hurtful does not necessarily mean it's time to blame someone for hurting them. If someone trips and falls on you, and you scream, and they get mad at you for hurting their ears and making them feel ashamed with your tears of pain, should you feel sorry for them, since they honestly feel hurt by what you did? Should you feel mortified at yourself for inflicting such a nasty guilt trip on them with your tears? Some feelings *are* invalid! We invalidate our own feelings all the time. We *have to* if we don't want to be complete narcissists. A non-BPD person might feel a flash of anger at the ear-pain, but they would quell it, and then feel sorry they fell on you, sorry they hurt you accidentally. And if the screamer is non-BPD, they will probably be furious for a second at being fallen on, but then accept the apology and understand that it was an accident, perhaps even apologize for the loud sound they made - and everything will be fine afterward.
But if it isn't like this, the non-BPD screamer might reflect that they shouldn't have screamed and they certainly shouldn't have cried, since that just escalated things with the BPD person. But they were just behaving the way they would to anyone who fell on them. The reason they might think they shouldn't have screamed though, was because it made things into a conflict they didn't want, and they knew they could have avoided it.
And here's something else that's important: if (in the scenario with the falling person being BPD) the screamer pretends nothing bad happened afterward and tries to be loving again as if the falling person had been apologetic and understanding, are they *enabling* this bad behavior? Spoiling a tantrum-thrower? And if the falling person is the screamer's child, is the screamer not providing a terrible role model for the child? Should the *child* learn to tolerate this kind of behavior in other people? Should they not stand up for themselves and have high standards for their own behavior and that of other people?
Parents want to teach natural consequences, encourage empathy, and model the way one should behave in certain situations. BPD totally warps this. You start to think it's impossible to teach anything useful. You start to think that *ANY* response you have is doing irreparable harm to the BPD person. Walking on eggs to reduce conflict, or refusing to tolerate bad behavior - it's all bad. So what would be *good* for a BPD person? How would we recognize it?
As parents, we are not mind-readers. However we respond to behavior, it should teach something (how to respond, how not to respond, natural consequences, etc.) If the behavior is terrible and entirely lacking in empathy and remorse (just self-loathing, which doesn't do a darned thing to enact change), and if normal parenting only makes it worse, that cannot be - and is not - our fault for not knowing what would set the kid off this time. Of course we guess, of course we suspect - but we don't *know*. If we knew, we would necessarily be mentally ill too!
If we as parents caused this escalation by "invalidating" some feelings that originated in a distorted version of reality, or if we offended the child by refusing to be her punching-bag, that means LIFE itself would have provoked the same outburst. We just happen to be here trying to get her to have some self-knowledge and resilience. We are trying to help her learn how to deal with the real world. The real world will never be as careful as we are trying to be. The real world will never ask itself "Should I try not to take this personally, since she's clearly in so much pain she doesn't know what she's saying, or should I just react the way I normally react, since those are the natural consequences??"
The real world will react to BEHAVIOR. Often wrongly, often nonsensically, often (sad to say) maliciously. We are supposed to prepare kids for this! And as parents, we are supposed to train our kids to control their behavior and take responsibility for their actions. But what if, despite our best efforts, they don't learn this?
Many of the families that seem to shun someone who stops behaving so abusively were probably put through hell and just can't take any more. It's like they were holding up the car out of sheer adrenaline, and now the car is gone, they are burned out and need a break. Castigating them for shunning the person is asking way too much of them. Those were the natural consequences. Natural consequences usually teach non-BPD people how to control themselves and take responsibility for their actions. But what works with BPD people?
Parents of BPD kids need support and skills, not blame. They need tools to cope with a situation that is literally crazy - and quite possibly crazy-making.
blame game - my response

Submitted by David M. Allen M.D. on November 6, 2016 - 4:21pm
Hi A Mother of a Possibly BPD Child,
"Blaming" and finger pointing are counterproductive, but all adults - both parents and adult children alike - have to take responsibility for their part in the family dynamics if these dysfunctional patterns are ever going to stop.
What you have written is a beautiful description of spoiling behavior by a child (or an adult child) with borderline personality disorder. It is designed on purpose to invalidate YOU. The child thinks for various reasons that you need them to do that, believe it or not.
For an explanation of how this seemingly crazy situation may arise in families even if there is no obvious abuse, see the posts

Communication to Estranged Children
Submitted by Ria on November 12, 2016 - 2:10pm

I am so grateful for the comments of adult children on this page. It gave me insight in the feelings and minds of adult children who cut off parents. My daughter has cut me off a year ago - it happened a few times before she had children, I always reached out and tried to mend the relationship, but now the grandchildren are used as pawns. Although I am broken with the loss of my daughter as well as grand children, I have decided it is final this time. I was not the perfect mother, not even a good one. At 64, after many years of therapy, after two marriages, I understand that. 

