Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's the Relationship, Stupid!

Two of my friends recently e-mailed me an article in the New York Times by a Psychiatrist named Dr. Richard Friedman entitled Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds (

Before I could blog about it, I noticed that my fellow family issues blogger, pediatrician Dr. Claudia Gold, had beat me to the punch, with an absolutely spot-on critique of the article entitled, Neither Bad Parents Nor Bad Seeds (

Still, I did not realize just how pernicious Dr. Richard Friendman's column was until I saw a comment on Claudia's Blog from someone calling himself J.C. He made the comment that the column made a strong implication that "Children are not dynamic, they can come broken just like computers, without any inherent ability to adapt." Reading the column again, I saw that it implied that the "son" described in the article had apparently come into the world with a heavy genetic loading for rude behavior!

His opinion: "the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children." Toxic children? The very phrase reminded me of Susan Forward and Craig Buck's famous (and still selling) 1989 self-help book, Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. While Dr. Forward did hold out some hope for the adult products of abusive family environments reconciling with their parents, many therapists took note of the title and started advising their patients to divorce their "toxic" parents in order to feel better.

That sounds like good advice until you read the attachment literature. It shows that the best predictor of how well your relationship with your own children will turn out is the nature of your relationship with your own parents. This happens regardless of whether you remain in continuous contact, or not. In fact, since you unfortunately carry your parents around in your head forever (regardless of whether either you or they wish it so), "divorcing" your parents may not prevent the intergenerational transmission of highly dysfunctional family patterns. It may in some cases actually help foster it.

An awful lot of my patients try awfully hard to be the "unparents." They vow they will never treat their children the way that their parents treated them. Unfortunately, they tend to go to the opposite extreme and often end up with kids who have the same problems they do, or who have a polar opposite but still related problem.

If they felt neglected by their parents, for example, they may become overinvolved with and overprotective of their children. If you want to know what might be likely to happen if they do that, please read my very last blog post.

If their parents were alcoholics, for another example, they may compulsively drug-test their kids and repeatedly search the kids' room for contraband before the kids have ever done anything - thereby giving their children the inadvertent message that they expect their kids to abuse alcohol. In working on emotional family trees called genograms, therapists sometime see a generation of alcoholics followed by a generation of teetotalers followed by a generation of alcoholics. Try explaining that one with the concept of a genetic predisposition to alcohol. I dare you.

So were abusive parents born toxic children? Was the 17 year old boy described in Friedman's article born to be "...unkind and unsympathetic to people...rude and defiant at home, and often verbally abusive to family members"?

Friedman trots out the ignorant old warhorse explanation that the boys behavior could not possibly have been caused by "bad parenting" because "this supposedly suboptimal [parental] couple had managed to raise two other well-adjusted and perfectly nice boys. How could they have pulled that off if they were such bad parents?"

First of all, who even said that they were bad parents in the first place? Second, parents do not even remotely treat all of their children the same. Anyone with a sibling or more than one child can tell you that. Anyone remember the Smothers Brothers' comedy team schtick, "Ma always liked you best?" They built a huge career around that one routine. Do you think it might have struck a chord with anyone?

In Claudia Gold's blog post, she describes a family that she treated in which a behavior problem that was similar to the one in the Friedman article was present. She describes exactly how and why a negative pattern of interactions between a parent and a child was set in place, despite everyone's best intentions. I highly recommend her post.

Warning: speculation ahead, based on similarities to many other cases I have treated, and which may or may not apply to this one:

In the case of the particular adolescent described in the Friedman column, a clue as to what might have happened in this family was the observation Friedman himself made that ""it was clear that her [the mother's] teenage son had been front and center for many years."

Maybe too front and center. If the parents were obsessed with their son's negative attitudes and repeatedly lectured him about them ad nauseum, they may have unwittingly given him the message that they would be disappointed if they were deprived of the right to go on lecturing him. In response, he might continuously give them that opportuntity by maintaining the bad attitude.

In addition, it is possible that the parents gave signs to the boy of covert approval when he was rude to other family members. A son sometimes takes on a role that psychotherapy integrationist Sam Slipp called the avenger, in which he acts out his parents unacknowledged and for them forbidden hostility. This allows the parents to vicariously experience the expression of their negative feelings without having to own or be responsible for them.

Psychoanlysists refer to this interpersonal phenomenon as projective identification. They speak of "superego lacunae" or holes in the parents' conscience that prevent them from expressing certain feelings but which lead them to indirectly validate the expression of those very same feelings in their children, even while criticizing the children unmercifully for having done so.

It is not toxic people that create a dysfunctional family, but toxic relationships. Affixing moralistic blame to one individual in the family just makes matters worse. It turns that person into what family systems therapists refer to as the identified patient, when the real patient is the whole group. The identified patient is often a scapegoat.

Even when parents or children do horrible things to each other, labeling them as bad seeds is counterproductive.

In dealing with a toxic relationship, the choice that an adult from a dysfunctional family has is not between self-exile and continuing to put up with abusive behavior. There are types of psychotherapy which can help people repair dysfunctional relationship patterns, solve problems, and reconcile with their loved ones. In my new book, I tell which psychotherapy paradigms are designed to do this. Not all therapists know how. It's not an easy task to detoxify a toxic relationship because feelings run very high, and defenses can be formidable, but it can be done.

IMHO, we need to help put a stop to the intergenerational transmission of dysfunctional family patterns, and these treatments are the best way to do that.

It is interesting that next to Dr. Friedman's article is a still from the 1956 movie, The Bad Seed, about a pretty little girl from a fine family who develops into a young murderess for no apparent reason. Such things, unless a baby comes out brain damaged in some way, happen only in lurid novels and movies.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I will be referencing it in my schizophrenia blog. I still find it amazing that despite your understanding here that "it's the relationship, stupid!", you have stated on many occasions that schizophrenia a brain disease. It is interesting that, referring to the movie, The Bad Seed, you write that "unless a baby comes out brain damaged in some way this things (sic) happen only in lurid novels and movies."