Last week I presented a Bill of Rights that presented basic human rights within the context of a family. Living as a member of a family implies that there are essential rights and responsibilities that need to be assumed. While most families honour these things automatically, some families struggle to appreciate what these rights and responsibilities are.
As we know, both parents and teenagers can be abusive in their families. Last week I spoke about parent’s rights and responsibilities but it equally applies to teenagers. Many abusive teenagers I come across in my work see their families as places where they get their needs met, but have little sense of the responsibilities they also have to carry. In extreme cases a defiant teenager will want to live in their family on their terms. That is, they want the benefits and privileges of being a family member without assuming any of the responsibilities. They want their rights honoured but feel they have no responsibilities. This kind of environment is never good for children or parents.
Rights and benefits must always exist side by side with responsibilities assumed. The list of rights is presented below and it is worth considering how it applies to you in your domestic, work, or personal life.
YOUR BILL OF RIGHTS
YOUR BILL OF RIGHTS:
As a family member you have a responsibility to:
Think about your rights and responsibilities and how the climate of your everyday life has fuzzied your thinking about these things.
When working with couples or families it is often necessary to articulate based human rights – particularly as they apply to family life. Just as there are many people caught in social and cultural environments where they are persecuted, discriminated, and abused it is equally so in domestic life. As most of you know, there are many adults and children caught in family situation where they are abused, controlled, and even terrorised. In less extreme situations, there are chaotic families where all family members abuse and are abused by others. In these families the climate of the family is ‘crazy’ – there is little respect given or received and each family member basically has to fight for him/herself all the time.
At times in working with people we will of ten walk someone through their rights. This is done in order to offer an alternative view to what they are experiencing. When one gets used to a family life where one receives little respect, is verbally and emotionally abused, is not permitted to be different, and is the subject of daily hassle and emotional pressure one begins to adjust to this and begins to feel it is normal. One’s emotional and mental life gets used to the crazy life and begins to believe that walking-on-egg-shells is just the way things are.
The truth is, we are entitled to and deserve much more from life. In our centre we will therefore walk someone through the list of rights presented below to encourage people to reflect on their own and others attitudes and to begin to think that every person has basic rights that should be honoured.
YOUR ADULT BILL OF RIGHTS
There are some essential issues identified in this list that should make you think – even if you are living in a relatively stable family. All of us can get caught up in other people’s lives to such a degree that we lose touch with ourselves.
Equally, I could write out that Bill of Rights in terms of a Bill of Responsibilities within which you could look at yourself critically as someone who neglects others – this would be more applicable to the self-centered or self-absorbed type individual who only thinks of themselves and their entitlements. Therefore, the controlling or abusive personality needs to be challenged to honour a Bill of Responsibilities while the controlled or abused person needs to be reminded of their rights.
Think about your rights and responsibilities and how the climate of your everyday life has fuzzied your thinking about these things. Next week I will look at how these rights and responsibilities might apply to children and teenagers.
We are all influenced in our everyday behaviour not by logic or reason but by our unique private mythology or religion that, outside of our awareness, influences what we do and feel in life. We like to think that we are guided by reason when we are, in fact, guided more by an invisible emotional belief system that helps us to manage, control, and interpret our world. These unconscious attitudes and dispositions are more mythological than they are psychological. I would go as far as to say that every person has their own private quasi-religion, with its own set of idiosyncratic rituals and beliefs, that enable that person to deal with the challenges of life.
Just look at your spouse or partner. Notice how he has his own peculiarities and rituals. The things he needs to have happen in order to feel secure and safe in his world. Notice how he can become very upset by some small irregularity. In these ways, he, and all of us, learn to cling to obsessive little rituals or codes because they become symbols of security. “I may feel insecure and powerless in my life, but at least I have all my DIY tools neatly stacked away and I know exactly where each one is”, might be the hidden life-soothing belief. We all find symbols of our significance and security that actually serve spiritual functions for each of us. For a housewife, she might stand back from a spotless kitchen and experience delight in her achievement and feel in herself, “Yes, I am somebody”.
