Knowing When to Ignore our Children – REPOST

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. I was chatting to a Mum last week about her 7 year old who was crying about not wanting to do swimming lessons in the school holidays. She had been learning swimming with her older sister throughout the year, and while she hadn’t been enthusiastic, she was making progress and participating.  On the cusp of the holiday swimming program this little girl declared that she was afraid of the water and didn’t want to be made to do swimming. I explored with the mother her possible responses to this protest. She was clear that swimming lessons were important due to the family’s proximity to the beach. For her it was not just an extra-curricular activity, it was about ocean safety. She did reflect that this younger child tended to become anxious and slip backwards just as she was making some maturing progress. Her responses had often been to sit down with her daughter and try to talk through her worries. She would suggest strategies for managing her fears but found that the more she reassured her daughter the more her daughter seemed to express her apprehensions.

In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. A parent can try to get to the bottom of their child’s setbacks by focusing on their fears and feelings. It can be quite disillusioning when the child then regresses further in response to such attention. A parent may then get frustrated with the child or teen and shift their positive attention to more negative cajoling: “Come on you can get yourself to swimming lessons; you’ve been doing it all year. You’re just being difficult!” The negative attention often leads to more ‘stuckness’ for the child and parent and the tone of their interactions easily becomes tense.

I recall a period in my own parenting, after an inter country move, when my then 3 year old began showing distress when I left her at her nursery school. She had previously been very happy to have me leave and had commenced her new ½ day pre-school with excitement and confidence. When she showed her 1st sign of separation distress I recall the staff becoming anxious about the child who had travelled all the way from Australia. They strongly encouraged me to stay with her to assist her in the transition and this synced with my own concerns about by child’s vulnerability. Some weeks later I was still sitting beside my daughter in the welcome circle joining in the children’s action songs and assisting with the afternoon activities. I often think I should have been put on the pay roll. Predictably my daughter did not increase her autonomy but became habitually distressed with the first inkling of separation. At the time I did not see the part that I had played in reinforcing her regression.

Bowen observed that when a child is focussed on anxiously they respond with increasingly impaired behaviours. This can happen in families, in schools, in psychological treatment. It is predictable that as a child reaches a new developmental milestone of more independence and mastery of skills, that they exhibit episodes of retreat to an earlier stage of dependence on caregivers. This is part of the growing up trajectory. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.  In essence, they ignore the child’s reversion behaviours and invitations for the parent to treat them as if they were back in a more dependent stage. When the child resumes their age appropriate functioning, the parent attends to the child with calm reassurance.

What might this look like? Drawing from the example of the 7 year old’s protests about swimming lessons: Firstly the mother will recognise her own uncertainties and steady herself so as not to inject her sensitivities into the child’s situation. When the objections arise the Mother can demonstrate with a brief comment that she will not entertain such protests. This is followed up by ignoring continued winging/wining from the child. The parent does not give attention to the child’s upset in the form of concern, advice or stern lectures.  Any parent will find this challenging and will need to attend to their own discomfort in reaction to their upset child. It is predictable that the child will up the ante of their upset for a time. They will give this up when they can sense that the parent is going to maintain their resolve. When the child moves back into participating in their swimming classes, as they previously had been able to do, the parents acknowledge the child’s efforts and show interest in what they have mastered. They take care not to ‘over- focus’, through exaggerated praise or reward for what is simply the child’s appropriate engagement in their life activities.

Looking back on my own nursery school internship with my then 3 year old I can see how helpful it would have been to ignore the initial displays of separation distress – To give the usual loving gestures of good bye and to leave calmly. At the afternoon pick up I would show an interest in her activities but not give my attention to discussing her earlier upset. With the passing of 25 years it is much easier to see a way through. At the time I was working through my own separation challenges from my extended family and I can see how this made it difficult to distinguish between my insecurities and my child’s emotions. Growing ourselves up as parents (or carers) requires managing our own insecurities so as not to allow them to spill over into our relating with our child.

