V61.20 Parent-Child Relational Problem

Problems with family functioning are identified in the DSM on Axis IV in the categories Problems with Primary Support Group, and Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention. When it comes to diagnosis, clinicians (and insurance companies) focus on Axis I conditions, as they are seen as medical conditions, while psychosocial and environmental issues aren't.

DSM: Axis IV: Parent-Child Relational Problem

This category should be used when the focus of clinical attention is a pattern of interaction between parent and child (e.g., impaired communication, overprotection, inadequate discipline) that is associated with clinically significant symptoms in parent or child.

I think that I had serious parent-child relational problems with both parents, for different reasons. It wasn't about backtalk or acting out in either case - it was about unrealistic expectations and lack of effective communication which led to severe misunderstanding.

A parent-child relational problem may arise for a variety of reasons. In my case, it may have been the result of switching from my mother's more disciplined/economical style of upbringing to my father's more permissive/excessive/erratic style. Also, the tension between parents, both before and after separation/divorce, had an impact. In 'relating' to my parents, I absorbed their stress and unhappiness. By 1982-3, I think it's possible that I had absorbed so much that I became stuck at a phase in which my father was completely overwhelmed by his responsibilities - for the rest of my life.

My mother was disappointed by my inability to maintain an attractive (low enough) weight. She was not abusive, but it was difficult for me to handle disappointing her, and I see some parallel between my inability to visit her for long and my eventual unwillingness to face the world at large.

My father provided examples of binge drinking and out of control behaviour which eventually had an effect on me - to some extent I mirrored his behaviour and despair. He didn't recognize this, and 'gave up on me', acting as if he believed I was a lost cause and would kill myself before the age of 21. He had discussed that I would kill myself before that age with others who seemed to share his beliefs, but did not discuss this with me. A major theme in my life is that I have the impression people are withholding important information from me, and I think withholding this particular piece of information had a significant impact. My longtime wish to die may very well have developed through unconscious absorption of this information - I began to try to be convenient, or 'loved' the only way it seemed possible for me - through my death.

In some cultures, there is no adolescence, there is only childhood and adulthood. It could very well be that the tensions that develop between adults and teens relate to the history of 'teens' previously being considered adults, whereas in modern life they still have to obey their parents' rules for some years while they acquire skills, knowledge and connections that will enable them to take part in adult life. This obedience may go against all of their genetically programmed time-release independence-individuation promptings from inside.

...The child is brought up to know his social duties by a system of love-rewards and punishments...

...He is taught that his security in life depends on being loved by his parents (and other people, too) and on their being able to believe in his love for them...

Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis

I think it makes sense to examine my lack of feeling of security in life and in relationships in relation to these ideas.

In my case, there was perhaps a very confusing struggle in which I didn't think I could 'win', or earn my parents' love, no matter what I did. Ideally, I would have found the strength to break away from their expectations or even unconscious wishes, and develop my own abilities. My mother's wishes for me coincided with society's, and were related to appearance and feminity. My father's were about athletic achievement, natural ability with animals (especially horses), and being successful in life through 'street smarts'.

Maybe it's a question of degree. If there had been fewer moves, if my mother had lived a few years more, if there had been fewer major shakeups, if I hadn't had ichthyosis, if the timing had been slightly different, I may have been 'together enough' to achieve independence at the correct age. It is difficult to speculate about the exact combinations that might have resulted in a different outcome.

That I wasn't able to ask teachers or others for help may relate to my relationships with my parents. That I turned down an enrichment program (at approximately age 8-9) at school may also relate to relational problems with my parents, or a lack of support and security which would have given me a base to start from.

The way that my ichthyosis was handled is a good example of inadequate communication or a model of how to find answers or knowledge for oneself. My parents did not seek out knowledge, did not share a technical term with us if they were aware of one, and the approach seemed to be that rather than encouraging us to learn all we could about it, we were supposed to realize that other people in the world had worse problems, and we were not to complain or talk about it, but to just get on with living a normal life. What resulted was a need to hide the condition. Even in my 30s, when I had access to the internet, in trying to search I was aware of a persistent, lingering feeling of shame related to even searching for the information.

This approach to communication, or rather, this lack of adequate communication, affected many areas of my life. Even when my father and I began to talk when I was 13, it was mainly about his sex life, his relationships, philosophical issues, mental puzzles, jokes - grownup things that had him as the focus. I felt 'special' to be allowed to have these conversations, and maybe since that time it has given me an awareness of at least one aspect of communication that is usually lacking. At any rate - communication was erratic. It was like some topics were accepted, and others weren't.