The truth is that despite our cultural rejection of religion we are privately influenced by the same concerns of all world religions down the ages – what we do with pain and suffering, how we cope with our mortal helplessness, and how we establish a sense of significance in a world that seems not to guarantee it. This is the stuff that we are ultimately concerned with. We think we are concerned with money, mortgages, success, or social status but they are all just the means by which we think we can overcome these deeper concerns. (It is often only when we come close to death that this truth is revealed with dramatic inensity.)
All of the squabbles and difficulties of everyday domestic life are ultimately about these things. Every person in your family has the ability to remind you of your helplessness, insignificance, and even mortality just by rejecting your opinion or ignoring you in some way.
At the heart of many human problems is our difficulty in coming to terms with our inherent powerlessness over our fate. Mothers know this in their heart. When you worry about your children, do your best for them, try to teach them about life, lie awake at night worrying about them, you feel a deep ache in your heart. And this pain emerges from the fact that you are ultimately powerless to control the life and fate that awaits your children.
This is a spiritual truth that must be understood at the deepest level if, as a mother, you are to find relief. It means giving of your best but respecting the fact that you are powerless to determine their life. This requires the serenity and ability to know when to ‘let go’.
Our mortality constantly reminds us that we cannot control life. We inhabit a life that is not your own. Our children do also. In time they too will die. At times it seems too much to bear, but the ability to embrace these truths is the essence of deep spirituality and the path to inner peace. To truly respect that our children are separate from us and are only temporarily in our care is our challenge and opportunity.
Healthy psychological living means being able to admit that you are powerless over many things and then being able to inhabit that reality with a lightness of heart and a confidence of body.
Your personal mythology about life become a necessity because of how frequently you encounter your fragile vulnerability in life. In fact there is no one on the face of the earth who can expose you to the fragility of life and the terror of death than your intimate partner. This is why when you are caught up in intense conflict or break-up you sometimes react to your partner as if your very life was at stake.
Family relationships are difficult because we sometimes use them to try to escape from life – to find some relief. We want family life to always be a place where we are made to feel good about ourselves, to always be a place where we are free, to always feel we belong. We need some place of refuge from our vulnerability. The truth is family life must be both - a place of refuge at times but also a place where we safely encounter our vulnerability and inadequacy.
At the end of the day we are all searching for experiences of competence in the world. Make sure that today the gift you give your children, or your partner, is an affirmation of that fact. To say that “In my eyes, you are a success”. The smallest child as much as the aging adult need this in equal doses. And so do you.
It is said that these are three things that cause us all the distress we have in life. These are the anxieties about Fate, about Guilt, and about Doubt. Our anxiety about our fate is our subconscious realisation that we do not control Fate and are at its mercy. It creates this compulsion in us to want to control everything. Our anxiety about guilt is our subconscious realisation that we are totally responsible for how we live creating this compulsion to succeed. Our anxiety about doubt is our realisation that life has no meaning unless we create it and this creates our compulsion for certainty. I will talk about the last two anxieties over the next two weeks. I will write today about fate – this natural anxiety you carry around with you about your future that you do not control.
Our realisation that our fate is not entirely within our own hands creates chronic unease. Despite the popular myths that your dreams can come true if you try hard enough, we are haunted by the awareness that this is not entirely true. Everyday life, like a suspense movie, is filled with this anticipatory uncertainty about what is going to happen next.
We listen to the news everyday which tells us the same two things over and over again. The first is that “People Die”. The second is that “Bad things are happening”. In other words, “Your Fate May Not Be Good” is what Six-One News tells you every evening, day after day.
Fate is your destiny. A destiny that is not determined by you alone. Though you are giving directions you are not the one driving your own bus – fate is! Though you know where you want to go and though fate appears to listen to you some of the time, you still do not drive the bus of your own life. He/she takes you down different roads. Like taking a taxi in a foreign city, you give the directions but you have no idea where you are going, or how you are going to get there. Despite what the motivational books say about following your dreams, and realising you destiny, you are not in full control of your own Fate. You know only too well that illness, accidents, tragedies, traumas, diversions, accidents, mistakes, and so many unforeseen things can happen to you at any time.
