As we open the door to the consulting room, two desperate parents storm by us dragging by either hand a little boy who looks to be about seven years old. He is apparently used to this kind of treatment, for he does not protest, but just settles into a corner and starts moving toys around. It is an unusual play. There is a passive, mechanical quality to his demeanor and movements. He is depressed and has given up. We can tell. His parents, meanwhile, are simply infuriated and maddened by their son, who they say is a liar and a monster. "He's been like this ever since he was born". They always say that, by the way. God forbid you suggest that his behavior has anything to do with their child rearing ways or the family's dynamics. That would be 'family blaming'. What they do not realize is that by spontaneously insisting on their accusation, they reveal their hidden guilt and defensiveness.
As we muddle through the interview, they eventually calm down and begin to cautiously engage. We construct a GENOGRAM (the family tree). During this interview, it becomes more and more clear to us that some of the boy's behaviors are quite natural under the circumstances. When his parents scream at each other about money, availability for the family, one or the other of his grandmothers, etc., he feels scared and so tries to distract them by creating some kind of diversion. They then become angry with him, yell at him and proceed to argue with each other over the best method of punishing him for his misdeeds.
At the next appointment, the drama continues. Now, they are livid over the fact that the boy told the school principal that the family lives in a trailer with 17 other relatives. Of course this information alarmed the school administrator, so he called the parents, who of course denied the boy's story.
At this point I have a hunch. I look at the genogram (which itself looks like some structure easily misconstrued as being a trailer) and count the relatives: exactly 17. The boy, who in the first session acted as though he was oblivious to the whole discussion, was obviously following it quite closely. (I bet most of his 'lies' are of the same nature).
We are all survivors of the ordeal called 'Childhood'. Even if it was a kind, consistent and calm 'holding environment', it still remained difficult, confusing and full of 'growing pains'. We wanted to grow up and become adults. Badly. Well, most of us did. And we wanted to do so for all kinds of reasons, and it mostly was in order to have sex. We wanted to experience this apparently wonderful but hidden from us thing. There was obviously something very desirable and fantastic about it - all the information bombarding us pointed into this direction; but the adults denied it, giving us all kinds of excuses to keep us away from it. It was absolutely clear that, like exotic candies, we could not have it because they wanted to keep IT for themselves.
Our parents were constantly lying: when we answered the phone, we were told to tell whoever it was that our parents were not home. When we received a gift from Grandma, we were not supposed to tell Aunt Betty about it. We were not supposed to tell our cousins that we were going to the cottage. When we misbehaved and our mother could not control us, she would threaten to tell our father or, she would reassure us that she would not. That was worse.
Liars ... oh, but they called US that, didn't they?
Children know almost everything that goes on in the family. If not exactly, then they know enough to recognize the discrepancy between what they are told and what's going on around them. They see the difference in behavior of their parents when at home and when in front of others. They find those magazines father hides in the study or the occasional X-rated URL found by chance on the browser in the computer. Mom tells Dad that the dress she has on was bought "half a year ago" when she just got it yesterday while we were shopping at the mall. These examples are just the simple, common, garden variety types of situations.
There are plenty of families with parents who hate each other or their in-laws. They fight viciously with each other, dumping their frustrations on their children, who present themselves as voluntary scapegoats trying to save their only source of survival: their family. There are worse situations, of course, of abused, desperate children that run away, commit suicide, go on hard drugs, etc., but we are talking about the well-intentioned, loving families.
Most of the families we see in our day-to-day practice belong to this category. Almost all of them give their children too much power and at the same time resent it. Jimmy, the boy we presented in the beginning, is a product of a very typical for our times environment. He was born before his mother, Rosa, met her present husband, Sam. Mother and son initially lived with her parents, who adored Jimmy as the son they never had. When she met Sam, she wanted to move away to live separately, but Jimmy was left with the grandparents. Soon Sam and Rosa got married and had a baby girl. Sam 'fell in love' with their daughter, devoting so much of himself to her that Rosa eventually felt herself to be alone. She insisted then that her son join them. Jimmy, however, was quite used to his lifestyle with his grandparents, his friends and school. He put up a rigorous fight which was silently supported by grandparents that did not wish to lose him.
Rosa suggested that Sam adopt Jimmy. He did. Jimmy missed his grandparents terribly, though, and so every night he would phone his grandpa - a fact that Sam did not like at all. When Sam would yell at the little boy to hang up the telephone, to pick up his stuff or whatever else he could think of, Rosa would intervene, defending her son, thus making her husband even angrier ... and so on.
We confuse our children by giving them double messages. We usually do so with good intentions and of course out of love and care for them. We must not forget, however, that we all have a private agenda (whether we are aware of it or not). This private agenda is often the source of the double message. If, for example, a father runs out of breath while wrestling with his child, instead of quitting by admitting to it, he may find an exit by making up an excuse or 'pulling rank' and declaring the game over. When we make mistakes or misjudgments, we find it difficult to admit to them to our adult partners, but with children we can always feel to be right, not having to admit to anything.
This type of unfairness starts to manifest itself at a very early age. We get used to it though, learning shame, guilt and fear. Fear rules. We are taught that our parents and other adults are always in the right.
It is difficult to estimate how often children are given 'double messages'......Probably most of the time.