Henry, an eleven-year-old bright youngster, was doing poorly at school and home. He wasn’t doing his homework and he resisted virtually all family activities, even some, like going to the movies, that he enjoyed. He was a drag to be around, rarely smiling and being overwhelmingly negative. He gave his parents a hard time when they asked him to shower or brush his teeth, saying he’ll either do it later or that he didn’t need to. Henry’s grades suffered. From being an A- student, he was running Cs and Ds, with the comment, “Could do better.” His parents knew he should be doing better and they had a responsibility, one which Henry wasn’t yet able to see, to help him succeed.
Because of their frustration, and their need to help, they lectured Henry, criticized him, grounded him, yelled at him, and withheld TV and electronics as punishment. Instead of straightening Henry up, these actions made him resist even more. Why? Warfare in the family!
Henry felt over-controlled and was rebellious. I can relate to Henry because of my army experiences when I felt over controlled also. When a sergeant punitively ordered me to clean the air filter of an M48 tank (a dirty hot job), I was pissed, but I couldn’t directly fight back. I simply repeated that I couldn’t find the filter until he was jumping and yelling. His jumping and yelling made me feel warm all over. Henry also felt over controlled and was pissed. He couldn’t fight back directly so he rebelled by resisting. Henry’s payoff, as was mine, was to frustrate his parents. This led them to Warfare In The Family! And as we all know, although some lose more than others, there are no winners in wars.
The Warfare became an escalating cycle. Henry’s parents, wanting him to do well, had controlling him as a goal. As he resisted more, they increased their controls. The more they increased their controls, the angrier Henry became and the more he resisted. His parents then increased the yelling, withholding and grounding which—predictably—led to more resistance.
The cycle can be broken. When I saw Henry alone in therapy, he initially had his middle finger in the air expecting me to read him the riot act. However, when I described the cycle and empathized how difficult it was for him to get flack both at school and at home, he agreed. Henry was indeed feeling negative pressures. He related the grievances he had with his parents—their yelling, lectures and punishments—and I agreed. He perceived compliance as defeat, as did I in the army. We both grinned when we discussed his feeling of power when he provoked his parents. We discussed his role in provoking the punishments: His defiance and resistance. He also came to understand that it was not fun for his parents to be angry at him.
Henry’s parents recognized the ineffectiveness of their controls. They knew his resistance was so intense that if they asked Henry to breathe, he would hold his breath. They recognized that their lectures about the importance of school were thought of by Henry as, “There they go again!” They saw the warfare cycle as I diagramed it. With Henry in the room, all the parties agreed to break the warfare cycle. I expected the parents, being adults, to take more responsibility for change than Henry, and they did. Instead of constant criticism, they encouraged Henry when he improved. They stopped the punishments because push led to shove. Henry saw that his parents were motivated to help him and that the cycle had developed its own destructive momentum. All became more relaxed and Henry acknowledged he felt a big burden off his shoulders as the cease-fire commenced.
Certainly, there was not a “Happily ever after” ending. There never is. However, the improvement was palpable as the downward spiral of Warfare in the Family was replaced by cooperation.