Because of this you move through the hours and minutes of your life with this vague anxiety and unease. It comes and goes. At its best it is experienced as excitement and anticipation. The excitement that comes from realising that fate is working in your favour. It is the bliss of enjoying the moment because you know it to be the only moment. It is the pleasure of realising that the gods seem to favour you, for now. It is also the excitement in you when you feel you can trust fate. It is that feeling that whatever happens in your life will be okay. It is a kind of inner confidence that life will be good to you and if it is not, you will be able to deal with it.
This natural anxiety about fate can be soothed into calm about life. This can happen when you remember that you are blessed and when you feel grateful for life’s uncertainty. You strive to live for the ‘now’ because when you take your eyes off the present moment, the distant drumbeat of anxiety is heard in the distance.
But no matter how good we can feel about our future, the anxiety of fate never goes away. If you are a parent you know this feeling only too well. It is this ever vigilant sense of danger that lurks around the corner of your child’s innocent exploration. You know that the fate of illness, accidents, and unexpected events are never but a few steps away from your vulnerable child.
We can find some relief from our anxiety about Fate through control. We don’t just sit back and wait for fate. We try to counter fate by simply making plans and setting goals. We try to operate on the assumption that we are driving our own bus and try to live accordingly. We counter the dread of fate with our efforts to control our lives and the behaviour of those close to us. Exerting control gives us some passing sense of being in charge of our immediate life. We ease the anxiety. It is necessary and essential in order to live and make our way forward through life. Having a sense of agency and control is the fire of life. However, this temporary control is set against the background of the unknown fate that life has in store for us.
The danger of control is that we often take it too far. We can become control-freaks. We can become so controlling that we freak out when people do not conform to what we expect – be it our children or partners. When our need for control takes over we can become aggressive and demanding.
Or else we turn inward and scheme and plan how we are going to outwit the day ahead of us. We try to ensure we have some kind of controlled victory over our work, our boss, or our family.
We can find a resolution to the problem of our helplessness through acceptance. An acceptance that affirms the fact that you are not in control of life, that you do not need to be, and that the very essence of life is its unexpected nature. Your task in life is to enjoy the scenery on the daily detours away from your best made plans! Acceptance of the vulnerability of life can bring a humility and ease. It is a realization that you do not need to be in control because you never can be. Your partner and children are free entities with their own destinies separate from your plans. Acceptance helps you to access the divine freedom of life. You can find that your love of Freedom is the antidote to your fear of Fate. And the gateway to this freedom is through Hope.
The sparrow in my garden, whose nest has been accidentally destroyed by hedge clippers, is not crestfallen. He has not become distressed or hopeless. He has not been filled with despair. He just gets on with it. He starts to build another nest. There is no self-doubt, there is no guilt, and there is no fear. He is courageous in accepting fate and life and he is heroic in persisting with a physical optimism. His family home has been destroyed. Does he feel like a failure? Not at all No, he just moves to the next stage of life with courage and enthusiasm. His Fate is not denied. It is accepted. But in his acceptance there is a pulsating self-affirmation. There is no surrender to fate. There is hopeful participation. It is delightful to behold.
Everyone believes this myth: That if you know the cause of your unhappiness and what you need to do to change it you will reasonably take the steps necessary to do so.
This myth suggests to you that if you understand why you are unhappy and you know what you need to do, then that is 90% of the problem solved. It is seeing yourself as a reasonable person because, very simply, if you know what the problem is and how to solve it then you will solve it. It’s simple and makes total sense.
Unfortunately this is not true. We are unreasonable people, if the real truth be known. 70% of people who have lung cancer from smoking continue to smoke! 90% of people who suffer from obesity continue to eat too much. People who get anxious because of worrisome thinking continue to worry.
Though you begin to realise that this myth is foolish, it is so embedded in our thinking and logic and conditioning that it is impossible to erase it. Parents roar at their children for not being logical or reasonable, spouses engage in intense conflict over the other person’s so-called unreasonable behaviour.
