Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Adult Children Who Cut Off Their Parents: an Interesting Variation on This Theme.

My posts on this blog (May, 27,2014) and on my Psychology Today blog (November 17, 2014), Are Parents Who are Cut Off by Their Adult Children Really That Clueless, generated more comments than almost any of my other post (37 and 163 respectively). Additionally, the post itself on this blog has had more hits than any of the others.

In the posts, I reproduced letters to newspaper advice columnists from parents who had been cut off by their adult children, and who claimed to have no idea why their adult children felt the need to do this. I also printed one letter from the adult child of one of those letter writers telling the other side of the story. Without addressing the issue of who's "fault" it was that the cutoff took place, or who was "wrong" and who was "right," I opined that the apparent cluelessness of the parents was in most instances feigned. They usually knew to a greater or lesser extent exactly why what had happened had taken place.

Well the comments from readers came fast and furiously from family members on both sides of this divide, and they were very predictable. Adult children who had cut off a parent generally wrote about all the bad things their parent had done to them and how the parent would never admit to any of it. Parents came back with a vengeance saying, in so many words, "I didn't do anything wrong," and they accused me of parent bashing.

Here's a typical exchange:

Anonymous: Yes, you are correct. Virtually all of the time, when people cut off parents, or anyone else in their immediate family, you can bet there's a damn good reason. The parents will act like the poor victims. Don't believe them. There's actually a forum on the Internet where they can all get together. At first they maintain their innocent victim stance, but you will soon see their vicious hatred expressed toward their children.

Emelu: Not so. I have done nothing wrong. I've been in counseling. Been open to understand if I did wrong. Been totally honest with myself. And there is nothing I've done wrong.

I always find it interesting that whenever I write posts - particularly on the family dynamics of borderline personality disorder - adult children with the disorder who make comments often seem to accuse me of blaming them, while the parents of such children often accuse me of exactly the opposite: blaming the parents.

In most of these cases, I think the reason for these opposite reactions has to do with selective reading of the posts. This, in turn, is triggered by guilt and defensiveness. Or, occasionally, some of these folks just hate it when I give away their secrets.

In general, both of the positions "It's all my fault" and "I had nothing whatsoever to do with this" are, equally, both irrational and cowardly for any of the involved parties. 

In cutoffs, however, can it sometimes be that the parents really are completely clueless about why their children are avoiding them? That they are absolutely at a loss to understand what has happened? Some commenters said their cut-off children even accused them of things that they know they did not in fact do. Is that always denial?

As everyone was taught in school about true-false tests, beware of any question containing the words "always" or "never." I do think that, in a very limited proportion of these cases, the letter-writing parents are indeed genuinely flabbergasted at their adult children's negative responses to them and the phony accusations. In these cases, IMO the adult children are hiding their real reasons for the cutoff.

So why would a child cut off a parent who was not guilty of any significant abuse, neglect, or invalidation?

One common reason occurs in situations in which the parents feel tremendously overburdened and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of child care, or feel that the child's needs are preventing them from doing other things that they really badly want to do. They feel guilty when they admit this, even to themselves, and they always take care of their children when they are supposed to, and do so appropriately for the most part. They do not usually take their internal frustrations over being exhausted directly out on the children to a major extent, and genuinely love them.

They think that somehow their children are not aware of how tired and frustrated they are, but they are kidding themselves. The attachment theorist John Bowlby theorized that children observe their parents very carefully, without attracting too much attention when they do, and become experts on what their parents are all about and what motivates them by the time the children are just two years old.

In videotapes of family therapy sessions with small children in the room that I have seen, as the therapist speaks with the parents, one may observe the child playing with a toy in the corner. The child seems to be oblivious to the adult conversation. But then, when something concerning them comes up in the conversation, the child suddenly makes a comment about it. Without even looking up. Clearly, they are listening the whole time.

Parents in the situation under discussion in this post do in fact give a lot of clues as to how burdened they feel. They might for instance constantly and compulsively complain to their friends and anyone else who might listen, saying something along the lines of, "I'm always there for my kids! They're my #1 priority. I respond to everything they need, even though I have to work full time. I so wish my boss would understand this better. There's just never enough time. And I'm sooooo tired. I used to have hobbies I really enjoyed, but I've had to put them aside. I sure do miss those days!"

