Consider the human body’s complexity and how a change in one physiological component alters and impacts so many other parts. The body’s ability to function at all depends on an intricate web of connectedness.
Now consider a family, perhaps a mother, father, and children, and think of them as one human body – an organism, or a whole. One component of the family, or one individual, simply cannot be separated or understood in isolation. One individual affects all others; everyone’s deeply embedded emotional and behavioural processes seamlessly wired together.
Family therapists describe the family as a complex and interconnected system. Problems are connected, and therefore likely to affect and create distress in other areas – if they not appropriately handled. When a change occurs in one part of the family, such as a mental health or behaviour problem with a teenager, you must appreciate how it affects the entire family to help the teenager regain healthy functioning. Additionally, the entire family can become plagued with problem behaviours so that the family itself seems to break down.
Family therapists therefore believe that: A family is a whole unit composed of interrelated parts; the behaviour of one family member is only understood by examining the family in which it occurs; Therapy must be implemented at the family level and take into account the relationships within the family system.
Much of the therapeutic work in family systems focuses on boundaries - not the physical boundaries of walls and borders, but psychological boundaries. These types of boundaries can’t be seen or touched, but instead shape themselves in the form of beliefs, perceptions, convictions, and understandings. Individuals form self-concepts, for example, based on beliefs regarding who they are, and these beliefs surround them like a boundary, distinguishing them from others.
Parents or couples also surround themselves with boundaries that separate them from their parents and their children. Children also form a subgroup within a family, forming a boundary around themselves separate from their parents. Ideally, the child subgroup holds less power than the parents.
Hierarchies are established for a reason, for the proper functioning of the family in order to delegate tasks and to ensure the proper checks and balances.
Family therapists confront families and situations where boundaries have become crossed, distorted, or nonexistent. These types of situations lead to problematic relationships. Examples of crossed boundaries include a mother complaining to her child about her the child’s father; a father who wants to relate to his daughter as a friend rather than a daughter; parents who expose information about their intimate problems with their children; or a teenage boy who thinks he must dominate his parents. These are examples of distorted boundaries that can lead to problems.
No family is perfect, and mistakes happen. Sometimes more is shared or not enough is shared among family members, but most families work for an appropriate balance. However, families who allow boundaries to be constantly, routinely crossed need help at re-forming these boundaries.
There are many types of boundary problems which can be placed along a spectrum between the extremes of being enmeshed or disengaged. An enmeshed family exhibits signs of smothering, over-sharing, and caring that reaches beyond normalcy. In enmeshed families, boundaries do not allow for separateness; they are too fluid, and have become crossed and often distorted. Boundaries are constantly crossed in numerous ways.
Families that share little to nothing, typically overly rigid families, are described as detached. There’s little to no communication – and no flexibility in family patterns to accommodate effective support and guidance.
Whatever the problems experienced by one individual in your family, it can be helpful to conceptualise the problem as a symptom of the family and to consider how the behaviour of other family members also contributes to the maintenance of the problem.
Rose is a woman in her mid thirties with three small children. She feels powerless to control them. They fight, run around, refuse to sit at the table, hit each other, and generally ‘run riot’ virtually all of the time they are with her. It is complete chaos.
Rose is not a bad woman but she does have a personality style that is not suited to parenting. Her personality could be defined as anxious-dependent – she is dependent on others people approval to take and sustain initiative an anxiously plagued with uncertainty and self doubt. Rose therefore has great difficulties in being a strong parent who sets clear limits and boundaries for her children. She also has difficulty in asserting herself and often seeks the approval of her children for things she does. This can be observed in the way she never makes direct demands of the children but rather makes requests by asking them if they would do something. This reverses the natural family hierarchy by giving the children the freedom to overrule her parental requests by just saying “no”.
Displaying healthy and natural authority with children is a parental responsibility that each person achieves in their own way. Few would argue against the need for such a competent authority that evokes the children’s willingness to comply as well as their respect. It is indeed a fine balance.
