A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

How Children Read Mixed Messages From Parents

Children use 3 rules to rank the relative importance of conflicting instructions


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One of the major themes of this blog is my belief that, as much as we like to think of ourselves as independent-minded individuals, we are still very much tied into our families of origin – even if on the surface we seem to be estranged from them. As children, we try to figure out what our family seems to need from us, and then we provide it. If we appear to be oppositional, it is only because we think that our family needs us to be oppositional!  Black sheep sometimes come in handy for a group.

But what if our entire family is confused and conflicted about how their members ought to behave over certain areas of life, say gender role functioning for example?  Because of something that anthropologists call cultural lag, the ambient culture sometimes demands changes in family behavior that come too fast for the family to adjust to, creating conflicts in the minds of the individual members. 

Because kids go to school and are therefore more often exposed to outside influences - as they mix with kids from a wide variety of subcultures -  than are their parents in their more limited social circles, this often creates intragenerational conflict – what we old baby boomers used to refer to as the generation gap.  But even the adults are hardly immune from hearing about new cultural opportunities for individual autonomy. Unless, as commedian Bill Maher used to say, they live in a cave and don’t get cable.

In this situation, parents become conflicted over their old roles but will not give them up, leading them to give off a lot of double messages to their kids, in both overt and very subtle ways.  So how does a kid figure out what the parents really expect form them?

Rather than give a clinical example, I will take an old story I saw in the media in the 80’s and speculate a bit about what sort of double messages might be going on in the family described, and then present three “rules” for how children hierarchically rank components of a mixed message. 

Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of what I am about to write actually applies to the family in question in reality, so this post is NOT meant to psychoanalyze the real people on the basis of a media story. I'm using the story as a jumping off point to illustrate certain ideas I want to make in a way that readers can understand.

Sharon Batts
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In late 1987 and early 1988, a then 9 year old girl named Sharon Batts, from an evangelical Protestant church group, got her 15 minutes of fame. She sang on a record called Dear Mr. Jesus whose lyrics petitioned Jesus with a prayer to stop child abuse ("You cannot petition the Lord, with prayer!" - Jim Morrison of the Doors, when he was a lad in seminary school). The record, which was actually recorded three years earlier, received a lot of airplay, creating some notoriety for the girl.

She was interviewed on a news program with her mother and father. The interviewer asked the girl how she was handling her new-found fame. The girl looked up at her parents before answering. They asked her what would happen if she became too proud.  "I'll fall flat on my face," came the reply.  

In the back of the TV picture the parents sat smiling and were, as any child could see, absolutely beaming with pride.  

Perhaps a double message, no?  If pride goeth before a fall, then why were they availing themselves of it so readily?  

It is possible that the girl had coached to answer as she did because a short time later, on January 11, 1988, the girl was interviewed by People magazine. In that interview she made the statement, "Sometimes when people get famous, they fall flat on their face." Odd that she would make it a point to use the same words twice like that.  

Assume for the sake of argument (again, this may or may not apply to the Batts girl at all) that determining the parents' attitude towards the issue of pride was a pressing concern for this girl, and would function as an internal road map for how she would behave under a variety of circumstances. Let us further assume that a wrong determination would cause a tremendous uproar within her family.  

If this little girl were desperate to solve this problem, how would she go about making sense of her parents' behavior under these circumstances? How would she answer for herself the question of why there was such a discrepancy between their verbally expressed attitude towards the dangers of pride and their absolute pleasure in basking in it themselves? Would she think that she ought to be proud or humble?

First, could she come right out and ask them to explain the contradiction? In some families, this might be possible. However, I have reason to suspect that in this family, it might not be possible. I of course could not prove it unless I had some form of verification from the family itself, but the very fact that an ambiguity exists, created by the mixed nature of the parents' behavior, might indicate that they were, unbeknownst to their daughter, highly conflicted about, and struggling over, the issue of pride themselves. 

Pride feels good, but I suspect it might be contrary to the group ethos expressed by the evangelical church to which this family belonged, where pride might be seen as hubris, an affront to God. 

The rules by which such a family operates might hinge on conforming to this view. It is indeed possible that family tranquility might be in part predicated on religious conformity and denying one's own specialness. On the other hand, the larger American culture, through the mass media and other methods, extols the virtues of unfettered individuality. Thus, pride might hold a bit of an allure.  

Under these circumstances, a question from the daughter concerning their apparent hypocrisy could create for the parents a state of anxiety, which could conceivably lead to a negative reaction. They might, for example, shift uncomfortably in their chairs and change the subject. Alternatively, they could get angry and deny any incongruity at all. They could become incensed that the girl would even dare question what was told to her verbally. Some parents in such a situation might even become abusive. If any of these responses were forthcoming, the girl would soon learn that direct questions are best avoided. She would need to come up with some other way to make a determination.  

