A Parenting Crisis: My child has accessed violent pornographic stories online!! – From panic to thoughtful realignment of the parenting role.

A panicked mother discovers that her 12 year old daughter is writing stories with some sexually graphic and violent descriptions. How could this be? Has she been abused in some way? How do I approach her about it? The tumult of questions in response to this parenting shock point is seemingly endless for this parent. Understandably so!

After some distressed mother- daughter discussions it emerged that various internet sites had targeted her daughter through her social media use. Over a period of months the invitations to engage in written responses to the narratives and pictures had become increasingly graphic. It left this mother feeling naïve and ignorant of such targeted, grooming processes that are part of the internet age our children are swimming in.

What do you think is an appropriate response for this parent? (Aside from legal reporting of activity online that is unsafe for children.)

When I chatted with this mother I suggested that she start by clarifying what her response would be if her daughter wanted to hang out with a group of strangers. This was to reduce the extent of panic that was crowding her clear thinking. She was able to be clear about her principles in response to this hypothetical –

*No mixing with people that the parents had not met and gotten to know, *No socialising without adequate adult supervision, *Being interested in who these people were and how it was that their paths had crossed, *displaying curiosity, and caring principles rather than panicked confusion.

From this more thoughtful base it was possible for this mother to apply the same concerned curiosity to understanding the back story of her daughter’s exposure to these harmful online sites. She reported that while her daughter was initially distraught and defensive, her parental concerned but calm investigation cut through the reactivity. She wasn’t interrogating her daughter but acknowledging that she had not been the kind of guiding parent that she wanted to be for her children – to be a loving boundary setter and guide in the rapidly expanding realm of online relating.

When in a panicked state at the initial discovery, this mother’s entire energy went into imagining the awful possibilities for her child and think about devastating effects on her child’s development: “My child has been disturbed for life!!!” Her focus was anxiously focused on rescuing her daughter and getting all the external fixing help she could muster. This started with asking the school counsellor for a referral to have her child assessed (which is how we ended up talking together – I never saw her daughter).

When she recovered some thinking space she could regain a focus on her parenting principles. She could acknowledge her part in not being adequately in the loop about her daughter’s computer use and ‘virtual’ interactions. If it had been the real world of socialising she knew she would have been better informed about her children’s activities. Rather than beat herself up about this she clarified how she would need to add some extra responsibilities to her parenting job description. She conveyed her loving re-commitment to being a wise supportive parent in a changing world. This is such a different process to anxiously lecturing or ‘therapising’ her daughter. She reached out to her spouse and parenting partner to help her to process her shock and allowed him to talk through his own shocked response. While both had their distinctive reactions to work through they each came to acknowledge that parenting was a learning process that required some regular re- thinking. What did they each want to tweak about their parent leadership in the changing phases of their children’s lives?  They weren’t going to get it right all the time but would be able to recover their wisdom if they didn’t become fearfully focused on their child.

There were encouraging outcomes from this concerning episode for this parent.  She was able to tolerate the period of her daughters distress and angry defensiveness and stay in calm contact. She was able to demonstrate to her daughter that she loved her and was committed to being appropriately informed and protective of her as she was learning to navigate the early stages of adolescence. She was able to share the basis of her concerns about having relationships and sex conveyed in distorted, ugly ways. From this she opened up conversations with her daughter about what she thought was positive social media input and what was ‘rubbish’ input.  Opportunities arose for her to share how she had confronted different kinds of confusing and distorted relationship experiences during her own growing up years. They could think together about different levels of safe and unsafe communications and information.  She was able to work out with her husband some clear guidelines for computer and internet use – regular involvement in online interactions and devices in living rooms not bedrooms.

This mother’s story is such a clear comparison between thoughtful parenting and fear driven parenting in this radically changing technological age. Fear takes parents away from embodying their own role – it focuses anxiously on the child which easily contributes to the child’s distant defensiveness – which in-turn reinforces the parent’s worry.  Fear also drives parents to over-depend on external experts to search for evidence of developmental damage, then in turn to diagnose and treat the child. In contrast, the thoughtful parent focuses on their job description when faced with a child’s challenging episode. They figure out what they want to convey about their commitment to their child’s good and how they are going to action this. They are not swayed by initial reactive protests but persevere towards their guidance goal. A parent who recovers their leadership when facing a challenging revelation about their child’s experience is a parent who can grow through such predicable episodes. In response a child gradually grows more respect for their parent and learns to open up to them in order to access their wise support.