In parenting one can refer to the three A’s of autocracy, authority, and abuse to define different styles of parental control.
The autocratic parent gets their child to comply with them by the use of threats or coercion. The autocratic parent punishes readily, gives out a lot, and creates a climate of a fear more than respect for the parent. The autocratic parent has strict rules and responds harshly when rules are not complied with. The autocrat is a dictator in the house and is the absolute ruler. The autocratic parent is not always abusive in the conventional sense but seeks to rule the house with an iron fist. The weak autocratic parent is forever complaining, giving out, punishing, grounding, and harassing their children for their wrong doings. The strong autocrat gets compliance through power and fear and is not afraid to resort to severe punishments to maintain control.
The abusive parent is, in many ways, an extreme autocrat who wields control through punishment and negative consequences. The abusive parent can be an under-controlled parent or over-controlled parent. The under-controlled abusive parent is chaotic, dramatic, over-the-top, out-of-control, foul-mouthed, inconsistent, and driven by moods and irritations. This parent lashes out indiscriminately and may slap or curse at a child for the smallest of things.
The over-controlled abusive parent is more like the cold-blooded tyrant who is unafraid to verbally abuse or hit a child but does so with a detached ruthlessness. He or she lets nothing go and gains compliance by attacking the child’s self-esteem with criticism and put-downs.
Finally, we have the authoritative parent who is different in that he or she gains compliance or respect through natural strength, conviction, and confidence.
When you think back to when you were at school you can easily pick out the teachers who had a natural authority that demanded respect, and got it. You can also recall autocratic teachers who, while controlling the class effectively, were disliked for their mean-spiritedness and inflexibility. Finally, there may have been an abusive teacher that you recall. Thankfully, those teachers have now left the system but were a staple in many old schools from the 50’s through to the 70’s – i.e. the teacher that sadistically left you feeling afraid, diminished, and bad about yourself.
Authority comes easily to some more than others. It tends to be seen in people who are more independent than dependent. Independently minded people are less needy of others peoples approval than dependent people. As a parent this means that authoritative parents does not always need their children to like them and are well able to tolerate their/her children’s disapproval in order to get them to comply with essential rules. The dependent parent, on the other hand, often gets handcuffed by their need to have their children like them all the time. When this need is too strong they lose much of their independent authority. Parents like this are afraid to upset their children and invest a lot of energy in reassuring them. They may go over-the-top with unnecessary praise and understanding which, they do not realise, is not actually needed by the child. They may administer punishments or consequences only to withdraw them soon after because they feel sorry for their child.
After many years observing the effects of anger in family life I have come to the conclusion that it is largely an ineffective social emotion. While it is certainly a necessary and essential response to social injustice, abuse, or attack, it is a largely overrated emotion for problem-solving or relationship building.People who get angry at lot tend to justify it for one of three typical reasons:
Take the first reason: People who feel entitled to express anger at others usually say things like “I am just expressing how I feel. I am entitled to do that. How dare you suggest otherwise”. This notion of being entitled to express how we feel is used by a lot of abusive people to justify angry outbursts. The truth is that you are not entitled to express how you feel if the effects of that expression are distressing for another person. The indulgent person who gets angry or aggressive will just demand that others deal with and cope with their anger. “That’s just the way I am”, the abuser says, “I am just expressing how I feel”. Of course that is not what he/she is doing – he is seeking to upset or get another person to give-in or comply with them. That’s the real intent.
Also, the notion that you are entitled to express your anger and frustration at your spouse or children on a consistent basis is disrespectful and demeaning. If you are ever on the receiving end of a ‘verbal tongue-lashing’ you never respond with pleasure or appreciation. You usually feel patronised and diminished as a person because; deep down you know that you do not deserve it. The thing is it is only on rare occasion in family life that anyone does.