Even after their children reach adulthood, parents like this may have a very hard time trying to not cater to their adult child's every need - or even his or her every whim. While still complaining about it to everyone else.

In such cases, children may get the impression that the parent really wants to be free of them, but just cannot admit it. In response, they sacrifice their own desires for a good relationship and make themselves scarce. They cannot tell their parent the real reason for their doing that, because they know that this will make the parent even more miserable than he or she already seems to be. 

A truthful statement would make the parent feel even guiltier for wanting to be free of any family burdens. The parent would probably deny these feelings anyway, because the parent is under the mistaken impression that admitting this would drive their children even further away.

In order to avoid causing their parent to feel this way, the adult child may in difficult cases volunteer to be the villain in the piece. They may purposely make it look like they are cutting off the parents because they are selfish or narcissistic. If that does not work, they can escalate. They up the ante by making what they know are false accusations about parental misdeeds. That way, the parent can easily maintain the belief that he or she had nothing to do with the cut off. 

As an alternate strategy, or in addition, they may influence their spouse to make it look like the spouse has taken control over them and is domineering and purposely creating trouble with the parent and enforcing the cut off. For more on this, see the post, Your Spouse's Secret Mission.

Anything to help parents avoid looking at their own conflicts!

This is a sad state of affairs because, ironically, if the parents could admit to their ambivalence and negative feelings, any problematic resultant family conflicts can in most of the cases be fairly easily resolved through metacommunication and negotiation. The children's efforts to "help" the parents to deal with their guilt backfires and prevents a solution.

I know that many readers react to these kinds of formulations by thinking I am giving people too much credit, and that most of them do not operate with this level of sophistication. When it comes to fitting in with one's kin, church, or ethnic group, I strongly believe that they not only can, but they do. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Groupthink: A Paradoxical Type

A recurrent theme in this blog is that one cannot understand repetitive self-destructing, self-defeating, or self-subverting behavior without reference to group dynamics. Because of the forces of kin selection, we are all biologically predisposed to sacrifice our own needs/ideas/happiness in order to fit into the various kin and ethnic groups to which we belong - although we can all override this tendency and face the consequences if we so desire. 

Part of the way we fit ourselves into any group is to pretend to subscribe to the validity of the rules and ideas shared by the other members of our group: what is today called groupthink.

I recently came across an idea about a peculiar and almost paradoxical phenomenon which is one interesting manifestation of groupthink. It is known as the Abilene Paradox, first described by Jerry P. Harvey in 1974. It is similar to my idea about what is going on with members of couples embroiled in repetitive dysfunctional relationships. Members of such couples almost always assume that it's the partner, not they, who want and need their relationship to continue in its current miserable form (cross motive reading).

As described by Harvey, the Abilene Paradox is based on a personal experience in which his family all agreed to travel over 50 miles in extreme heat and in a non-air conditioned car in order to eat at a restaurant in Abilene, Texas. In reality, not a single member of the family actually wanted to take this trip when someone suggested it. However, every single one of them mistakenly believed that all the other family members were in favor of going. 

And so they all went, and they all were miserable for the entire trip.

This is sort of the inverse of the situation in which an individual who has reservations about a group decision goes along with a group on some idea or project when the other members all, in fact, do think it's a good idea. The end result in each case is of course exactly the same: everyone goes along with the idea. In many such cases, the altruistic intention backfires and ends up harming everyone.

Going along to get along in a business atmosphere, as mentioned in a previous post, can eventually lead to the demise of an entire business. Harvey also discussed the Watergate scandal as another example of a situation in which everyone went along with an idea that they mostly all knew was a terrible one, because that was what they thought everyone else wanted them to do.

Sometimes, what fools these mortals be.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

More Baloney about Implanting False Memories

TV show available at

In an otherwise excellent episode of Nova on PBS about recent research into memory - available for viewing in its entirety at the website above - the show takes what is for me a disturbing turn around the 38 minute mark. It starts to discuss the issue of whether false memories can be implanted in people. An academic psychologist named Julia Shaw discussed her experiments which she believes "proved" that you can induce in someone a memory of a crime in the distant past that they did not actually commit.