The current tide of parenting is all about attending to a child’s distress and showing sensitivity to their needs. Challenging this ethos guarantees emotive counteractions from many ‘child experts’ and conscientious parents devoted to the path of tuning into their child’s emotions. Of course there are apt times to listen well and support a child as they face real challenges. This is different to attention that reinforces a child’s natural moments of resisting steady steps towards increased maturity. A parent who can see their part in these patterns can be the very best resource for their child’s resilience.

Key questions for reflection

  • How do I respond to my child when their behaviour is a step back in age appropriate maturity? { e.g. might be tantrums, thumb sucking, sleeping in parents bed, separation distress, refusal to do tasks or participate]
  • Do I attend to such regressions either positively (reassurance, affection) or negatively (lectures, threats)? Am I reacting to the other parent by attending with the opposite tone?
  • What do I observe of the effects of such attention over time on my child’s resilience?
  • What are my own internal struggles in the face of seeing my child’s increased neediness or immaturity? How can I keep myself calm and thoughtful? Can I recognise when my child’s increased neediness of me steadies my own insecurities?
  • What ways do I support my child’s steps towards more autonomy? – With acknowledgement and interest that encourage progress or with exaggerated praise, and rewards that promotes immature entitlement?

 

To read more see: p 106 – 129 in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Jenny Brown

If you’re going to assist your child to grow their resilience, the first step will be to increase your own resilience in tolerating your child’s upset without feeling compelled to rush in and smooth over everything for them. The grown-up parent, who really wants to be a loving resource to their child, is prepared to work on themselves and not make a project out of their child. P 108

Relevant Quote from Murray Bowen MD

The process begins with anxiety in the mother. The child responds anxiously to the mother, which she misperceives as a problem in the child. [The father usually plays a role – he is sensitive to the mother’s anxiety, and he tends to support her view and help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering] The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Once the process has started, it can be motivated either by anxiety in the mother, or anxiety in the child. In the average situation there may be symptomatic episodes at stressful periods during childhood which gradually increase to major symptoms during or after adolescence. P 381 FTCP

‘Knowing when to ignore our children’Jenny Brown

 

A Dad gets back behind the steering wheels: How a father regained his agency with his oppositional daughter. 

Joe reflected on the progress he had made as a parent saying: 

“Over the last couple of years I had lost all confidence and direction as a parent with Chloe; but now it’s like I’ve got hold of the steering wheel again.  Now when she’s pushing and pushing to get what she wants, I know that at the end of the day, it’s my decision. I decide what I will go along with and what is not OK.” 

This is the next installment* in the story of one parent, Joe, as he worked to figure out how he could be a resource to his defiant 13 year old daughter Chloe. Previously Joe recognised that his pattern of rushing in to smooth things over for Chloe resulted in increased entitlement from his daughter. He began to accept that changes for Chloe would be slow but that the first step he could make was to stop trying to create peace by bribing Chloe. His stepping back from an ineffective pattern was the launch of becoming a more hopeful parent. Joe started to shift his focus from trying to change Chloe to a focus on what he could change. 

Joe gave consideration to what was in his control as a Dad when faced with Chloe’s demands. Just last weekend Chloe pushed him to drop her at the shopping Mall where she wanted to hang out with her friends. The previous agreement was that Chloe would spend the afternoon at a neighbour’s house with a girl from her school. They were going to watch a Netflix episode and work on a geography project.  Joe had already committed to be at their son Jake’s basketball game. His wife and co-parent Sue had left earlier to spend the day visiting her elderly mother.  

Chloe had learned how to get her dads attention. She would intensify the drama about how much she needed him to consent to her demand. In the past Joe would have dropped everything to avoid increasing outbursts from Chloe – even if this risked him being late for Jake’s game. Conversely on this occasion he gathered himself, clarified his priorities, and said to Chloe: “I know that hanging out with your friends is important to you but I am not willing to take you to the Mall at such short notice. My commitment is already made to be at your brother’s game and there is no way I am going to let him down. I’m also not going to be a part of messing up our neighbours plans.  I’m willing to help out with transport next weekend if we work out a plan in advance, but not today.” 

Chloe was silent for a moment. Joe thought she was still somewhat shocked to hear her Dad’s newfound tone of conviction in his recent responses to her. The silence however was not for long as Chloe retorted loudly:  

“Dad you don’t care about me and my friends. You’re putting Jake ahead of me and ruining my weekend!!!” 