Interventions and Confrontations – REPOST

Interventions and Confrontations – Are they the most helpful ways to respond to severe problems in a person we care for?

Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. 

Last week a relative called me to talk through their ideas for an “intervention”. They wanted to challenge a friend to admit to their symptoms and agree to get some professional help. I appreciated the deep care behind this request. I heard about how a long term friend had been exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms that were threatening many aspects of their wellbeing. I was happy to be a sounding board for my relative and to share some of my principles for communicating such important concerns to someone we care about. The term ‘intervention’ usually refers to the effort to gather a group of people together and confront a person about their need for help. It is often used in the case of serious drug and alcohol dependence. Web sites on how to do interventions describe the context:

People with serious addictive behaviours are often in denial that they have a problem. When heart to heart talks and other attempts to help prove ineffective, you can join forces with friends, families and a professional interventionist to confront the person with the truth and a detailed plan of action.

Many years ago I was a participant in such a strategy and experienced a long term fall out in the relationship as the years progressed. In more recent years I have come to a different view of such strategies. Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. Here are the key principles – some of which I shared with my relative:

  • The goal is to express to the other that they are important in my life as opposed to challenging how they are living their life.
  • Rather than confront the other with the problems in their life – which evokes intense defensiveness – I want to express my wish to have them as part of my life well into the future.
  • In conveying my care for having them as a living and important part of my life I will share some of the observations I have had that have triggered my concern.
  • I use the language of “I” rather than “You” in describing what I have observed and what fears for their wellbeing have been activated.
  • I describe the effects on me and our relationship and how this is different to the strong loving bond I am committed to as we continue as part of each other’s lives. This is different to describing my view of the effects on their life – positioning self as the expert overseer of another’s life can be heard as patronising and drive a wedge into the relationship.
  • I aim to talk one on one with the person rather than pull a group together to confront them. A group confrontation easily leaves a person feeling ganged up on.
  • I commit to ongoing contact with the person to show that my care for them is more than words. I don’t expect that just a conversation will change anything. I am committed to addressing my part in any unhelpful aspects of the relationship pattern over the long haul. This means I will not resort to distancing.
  • I will be truthful and not accommodating but my effort at honesty will be from my perspective and principles rather than a dogmatic declaration that I am an expert about the other. My effort towards speaking honestly will be grounded in real examples not in my subjective judgements and opinion.
  • I will watch my tendencies to be an expert about others rather than staying mindful of my own immaturities. I will stay clear of treating another person as a ‘diagnosis’ but rather will view them as a fellow human being who can be an important resource in my life.
  • If I were to focus on just a diagnosis in another it is all too easy to hand them over to an expert program as a way of reducing my own sense of distress- and my responsibility to work on myself in relationship with the other.

I appreciate that it isn’t easy to know how to address serious concerns about another’s life course or symptoms. Are there exceptions? I certainly conveyed to my relative that they know their relationship with their friend and will find their own way to deal with it best. Every situation is different and there may be occasions when a more direct intervention is the most caring thing another can do. At certain times it may be most loving to call in an emergency assessment service. Even in such cases I would aim to be transparent about my willingness to do this if I ever thought that my loved one’s safety or those of another were under threat.

My view is that a group or individual confrontation of another is almost never constructive. It sets up a one- up/one- down relationship where the person feeling challenged is evoked into high reactivity rather than being able to listen. They hear judgement rather than heart-felt concern. They can be fixed into the postion of a ‘patient’ in their relationship system. My system’s lens reminds me that people get into vulnerable symptomatic places in life via their position in their relationship/family systems. This means that if I change how I relate in that system I can contribute to a less regressive and anxious field for the most vulnerable person.