When it came to a chance I had to go on an exchange to France for three months, I did realize at the time that it was a 'big' opportunity, but I was not stable enough to try. I was living with my father, and when I told him and his girlfriend about the opportunity, I had the idea that having another kid in the house would be uncomfortable for them, add to the tension, and I didn't want to be more inconvenience than I already was. I also had stress related to the idea of hiding ichthyosis in a foreign country, where I knew no one and didn't know how much privacy I would have, or what activities I would be expected to participate in.

Part of that was a personality issue: I wasn't assertive enough or enough of an individual to identify what I wanted, or to claim opportunities that presented themselves (to help me develop my abilities and potentials in life) if I thought I would cause too much expense or inconvenience. I might have also lacked emotional support. Also, through the following years, my father exhibited his own philosophy regarding education by not contibuting to or encouraging ongoing education for any of us. It was up to us.

When it came to any therapy in my teens or early 20s. I lacked internal support, and it may have been lacking because the relationships in my life were not stable or secure. The fact that at age 15 I asked to see a psychiatrist seems sensible, and not typical of me considering my history. My parents were surprised, or puzzled maybe, and my mother was upset, wanting me to talk to her. I think I understand how left out she must have felt then, but she herself had put me or had been partly responsible for putting me in an untenable situation. I had no model of family communication that was open or 'healthy'. I had no idea about how to talk to her, I had no idea that her ideas about my body and weight might have been unrealistic or unhealthy, or that the relationship between my parents with their differing approaches - one restrictive with food, the other totally unrestrictive - would cause me to develop in a way that would end up seeming like a constant irreconcilable internal war.

I had no words for any of that, and she herself had fostered a secretive approach regarding her own food intake and weight control. Also, there was an emotional climate in the house in which I received the impression that private thoughts were meant to stay private because they were embarrassing, shameful or inappropriate, and I had the idea that mine may make adults angry, or hurt them - which may have had something to do with why I always felt the need to destroy my personal writings - only able to 'keep' the official or 'acceptable' writings necessary for school.

There are probably also evolutionary-related survival issues. When I had stomach pains, my father took me for tests to see if there was a physical problem. Before that, he had taken me to a dermatologist to find answers for my skin condition. When I asked to see a psychiatrist, he made an appointment for me and took me. How much is a parent supposed to invest in one child before it begins to seem that effort might best be applied toward the welfare of the other children, who might better be able to make use of it? My father was doing all he knew how to do. He was not really equipped to be a parent, and what he had learned in his family of origin was that the female members were 'less than' and deserved less consideration. In the face of that, he actually put in a lot of effort on my behalf.

But he also underestimated my mother's contributions. I think that ideally, he would have recognized that she was the parent better equipped to raise children, and not put forth an offer for any of his children to live with him. His own interests did not really seem to involve raising children, and the fact that he made the offer might have been about wanting to have children 'take his side', and might also have unfortunately been partly about punishing my mother. He did not have a good awareness of what raising children was about, and he expected they would raise themselves.

However, since my mother's burst aneurysm at age 37 could theoretically have occurred at any time, since the aneurysm had been with her as a congenital condition, my father was likely at some point to have had to take on all four kids.

He 'did his duty' regarding me, and after that it seemed he became resentful. I think it is quite likely that there was some kind of unconscious power struggle going on on both our parts. In my case, I was not even conscious of any resentment. I felt depressed. I was living in an unbearable state, and I had tried to articulate that, and when the solutions provided by the adults in my life didn't help, I progressed to hopelessness, and began to act out.

But my father's rage as a reaction to my depression did contribute to the situation. My conscious thinking was that I couldn't actually be kicked to try harder. I felt like a failure, I did not blame anyone else, but I honestly did not see what I could do. I had been existing in an unendurable condition already too long. When I was depressed and refused to help in the barn, I thought it was obvious it was not out of rebellion or sass, but that I was noticeably lethargic and sad. And yet I was dragged violently to the barn - the first times I was actually pulled out of bed in my nightgown and forced to help, later I was dragged by my hair, in colder weather, on a night when it was raining and muddy, in my socks. At first I did not fight back, I let him drag me toward the barn, but when I slipped in the mud, the pain of having my hair pulled seemed to cause me to snap and I began to struggle and hit my father, so as to get away from him. I hurled a stream of obscenities at him. This reaction came out of nowhere, or so it seemed to me. It shocked me and made me feel extremely guilty later, but I think it's perhaps an example that my depression was partly about repressed rage regarding my own powerlessness in the situation. And fighting back, although it may have been a sign of 'spirit', and in other circumstances in that degree might have actually impressed my father, in that circumstance it infuriated him, perhaps scared him, and became for him a control issue.