Dr. Julia Shaw

According to an article in the New Yorker, Shaw modeled her work after that of child abuse apologist and memory pseudo-expert Elizabeth Lofton. Shaw claimed that she was able to induce this kind of false memory in 70% of her subjects. Of course, even if this were true, it means that she was unable to supposedly accomplish this feat in almost one third of her subjects, which leaves us with the question of what distinguishes that portion of the sample from the others.

But leaving that aside, let's look at the experiment she did, as shown with a film of one probably illustrative subject during the experiment. The experimenter brought up a supposed incident that occurred when the subject was 12 years old. Dr. Shaw told the subject that the subject's parents had told her about the false incident. She said, "What happened was you initiated a fight that was so severe that the police called your parents. They said it happened in the fall when you were with Ryan when it happened." She mentioned two facts that were in fact true - a move the family had made around that time, and the name of someone she knew.

The subject's first response was not surprising, and it was quite definitive - if not emphatic. As I relate the dialog in the experiment, I want readers to notice that the subject moves from a quick and clear-cut response at first, denying this happened, to later describing an event that she starts to think may possibly have happened. In the later interview, not only is her language tentative, but she looks puzzled and is intermittently shaking her head no! If you don't believe me, watch the show segment for yourself by clicking on the link under the picture at the top of the post.

The key point the reader should also consider is that the experimenter has now put the subject in the position of calling her parents liars! If they are generally truthful, hearing that they reported something that seems completely alien to her whole personality will at the very least introduce cognitive dissonance and self doubt. I mean, why would her parents make up something like that? This self doubt is clearly manifested in the patient's facial expressions and tone of voice as she says the things she says in the film. 

However, even if the parents were notorious for being fast and loose with the truth or made a habit of blaming the subject for things that were not her fault (a not uncommon feature in dysfunctional families), due to family loyalty the patient might still become motivated to protect her parents' reputation to the experimenter and perhaps also to save herself from an argument with the parents later on. Family loyalty is something Dr. Shaw apparently either knows nothing about and/or has never even considered.

The subject's initial response to the experimenter relating to her what her parents allegedly said had "happened" was this:  "Honestly, I don't remember. I don't know what you're talking about. I don't think I've ever been in a fight." (She laughs). I'm so confused!" While she said this, I observed not the least bit of hesitation.

Dr. Shaw admits during the program that she uses techniques meant to create social pressure to get the subject to come up with the false "memory." Experiments in social psychology have shown that the pressure to conform to a group can cause people to say things that they actually know are not true. In other words, they blatantly lie in order to fit in. The most famous of these experiments were done by Soloman Asch, as described here.

Shaw tells the subject, "Relax, close your eyes, and focus on trying to retrieve this." This instruction implicitly assumes that the event the experimenter concocted actually took place. Then comes a little extra social pressure: "It seems strange, but it does work for most people." She then has the patient picture herself at the time and place under discussion. "Picture yourself at the age of 14 and it's Fall and you were with Ryan when it happened."

A week later, the subject starts talking tentatively, "I remember like a verbal fight." She has an unmistakable puzzled look on her face. "It seems so unlikely." Clearly, she is not really recalling any specific event, but trying to put together bits and pieces in her memory from other things that might have happened to her - again, I strongly suspect, to avoid either saying or believing that her parents have lied about her. 

She continues, "Maybe I pushed or something."

Shaw encourages her to continue. "Good! Ok!"

Subject: "I feel like she pushed [significant pause] me first. 

Feeling like something might be true is hardly the same as actually remembering it.

A week later, the subject embellishes the non-story: "I think the cops showed up." (Translation: I'm not really sure about this). "We were kind of having maybe like a verbal kind of fight and it got into a push." Maybe? Again, does not sound like a specific memory at all. And the coup-de-grace: After saying this, she again shakes her head no.

Dr. Shaw confidently asserts that she has now proven that you can induce false memories in people, when what she actually proved was that under conditions of social pressure, cognitive dissonance, and/or family loyalty issues (and probably in several other contexts), you can induce people to make stuff up. And sometimes even lie to themselves about it.