Joe is working hard to not react to Chloe’s retorts. She certainly could stir up panic within him but he realised that parenting out of fear isn’t helpful for his daughter. He responded in a firm but controlled tone saying:  

“I’ve let you know my position Chloe and it’s not negotiable at short notice. I’ve got nothing more to say about this.” 

Chloe ramped up her protest with inflammatory language directed at her Dad. Joe focused his eyes on his emotionally wound up daughter and said:  

“When I am talked at with such disrespect it takes away my willingness to be generous with the many privileges I give you every day. I am not going to be walked over by you Chloe – that is not the kind of parent I want to be.”   

Joe then left the room to finish his car maintenance work in the garage.  Chloe followed with ongoing verbal pressure but Joe was resolute to not engage.  

After some time Chloe backed off and started getting ready to go to her nearby friend’s house. Joe wished her a good time. He noticed his distress about the rupture in his relationship with his daughter. He felt steadier when they were close. Nevertheless he did not backtrack and try to make peace. In the past he would have promised Chloe a special outing that night to make up to her. Joe was aware of his inner triggers to accommodate his daughter’s immaturity; and that he was a central part of the immature pattern.  He could see how much his parenting had been influenced by his conflict avoider posture in the family he grew up in. His older sister and Dad used to fight regularly and he counterbalanced this by always responding compliantly to his parents. 

By days end Joe refrained from indulging Chloe. Rather he showed an interest in the Netflix TV drama she was following. He asked her how it compared to similar shows they had watched. Who were her favourite characters and what she admired about them? After a bit of shared conversation Joe left Chloe to herself and made a priority of sitting with Sue to talk about what was happening in each of their worlds. He mentioned the challenge he had had with Chloe to Sue but did not focus on his worries about her. Instead he shared with his wife what he was learning about himself as a parent and how hard it was to learn to stay on course in the face of conflict. He reflected with Sue on how he can be just the same at work when there’s a hint of discord. 

Joe reflected on the progress he had made saying: 

“Over the last couple of years I had lost all confidence and direction as a parent with Chloe; but now it’s like I’ve got hold of the steering wheel again.  Now when she’s pushing and pushing to get what she wants, I know that at the end of the day, it’s my decision. I decide what I will go along with and what is not OK.” 

Previously Joe had sought professional help to find out what was wrong with his daughter. He had hoped that there might be a diagnosis and a treatment for Chloe’s oppositional behaviour. Additionally he wanted to relieve the tension emerging in his relationship with Sue about how his giving in to Chloe. If he could get a professional to treat his daughter’s problem it just might take the heat out of his marriage. Some months down the track Joe was in a very different place. He no longer looked for a fix for Chloe. Neither was he looking for a solution from helpers who were external to his family and his parenting. Joe had discovered that he was part of the increasing problem with Chloe. He had stepped back to observe the unhelpful ways he was reacting. This laid the groundwork for him to recover his parent leadership. He could parent with what was in his control and not try to change Chloe. He could convey his “I” position on what he is willing and not willing to do. He could also connect with his daughter in a less intense way. – not trying to win back her devotion but simply conveying interest in her life. Things were far from perfect with Chloe. At the same time Joe had recovered his hope as a parent.  This hopefulness grew in parallel with his clarity on how to manage himself more maturely with his daughter, and indeed with Sue and Jake as well. 

 

*The previous 2 installments of Joe’s story were posted on May 10th and June 7th 2017 

https://www.jennybrown.info/observe-parent-child-interactions/ 

https://www.jennybrown.info/dad-putting-puzzle-pieces-together/ 

 

Dr Murray Bowen’s Growing Up Years

Jenny Brown in conversation with Dan Papero reveal a fascinating historical context for the development of Bowen theory as well as the world of psychiatry and the family therapy field that emerged after World War 2.

This podcast explores the growing up years of Dr Murray Bowen and his family background. This is all presented from the perspective of Dan Papero PhD, MSW who worked alongside Dr Bowen for several years.