For years I was absolutely powerless regarding move after move after move, and powerless to control the extreme tension in the house both while my parents lived together and then after when apart and there were phonecalls or immature comments or actions on both their parts. I had to leave those I had come to know, often we had to leave behind pets we had become attached to, and on moving days we were expected to put in as much effort as adults and above all, we were not allowed to complain about having to move, or about anything at all, because if we did our parents' immaturity would then be directed towards us. Only they were allowed to express anger, or to have feelings of any kind.

...The unreliable Machiavellian nature of the male power games implies that every friend is a potential foe, and vice versa...

Frans de Waal, quoted by Deborah Blum in Sex on the Brain - The Biological Differences Between Men and Women

My father may have believed, because our communication was poor, that I was always stewing in resentment, and this in itself would have been a major misunderstanding. I was conscious of no anger or resentment. My one outburst was a shock, I could not associate it with who I was or wanted to be as a person, and I felt a lot of guilt about it. I did not on a daily basis feel angry or resentful. I was conscious only of depression, which may have been about repressed anger and resentment. But consciously, I was depressed, and my suicide attempt was not about maniupulation, it was about despair and lack of options. However, I was 'brainwashed' by mental health professionals and by my father's reactions into downplaying the whole thing and facing that I must be a really low, selfish, manipulative person.

Through the years, maybe it was similar with him, that is, that he was not conscious of being angry with me. Or, maybe most of the time he gave me no thought at all, and occasionally he would become angry that I was still living at home. I wanted to talk about it, but he seemed to blow off all my attempts. Maybe it was because he feared he would become angry and kick me out again, and that we would have a repeat of the earlier situation - that I would try to kill myself. But to leave the situation for almost 7 years before having the police take me away, to wait for the situation to solve itself, or to give up on me to that extent - there is no way I can look at it that makes sense, except that it was an extreme example of avoidant behaviour. [Note: Many details relevant to these years are discussed in other sections of my 'psychoanalysis'.]

My extreme self-control when it comes to aggressive confrontation by others, my refusal to show anger, but to choose to remain calm and rational, and probably my 'choice' to remain as 'rational' as possible when it came to any discussion, even discussion of emotions, may have something to do with the original child-parent relating. My best chance was not to show any emotion, attitude or judgment at all, but to remain calm. Even that could provoke anger, but it was a better option than any other.

Dissent is not disloyalty, but my mother was angry when I questioned her about our Siberian huskies getting loose again and killing our neighbours' cat. I knew the girls who owned the cat, and I liked them. I knew what it was like to lose a beloved pet. And our dogs had got loose through our incompentence or irresponsibility - and it was not the first time. And all she could think was that I was disloyal and again that I was the one who 'ruined everything' with my dourness, and she punished me.

My father was unhappy, out of control and erratic from the time I moved in with him. Right away his unhappiness was noticeable in our weekend conversations, in his addictions, and in that he talked to me about sex while his girlfriend went to bed early.

In Grade 10, I wasn't able to compete in a horse show I had trained for for months - because he had gotten so drunk that it had impacted the horse's behaviour, causing the horse to be banned from the rest of the show.

When I was in Grade 11, he was arrested three times for drunk driving. He said 'do as I say, not as I do', but it seems to me that my eventual acting out had at least something to do with his drinking behaviour.

But by then, I wouldn't have been able to move back with my mother. When I saw her, I felt incredible stress, and since the summer of 1981, I realized that I couldn't spend much time with her without feeling even more stressed than usual. There is no way I could have controlled my eating - and I felt very scared by that, in addition to feeling shame about not being able to control my weight. Aside from that, it was not like the situation was completely healthy at her place, either - she was living with a guy who threatened to kill her and/or her kids if she left.

I think that my reluctance to go outside as an adult is very much influenced to this day to my mother's and my relating patterns. The stress I feel unconsciously might be related to her disapproval of me once I was over a certain weight (113 lbs - I am 5' 4"), even if I was very fit at the time. Since she died in 1982, I was never able to resolve this with her, and it may be a combination of guilt related to her death with all the other events that happened in a short period of time that resulted in my inability to ever get past that relational problem.

I suppose that the goal in 'growing up' would have been to eventually confront my mother through my own acceptance of myself.