I know my daughter is angry and anxious and use this cut-off defense after irrational anger outbursts - this time in front of the kids, which was the final straw for me. But you cannot cut off love and wipe out precious memories. I wonder all the time if she is happier without me in her life. Perhaps she has a better chance of growth, sorting out her own anger and pain without me. I want her to be happy and content within herself. It saddens me even more when I read of the bitterness and pain adult children express here and I cannot help to think: is there anything more I can do for her? Can I help her? Or is letting go the better option? I know no one can really answer, but let's talk about this. I know there are really evil people, but many parents were simply damaged as children. When they have children, usually when they are very young, they have no skills or boundaries or knowledge of parenting to care emotionally for their young, especially 38 years ago when information and education was not a given. The result is emotional abuse, neglect, and / or physical abuse. The horrible old cycle - how do we break it?

Communication my response

Submitted by David M. Allen M.D. on November 12, 2016 - 2:42pm

Hi Ria,
Of course I can't say anything about your situation in particular, but in general, of course it is best for parents to acknowledge their problematic behavior in the past, explain what they had experienced with their own parents, and apologize.
However, if the parent then goes on to continue to feel too guilty and beat themselves up for their past flaws, that may backfire. The adult child may then start to think that the parent is better off without them - just as you say you wonder about your kids being better off without you - because the child sees that his or her presence makes the parent feel really bad. In response, they may continue to avoid the parent so as not to add to the parent's burden. 
Additional point not in my original reply: Alternatively, they may act nasty to feed the parent's guilt because they think the parent wants to be punished for various sins - or they may go back and forth between the two depending on whether the parent seems to need to be punished or then starts to feel too guilty.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Unintended Consequences of Behavior: The Importance of Systems Thinking

Having been introduced to psychotherapy by psychoanalysts and, to a lesser extent, behaviorists (cognitive therapy had not yet caught on), I was very impressed when a friend of mine first introduced me to family systems theory. It taught me about the importance of feedback in interpersonal interactions. The actions of person A in a relationship do not "cause" the actions of Person B in response. Both A and B are continually affecting each other's behavior simultaneously, as each person assesses the motives and intentions of the other. A relationship evolves over the the entire time the relationship between two people exists.

People are not rats; they do not just respond to what the other persons just did, but to what they just did in relationship to everything else they have done during the history of the relationship. Additionally, we are not robotic automatons, even though most of what we do most of the time is just responding to the usual environmental cues. It is estimated by neuroscientists that about 80% of what we do during our day involves no conscious deliberation whatsoever. However, if something unexpected happens as we do that, we will then think about it.

Systems thinking is one of the main themes of Peter M. Senge's best-selling book, The Fifth Discipline, first published in 1990. The book discusses common errors business people make because of a lack of appreciation of feedback effects that take a certain amount of time before those effects become apparent. The most common examples are described using something that he calls Systems Archetypes. Understanding them is not just important in business but in all human interactions, including within family systems.

He lists ten of them. In this post, I would like to summarize just three that I think are the most relevant to the subject matter covered in this blog.

Perhaps the most famous of the archetypes is one Senge calls Shifting the Burden to the Intervener. It is the one described by the common proverb about teaching people to fish rather than giving them a fish. When a person or a group of persons is having some sort of problem that they cannot solve, they often call upon a consultant who does not tell them about general aspects of how to solve certain types of problems, but actually steps in and solves the problem. 

The next time a problem arises, the consultant is brought back to solve it. The long-term result is that the original group never learns to, or is not motivated to, solve similar problem themselves. This is the nasty side effect created by so-called helicopter parenting.

Another systems archetype is far less widely known. Senge calls it Success to the Successful. I mentioned a good example of it in my last post. It is seen in students who do poorly in school who then get diagnosed with some psychiatric disorder. 

The basic pattern is that kids in a classroom are somewhat in competition for the teacher's attention and praise. The kids who start out as attentive and well-behaved gain praise and positive attention from the teacher, while the ones who do not start out that way are seen as undeserving of praise. The teacher's negative attitude toward the latter children is observed by these students, who then start to see themselves in a negative light. 

