Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Dependency Conflicts in People Who Practically Raised Themselves

In my post of December 17, 2013, Older Siblings and Neglectful Parents, I described one interesting pattern of family dysfunction that I have been seeing in my practice. It developed in families in which the parents had abdicated their responsibilities as parents in one way or another. I showed how an older sibling would sometimes step into the void thusly created to take the parental reins, so to speak, and the younger siblings would later displace their anger at the parents on to the “substitute.”

This post is about a different (or at times additional) pattern that may develop in families in which the parents are not doing their job.

In this particular situation, the parents were emotionally unavailable to their kids most of the time as they grew up. To complicate matters further, they did not set any limits on their child’s behavior during his or her teenage years. Teens from such families would be allowed to come and go as they pleased. They might start skipping school or not doing homework - and the parents would do nothing about it. They might come home drunk or stoned, and the parents would not seem to even notice. They might start getting into minor trouble with the authorities.

One might say that children in this kind of environment pretty much raise themselves. Some continue to get into trouble and do poorly, while others may settle down and make something of themselves. In either event, when it comes to their romantic relationships, anyone who might be interested in them eventually finds themselves in a very specific damned if you do, damned if you don’t bind.

Children who had been neglected in this way are missing something important, and they want it. They secretly long for someone who will love them and show an interest in them and take care of them and even set limits with them in all the ways that their parents did not. And from the outside they seem to other people to need those things desperately. They often seem out of control in some way, and seem to be in need someone to give them the proper guidance.

So what happens when someone tries to take care of them? They get angry or even rageful! The logic behind this goes something like this. “I had no one in my life who parented me the way I needed. I had to take care of everything myself and make all of my own decisions. How dare you tell me how to live my life???"

In therapy speak, this is one form of a classic dependency conflict:  I desperately want someone to take care of me and guide me, but I resent it when anyone tries to do that. It’s like they are asking, “Where were you when I really needed  you? No Johnny-come-lately is going to question me about my own decisions!”

Add to this another and additional family system issue: The neglectful parents often had been neglectful because deep inside they felt themselves to be too inadequate to parent well. They secretly feel guilty about what their children had to do to survive. If their child seems to be independent and self-sufficient, they feel less guilty. 

On the other hand, seeing someone do for their child what they did not makes them feel even guiltier, so there is pressure on the child to be self-sufficient and to not depend on others. If they are not independent, their parents may become depressed on act out self-destructively.

Rather than having a “Dependent Personality Disorder,” as the DSM might suggest, these "adult children" are actually counter-dependent. They are deathly afraid of their own dependency needs, and continue to try to manage their lives all by themselves, just like they always had to.

In a way, this type of family situation is the polar opposite of the intrusive helicopter parenting which is also a common occurence in todays's American culture. Despite being the seeming opposite of neglectfulness, helicopter parenting can also lead to a situation in which its victims looks like they need someone to take care of them but then resent it when anyone tries. 

This follows from something I call the principle of opposite behaviors - opposite family behavior leads to the same or very similar result. It occurs because the extreme polarized behavior of the parents represents opposites poles of the exact same conflict - or two sides of the same coin if you will. 

In a future post, I will show how an internal conflict in parents such as these can lead to a situation in which two brothers or two sisters develop characteristics that seem like extreme opposites, or how one generation of family members can go to one extreme with a particular behavior, the next to the other extreme, and the third back to the first extreme. That phenomenon would be next to impossible to explain if behavior were primarily determined by ones's genetic propensities.


  1. You know all those future dystopian novels that were written, where humans would be created in Petri dishes and raised in pods by machines, or at least, humans they weren't related to?

    That scenario is looking like 'best practice' if it eradicates all this parent/child/sibling/family dog/what the neighbour's think angst...

    Live long and prospero.

  2. By the way, there was a real-life example of this dynamic here in Australia.

    Arkie Whiteley whose parents were the iconic artist Brett Whiteley and his muse, Wendy

    In an interview Arkie gave before her early death, age 37, from adrenal cancer, she spoke of realising that she needed limits and guidance and took herself off to a boarding school/private college that would provide that structure.

    Extract from an interview at this link:

    AT HER father's wake, Arkie thoughtfully admitted that in some ways she did have a difficult childhood. She felt responsible for her ill parents and became their carer, and sergeant-major, throwing out the heroin and syringes, calling the police and dobbing in the pushers.

    ``People have often said to me, `it's amazing how sane and together you are'," she said.

    ``But I always knew I was so loved by both my parents, and that was enough to see me though any difficulty. I have a fundamental self-confidence that comes from being loved. I feel sorry for people who've never had that."

    Many addictive families lived in denial, hiding their feelings, she observed, ``but our number one priority as a family was that we all always expressed what we wanted to express".

    ``I escaped many of the scars of a dysfunctional family because of this. We all always talked about our anger and pain and were very loving and compassionate with each other.

    She didn't escape the cancer though....