Thursday, February 27, 2020

Parental Guilt: a Double Edged Sword Inside a Conundrum

When I write about dysfunctional family dynamics on my blogs, in response I often get parents and adult children reacting in completely opposite ways to the very same post: the parents think I am putting the blame all on them, and the adult children likewise feel I’m singling them out. Of course, the parents had the issues that are creating difficulties before the kids ever came into existence, so this makes them somewhat more responsible, but they are reacting to binds that they themselves were put into by their own  parents. In turn, their parents were reacting to their parents, and so on.

Of course, when people feel blamed for something they don’t really like, but sort of know they had something to do with, they tend to feel guilty, which tends to make them defensive. Defensiveness, in turn, causes them to tune out discussions of what they might be able to do differently in order to fix the family problem. That would be bad enough, but there is something else that amplifies this problem even more. The fact that they felt guilty even before reading my stuff is often the main problem that caused them to give off destructive double messages to their kids in the first place.

The women’s movement was great in terms of opening up fulfilling opportunities for women for which they are more than qualified. However, it is also a big factor in creating a lot of parental guilt as when both parents are working, this has made many of them feel like they are neglecting their kids. As I have written, the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world pile on the guilt. This cultural argument has two effects on the parents: anger at their kids for complicating their lives, and attempts to make up for their frequent absences by overindulging their kids and trying to be friends with them.

The latter behavior creates all the issues that parenting columnist John Rosemond has been writing about for years: it makes the kids feel inadequate. My view on this is slightly different than his: I think the kids start to believe that the parent’s constant need to cater to them is evidence that the parents need to be caretakers to remain mentally stable, so the children start to act as if they are inadequate so the parents can continue to feel needed.

If the parents’ anger predominates, this can lead to acting out by the child to provide the parent with a feeling of justification for being angry and therefore not as guilt-ridden.

If the parents go back and forth between compulsive caretaking and anger, the child develops one of the major characteristics of borderline personality disorder: spoiling behavior. When the parent gets too angry the child tries (and usually succeeds at) making the parent feel guilty, but then when the parent feels too guilty, the child finds ways to make them angrier.

Because the issue of parental guilt is so central, this creates a conundrum for anyone trying to get the family to discuss what is really going on so that it can be stopped or at least minimized – including any family member attempting to do this, a therapist trying to help the family, or a writer of blogs trying to get people to focus on real issues rather than looking for scapegoats or facile explanations for the self -defeating behavior of family members. When any of these folks bring up what the parents are doing “wrong,” this tends to make the parents feel even guiltier, which is the source of the problem in the first place. The problem then gets even worse rather than better.

When I had such a parent in therapy, I was able to find a way to finesse this, by discussing how their child may be mis-reading them, which tends to be a less guilt-inducing way to put it. Also, I can empathize with the bind that the parents are themselves feeling, having formed a preliminary hypothesis about why their own parents acted as they did.

This is much more difficult to accomplish when writing for the public, because readers tend to quickly focus more on anything that seems at first glance to be less than empathic with their own plight. I do talk about how the problems have been passed down from prior generations, so if we have to blame anyone, let’s blame Adam and Eve and be done with it. I also make use of a great quote from John Rosemond: "Taking responsibility for something and self-blame are horses of two entirely different colors. The former is empowering; the latter is paralyzing." However, I can’t discuss these ideas in detail in every single post or they would all be twice as long as this one. And anyway, disclaimers like that are often ignored in the heat of the moment.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Spoiling Behavior is All an Act, But a Deadly Serious One

Relationships between people are formed through interactions that are two-way and simultaneous. People learn and become different over time as this occurs, and can push one another away.

I recently received an angry letter from a mother whose child apparently has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). She told me that I must have no idea what it is like to raise a child with the disorder, or I would never say what I do about it. She added that kids with the disorder do not respond to the most positive of upbringings, so don’t blame parents!

Having been the direct recipient of the spoiling behavior of adult patients with the disorder when I started out as a therapist - and did not know then how to deal with their in-session behavior effectively - I can say that I have a really good idea about what that is like. And it ain't no picnic. And I agree that unrestrained positivity does not change it. It can even make it worse!

It is also true that not all families that produce kids with the disorder are overtly abusive either physically, sexually, or verbally, although a large and significant majority of them are in fact abusive in those ways – according to every study ever done. Even DBT therapists believe they come from an “invalidating environment,” even though they seem to scrupulously avoid identifying that specific environment as the family of origin.

I would like to suggest that the reader take a look at what the letter writer said in a different way than would be a typical interpretation. (Of course, I can’t know for sure even if her child has even been correctly diagnosed or exactly how positive the family environment is). In just a couple of sentences, she could be understood to be saying that her parenting has nothing to do with how her child turned out. In a phrase, it is only the child who is (completely) screwed up.
If I’m hearing this in a short letter, you can bet that the child has heard it. And guess what? If children hear this point of view a lot, they will begin to act in ways that give the parent an easy justification for making the statement so the parents don’t have to feel bad about blaming everything on the kid. But doing this is all an act to placate and stabilize the parents.

I can predict relatively confidently that if the mother continues to exhibit this same attitude much of the time, the child will continue to give her grief, and will not get better.
Likewise, if a parent is constantly invalidating a child, the child will begin to act in ways that practically invite invalidation. One leader of a parents of BPD kids' support group once told me that her daughter said bizarre things, such as that she had grown up poor. The family was in fact quite well off financially. The daughter was not psychotic. Her mother is quite bright, so I would have to assume that the daughter is not actually stupid enough to somehow not know that the family was affluent. If she were my patient, I would ask her specifically what she thought the family was poor in. Validating responses, perhaps? Warmth?
When I speak of this stuff being an act, I always have to clarify that it is specifically the spoiling behavior which is the act. The way they generally feel, their sense of a poor identity, the impulsiveness and such are all real – but all adaptive or reactive to the family dynamics that produce BPD.