Our father probably wished us all dead when he felt the weight of his responsibility. However, he could only feel 'justified' in bringing this to consciousness regarding me. It just sounded 'right' that psychics would think I would kill myself by age 21, because he had tried all he could think of and didn't know what my problem was. The psychics had picked up on his unconscious or conscious wish that I die. I lived under the shadow of that expectation for years, which is why I was left alone in the house for so many years. Everyone had the same expectation, unconscious or otherwise, and to think that had no effect on me does not make sense. It at least must be considered, when trying to work out what circumstances I faced that were unique to me amongst this group.

This expectation was exacerbated by my unresolved relationship with my mother. She had already 'given up on me' by saying that I had 'gone to the devil' or thrown my life away in choosing to live with my father. I received no nurturing from age 13 onward to replace what she had originally given me, and which might have counteracted some of my father's abrasiveness and erratic parenting.

As for my father...

From that point on, although on the surface he may have seemed to want to be buddies again, I think a serious rage was festering. But also he was at a loss as to what to do. He probably naturally began to wish for my death, as a convenience, and to alternate with wanting to die himself. But ultimately: it's me or her. If I don't kill her, she will kill me. There are many men in sports, or in war, who can't help seeing all relationships in these terms. It is an instinctual reaction. And can I say for sure that underneath my conscious depression there did not lurk a wish to do him violence myself? It was repressed, and I only had glimpses of it years later - one time when I was in my early 20s, he looked at me with disgust, and my reaction was to imagine stabbing him with a huge knife - but I was shocked and felt extremely guilty about the image that had come into my mind. It has taken me many years to become aware of the possible repressed hostilities on both our parts.

At some point in our early conversations, my father had discussed various rivalries with me, and it would come across as 'this planet is not big enough for the two of us - it is a fight to the death' - and I think I eventually thought that he saw our relationship that way as well. Is it realistic to think that he dealt all the brutal blows? That I returned none myself? But my philosophy, my approach to life was consciously to stop the cycle - in many areas of life. To be the one to bend, to try to absorb (the 'negative', the feelings of being threatened - and not contribute further to them) and understand, so that progress could be possible. Would it have been healthier to write him and others off, return outright hostility for outright hostility - and would it have been more 'honest', since the way my life has turned out, it looks like I have silently and slowly withdrawn from all people as a kind of judgment upon them, which is itself a reflection of my unresolved relationships with my parents?

During Grade 11, there were more examples of erratic behaviour on my father's part. On one occasion, my father blundered into my bedroom early one morning, rambling (and almost giggling) about how he was a 'bad daddy', who had stolen some files from the police station when the officer was out of the room or somesuch thing, or that he had actually tricked him in some way, although still drunk - and that he had just burnt said files in our fireplace.

I have to admit that when I recall stories like this, it is difficult to judge him - it is like I had unusual influences in my life which might have broadened my perception and mind, made me a more open-minded person who was not just a straight-ahead vanilla kind of person, that at some point I had to use my abilities myself to come to some kind of coherent consensus, to admit that I was wired or predisposed to find some 'irresponsible' or non-legal actions humorous, but to also be somewhat impressed by the ingenuity or nerve of my father.

I was never going to be someone who was completely on the side of normalcy, the status quo, or following the letter of the law in all cases, and so in finding solutions for myself, it was never going to work if I completely or hypocritically accepted the system or the 'professionals'. I could never dismiss my father as only or predominantly a monster of a father, and if anything was going to 'work' for me, it would have to entail finding some way of understanding his experience, his potentials and eventualities which did not focus on judging or dismissing him, but which also did not include turning a blind eye. In a way, I risked my life to do that, and it is possible that I take a version of that risk in all of my relationships.

From 1982 - 1983, there was my suicide attempt, my mother's death, my pregnancy, my abortion, my first full-time job, my father's near death, my father's advances, running away from home, a traumatic personal event, my father's religious delusions which also alternated or coincided with an obsession with his own death or a wish for ours or at least the end of the world, his spending money until it ran out while waiting for the end of the world, which didn't come - he was overburdened with responsibility, but I was aware of his stress and his being out of control, and I was the one who was usually home with my siblings. I think it's possible that I used whatever strength I had left to try to protect them.

My own stress had for years already been a partial reflection of his and my mother's. In that particularly stressful time period 1982-1983, the reason my father had delusions about the end of the world was that he was at the end of his resources for coping, and needed the world to end. Viewed from this perspective, in a way it makes sense that if I am stuck back in that time period, I live in a state of panic, feeling that things just can't continue.

If anything, as a teen I was less rude to my parents than most 'normal' teens. Our 'relational' problems were perhaps due in part to me being too sympathetic in some ways, and too mature for my years in others.















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