The Life and Times of Dr Murray Bowen

A Tale of Triangling Mothers

Seeing triangles provides a key to unlocking ways to bring our best to our most important relationships.

‘Jenny, today when I heard you describe your triangle with your mother I thought: “Oh my goodness – You are fuelling the problem in your family!” I can see for the first time that I’m adding to my husband feeling set aside and to inflaming his irritating ways of trying to insert his presence in his daughter’s and our family’s life. No one behaves at their best when they feel critically sidelined. I also see that I’m contributing to my daughter becoming arrogant and quite disrespectful towards her Dad.’

At a recent community seminar on marriage I shared about my triangle position in my family of origin. As I entered my teenage years my mother increasingly confided in me about broader family matters. In some ways I was being elevated to an informal leadership position in the family as my mother managed her stress about the family through using me as a sounding board. She would discuss her worries about my siblings amongst other things. At times she asked me to connect in a particular way to a sister in an effort to reverse the pattern of distancing that concerned my mother.

My alliance with my mother developed gradually through developing common interests including matters of faith. I’m sure my mother never intended to triangle me in this way. It emerged out of a growing friendship and it clearly filled some gaps in what she shared of herself in her marriage with my Dad. As I look back I can see that my father didn’t seem uncomfortable the growing closeness between myself and Mum. I assume that it took some pressure away from him by relieving an undercurrent of unmet expectations of him in the marriage. Hence both my mother and father unconsciously co- constructed the triangle, with myself as a willing participant.

Such triangles commonly emerge between parents and one of their children. In my family it functioned to relieve some pressures. The cost was that it contributed to some distance in my relationship with by sisters and brother and it primed me to be an “over -helper” in my adult relationships. For my parents, while it assisted with harmony in their marriage, it also prevented any breech in their emotional connection from being worked on and resolved. While it was a rewarding connection for me and my mother, it detracted from the growth of connection between my mother and each of my siblings. While there was not obvious tension in my relationship with my father, my alliance with my mother influenced my view towards men as lacking in their relational capacities – not a helpful posture to take into my own marriage as a young woman.

After sharing about my key triangle growing up at the recent seminar, a woman came up to me in the lunch break and expressed that she could recognise a similar triangle emerging in her family. She was alerted to the potential detriment of this triangle for her marriage and her teenage daughter. Here’s what she described to me in the course of our quite brief conversation:

“My eldest daughter has increasingly become a friend to me. We just seem to click! But I can see that there are problems developing as we are regularly taking sides against my husband. I complain to her about her Dad’s annoying ways. When the family is all together, she gives me a knowing critical look every time her Dad tries to give input. I realise that I’ve been encouraging this – it makes me feel good to have her in my corner. Tension is increasing in my daughter and her Dad’s relationship and I have been getting more frustrated with how he reacts to her. Today when I heard you describe your triangle with your mother I thought: “Oh my goodness – You are fuelling the problem in your family!” I can see for the first time that I’m adding to my husband feeling set aside and to inflaming his irritating ways of trying to insert his presence in his daughter’s and our family’s life. No one behaves at their best when they feel critically sidelined. I also see that I’m contributing to my daughter becoming arrogant and quite disrespectful towards her Dad. Last year my husband and I got some counselling for our marriage that didn’t get us very far. I couldn’t really understand our tensions and growing distance until today when I saw the triangle I was in with our daughter and its effect on our marriage. I can see that I need to stop inviting my daughter into the snug alliance that judges her Dad and my husband. She’s not going to like giving up this position but I know it is best for our whole family.”

I was impressed by this woman’s insight and her resolve to change her part. (Relationship triangles are often difficult to identify). Her husband was at the marriage seminar with her and she had the opportunity to talk to him about her realisations. I sense that this was the start of a constructive growing up effort for them both as spouses and parents. My own awareness of my primary triangle growing up has been enormously useful in helping me to manage unhelpful tendencies to align with those who confide in me, judge those who I hear complaints about and be too quick to step into the cosy elevated status of giving ear to other’s problems. I am committed to not becoming a part of issues being detoured from the relationships they belong in. For me, and for the insightful woman I met briefly at the community seminar, seeing triangles provides a key to unlocking ways to bring our best to our most important relationships.