Bowen on confrontation in a family system:

ON CONFRONTING FAMILY MEMBERS

‘As an oldest son and physician I had long been the wise expert preaching to the unenlightened, even when it was done in the guise of expressing an opinion or giving advice….During my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents[others] in an angry confrontation…At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation. There may have been some short term gain…but the long term result was an intensification of previous patterns.”

Family Therapy in Clinical practice P 484

ON RELATING TO A PERSON IN THE SICK ROLE

‘In those families in which both parents could eventually tone down the sickness theme and relate to the ‘patient’ on a reality level, the ‘patient’ changed. After one family had emerged from their unreality, the ‘patient’ said, “As long as they called me sick and treated me sick, I somehow had to act sick. When they stopped treating me sick, I had a choice of acting sick or acting well.”’

P 86 ‘Interventions and Confrontations’ – Jenny Brown

Adopting a research attitude to your life in your significant relationships: a template to guide you

Dr Murray Bowen wrote, “A goal of this therapy is to help the other make a research project out of life” (Bowen, 1978, p. 179). What do you think of this as a counselling goal? – Not to fix, but to motivate a person’s learning journey about themselves in their family system. Nurturing a posture of curiosity through gathering as many facts about your family challenges and life course as possible is a worthy effort in growing a more aware and resilient self.

The personal research project below has been developed by a teaching psychologist in Washington DC, Dr John Millikin. It appears with his permission in the Appendix of the second edition of my book: Growing Yourself Up. I think it is a helpful template for learning to understand self in the bigger picture of one’s family of origin. It is a very different direction to the conventional mental health approach to focussing on symptoms. My own experience in life and clinical practice is that the effort to gather data about family is much more productive than investing in “fixing” effort directed at an individual or a relationship. Paradoxically the bigger picture approach can actually result in sustainable reduction of symptoms.

Perhaps you might like to begin your own family systems research project using the example below as a springboard. It requires a patient effort over time but may be one of the most growth enhancing projects you will undertake:

Another example of an excellent self -research template is:

Appendix 6

An overview of human development across the lifespan from a Bowen family systems perspective

A learning project for individuals and academic groups. Adapted from curriculum developed by John Millikin, PhD, LMFT, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Department of Human Development.

Cast of family and important people

  • Referring to the attached guideline in Appendix 5, construct your family diagram.
  • List other significant (positive or negative) friends, family friends and professionals such as therapist, lawyers, clergy.
  • Name other important or influential people.

Nodal events (births, deaths, illness, leaving home, marriages, divorces)

  • What were the nodal personal events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them? How did other key family members respond to them?
    • What were other nodal family events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them?
    • How did other key family members respond to them?
    • Describe any change in you and the family as a result of nodal events.
    • What were the family circumstances around the time of your birth? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for you? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for your parents? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer with the question above)

Stressors

  • What were general personal stressors (e.g., money, work, relationships, friends, school, sports)?
  • What were general stressors for others in the family?
  • What were significant stressors in the extended family?
  • Rate the intensity of stress and emotion in the family from 1–10.

Other changes and emotional events

  • Describe any abrupt changes personally and in the family.
  • Were there legal issues?
  • Were there sudden or chronic illnesses?
  • Were there episodes of abusive behavior?
  • If so, what were they?
  • Were there infidelities?
  • Describe any other extreme behaviors or events.

 

The Family Emotional Unit Relationship System

The primary triangle (parents/self)

  • How emotionally close did you feel to each parent? (Answer on a 1–10 scale)
  • How were you involved with each parent? (Also think in terms of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

How were they involved with each other? (Also think in terms

of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

»»Who did you take sides with more? (Your common triangle position)

»»Did you help one parent in difficulties with the other? How?

»»Who generally gave you positive attention? How much?

»»Who generally gave you negative attention? How much?

»»Who gave you approval? How much?

»»Who did not provide attention or approval?

»»What was each parent’s involvement like with their own parents (briefly)?

Siblings and sibling position

  • How was your sibling position and functional role in the family different?
  • How did sibling/s relate to you?
  • Were you or any sibling over-focused on? Labeled as a problem?
  • How did this affect your interactions (or perception of your sibling/s)?

