Children acting out parental struggles

Charlotte was an energetic, exciting, and dominant woman who loved variety.   She chose Charlie, her opposite, as a spouse.  Charlie ate the same menu almost every day:  two eggs for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, pasta for dinner.  This lack of imagination drove Charlotte nuts.  She craved new adventures, new food–never the same thing twice.

Charlotte loved to travel.  Planning the trip was a thrill in itself.  She cleverly arranged each leg of the journey to maximize the locale’s greatest hits and, naturally, its best restaurants.  If fried crickets were just the thing in Japan, Charlotte would seek them out for the first night of the trip.  Charlie would have to negotiate long and hard for the occasional stay-in room service meal, which he ate in  exhaustion from the day’s museum mastery.

When their two sons–Corey and Chris–began to mature,  it seems the parents had produced one of each–one adventure-seeker, one routine-lover. Now, you might think this set-up would be great: one kid for each parent.  However, the parents yearned for the idealized family, where all four members shared experiences together.  And there was no one to break a tie on any activity.


So, the one who cared the most fought the hardest and got his or her own way.  Corey figured this out quite young, and, with Charlotte as his double, became the junior activities director. When Corey was old enough, he took over trip planning, mocking his younger brother’s lack of interest.  “What could possibly be wrong with a trip to Morocco?  What else you have to do?”

Dad was sympathetic with Chris, who expressed his own viewpoint, but neither fellow wanted to provoke the anger of the Mom-Corey team.  Chris just went along with every vacation, although his lack of enthusiasm provoked Corey .  As time went on,  Chris grew old enough to stay home alone and offered to do that during holiday time.  Dad was happy to make it a two-some.  But Mom said that wasn’t a family, so Chris suffered along, not always in silence.

Chris shut down more and more; he was depressed.  His brother’s mocking of his friends and his hobbies ruined his pleasure, so he gave up most of his interests.  At least Dad understood, because he had done the same in order to find the energy for Mom’s intense and busy life.  Dad let Chris know he was on his side, but urged him not to provoke an argument with Corey.  “Just don’t fight with him. That’s all I ask,” was Dad’s request.

It’s clear in the story that Chris got a raw deal.  What may not be as obvious is the harm to Corey,  as well as Mom and Dad,  resulting from this family pattern. In family systems terminology, Chris became the Identified Patient.  The IP unconsciously agrees to manifest the problem that is actually a stuck family system.

Charlie became less and less spontaneous as Charlotte continued to make the family’s decisions. Charlotte forgot to trust the wisdom of her spouse, becoming frustrated and fatigued by the effort to run everything her own way. She complained that she always had to pick the movie, the place to eat afterwards, even the parking lot. Charlie argued back that she cared more than he did, and she overrode him anyway.

Corey missed out on learning one of life’s most precious lessons: let’s make a deal. That lost affected his relationships for many years to come.  He was used to others’ giving in to him, and used to telling others how to enjoy their lives. He was quick to mock the choices of others, and some people avoided him.  Girlfriends, initially attracted to his energy and dynamism, left for someone who could better accommodate their wishes.

The good news for a family like this–or one stuck in any pattern with rigid roles–is that a change in any one of the family members benefits the entire system.  Chris sought help from a family systems expert. He learned that Corey, like himself, was acting out a pattern that was not of his own making.  Corey became, in Chris’ eyes, just his brother, not the family “winner.” The power imbalance shifted for the boys, so Mom and Dad were less involved in their arguments.

If the family benefited from just one member’s positive changes, imagine the growth if all four were to seek the advice of a family therapist, either together, separately, or in pairs.  Change is hard, but, boy, is it worth it.


3,520 parenting books–and my kids still won’t listen to me!

According to the Bowker Books in Print database (courtesy of the WSJ article “New Ways to Get Kids to Behave”), the number of parenting books published or distributed rose from 2,774 in 2007 to 3,520 in 2011. I’ll bet most folks reading these are not trying to learn to have more fun with their already delightful children.  As the WSJ article’s title directly states, parents are frustrated in their wishes to get their sweetie pies to cooperate and obey,  asking why is “no” not “no” until the parent has to scream, threaten, or even hit.

The WSJ suggests a couple creative approaches: have kids practice temper tantrums and whine right along with your kids.  The other stuff you’ve heard countless times. If it worked, you wouldn’t need the remaining 3,519 books.


I’ve got something to add that initially frustrates some of my clients.  Don’t tell your kids to do anything that you can’t make them do. My parent clients respond, indignantly, “But that’s the wrong lesson.”  On the contrary, telling your kids to do something that they won’t do and you can’t make them do teaches them to disobey. Further, the child learns you have no power, but she does.

