Yet Another Strategy for Discussing Family Dysfunction

Offering a guess as to reasons for behavior is better than asking questions.

Posted Sep 11, 2018

Wikimedia Commons Sternberg Family Tree by Takato Marui, CC by BY SA 2.0
Source: Wikimedia Commons Sternberg Family Tree by Takato Marui, CC by BY SA 2.0

As I have discussed in previous posts, if you attempt to discuss and put a stop to frequent repetitive and dysfunctional interactions with your parents - such as their making constant demands or criticisms, acting in a hateful fashion, or invalidating you by questioning your intelligence, opinions, observations, or feelings - they usually have several strategies that they can use on you to get you to shut up.  I have discussed many countermoves that you can employ to get the conversation back on track in order to solve difficult interpersonal problems. This post will add another to that list: it is better to offer up a guess about the reasons behind their problematic behavior rather than ask them questions about it.

As I have also discussed in previous posts, when adult children try to figure out the reasons behind their parents' confusing behavior, they usually conclude that the parents are either mad, bad, blind, or stupid. I mean, how else can you explain the following bizarre parental behavior: denying the obvious, giving double messages that put their child in a damned-if -you-do/don't situation, seeming to want their children around (often in a caretaker role of some sort) while simultaneously seeming to hate their guts, putting up with abusive spouses while making excuses for them, being completely preoccupied with one sibling while acting like another child barely exists—and a host of other unfortunately fairly common dysfunctional behaviors.

I believe, as readers of my blogs know by now, that most parents who act like this are neither mad, bad, blind nor stupid. They are instead acting out roles with their children - in a highly ambivalent fashion - that they themselves had learned in their own families of origin. These roles helped them to stabilize their own parents, who were themselves highly conflicted about certain family and cultural norms and rules of behavior. The intrapsychic conflicts that drive the acting out are, in a sense, shared by all of the members of the family.

Mothers who have gender role conflicts are a really good example of what I am talking about. They often give out mixed messages to their daughters about both having careers and having children. Their daughters are somehow also expected to get some man to take care of them while simultaneously being independent and in charge of their lives and relationships.

Just asking the parents why they are doing what they are doing usually leads to more obfuscation, non-sequiturs, denial, and various other ways of invalidating the person who poses uncomfortable questions and/or disqualifying their own true beliefs. "Why" questions are particularly likely to lead to either aggressive or defensive remarks because they can sound accusatory—sorta like asking a child, "Why is your hand in the cookie jar?"

Asking "yes or no" questions is equally problematic. It also often leads to responses that are less than edifying about what the parents are trying to accomplish with their bizarre behavior. The parents can just answer "yes" or "no" with no additional explanation.

Attempting to discuss the family patterns with an eye towards change is called metacommunication. One trick in effective metacommunication is based on the idea that in human interactions, certain verbalizations seem to require certain responses, making it more likely that when they are used, the other person will feel obligated to respond in certain ways. They may say things that are more enlightening or clear. Of course the strategy I am about to describe is not foolproof, but it does increase the odds that a useful exchange may take place.

The trick is for the person to empathically offer some speculation about family interpersonal processes that may be triggering problematic feelings or behavior in the parent. There is something about tentatively offering someone a hypothesis that makes it much more difficult for them to merely agree or disagree. Hypotheses seem to demand more than questions; they increase the likelihood that the parent will feel it necessary to explain what is wrong or right with the hypothesis, rather than just giving out an unexplained acceptance or rejection of it.

This is especially true if the adult child overtly labels the intervention as a guess, thereby giving the parents an "out" that allows them to reject the guess if they are feeling too threatened to respond with more information. This technique also makes it difficult for the parent to provoke a power struggle with the adult child over the accuracy of the hypothesis.

The potential metacommunicator can base speculations or hypotheses on any information concerning his or her family that is already available, or on typical patterns that they have seen or read about in my blogs or elsewhere. Having done one's family's genogram often provides a good source of such guesses. (How to construct a genogram and figure out family patterns, as well as over 20 different strategies and counter-strategies you can use for getting past parental defenses, will be covered in detail in my upcoming self-help book). Such hypotheses should always be offered in a tentative and non-threatening manner.

Continuing with the gender role conflict situation mentioned above, for example, the adult child might say something to her mother like, "I don't know if this applies to you or not, but in other families where a woman's career choice is an issue, mothers often feel bad because their daughters get to do things the mother always wanted to do but was not free to do. I wonder if this might apply to our situation?"