General family emotional process (nuclear and extended)

  • Describe major conflicts in the family (blaming, criticism, hostility).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major distance(ing) in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major cut-offs in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-functioning in the family (imbalanced taking care of or being taken care of).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-involvement in the family.
  • Who made important decisions?

Together and separate

  • Who was closest to whom in the family?
  • Could you be alone for long periods of time?
  • Could you be together with significant others for long periods of time?
  • How were you responsible for other family members?
  • Did other people get involved in your problems? How?
  • Who would typically bail you out of difficulties? Relationship difficulties?
  • Who were you most dependent on? (How would you scale it from 1–10?)

Feelings, reactivity and sensitivities

  • What were you anxious about?
  • How did you work with it?
  • What were others anxious about?
  • Did anyone worry about you? Who?
  • Who did you worry about?
  • What did you typically get reactive about?
  • What were you sensitive about?
  • What were some of the labels made about you?
  • Who said those?
  • Describe the basic impact of labels.
  • Did any family members think poorly of you?
  • Did any family members not pay enough attention to you?
  • Who got the most attention in the family?
  • Were you able to meet key family members’ expectations?
  • Did you feel you were a disappointment to others?
  • Were others upset with you or you with them? Did you feel responsible for their upset?
  • Who else was generally upset with whom?
  • How did you regulate and work with emotions? Go to someone? Cope by yourself?
  • Describe any other emotionally challenging events or interactions?

Medical, health and addictions

  • List any medical/health issues and major health issues for all family members. Did you have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Did any member have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Were there developmental issues for you or anyone in your family?
  • Were there any (standard) psychological issues or diagnoses?
  • Who showed more symptoms/disrupted behaviors? What were they?

 

Autonomy, Effectiveness, Principles and Defining a Self

Autonomy and acts of self

  • List areas of self-directed activities/pursuits.
  • What were self-directed activities not necessarily chosen or supported by others?
  • How much autonomy did you have in achieving goals?
  • Did you generally have space to be yourself with others?
  • How open were you with others about your core thoughts and
  • beliefs?
  • Did parents and siblings have a good sense of direction?

Personal and interpersonal effectiveness

  • How did you respond to the personal challenges in your adolescence and leaving home phase? To what effect?
  • How was the family a resource for you in meeting your challenges?
  • What were your talents? How were they connected to family?
  • How effective were family members in meeting challenges, especially parents?
  • What did the family do well as a group?
  • What did the family do well in encouraging autonomy?

Principles and defining self

  • How could you have functioned better in this growing up phase?
  • What do you see now as your responsibilities to yourself during this phase?
  • How can you have taken better responsibility with significant others?
  • If you could now change something about self in this phase, what would it be?
  • What were some the guiding principles involved in your interactions?

A day at the tennis with my husband: Taking responsibility for moments of irritability in my marriage

I have well-honed sensitivities to those I’m particularly attached to, which triggers judgements, followed by intrusive corrections. Such corrections don’t always get verbalised but could be conveyed with a nudge or a look. I wonder, can you identify with this in your marriage or important relationships?

I recently sat next to my husband at the Australian Open Tennis. We were fortunate to have booked all day tickets at the main arena on the first week of matches. Such a treat to have a mini break in cosmopolitan Melbourne and enjoy the atmosphere of a renowned sporting event.

Early in the first match I noticed David scrolling through work emails on his phone. Instantly I experienced a bolt of irritated reactivity, thinking:

“Why isn’t he paying attention to the match? I can’t believe he’s letting his work override our watching the tennis together!”

I pulled my thoughts up quickly and prevented myself saying anything. My message to myself was:

“It is not my business whether or not my mate chooses to look at emails. He has every right to that choice and it doesn’t impinge in any way on my being able to enjoy the tennis.”