You can’t make children eat dinner, sit quietly while adults talk, stop crying, do homework, clean up their room, or go to sleep. You can’t chose their friends, keep them off the internet, or make them respect their teachers.


The corollary to this first principle is not to order the child to do something that is more important to you than it is to him. This rule means that the parent has to acknowledge a separation between herself and her child.  I suggested to one angry mom that whether her 13-year-old son takes a shower was his problem and therefore a fight she didn’t need to continue having.  “But he smells.”  His problem.  “He doesn’t throw his dirty clothes down the chute for me to wash.”  He’ll have to wear them dirty.

Now I grant this makes the parent have to confront her sense of public embarrassment. Think of all the times we scold our children because of social pressure on us. Is that fair to our kids? To ourselves?  Adopt my best 2-word sentence for instant relief: “Who cares?” As long as we shower and wash our clothes, that should be good enough.

So, what can you control?  Where you take your children;  what school you send them to;  the plug-in cord for all electronics;  how you spend money; where, when, and how often you drive the car;   how you speak to them and to your spouse;  how often you tell the truth; what clothes and food you pay for;  what days you do the laundry;  how much the adults (volunteer or paid) clean up after themselves and their kids.  You can walk away from an argument you won’t win and refuse to re-enter it until the tone is respectful.  You can delay driving your child somewhere or buying her something until the room is clean.

In fact, a lot is under your control, especially your own temper. Walk away, delay the punishment. This a an effective tool for allowing the child to realize what she has done wrong rather than allowing her to put the blame on you.

What I never recommend is punishing a child by taking away whatever is most important. If your teen lives and dies by texting, don’t take away the phone unless the teen has abused the texting (such as bullying or running up large bills). Ditto for the car.  If your 16-year-old takes the car without permission, it’s appropriate to withhold the car–one time for one offense. Taking it away for a week or month (like grounding) breeds the kind of sullen resentment you don’t want to live with in your home. If you feel enraged, walk away until you’re calm. Let the kid stew in his own juices for a while.He may surprise you by coming up with his own amends or even an apology.

It’s amazing what letting go of control does. Start your list right now. Divide the page: My issue/My child’s issue. Now, ask yourself what you can do about the column that belongs to you. If the answer is nothing (or nothing but punishment), let that one go, too. Talk about lightening your load.

If you need some help with specifics, hire a parenting coach who understands the basic premise. You can even do this work on the phone or on-line. Have fun. It’s a big relief.

High Conflict Marriages Worse Than Divorce for Children

Justin worked hard to try not to see what was before his eyes.  The mileage on Jesse’s car didn’t add up to what it should have if she had been where she had said she was going, and he even, feeling sneaky as he did, once called a friend where Jesse said she was, only to find out, as he feared, that she had never been there.

But he was stuck. Aside from a fear of divorce for himself, he felt he simply couldn’t ‘do it’ to his children. He didn’t want them o have divorced parents. Even more, he didn’t want them to be with Mom alone. That didn’t keep him from heated arguments with his wife, however, who screamed back and sulked for days.

This was the same life-time sentence that three other dedicated parents had chosen.  Jennifer lived with bi-polar man, whose rages alternated with depression, who cut her off from her family or origin, and whose threats of suicide or taking the children away terrified the household. Yelling, pushing, door slamming–these sounds kept he children up a night.

Jordan’s wife turned away from the religious life-life into which the couple had brought six children.  She refused to shop or cook for the kids or her mate; the couple fought over the household chaos.  Jiesse was out with men when the children came home from school. The oldest son–merely 13–babysat every afternoon til Dad came home.  Dad and the kids divided the household chore, and awaited Mom’s return, ofter at 2 or 3 in the morning.  The fighting continued nightly, and then some more by phone during the day.

Jose’s wife couldn’t get out of bed. Dad was in charge of getting the kids up and out each morning. When they returned, Mom was in bed with a headache.  Jose and Jocelyn fought daily over his anger at being the working Dad plus the home-making “mom.”  What enraged him even more was her hoarding.  Periodically, he’d become furious enough to gather carload of stuff to dump in resale or thrift shops.  Then Jocelyn’s rage kicked in.

Each of these parents, knowing their own needs would never be bet by their disfunctional spouses, believed that their children needed them to stay in the marriage.