Please keep in mind that a nine year old girl would be very unlikely to come up with the explanation that her parents were of two minds on the subject. Research indicates that the concept of ambivalence in human motivation does not begin to develop until the ages of 10-15, and that the practical application of such knowledge does not come into play until considerably later than that. Unfortunately, learned habits about role functioning in interpersonal relationships tend to develop far earlier in life, and tend to become almost reflexive or automatic in familiar-appearing situations. 

Children and adults will tend to react to significant others as though they had only one goal or desire in each type of situation. This by no means indicates that adults function at the cognitive level of children, only that one often does not stop to think about habitual behavior. 

So, how will our child decide which part of the double message to heed? I have found that the conclusions that children will reach in such a situation are rather predictable, and based on three general principles of hierarchically ranking mixed elements of a message. The first and perhaps the second of these principles may seem so obvious as to be truisms, but their axiomatic nature is belied by the ease with which they are forgotten in emotionally charged situations. 

Principle #1:  As we all know, actions speak louder than words.  This is not as simple as it sounds, however, because the act of saying something is also an action itself. Linguists talk about what they call speech acts. If I come up to you and say, "I hear you're having a party next week," I am not only relaying to you what I heard about your plans for next week, but I am also fishing for an invitation.  So how can actions speak louder than words if words are also actions?

I will tell you. For example, say that a mother is constantly complaining about doing the housework, but faithfully and compulsively does it every single day, while consistently rejecting all offers of help. Children and other family members will draw not just one conclusion, but two conclusions: First, mother really does want to do the housework, and wants to do it all by herself. That's what she does. Actions speak louder than words. She also complains.  Therefore, she must also enjoy complaining, even while doing things she likes to do. Actions speak louder than words.

No one will really think about the possibility that Mom really hates the work, but feels duty bound to perform it. Despite internal (intrapsychic) conflict being the mainstay of psychoanalysis, concepts from which are everywhere in our culture, this possibility does not seem to gain much traction in real life.

Now, having drawn these two conclusions, a problem is nonetheless created. If the children help with the housework, they may be stopped in their tracks, most usually with the verbal comment that they are not doing the housework well enough or correctly. If they do not help, they are criticized for not helping. Damned if they do; damned if they don't. What to do? 

One ingenous solutions is to not only refuse to help, but to make even more of a mess. That way, their mother gets to do both more housework and more complaining.  Perfect! She should be so pleased. 

On the surface they may therefore seem to be oppositional and defiant, but underneath that veneer they are actually giving their mother exactly what they think she needs from them.

Principle #2.: Children pay more attention to what adults say to each other, or to generalizations they make about various issues, than to any direct instructions or admonishment said to children. 

For instance, a mother might verbally prod her daughter, in a compulsive repetitive manner, to get married - after having spent years telling anyone who would listen about what jerks all men are, and how unhappy she is with her own spouse (her daughter’s father). The degree of the mother's preoccupation with both the subject and her daughter's stand on the issue would quite likely lead the girl to the conclusion that her choice regarding marriage is of major concern to the mother. 

Once again I will ask you to suspend your disbelief and assume that the daughter's appraisal of the mother's opinion, right or wrong though it may be, will be a major determinant of what the daughter does, regardless of the daughter's own personal preference. So what to do? The mother's negative comments about men, according to principle #2, would seem more important than the direct admonition to marry, so most likely the daughter would not marry. 

However, once again, she will face criticism if she stays celibate. A possible solution is for the daughter in such a situation to end up picking a series of jerks with which to hook up, in order to satisfy both ends of the double message. That is, she follows her mother’s instructions and keeps trying to find a husband, but proves each and every time that her mother is correct about how men really are. 

Whether she dates a series of jerks or actually marries and then divorces a series of jerks will usually depend on other relationship issues in her family of origin, such as what role her father plays in this family drama.

This leads us to the general principle, principle #3: When someone compulsively engages in repetitive behavior, family members will invariably conclude that this behavior is quite important to the perpetrator. In the example from principle #1, as mentioned, they conclude that mother likes to do housework AND complain about it. In the example from principle #2, they conclude they have to try to do what they are told while designing the way they do it to the parent's apparent expectations.  

Far be it for a child to deprive a parent of a cherished role. In the first case, they will “help” their mother by making sure that she has plenty of housework to do, and plenty to complain about. 

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In order to do so, they may appear to be oppositional to the parent, but the oppositionality is merely an illusion. To borrow a phrase from Marshall Mcluan as co-opted by psychoanalyst Leston Havens, the medium of the total picture of the mother's behavior over the entire history of the relationship takes precedence over single element - particularly any verbal message. The mother's total spectrum of behaviors, in context, is more important that what she says on any specific occasion. 

Keeping these three principles in mind, it becomes easy to see why oppositional behavior is so common in dysfunctional families. In cases where parents are ambivalent about themselves, they induce children to appear to disregard verbal messages in favor of some other factor. 

This may have biological roots. Attention to non-verbal behavior preceded attention to verbal behavior in the evolution of social animals.

 

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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