With this inner correction I could relax and keep my boundaries. This is something I have been working to improve over many years. Keeping within my own skin when alongside the important people in my life is a real workout. It hasn’t just been a challenge for me in my marriage. My parenting has had a good dose of sensitivity as well. Sitting next to a teenager biting their finger nails was always excruciating for me. I have well-honed sensitivities to those I’m particularly attached to, which triggers my judgements, followed by intrusive corrections. Such corrections don’t always get verbalised but could be conveyed with a nudge or a look.

This is a classic expression of relationship fusion where we monitor the other as opposed to being responsible for self. It is always interesting to consider how different our reactions are when mixing with people we are just associated with – they haven’t become important to our experience of self. Hence they can be checking their phones and displaying all sorts of nervous habits and it doesn’t bother us one bit. I wonder, can you identify with this?

The effort to observe one’s excessive sensitivities to others behaviours is of great value in the “growing up” journey. Dr Murray Bowen set this as the main destination for the counselling process writing:

“The over-all goal is to help individual family members to rise up out of the togetherness that binds us all” (Bowen FTCP 1978, p.371).

I can see the difference it makes to my marriage that I can refrain from reacting to the mannerisms and behavioural choices of my husband (most of the time). I can let him be him and me be me. This enables us to do life side by side as opposed to merged in each other’s emotional sphere. It certainly assists in achieving a relaxed day at the tennis and prevents the spread of irritability into other domains of marriage.

 

 

For more on dealing with fusion in a marriage here is an article by myself and Jo Wright: Inviting each partner out of the fusion: Bowen Family Systems Theory and couple therapy

http://www.thefsi.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Inviting-each-partner-out-of-the-fusion_Bowen-Family-Systems-Theory-and-couple-therapy.pdf

 

 

Working on a Marriage, not an Event – REPOST

Towards the end of last year I celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary and was able to mark it with a weekend getaway with my husband. It was a delightful, romantic respite from the end of year pressures. I was prompted to reflect on events that mark important relationship milestones or transitions. We can invest a lot in the experience of the event itself and loose the meaning of what the event is marking.

I recall a comment made about an upcoming wedding in my broader family – the soon to be groom wisely stated that for him this is all about a marriage and not all about a wedding. The wedding as an event and can be injected with disproportionate amounts of expectation for perfection that can leave a couple and family completely exhausted and somewhat flat afterwards- along with the depletion of their bank accounts (or parents bank accounts). In contrast to a focus on the event – a marriage is about a promise and a long haul commitment. It is not just about 2 individuals fuelling romantic expectations and creating a series of such experiences. It is about a transition of generational family relationships that restructures the broader family system. A marriage marks the beginning of another generational level.

For my anniversary break away I was certainly up for relishing the event. More than this however, my focus was on recognising the priority I place on my marriage and the mutual ongoing commitment that is involved through the many phases of life. The time away did boost emotions of joyful affection but more importantly it was an opportunity to reflect on the principles behind our original commitment and the lessons learned along the way.

There are many predictable deterrents to prioritising and working out a commitment promise. Marriage certainly exposes one’s selfishness. It also exposes ways of avoiding feelings of anxious emotions. Let me describe the typical ways avoidance of emotional discomfort plays out in marriages:

Rather than tolerate the discomfort of expressing differences of opinion in an open respectful way it is often just easier to avoid and distance into other activities; or ‘band aid’  anxiety through one way conflict. When emotions get stirred because of the inevitable absence of affirmation and attention from the other it is easy to impatiently pursue the other to steady ourselves rather than work on being less dependent on the other for self-esteem. If our spouse doesn’t respond as we’d like to our pursuits we easily become critical of them rather than clarifying what is going on for ourselves. Predictably this leads to complaining to third parties about our spouse being inattentive or unreasonable. Our anxieties lower as soon as we hear a third party support our point of view (Triangles).It is also common for one spouse to allow the other to solve their problems for them. Both the problem solving ‘expert’ and the one who gives way to the other’s ‘expertness’, have lowered tension through this adjustment.