Therefore, the second reason, that people suggest that they are just venting their feelings is equally flawed. People will say things like “I am just getting this off my chest. This has all built up inside of me and I am juts letting off steam. What’s the big deal?” This is also a self-indulgent exercise where the effects on other people are not considered. For this reason, narcissistic people are very quick to anger when they do not get what they want or when they want to pressurise someone to give them what they want.
The third reason is that some people feel it is their role to put other people right. They will say things like “That guy just cut in front of me and changed lanes without indicating. I am going to let him know what’s for”. Or they might berate their children for simple mistakes like spilling a glass of coke or forgetting to do something. This is a righteous position where the angry person feels superior or better to the person who is in default and gets some perverse pleasure out of catching other people making mistakes.
This is an over-compensation that arises from the person’s own past experiences in life and a way to get back at the world. The father who hated being on the receiving end of his own father’s wrath finds himself berating his own children in the same way. The hyper-critical mother humiliates her child with her anger in the same way that her mother humiliated her.
The need to put other people right is justified on moral grounds but it really comes from a sometimes perverse righteousness. Domestic fundamentalism is an endemic problem in family life. The righteousness is often a way to ‘get back at’ the world and the child or spouse if often on the receiving end. So if a child makes a mistake or does something the righteous parent often gets angry because he or she feels betrayed and then punishes the child for this. The child has let them down in some way that is never known to the child. And for this reason the child grows through life with the scars and wounds inflicted by righteous anger.
Angry remarks, emotional venting, or patronising lectures are to emotional aggressiveness what spitting pr pinching is to physical aggressiveness. The thought of someone spitting at you or pinching you unnecessarily is offensive in the extreme. Yet we tolerate emotional, spitting where we degrade a partner or child with a put-down, and angry dismissive, or a verbal attack that leaves the other person feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or in tears.
It is very hard to deal with our own anger toward others who appear to be thwarting our goals and aims. It is especially hard for us to come to terms with the fact that other people are free individuals who are not obliged to meet our expectations in life – be it children spouses, or parents.
More often than not anger is ineffective because of the effects it has on others. It can feel good to you to vent but when you look into the other persons eyes you realise that there is much left to repair.
"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.
A lot is written about male anger. While men perpetrate by far the preponderance of serious domestic abuse and violence, women and mothers can be abusive in the home. In recent weeks I have found myself working with a number of mother’s that struggle with controlling their anger. In some cases this is very distressing for the children. In most of the cases I am dealing with, it is also distressing for the mothers themselves who cover up their sense of inadequacy or helplessness with anger or rage. It got me thinking on the different kinds of anger experienced by mothers who have a problem with their own frustration and rage. Most mothers find ways of coping and managing. All mothers get angry. But some anger is a symptom of a deep inadequacy, of a sense of really being overwhelmed by the tasks of mothering. For some mothers, the maternal instinct is not natural and they are unable to identify with, and even resent, the easy earth-mothering they see in their friends.
Angry mothers often feel inadequate as parents. This creates an on-going tension and irritability at feeling unable to cope with the demands of small children who, as we know, can be a handful. Associated with this inadequacy is helplessness – an inner sense of feeling out of control and unable to soothe or resolve the daily distresses of their children. These kinds of women are often very needy, if not demanding themselves, and react more like siblings than parents to their children. The anger explodes from a resentment that they have to put their child’s needs before their own. For women who may, for example, be used to just doing their own thing or getting their own way, it can be a culture shock to suddenly be surrounded by the needy cries and demands of children.
The following kinds of maternal anger or rage may reveal some of the subtleties of maternal frustration:
All mothers feel overwhelmed at times. All mothers get angry. Some mothers know, however, that their anger borders on a resentment toward their children that bubbles up from feeling overwhelmed or inadequate. If you feel like this, do talk to someone. Seek some counselling or parenting support. You are not alone with these feelings. For many, the task of parenting is overwhelming – particularly if you have little or no support.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.