Mitch Abblett

Mitch Abblett Ph.D.

A Special Education

The Apple Can Fall Far from the Tree

Are you willing to be your family's "pattern breaker?"

Posted May 05, 2012

I almost convinced myself it was summer from the way the light came through the windshield of my mom's car and poked at the laces of the glove resting on my lap. "I hope you have fun today," said my mom. She was the closest thing in real life to June Cleaver from the old sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." As a kid, I always loved my mom's warmth, and it often helped me, but not that day. I didn't want to get out of her car. I wanted to quit Little League, and so I told her I wasn't going.

It was my third year playing ball, and unlike the previous season's coach, Mr. Douglass, who just wanted every kid on the team to feel good about themselves and play whether they were good or not, my uniform this third season stayed clean across every game. A totally clean uniform was an embarrassment—faded grass stains on your game uniform were the same as Congressional Medals of Honor. None for me, because my new coach, Mr. Pencher, thought me less than stellar. In fact, I believe he was convinced I had no business on his team.

"You dropped it, Abblett!" Mr. Pencher's face had the look of an impending aneurysm. "You gotta get under it. Don't be scared of it!" I hated him almost as much as I hated myself for how much I sucked at baseball. I just couldn't get on top of the jitters as I came up to the plate, or as I watched a fly ball hang like a massive moth up in the lights until it quickly flew down at me. It's not easy to see the ball with tears brimming.

I looked over at my mom, and rammed my sweating palm deeper into the glove. "I want to go home," I said. Mom gave me a nudge toward staying. "Don't you want to play with your friends?" But she only reminded me of how they would all shake their heads when I dropped yet another ball that my grandma could easily catch. The anxiety swelled inside me. I turned on the tears. "No, don't make me stay." And before I knew it, I was homeward bound. Spiderman comic books would be my solace. In my fantasy self as the wall-crawling crime fighter, there was no time for Little League when the world needed saving.

And so it went across hundreds of situations and interactions with my mom when I was a kid. I would come across something intimidating or upsetting and, if I pitched enough of a fit, my mom would look to smooth things over in some way. I would get to side-step the issue and move on. The makings of an engrained "pattern" of avoidance came from these interactions.

All of us are the products of patterns. Yours might not be avoidance, and instead might be secrecy, or irritability when things don't go your way, or pushing others away just as things are getting interesting (and worthwhile). Whatever the exact contour of yours, it's a safe bet it was born from your early experiences with those you were most closely connected with.

It is important to consider how much we are all lovers of patterns. We spend much of our daily lives acting and reenacting well-rehearsed patterns of action and reaction - from showering sequences (do you wash your hair first, and if so I bet you always do so, right?) to social "dances" with others - we tend to move through our lives in a series of repeating patterns. These patterns are learned. You do not have genes telling you to wash your hair before picking up the bar of soap, and you don't have genes telling you to assert your absolute correctness when others are dismissing your logic at work or at the dinner table. Remember, genes give you the emotional "ink," but the script itself is written through experience.

Multiple lines of research have begun to link the patterns of managing and expressing emotion we learn from caregivers growing up with outcomes later, sometimes much later in adulthood. For example, psychologist John Gottman's research has associated parents who exhibit an ideal "emotion coaching" philosophy with their children (a combination of structure/guidance and support for expressing emotion) with positive parenting (and less harsh) behaviors, as well as increased self-soothing in children. Research on childhood "styles" of relationship attachment with early caregivers has predicted outcomes such as successful friendships and romantic relationships in adulthood. Social scientists such as Ann Duffy and Julianne Momirov (2000) have labeled "intergenerational transmission" as the process by which children who grow up in violent families develop emotional and behavioral patterns which lead to repetition of roles in adulthood. Patterns of managing emotion in the context of relationship with others (i.e. scripts) come from repeated observation and enactment with others over time. Actors can't perform without a script to guide them. We can't perform in our interactions (particularly difficult ones) without scripts of our own.

As the Clinical Director of a therapeutic day school for children with emotional and behavioral issues, I often witness kids in the midst of tantrums and high states of agitation. I've watched kids swear, kick, spit, punch, break up everything in sight, and I've watched those trying to care for them struggling with the emotional impact of proximity to all this intensity. And here I was—a guy having grown up in a household where anger and volatile emotion were to be avoided. It depended on the situation, but there was definitely a theme—a script—of anger and conflict being taboo, things to be avoided at all costs. They felt foreign and threatening, and therefore I learned to have keen radar for conflict and how to sidestep it before anger would have a chance to spark into an inferno.

You can imagine the challenge I experienced when first beginning a job where conflict—the emotional buffeting of one agenda against another—was a regular, unwelcome guest in my schedule. After being paged to come into the school while a child was in a significant behavioral crisis—screaming, crying, swearing and yelling—I would surge with anxiety and a sense of wanting to walk (or maybe run?) in the other direction. My pattern was woefully unworkable. My thoughts about my work (my emotional scripting) screamed for avoidance, and I had a choice. I could either cut and run, or learn to hang in and see what might happen. Thankfully, and with a lot of support, I was able to "ride the wave" of the anxiety, uncertainty and frustration that came with the intense aspect of my job, and have learned I can not only do so, but I can also perform well in these situations (despite the mild rumblings of fear which still arise). I've also learned to talk to the children and parents I work with about breaking such patterns of fear, anger and regret within themselves.

It's not an insight into the origin of these scripts that we're after. It doesn't matter as much whether mommy or daddy did or didn't do such and such and what that might say about your tendencies toward lollipops or messy desktops. My old pattern of avoidance is not my mom's "fault," and such thinking is not only unhelpful, it only keeps the pattern around. Ask yourself, if I learned my unhelpful pattern from my parents, where did they learn their own version of it? Keep asking, and you'll soon find there's really no one who fully "owns" the finger you're pointing.

So what do we do about these patterns that block us? It comes down to our willingness to get a full sense of the here-and-now impact of the pattern—what is happening NOW inside me during my interactions with others, and what is my mind doing to mold the thoughts and emotions I experience in the present moment. In the theatre of our minds, we can improvise if we so choose. A key question to ask yourself: Am I willing to create a new "relationship" with my experience of things RIGHT NOW? Your answer will determine whether the pattern repeats, or whether you take a new step. We can write a new script for how we want to handle the emotions cropping up, and others will notice us doing so—it can have significant positive ripple effects.

Remember, where did you learn your unworkable patterns? Where will any children with whom you are connected learn theirs? What about others in your life? What new role can you play that may shape things for the better for them in terms of managing difficult inner experience and the behavior emanating from it?

In "Part II" of this post, I'll discuss ways in which we, as adults—parents, co-workers, family members, friends—can learn about our own patterns of emotional scripting, and what we can do to get off the stage, and start "authoring" things for our benefit (and that of those we care about). Our children, friends, colleagues and family members will notice when we no longer follow the pull of our long-standing emotional scripts and patterns. They'll be curious about what happened for us, and they might even get curious about themselves as well.

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