And then come children!  It is predicable that a couple (to varying degrees) will substitute their effort to know each other with the detour of focussing on their children. Children need our attention but they can too easily provide a sneaky justification for neglecting the adult partnership. If there are not children, the detour of work, hobbies and pets can fill the breach.  Rather than work on being open about one’s challenges, hopes and dreams with the other it is just more comfortable to talk about the child’s latest milestone or perceived vulnerability. Commonly, a husband senses that his wife is less anxious for his attention when children come. As she is steadied and strengthened by caring for a dependent child she looks less to her husband when she’s unsettled. The husband is typically relieved that his wife is less critically attuned to whether he is measuring up and willingly participates in the distance that fosters more ‘mother to child’ focus. He may have opinions about child rearing or fostering their connection but avoid expressing them for fear of his wife’s critical response. The mother characteristically calls on her husband to help when parenting is overwhelming but as soon as he starts doing things differently with the child she is critical of him and is glad for him to resume his distance. The husband may just passively go along with his wife’s focus on the children to keep harmony or he may be passively critical and parent in a polarised manner. These anxious sensitivities and patterns to manage them in our marriages happen outside a couple’s awareness. (the opposite gender patterns may sometimes be present)

I think that every marriage partnership, and marriages with children, goes through varying degrees of at least a few of these patterns. It has certainly been the case in my own marriage and mostly I was oblivious to it. One such time was when my children left home in their 20s. It took me by surprise to watch how I became increasingly irritable with my husband. This revealed to me how much I had been stabilized by the presence of my children and their activities. It also challenged me to see where I had been neglecting to foster genuine connection with my husband. The past years have required renewed effort to know and be known to my husband in a deeper way. To address my part in immature management of discomfort.  My original promise over 30 years ago underscores this imperative.

I often hear, in my clinical practice, a spouse declare that they have no motivation left to prioritise their partner. The years have allowed for so much distance and detouring that they find it hard to feel affection and positive regard for the other. I endeavour to assist them to see how they have co-created this void and to envisage the possibility of playing a part in cultivating a fond acceptance of each other that enables them to grow old together. For myself, at the times I have struggled for motivation to be kind and in real contact with my husband, I recall the grace I have received in my life. Grace reminds me that love is a commitment. It is not based on another measuring up. This commitment was marked at a joyous event 35 years ago but it is not dependent on a series of happy events. It is sustained by an effort towards humility, confronting selfishness, immaturity and learning to stay truly connected in the face of tensions rather than take the easier detours that are on offer.

* The patterns described are observable in all long term committed relationship to varying degrees.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much do I look to my spouse/important others to bolster my happiness? Is the state of my relationship measured by good times or an inner commitment to the good of each other?
  • How do I mark an anniversary? Is my focus on creating an experience or on affirming the achievement of sticking at promises made?
  • Which patterns have I been part of that contribute to distance and detours in my marriage?

A focus on getting needs met through the other? Distancing (physically and/or emotionally) when feeling insecure? Snippy conflict, which is emotional venting rather than working through things? Detouring my discontents to third parties? Becoming the expert on how the other should manage life or allowing the other to do this for me? Subtly allowing children to be the main topic of conversations? Allowing the experience of parenting a dependent child to be a substitute for staying open with my spouse? Staying silent to avoid the discomfort of the other’s criticism?

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory

These quotes referring to patterns in marriage are from Dr M Kerr’s book: Family Evaluation 1988.

It is predicable that [anxious immaturity] will be bound in one or more of three patterns of emotional functioning: conflict between the mates, disproportionate adaptation by one mate to preserve harmony, or focus of parental anxiety on a child. P225

People are willing to be “individuals” only to the extent that the relationship system approves and permits it. Giving up some togetherness (fusion) does not mean giving up emotional closeness. It means that one’s functioning becomes less dependent on the support and acceptance of others. P 107

People select mates who are at the same level of differentiation of self. Each person has the same amount of need for emotional reinforcement from the relationship…..Both have the same amount of emotional separation (differentiation) from their respective families of origin, an amount that parallels the amount of emotional separation (differentiation) that exists in the marital relationship. P171