To be Human is to be in Relationships

We can’t survive without them but at the same time it’s in our relationships that we can so easily get unravelled.   Either we feel like we lose ourselves or we feel burnt out from futile efforts to make things right for another. In our relationships we can experience the very best of ourselves and the very worst.

One of the most common maturity blocks in our relationships is to lose sight of our part and to focus on changing, blaming or comparing ourselves to others. It’s common to think that others are the ones who need to “Grow up!” We try to push them to be more mature only to discover that our efforts just don’t work and can even intensify the relationship challenges we are struggling with. It’s a huge step of maturity to appreciate that relationships and dealing with others will become more rewarding when we work on ourselves. This growing up effort goes into=

  • developing a deep sense of guiding principles for all our relationships
  • being responsible for our own problem solving and not take this over for others or allow others to take this over for us
  • understanding the family patterns behind a challenging interactions so that we can get beyond blaming

It’s an interesting and rewarding experience to learn to see how to shift our less mature responses in relationships. Learning to recognise when

  • we detour to third parties,
  • or become overly helpful or controlling,
  • or we hand over our responsibilities to others,
  • or we depend too much on relationship approval,
  • or we’re too quick to distance when tension arises.

Recognising such patterns enables us to make new choices that enable us to bring our best to our relationships.

Genuine maturity is about deepening our understanding of our self in all of your key relationships – from the family we grew up in, through periods of singleness, in the intimacy and trials of marriage, in the vulnerability of our sex life, in the daunting task of raising children, in the midst of competition and performance pressures at work, and adjusting to aging. While the effort is on self and not others, growing up does not happen in isolation but in the pushes and pulls of complex relationships. It’s our important relationships that provide the very best laboratory for growing up. They also provide the best motivation to work hard at being a mature resource for those we care about.

I wonder if this all sounds a bit too much like hard work in your already hectic life; yet if there’s the chance that this effort can unveil a very different picture of yourself in your relationships, it might just be worth giving this journey a go.

 

A Parent Recovers their Agency – Getting to an “I” position

In a previous blog we met Pam and saw how she was interacting with her anxious son Hamish to try to get him to school. She described the details of her morning pattern with Hamish and her husband Bill (step dad to Hamish).  Pam identified that her primary energy was being directed towards Hamish:  worried thoughts about his anxiety, what he might be feeling, what might fix his symptoms, changing Hamish’s feelings about himself and making him willing to go to school. Can you hear all those “Fix My Child” efforts?  With all this “You” focus, Pam was left feeling increasingly hopeless as a parent to her struggling son.

Mother with hands on hips

Pam’s first step to recovering her confidence was recognising that the more she invested her energy into trying to change Hamish the more she lost her clarity as a parent. She began to change herself as a parent by refraining from getting caught in a futile power struggle with Hamish leading to the distressing scene of trying to drag him out of bed.  It was evident to her that such coercive efforts were contributing to her much-loved son’s increasing helplessness.

It was difficult for Pam to consider directing her energy towards herself as a parent. She had become increasingly concerned for Hamish over many years. To her, Hamish seemed especially reserved and at risk of severe depression. Hence she treated him as fragile. She was allowing her worry to shape her parenting.  As a next step towards reclaiming some parent leadership Pam began to grapple with what she was factually in control of? And what was beyond her sphere of control?

This important project for relationship discernment enabled her to ensure that her parenting activity was fruitful rather than futile.

Here is what she came up with as things she could have agency with and things that were outside of her realm of control:

I can be in control of responding to Hamish and husband Bill in a calm manner.
I am not in control of getting them to be calm and thoughtful – although my tone and demeanour can be a positive influence. I am not able to control Hamish’s mood or confidence.

I can be in control of what I will do to support Hamish and what I won’t do for him that will keep him dependent. I can ask him each morning if he wants a ride to school, I can have breakfast out on the bench if he wants to help himself, I can be interested in what is happening in his favourite streamed TV drama.
I am not able to guarantee he gets to school or eats a good breakfast.

I can restrict the access to internet Wi-Fi at 11 pm each night.
I cannot make Hamish get lots of sleep.