Due to their loss of self confidence, they start to put even less effort into their schoolwork, which then feeds back into the teacher's negative view of them, which leads them to become even more discouraged, and so on. This archetype is the basis of many a case of what is commonly referred to a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

The third archetype I will mention is called Balancing Process with Delay. This occurs when a group or individual overcompensates for something in one way or another because there is a significant delay between what they have started to do and its effects. An illustrative example many of us are familiar with is a shower in which the temperature of the water responds sluggishly to changes in faucet position. 

Because the water seems to stay cold, a poor guy in the shower turns up the temperature, but nothing much seems to happen. The delay is due to the distance of the faucet from the hot water heater. So he turns it up again. If he keeps doing that, he suddenly finds himself getting burned due to a large, sudden and unexpected rise in the water temperature.

Because of delays in business, shortages of something can suddenly turn into a glut of that product, which then leads to another shortage as producers react too quickly to market conditions. In families, this may be seen in parents who had been abused as children. They try to be unlike their own parents by going to the opposite extreme and letting their child get away with murder. In response, the child starts to feel like the parent does not really care about them, because the parent seems to ignore it if they do something self-destructive like coming home intoxicated or failing in school.

When that child grows up and has a child, he or she may overcompensate back in the other direction, and become too harsh! In looking at genograms, we sometimes see entire generations going back and forth between two extremes. A generation of alcoholics begets a generation of teetotalers who beget a generation of alcoholics; a generation of workaholics begets a generation of slackers who beget a generation of workaholics, and the like.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Psychological Problems in Kids and Teens: New Study Looks at Parental Discord as a Major Cause

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the tendency of mental health researchers and practitioners to look at patients' symptoms without any investigation into the home environment, and decide that they, or their brains, are the entire problem.

Psychological problems in kids are roughly divided into externalizing behaviors and internalizing behavior. The former is basically acting out: doing poorly in school, being hyperactive, being oppositional, getting  into fights, throwing tantrums and the like. 

The latter refers to things like anxiety and depression. Either way, today kids who have any of these problems are in danger of being labeled with mental disorders such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, and even "oppositional defiant disorder," which I refer to as "spoiled brat disorder." And of course there is "conduct disorder," which I refer to as "juvenile delinquency."

These know-nothing researchers act as if living in a tense or chaotic home environment is good for children's emotional life and that they do not become distractible or agitated under these circumstances.

As I have often joked, when it comes to looking at the home environment, most mental health professions will - if they say anything at all - label it as "within normal limits (WNL)." What WNL usually really means is "We never looked." If they do "look," they may ask the parents one or two questions about discipline, and take their answers at face value as well as valid or complete.

Or if they really want to pretend they have obtained the whole picture, they can ask the child's teacher what the kid's behavior is like at school. Of course, teachers are likely to have less patience with kids who are distractible, and then have lower expectations of them. The kids will pick up on this, and the teacher's attitude causes these kids to become even more distressed, which makes the teacher have even less patience and lower expectations of them, and so on in a vicious circle. (This long-term process was described by Peter M. Senge in his amazing book, The Fifth Discipline).

Researchers in psychiatry, as I described in a post about borderline personality disorder researchers, are even worse than practitioners at ruling out environmental causes as the explanation for symptomatic children. They never even read summaries of the literature produced by developmental psychologists.

One developmental psychologist, E. Mark Cummings, summed up quite nicely the type of results that this literature routinely shows . He was quoted in a recent article in the Atlantic ( that described a recent study ("The Multiple Faces of Interparental Conflict: Implications for Cascades of Children's Insecurity and Externalizing Problems,"  P.T. Davies, R.F. Hentges, J.L. Coe; E.M. Cummings, Journal of Abnormal Psychology [in press]):

“Children are like emotional geiger counters,” said E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who has conducted extensive studies on the effects of marital discord on kids for more than 20 years. Children, he explained, are incredibly attuned to parents’ emotional communication with each other; they’re keenly aware that, for their parents, nonverbal expression is key to communicating feelings.

For many couples, holding onto a grudge—smoldering but not letting a disagreement erupt into a fighting match—may seem like the best way to deal with a conflict. But research shows this kind of discord can significantly interfere with a child’s behavior and sense of emotional security. When exposed to prolonged unresolved conflict, kids are more likely to get into fights with their peers at school and show signs of distress, anger, and hostility. They may also have trouble sleeping at night, which can undermine their academic performance. In fact, according to various studies that measured children’s emotional responses to interparental hostility, disengagement and uncooperative discord between couples has shown to increase a child’s risk of psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and aggression."