The real problem with unhappiness and depression is that knowing what you need to do often not make a whit of a difference because the problem is not related to a lack of knowledge or information. You will surely recognise this in yourself – that the reasons you continue to act in ways that are not really in your best interest have nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of information. You and I are emotional, symbolic, fearful, and insecure people in some many harmless ways.
The reason we don’t do what we know would be good for us has to do with a number of other things other than knowledge. Our behaviour is guided by motivation, beliefs, ritual and habit, and a form of spiritual necessity. We must see the improvement of our well-being in terms of a responsibility and discipline as much as a technique.
To make significant changes in one’s life one needs a mixture of desperation and inspiration mixed together. One needs some sense of immediacy, urgency, or inspiration to move and take the kind of inner and outer action you need.
What stops people from actually doing what they know they need to do? What is it in you, and I, that can read a dozen self-help books and have them forgotten as soon as they are put aside?
I would suggest that for many of us the fantasy of change is almost sufficient. There is a form of comforting self-soothing that occurs when you read something about what you need to do and you are able to say to yourself “Yes, that’s good. I could do that if I wanted to!” or when you say “That’s very useful information that I could use at some point…I’ll get back to it!”, “Or there is nothing new in this, I know that these are the things I need to do, and I could do them, in fact I might do them..”. And you continue to sooth yourself with the fantasy of change, with the addiction to imagined possibilities. But nothing happens. In fact the problem is more to do with a certain detachment from oneself and one’s reality that is the problem.
This slight detachment allows you to then not feel any urgency, obligation, responsibility, or spiritual motivation. You detach yourself from your self and float above yourself looking down feeling sorry for yourself but void of the urgency of having to take action.
Because this kind of detachment appears so intelligent it does not appear to be the impotent day-dreaming that it really is.
Another reason you don’t take action is because you lack the three C’s – conviction, certainty, and commitment. To change your ways you need a strong enough reason to need to change. You need to have a sense of certainty that you are going to change, a conviction within yourself and a commitment to take action. Without this desire, motivation, and utter conviction that action is going to be taken then you are still left with nothing more than wishful thinking.
There is a great deal of difference between a good intention and a committed decision.
Again, there is a huge difference between someone who states that they must lose weight or get fit from someone who says that would like to lose weight or will hopefully get fit.
The other reason you don’t move is that you have not really developed a clarity as to why you must change – that is your deep seated motivation for change. For this to be effective you do very often have to dig deep into your sense of responsibility and obligation to yourself or others to make changes. Alcoholics have to do this to stop drinking. The same kind of thinking has to apply to changing any bad habits or negative patterns such as anxiety or depression.
All of these elements, becoming les detached from yourself, developing conviction, and being clear about why you need to change all come together into what must be a kind of spiritual discipline for yourself that is converted into ritualised action.
"My 8-year-old child seems to suffer from anxiety or panic attacks. We are a relatively normal family. He has always been a somewhat anxious child but these anxiety attacks are more frequent in the morning before going to school or when my husband and myself have to go out at night. What might be going on?"
Very often people will say of a child “he or she is just looking for attention”. I have rarely found this to be the case. More often than not the child has no interest in attention, but rather is looking for control and influence. You will typically find that the child who is supposedly looking for attention is in fact getting an abundance of it.
A fascinating thing about anxiety and panic for children is that very often, though not always, they are really mechanisms to establish and assess control in certain relationships. The child is often assessing both his own self-control and his parents control over him. Many a parent will be flabbergasted to see their school-phobic child trot off happily to school when a grandmother or auntie is minding him! This is because that mechanism of assessing CONTROL is not established with the minder.
As I indicated above, a child may have too much control and influence or too little. Often a child is well able to manage his or her anxiety but provokes and tests the parent’s ability to recognise it. The over-anxious parent will find it hard to do this, and so the child displays even more anxiety. You will rarely find an anxious child with an under-involved parent because those children quickly learn to manage themselves because they are left to themselves. Invariably, the parent is on the side of being over-involved or over-concerned, which can create a merry-go-round of anxiety. Sometimes a child needs to be held and encouraged and loved. Other times he needs a tough-loving coach who kicks him onto the field, knowing he can do it.