I can treat Hamish with respect and warmth
I can’t make him feel good about himself.

I can be attentive and interested in son’s dreams for a career in music video.
I can’t promise that he will achieve all that he hopes for.

I can offer to be a sounding board for any assignments Hamish has. I can ensure that I don’t do his work for him. I can refrain from helping out until Hamish has begun to make his own inroads into the school work. I can ensure I hear his ideas before I offer my own ideas.
I can’t make him more motivated and focussed on his school work.

I can share with husband Bill How I am managing to not let my parenting be so driven by worry. I can allow Bill to work out his own way to relate to Hamish and not interfere.
I can’t change Bill’s parenting style.

As Pam could distinguish between what was and wasn’t within her control she could change the way she expressed herself to Hamish. Previously her communication was full of suggestions and affirmations directed at fixing Hamish:

You can get yourself to school: You are going to have an OK day at school; You are going to be able to follow your dreams; You need to eat a healthy diet; You need to get at least 7 hours sleep. You have to start that assignment.”

Notice how the focus of this parenting in on YOU Hamish must change. Clarifying what Pam could change about herself in interaction with Hamish helped her to communicate in a completely different manner:

I am willing to make it a bit easier for you to get to school but I am no longer willing to bribe you or nag you to get ready for school. And I won’t write notes to the school about you being sick. I will simply contact the school and tell them the facts that you were not able to find a way to be ready on time today.”

Pam’s support for Hamish’s efforts don’t need to be full of “you” accolades or instructions. Instead Pam can define to Hamish the support she wants to offer; and when he shows some self-directed steps of progress expressing:

I acknowledge the effort it has taken to increase the time you spent at school this week. I admire the determination you have used to take these steps. I’m up for recognising this with a little extra support for your leisure activities this weekend.”

Pam is discovering her “I” position as a parent.

The patterns of a child becoming increasingly entitled, or increasingly dependent, are years in the making. Hence the path to improved wellbeing occurs gradually. It’s often bumpy and requires plentiful stores of parent patience. The shift from trying to change others to just changing how you relate and what you are willing to do and not do for the other enables the parent to have some inner confidence and agency. The young person may appear to be slow to change but a parent with inner clarity adds to a more growth enhancing relationship environment for all members of the family – in particular for their vulnerable child.

 

Note that the part 1 of this blog is found here.

Resilience: all about relationships

“Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?”

The topic of resilience has been getting lots of attention over the past years. It seems that many have realised that it is more helpful to aim for improved resilience than increased happiness. The core of resilience is seen in how well one deals with life’s setbacks. Think about it for a moment: What will be more useful in equipping a person for life’s daily challenges? Will it be striving for positive feelings? or will it be nurturing the capacity to bounce back after disappointments?

Definitions of the concept of resilience abound! I think it’s helpful to think of it as: The capacity to stay on track with goals and tasks in the midst of challenging environments. The majority of approaches to promoting resilience focus on the individual. They describe how a person can mobilize certain mindsets that allow them to see failure as opportunities rather than as a personal condemnation. This individual cognitive reframing and techniques for self-soothing can certainly be helpful in learning to not be crushed by disappointments; however they leave out the importance of relationship dynamics to our resilience. It’s easy to see external events like loss of job or an illness as the greatest threat to resilience but it is important not to underestimate the way that relationship dynamics can subtly drain a person’s capacity to manage life effectively. A useful question to ask is: Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?

I recently spoke to a woman I will call Leanne, who was increasingly stressed at her workplace. She had taken on a job in a community organisation and was looking forward to making a real contribution. After just 6 month in the job however, she was losing the ability to focus on her work tasks because all of her energy was consumed by trying to work out the relationship dynamics. She sensed that one colleague didn’t value her and had started to seek reassurance from others at the office.  Her boss had initially been available and supportive but she was now sensing a withdrawal of his involvement. She began imagining that he doubted her capabilities and that her colleague might even be bad mouthing her behind her back. Leanne had gone from an enthusiastic confident worker to an anxious and self-doubting person within a short time.