Here is the abstract of the study. Notice how the study was longitudinal - meaning it looked at parental behavior and children's reactions to it over an extended period of time - and used multiple measures and multiple observers. Researchers also actually observed the family members interacting with one another while engaged in various conflict resolution tasks. That's what a researcher has to do to in order vastly improve his or her chances to see what is really going on at home and to see what the most important causal factors are for psychological distress in young people.

This multistudy article examined the relative strength of mediational pathways involving hostile, disengaged, and uncooperative forms of interparental conflict, children's emotional insecurity, and their externalizing problems across 2 longitudinal studies. Participants in Study 1 consisted of 243 preschool children (M age = 4.60 years) and their parents, whereas Study 2 consisted of 263 adolescents (M age = 12.62 years) and their parents. Both studies utilized multimethod, multi-informant assessment batteries within a longitudinal design with 3 measurement occasions. Across both studies, lagged, autoregressive tests of the mediational paths revealed that interparental hostility was a significantly stronger predictor of the prospective cascade of children's insecurity and externalizing problems than interparental disengagement and low levels of interparental cooperation. Findings further indicated that interparental disengagement was a stronger predictor of the insecurity pathway than was low interparental cooperation for the sample of adolescents in Study 2. Results are discussed in relation to how they inform and advance developmental models of family risk.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Discussing Dysfunctional Family Patterns with the Family: More Tricks of the Trade

Offering Theories Better than Asking Questions

As I have discussed in many previous posts, when adult children try to figure out the reasons behind their parents' confusing behavior, they usually conclude that the parents are either mad, bad, blind, or stupid. I mean, how else can you explain the following bizarre parental behavior: denying the obvious, giving double messages that put their child in a damned-if -you-do/don't situation, seeming to want their children around (often in a caretaker role of some sort) while simultaneously seeming to hate their guts, putting up with abusive spouses while making excuses for them, being completely preoccupied with one sibling while acting like another child barely exists—and a host of other unfortunately fairly common dysfunctional behaviors.

I believe, as readers of my blogs know by now, that most parents who act like this are neither mad, bad, blind nor stupid. They are instead acting out roles with their children - in a highly ambivalent fashion - that they themselves had learned in their own families of origin. These roles stabilized the grandparents, who were themselves highly conflicted about certain family and cultural norms and rules of behavior.

Mothers who have gender role conflicts are a really good example of what I am talking about. They often give out mixed messages to their daughters about both having careers and having children. Their daughters are somehow also expected to get some man to take care of them while simultaneously being independent.

Just asking the parents why they are doing what they are doing usually leads to more obfuscation, non-sequiturs, denial, and various other ways of invalidating the person who poses the question and/or disqualifying their own true beliefs. Or even worse, questions sometimes even lead to violence, suicide attempts, and other forms of acting out. 

"Why" questions are also particularly likely to lead to either aggressive or defensive remarks because they can sound accusatory—sorta like asking a child, "Why is your hand in the cookie jar?"

Asking "yes or no" questions is equally problematic. It also often leads to responses that are less than edifying about what the parents are trying to accomplish with their bizarre behavior. The parents can just answer "yes" or "no" with no additional explanation.

One trick in metacommunication is based on the idea that in human interactions, certain verbalizations seem to require certain responses, making it more likely that when they are used, the other person will feel obligated to respond in certain ways. They may say things that are more enlightening or clear. Of course the strategy I am about to describe is not foolproof, but it does increase the odds that a useful exchange may take place.

The trick is for the person to empathically offer some speculation about family interpersonal processes that may be triggering problematic feelings or behavior in the parent. There is something about tentatively offering someone someone a hypothesis that makes it much more difficult for them to merely agree or disagree. Hypotheses seem to demand more than questions; they increase the likelihood that the parent will feel it necessary to explain what is wrong or right with the hypothesis, rather than just giving out an unexplained acceptance or rejection of it.

This is especially true if the adult child overtly labels the intervention as a guess, thereby giving the parents an "out" that allows them to reject the guess if they are just feeling too threatened to respond with more information. This technique makes it difficult for the parent to provoke a power struggle with the adult child over the accuracy of the hypothesis.

The potential metacommunicator can base speculations or hypotheses on any information concerning his or her family that is already available, or on typical patterns that they have seen or read about in my blogs or elsewhere. Having done one's family's genogram often provides a good source of such guesses. Such hypotheses should always be offered in a tentative and non-threatening manner.

Continuing with the gender role conflict situation mentioned above, for example, the adult child might say something to her mother like, "I don't know if this applies to you or not, but in other families where a woman's career choice is an issue, mothers often feel bad because their daughters get to do things the mother always wanted to do but was not free to do. I wonder if this might apply to our situation?