What do parents do when a teenager blatantly rejects their authority and the essential ground-rules of family life?
In our post-modern age where many values, beliefs, and codes of conduct have been eroded and replaced by a variety of vague permissive ideas regarding teenage rights and freedoms, parents often feel undermined and peripheral to the decision-making processes of their teenagers.
It is a troubling fact that in some households teenage children are a law unto themselves. It is not unusual for me to work with parents where a teen intimidates them into surrendering their authority. It is often a terrifying and demoralising situation when a teenager essentially looks his/her parents in the eye and says “F…. you. I will do whatever I want.” And does.
There is a line that once crossed moves a teenager from being a troublesome one to being a dangerous one – to themselves as much as to others. That line is represented by the use of aggression, violence, and threats that affect not just the teen, but the climate of the entire family. The teenager therefore begins to control the mood of the family. When they come in the door at home the climate changes, people are on edge waiting for the first provocation. They start fighting or harassing others in the family in a way that is aggressive and disruptive. Siblings are picked on and parents are insulted. The teen becomes, in effect, a domestic bully.
In these families the parents often end up feeling relieved when the teenager goes out with his or her friends – even if he/she is hanging out with gangs or causing trouble elsewhere. Many parents have said “we feel a sense of relief when (s)he goes out. We know it’s not right, but the house is so much more peaceful when (s)he is not there!”.
The development of this problem has usually been progressive but typically escalates from a manageable behavioural problem at national school to an unmanageable personality problem at secondary school.
Once violence and aggressive abuse becomes the successful tactic of choice parents have a very serious problem on their hands that requires a substantive, coordinated, and serious response. When it gets to this stage the problem cannot be handled ‘on the run’ or piece meal but must be given the same serious attention as if it were a grave medical condition in need of unpleasant but essential treatment.
There are certain conditions that are essential to the healthy functioning of any family which, if removed or threatened, affect the viability of the family itself. The most important one is safety. A family home must be a safe place. Once it becomes unsafe through the aggression, abuse, or violence of any member then it ceases to be a family home in the true sense of the words.
The problem with some teenagers is that they want freedom and privilege without responsibility. They want the freedom to be able to run their own life, like a mini adult, but without assuming the responsibilities of such adulthood. They want the benefits and privileges of being a member of a family that they simultaneously revolt against. While this is the stance of many growing teenagers, when this involves domestic bullying and abuse it cannot be tolerated.
So what can a parent do? Two things. The first is to narrow their focus on a small problem behaviour and to bring all of their resources to bear on succeeding in eliminating this behaviour (for example eliminating the use of foul language in the home). Many parents are so frazzled and worn out by the guerrilla warfare tactics of their teen that they actually begin to give up, just for peace. However, this must be reversed, at least with one small issue. The parents must succeed in a small area first. I cannot overstate how symbolically important this is for parents in order to recover their confidence and self-belief and to show their teenager that they can manage them – which is what the defiant teenager is provoking for.
The real problem faced by parents is that their teens know that they can get away with what they are doing. What you have to remember about any abusive or bullying behaviour is that teenagers use these tactics because they work and because they get away with them. It is extremely difficult to counteract when the teen has no fear of the weak consequences that are employed.
The second thing the parents must do is to see the problem as the teenagers attempted rejection of the family and to see the choice that the teen is faced with is whether they want to be a member of the family or not. This does not mean that the parent tries to escalate the problem but rather to calmly realise that this is what is at issue. When the authority of the parent is persistently insulted and rejected in abusive ways the teen is rejecting the family. At this point its time to get help.
When faced with the genuine uncompromising choice between accepting the healthy non-abusive conditions of family life or the unappealing responsibilities and freedoms of adulthood, nine out of ten teens actually choose the former. But whatever you do, do not let yourself think you are a bad parent. Every good parent finds abusiveness to be the most difficult kind of behaviour to deal with because not only is it problematic, it is a distressing rejection of ones status and integrity. So hold tough.