As with so many of us, Leanne’s sensitivities to relationships were a huge part of her lowered resilience. She was able to be productive when she felt valued and validated but any sense of disapproval and loss of attention would derail her from functioning well. All of us have emerged from our families with varying degrees of sensitivity to relationship undercurrents. The most common sensitivities are to approval, expectations, attention and distress in others. Which of these are most likely to destabilize you in your relationship contexts? What perceptions of others are most likely to distract you from managing life’s tasks? Is it seeing another upset and feeling that somehow you are responsible? Is it when you lose a perceived sense of importance or a shift from getting attention?

Here is a summary list of the common relationship patterns (drawn from family systems theory) that can impair people’s resilience.  Each of these patterns deserves a blog all its own but a brief checklist might open up more ways of understanding how relationship context affects us all. See if you can recognise any of these going on in your life at the moment:

 

  • Through too much togetherness: When people invest in needing to be close and connected all the time it is hard to get on with life’s responsibilities. Sensitivities to being connected, through approval and validation, start to take over all other important tasks.
  • Through too much distance: When people use distance to deal with tensions with others it increases the awkwardness in relationships. Negative distance and avoidance skews people towards blame and superiority. This distracts people from their own responsibilities as well as getting in the way of sharing resources and good team work.
  • Through over functioning for others: When people start to be overly helpful in telling others how to think and behave it can get in the way of them solving their own problems and can promote dependency and reduced competency.
  • Through being part of triangles: When people experience tension and distress in one relationship it is all too easy to find a 3rd party to vent to about this. Venting, complaining and gossiping to others about an absent party can seem to reduce our angst and worries, by having someone align with our point of view. The initial problem is prevented from being addressed in the relationship it belongs in. Detouring relationship tension also reduces resilience as we don’t get good practice at expressing differences and working them out person to person.

 

Leanne was able to see how her dependence on others being warm and attentive towards her was threatening her capacity to manage in her job. As an individual she had all the competencies necessary to do her work well but in relationships she could so easily lose her sense of capacity and become consumed by feeling left out. It was helpful for her to consider how this developed in her relationships in her original family. She realised that it would not be an easy pattern to adjust but that she could re- build some resilience by taking the focus of trying to get steadiness through relationships and instead get back on track with performing her job duties well. She could stay in friendly contact with her colleagues without getting caught up in figuring out what they thought of her.

We all inherit different degrees of relational and emotional resilience from the families we grow up in. there are many variables that go into this complex process that help make sense of the different capacities family members and people from different families have to cope with the fortunes and misfortunes of life. Bowen theory provides a way to grapple with this and to research in our own lives the ways that we interact within our relationship environment and its impact on our moments of apparent strength and episodes of greatest vulnerability.


This blog originally appeared on the Family Systems Institute Website 

To read more from Jenny Brown, you can purchase her book Growing Yourself Up here.

The FSI runs interactive groups promoting relational resilience for parents and adolescence, for more information go here.

New group schedules will be released in the coming months, if you are interested in attending please let us know by emailing us: info [at] thefsi [dot] com [dot] au or calling (02) 9904 5600

What to do when two members of my family won’t talk to each other

What can one family member do to bring some maturity to a system where ‘cut off’ is occurring?

I received the following question via Facebook. I have changed some of the details in order to write up my reflections as a public blog.

“My question relates to my mum and my younger sister who have been in conflict. My mum is avoiding my sister because she doesn’t want to have a difficult conversation and also believes my sister is in the wrong. I’ve encouraged her to try and stay connected to my sister and to have another conversation with her to see if they can resolve things, but she isn’t willing. She still feels very hurt by things that were said in the past. Any ideas of how else to encourage her to resolve things with my sister? What’s a mature action I can take in this situation?”

It can be heartbreaking to witness ruptures within our families – to have 2 people that we love dearly not talking to each other. The more that they avoid each other the stronger the ill-will seems to grow. Both family members can triangle us into their complaints about the other and we can find ourselves impossibly sandwiched in the middle. We can try hard not to take sides and to encourage each family member to reconnect and talk through their misunderstandings but predictably this mediation effort hits dead ends. Neither party is willing to give up their position about the wrong they feel has been done to them.


What can a family member can do towards peacemaking?