And despite some of the more ‘positive research,’ if we can call it that, on divorce’s impact on children, there is still a general societal sense–and research to back it up–that divorce is difficult on children.   [See the New York Times article from 2005 entitled, “Poll says even quiet divorces affect children’s paths,” for just one example.]

But the question we need to address here is not that of ‘quiet divorces’ and low-conflict marriages. Rather it is what is the impact of high interparental conflict on the children, even among intact families.


In a somewhat older but still relevant paper, DR Morrison from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and Department of Demography at Georgetown University and MJ Coiro from the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health wrote that separation and divorce are indeed associated with increases in behavior problems in children. “However,” they continue in their paper entitled “Parental conflict and marital disruption: Do children benefit when high-conflict marriages are dissolved?” in Journal of Marriage and the Family (August, 1999), “in marriages that do not break up, high levels of marital conflict are associated with even greater increases in children’s behavior problems” [italics mine].

Even further, they write, “Indeed, the adverse effect of frequent marital quarrels is larger than the deleterious effect of separation and divorce.”

I saw it again when  sociologists Alan Booth and Paul Amato from Pennsylvania State University asserted in their February 2001 article in the same publication that “. . .divorce among high-conflict couples appears to have a relatively benign or even beneficial effect.”

But wait–there’s more!

David Mechanic & Stephen Hansell, sociologists at Rutgers University, found in a 1989 study [decades ago, when divorce retained more of its bad name than it does today] entitled “Divorce, Family Conflict and Adolescents’ Well-Being , “. . .that those in high-conflict, married families had significantly poorer adjustment than those in low-conflict, divorced families.”

AND, Constance Gager, Associate Professor of Child and Family Studies at Montclair State University, said in an interview that “[t]he basic implication is, ‘Don’t stay together for the sake of the children if you’re in a high conflict marriage.'”

In other words, Jordan was doing his children no favor by staying. If you’re living in a high-conflict marriage, with significant amounts of screaming and yelling, with emotional and verbal abuse, the answer to should you stay or should you go, if you’re considering your children, might just well be a vote for the “go” side.



Dumb Things to Say To Cancer Patients

P.T. Barnum had a cynical take on the degree of stupidity manifested by average Americans (“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”) –but when it comes to what they say to those suffering from cancer, he wasn’t far off the mark.

I’ve been coachaing cancer patients  for over 25 years, and have had time to hear what sent them ’round the bend, and to put together a small collection of some sayings my clients never want to hear again. Feel free to add on–I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

Unhelpful Things to Say To a Person With A Cancer Diagnosis 

  • It’s all going to work out just fine, you’ll see.
  • Jeesh–is that one of the bad kinds of cancer? [This was one patient’s personal favorite. She loved to respond, “The worst. The absolute worst.”]
  • Oh–you have the good kind of cancer.
  • Oh, no. My friend’s father had that treatment and they think it’s the treatment that killed him, not the cancer.
  • Look at all the people who have survived cancer. Hey–look at Lance Armstrong alone. [I have a handful of patients who are almost ready to murder dear Lance for his recovery and comeback. It has made their lives miserable.]
  • Oh, G-d. My mother died of that. [“You will never go broke. . .”]
  • You are so brave–I could never do what you’re doing.
  • I know exactly how you feel. [Doesn’t even bear commenting on. It’s too awful.]
  • Don’t worry. Stress makes it worse. Just try to relax. [How helpful. Why didn’t I think of that?]
  • My Uncle Joe’s made it 3 years. He’s a real fighter. [As opposed to me, thought my client–I’m a real surrenderer.]
  • Man, life is so unfair.
  • It’s all about attitude–if you just stay positive. . . [then I won’t think of why I want to kill you.]
  • God only tests people He loves.
  • The treatments are horrible, but at least you’ll take off that weight we’ve both been fighting. [This one was priceless–I’ve kept it in mind for years. Ironically, that client is still alive and well and in remission, years later–heavier than ever.]
  • You look so good! I’d never be able to tell you had cancer.
  • Wow! You lost weight!
  • Oh, how horrible! How will Jeff survive without you? [Seriously??]


The “You Really Need To” subset (a new class of annoying):

  • You really need to see Dr. X . . .
  • You really need to try a macrobiotic diet. . .
  • You really need to try Healing Touch. . .
  • You really need to find a support group. . .
  • You really need a second opinion. . .
  • You really need a workup at the Mayo Clinic. . .
  • You really need to read this book about. . .

For real–these are the things people see fit to say–when faced with someone with a cancer diagnosis.

For real–you will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of some people–when they are faced with someone with a cancer diagnosis. A point for P.T. Barnum’s side.