My late father was a beautiful man. He had a gentle heart and a great intellect. He was a lover of art, literature, and science. He could quote all the great poets at will and could engage in heady discussions on advanced mathematics. He was also an artist and I witnessed him painting hundreds of water-colour paintings of the Irish landscape. A landscape with which he had a passionate relationship. He would often stop the car when driving to urge us as children to appreciate some unexpected glory in the sky or across the valleys and mountains. He loved light, and on summer evenings would head off with his brushes and stretched water colour paper under his arm to find some shaft of evening light that would delight his eye. He was a scientist and worked his life as a meteorologist yet he wrote a lot about the interface between science and art.
He was also a man of great faith and, above all else, he would genuflect before his God. He would urge me as a young man “not to lose the Faith”. The faith was an old Irish reference to religion and that God, and was the one constant for so any Irish people through war and famine. It became for many families the standing stone that remained through great suffering. It became a common saying in Irish life to say, at parting from another, “Don’t lose the faith”. In truth, it was an encouragement to persist and not allow life’s adversities defeat you. In fact it was an urge toward the heroic.
I understand Faith as a having a reference point for how to live that lies outside and beyond us. This Faith is a faculty of human imagination and human heroism that allows us to imagine a source of life that calls us forward toward a better future. It is an intuition that is grounded in imagination, sensation, and intuitive connection to Life. It might even be considered our source of Hope – that intuitive conviction that things can and will get better; it is that belief in possibility and resolution.
The rationalist would argue that this ‘faith’ is all imagined and that it is therefore irrational and deluded. However, our imagination is in fact our greatest human faculty and, more than reason, has inspired humanity down the ages. It is our redeeming quality. It is what has enabled us to evolve. Imagination comes before action.
Faith fosters humility. When you can acknowledge your own limitedness and can defer to an imagined source outside yourself, you are less likely to be self-justifying and righteous. The preponderance of people who have this kind of faith strive toward a life of virtue and loving-kindness. Faith can sustain the magical in life, can foster gratitude, and can encourage someone in a relationship to see beyond their partner’s weaknesses and inadequacies to the greater narrative within which they are both set.
When it comes to marriage or relationships having faith means that people realise that life is about more than meeting their own needs. They defer, in a real way, to a bigger truth that can help them understand the source of their needs. It is an awareness and appreciation of how they are also participating in a much larger narrative that includes them, their children, their parents, their siblings, and grandchildren. They can put their problems in a larger context and find creative ways of dealing with them. Faith can foster a lightness of heart. It can help people carry their burdens lightly and develop a sense of humour about their existential predicament.
It is often endearing to witness older couples tease their spouses about their annoying traits with a sense of humour and acceptance that is so contrary to the grave and serious complaining and whinging of their younger counterparts.
Faith can also be the reference point, a source of courage, for people seeking to escape an abusive or toxic relationship. To get free of an abusive relationship takes courage and persistence and people need to draw on a source of inspiration that lies outside of them. This source is not literal. It is as I said, imagined - but to the degree that it is imagined it is psychologically real – so real as to enable a victim of abuse to survive it, a victim of war to stay alive, a victim of tragedy to cling to the very source of life.
I am hoping that you can somehow identify the times in your life when you have drawn the water of courage from a spring within yourself that is connected to a source outside yourself. You will surely realise that, even as an adult, your inner life follows the paths and guideposts you followed as a child. Your inner imagination about who you are and what your purpose may be is a world of imagination and feelings. As you lie in bed as an adult you think and dream in the same way you did as a little boy or girl as your adult thoughts and worries tumble into the unchanged rich inner imagination and landscape you knew as a child. You draw on this feeling. You go to this well and draw from a source that is not of your literal world. You draw from something so much bigger. You go to the well that is filled from the spring that is connected to a great underground river that ultimately falls from the sky that arcs above all of life.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.