Observations of such circumstances reveal that the effort to change others and convince them to make amends is rarely productive. Relationship hurt and the resultant anxious defensiveness is unlikely to shift in response to another’s pressure. If there have been intergenerational patterns of people cutting off in the face of disagreements it will be especially hard for such programming to change. Distance and avoidance has become the default in the face of tension.
A family is an emotional unit – like a single organism. This means that any change one person makes will affect other’s experience of the family. So what can one family member do to bring some maturity to a system where ‘cut off’ is occurring? The following are some examples of options. It must be remembered however that each family has some unique ways of playing out tensions and alliances. Hence each of us has to work out what particular adjustments are useful to make in how we respond to each family member in the strained side of the triangle (in this instance the sister and mother are the strained side of the triangle with both aligned with the person who asks the question about the dilemmas they face). None of this can be rolled out as a technique.

Rather any change effort needs to make sense to the person seeking to make adjustments; and it needs to connect with their inner convictions if they are to contribute to the wellbeing of the unit.

  •  Keep contact with each family member who is not talking to the third.
  • The effort is to relate from self not in an effort to change another.
  • Ensure the contact is person to person and not a vent about the third person. If venting begins it may help to say: “I know you are grappling with how to deal with your upset with X but I’m committed to our time together to be a catch up on each other.”
  •  If the push to complain about the other continues it may help to say something like: “Mum when you talk angrily about my sister it affects me quite negatively. I care deeply about you both. Your venting about X leaves a vacuum in our relationship. I find the focus on my sister is making it harder for me to really connect with you the way I want to.”
  •  If the protest comes again it may be helpful to speak from conviction saying: “I’m not willing to go there Mum. I don’t want to be part of creating frustration in our time together.”
  • In response to one family member not being invited to a family event it may be useful to say: “I understand you are making this call based on what you feel but I’m not OK about fully participating in a family gathering when my sister not invited. I will drop in briefly to acknowledge the event but won’t stay for meal time while ever this is the situation.”
  • Another option is to make transparent that each party in the tension is communicating with you about the other. Such openness about how each expresses their challenges to you can be a gesture of handing the issue back to the relationship where it has opportunity to be worked out. It’s a kind of reversal of the direction of communication. An example might sound like: “I heard from X last week that they are a bit stuck knowing how to move things forward after the fallout. I let them know how you are also sharing a similar impasse. I conveyed that I have no idea what it will take for the two of you to get unstuck but that I am interested to see what solutions you eventually come up with.”

Back to the original question: “What’s a mature action I can take in this situation with my mother and sister not speaking?”

The key is to remember is that ‘cut offs’ are a common way of relieving intense negative emotions in a relationship. A period of distance is just predictable in families with a tendency to handle offences with stonewalling. The distance provides substantial shorter term reduction in anxiety and over whelmed emotions. If you get caught in being the triangle ‘meat in the sandwich’ you contribute to fuelling the ‘cut off’. Similarly if you participate fully in events and conversations that exclude the other you are accommodating to it. Above all be patient – these patterns are embedded in the ways previous generations dealt with transitioning from family of origin to family of creation. There is no quick fix to a pattern that has helped (albeit not maturely) families to cope with relationship stress over centuries.

Note about Emotional Cut Off – 1 of Bowen theory’s 8 concepts

Emotionally cutting off to relieve internal discomfort has its roots in the way people leave home. If they distanced from their parents in establishing their adult life- not being real and open in negotiating this life transition with each parent- the foundations for future impulsive ‘cut offs’ are laid down. (We all have varying degrees of this with our parents – Bowen called this: unresolved emotional attachment) Working on meaningful relating back to parents can reduce the likelihood of this pattern being repeated in the current generations.

Dr Bowen writes: “The concept deals with the way people separate themselves from the past in order to start their lives in the present generation (FTCP : 382).”

Dr Kerr writes: “People reduce the tensions of family interactions by cutting off, but risk making their new relationships too important. For example, the more a man cuts off from his family of origin, the more he looks to his spouse, children, and friends to meet his needs.”

For a full description of this pattern read: Bowen Theory Eight Concepts or Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000.