The family is a unit made up of interrelated and interconnected parts. It is an incredible thing when it works correctly; but when it is out of alignment, many innocent people can be affected. Here is an example of what I mean.
Harry and Susan Smith have been married 20 years and came to see me for a consultation. Their youngest son Tim was exhibiting issues in his senior year right after being accepted at his first choice college in another state. The parents were very well-meaning and thought that Tim’s acting out behavior was caused by some immaturity and the anticipated fear of leaving home come fall. They wanted to make an appointment for Tim – sort of drop him off with me to fix him. That is a common thought if you don’t understand family dynamics. My belief is that everyone in the family is involved in the problem and, more importantly, in the solution. You need to have input from as many members of the family as possible – you want to have a very wide lens when examining a problem.
I told Harry and Susan that I would be glad to meet with them but only if they accompanied Tim and were willing to have the two older girls, who were away at college, join us at a later date if I felt that was necessary. They reluctantly agreed; most of the resistance was coming from the dad. In the first interview, it was obvious that Dad was furious with Tim for ruining his life by getting failing grades in his senior year, destroying his good GPA, risking getting thrown off the basketball team and having his early acceptance at college rescinded. Susan was attentive, concerned and baffled; why, all of a sudden should this happen? She clearly let Harry take the lead. I sensed a clear allegiance between mom and son which left dad in a distant place.
Tim was a bit sullen having been dragged to a shrink for “nothing at all.” I knew that I would get nothing from him in front of his parents except “that everything would be all right, he’d start buckling down right now and I’m just having serious senioritis.” Susan, however, spoke up and said the promises of change had been broken repeatedly and fears his behavior is getting worse. I ended the meeting by asking how the older girls, who were away at college, were doing and I was assured that they were well and that they had launched successfully from high school – leaving home – moving on to college. They return home for regular visits.
I set up two consulting meetings, one for the parents, the other for their son I met with Tim first. Of course, he is going to come in defiant, resistant and bored to death. I ask him if he really wants to go to college in the fall; he clearly wants to go; his friends are going, and he thinks he can be a walk-on to the basketball team. Clearly, something very important to him is causing him to derail what he wants to accomplish something else that he considers of equal value. I ask him, “what is it? Trust me, fill me in!”
Tim starts to cry, hides the tears and his face. I tell him, “it has to be a very good reason. It must be important…let me help you.” “It’s my Dad! He’s having an affair with someone at work; I’ve heard them arguing about it. He says he’s not, but my mom doesn’t trust him. When Tim gathers his composure, I tell him that he is acting as a very loyal son by distracting his parents from arguing about the “affair” to a topic that will take the heat off their marriage. You are also getting back at your Dad by upsetting him and making him angry that his only son is throwing away his future – making him feel helpless because he can’t control you, like he seems to be able to do with your mom. You are really fighting her battle with him. Quite a distraction!
“Are you really willing to go up in smoke for this cause?” How long will you have to keep it up? Will you have to become a dropout and live in the basement of your parent’s home in order to keep an eye on them? How long are you willing to sign up for this?
Tim is really heartbroken. He loves both his parents, and this is tearing him up. I tell him that I have an idea. I ask him if he is willing to turn over the job of trying to fix his parent’s marriage to me. He smiles with a sigh of relief. The load is coming off his shoulders. This was not a conscious plan that Tim had devised; it is just the way the emotional system works when one family member is trying to rescue or distract the family from something else that they hold as more devastating. I also told him that he and I would have to make a contract to focus on getting him separated from his parents, have him successfully launch himself to his next stage of development – leaving home and moving on to college. He will also have to work on his relationship with his father.
He agreed there are a lot of decisions and real soul searching that needs to occur in this family. And, I will continue discussing the healing process for this family in next week’s column. I told you this fictitious story so that you can see that family problems are complicated and hidden and what appears on the surface as the issue – what you see on the surface (the smoke) – might only be the tip of the iceberg. You must think systemically – look all around…don’t chase the smoke and miss the real problem.
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