People are keenly responsive (not necessarily conscious) or sensitive to one another’s emotional states and make automatic adjustments in response to the information received….The emergence of a symptom in the other can, in turn, reduce the anxiety of the first person as he/she begins to minister to the now symptomatic one. This alleviation of anxiety in the first person can also have a calming effect on the symptomatic one; it is easier to be symptomatic [needy] than it is to tolerate one’s internal reactions to another’s distress. P 129

People do not have trouble getting on because of issues (such as children, money, sex)…These issues tend to bring out the emotional immaturity of people and it is that immaturity, not the issues, that creates the conflict. P 188

‘Working on a marriage not an event’ – Jenny Brown

Keeping a gracious view of family this Christmas/Holiday season


Gathering with extended family for any holiday season or milestone event reveals both what we share in common and the significant differences between us. I wonder if you’ve ever sat at the family festive dinner table and listened to a relative express a viewpoint that really irritated you. Do you walk on egg shells waiting in expectation for that relative to take offence? Have you observed how challenging it is for a family member to participate in the socialising? Perhaps you have observed how much a family member relies on alcohol to manage the occasion? Or do you have a relative who uses humour (somewhat inappropriately) as their method of conversing?
I often hear people declare that they just don’t like their sibling or aunt/uncle….. They consider that their life and values have taken a different direction and they would prefer to not have to continue an effort to be in contact.
A family systems view opens up a different way of thinking about the variations amongst family members. The young person in the family who was most focussed on (negatively or positively) will be the one who absorbs more of the immaturity of the whole family system. The more anxiously focussed on child may be the one born at a particularly intense time for parents, or is the same sibling position as a parent (or a parent’s troubled sibling), or who was the only child of one gender, or was a sick infant. Not all siblings leave home with the same capacities to cope in life. In turn, this means that others enter the challenges of adult life with greater or lesser emotional resources. The sister or brother who seems so different from you may simply represent what could so easily have been your own path if the family circumstances were a little different.
Can you see how this opens up compassion and grace towards the more challenging family members. It also enables us to reduce our reactive responses to the apparently more immature members of our family – previous responses which have contributed to fixing oversensitive patterns in place. If you are the member of your family that others seem to struggle to accept, it may be useful to understand how your position, in relation to your parents insecurities, have added to your heightened sensitivity to others. It can make sense of how quickly you take things personally when you are with family and how others distance when you get upset. This awareness of us and others can be helpful to refocus on managing our part and to shift away from blaming others.
Perhaps a good gift to yourself and your family at this year-end is consider your extended family as part of a system that has enabled some to manage stress and relationships more effectively than others.

You may wish to re- read Chapter 3 of my book Growing Yourself Up, titled:

Family ties that bind: Understanding our family of origin

In particular the section- Each sibling experiences a different family

An excerpt:

Have you ever paused to appreciate that each of your siblings experienced a different family to you due to the variations in the degree and tone of attention each received from your parents? Some siblings get a balanced amount of attention and assistance in line with their logical needs, while others get an exaggerated degree of positive or negative attention….
The useful thing to appreciate in your growing-up efforts is that you can’t have the same expectations of each sibling that you have of yourself. Each family member’s pathway to maturity is inevitably different from your own.
Before we move into blaming our parents for any challenging siblings, it is worth remembering the influence of our parent’s family systems:
Much of a parent’s reaction to each of their children comes out of an unconscious effort to relieve their own uncertainties and anxiety, not from a deliberate attempt to mess up their children. Our mothers and fathers came out of their own families with a level of tolerance for upset, discord, involvement and demands. In turn this is played out in their marriage and their reactions to each of their children. None of us, or our parents, has any say in the hand of maturity cards we are dealt as part of the inheritance of generations of families.
(Growing Yourself Up p.39-40)

Whatever your family heritage and tradition for gathering at this time of year,
I wish you a Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, filled with grace for each family member.

*A CHRISTMAS REFLECTION: Systems theory assists me to cultivate more compassion and understanding towards other family members. Additionally and even more importantly, the Christmas message of God’s grace shown in coming down into our struggles as the son, Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrates an extravagant dose of undeserved favour and compassion towards us. In response to this I am compelled to nurture the same compassion towards others.

 

Once in Royal David’s City – Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Verse 2:
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

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/ 

 

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.