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?

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