(See post from March 14th: How to Fire A Five-Year Old Boss)
Dave: I have to take a moment to applaud my good friend and muse, Amy Begel. I admire her clinical skills and her writing. She has such a splendid capacity to wrap complex experiences in words. I am a psychiatrist, so I work in slightly different clinical contexts. Sometimes, the five year old boss did not get fired, he got diagnosed with bipolar disorder and now he is 13 still domineering and his family or those who take care of him haven’t fired him they are searching for the ‘right medication’. Amy’s story of the Five Year old Boss is an important vignette. The triangular relational dynamics are lucid. The therapy can start with concern about the child/adolescent being bipolar etc.
But even in situations with more seriously disturbed kids and families the relational dynamics are the same, it is just that they are enacted differently. Mother is afraid to show the child her adequacy, afraid to defeat the child. She wants the father to be involved, but acts like his supervisor when he acts parental. The marital relationship is weakened and the child’s power increase.
In the case Amy describes the parents are fairly grown up resilient and responsible people. There are other situations, where parents’ emotional hunger and naïveté about relationships is more profound, thus the children are more recalcitrant.
The mother here is upset by her little boy’s anger. But you get the sense that while upset, she holds back, forgets she is much bigger than he is, fears he will be hurt, damaged by her strength. The idea of physical restraint seems grossly inappropriate, even abusive behavior in our era of duplistic political correctness.
So here the mother wants the boy to mind his manners, but she does not know how to let him know that she is both bigger and stronger than him. When the father attempts to give his son the message she takes on the role of supervisor of his parenting and thus she becomes an ally to the son in his war with the father. The problem is that when children are not defeated, their grandiosity, their feelings of omnipotence expand. Ultimately they will meet someone from outside the family who is bigger than them and who does not care about them and they will be challenged. How-big-I-am (not) is a lesson that needs to be learned early in life, probably in the range of 2-3 years. Don’t get me wrong, pain should not be part of the lesson, better to do what the father does in the illustration.
The lesson may have to be relearned around age five when the child becomes quite clear he would be a better husband to mommy than the silly father, or she a better wife to daddy than the grumpy mother is able to be.
I do some work in an inpatient unit for children and adolescents. Many of those young people have grown up in disturbed worlds where there are not enough nurturing grown-ups, and they easily regress to omnipotence with little provocation. The therapeutic staff who are attempting to help them do it with caring, they provide the caring which may be in short supply in the world where they have been nurtured. The caring is critical, needed, but when adults are too careful lest the kid feel angry or upset, the therapeutic solutions become part of the problem. The young people expect to be treated like the nobility their fantasies tell them they are, and when the young king or queen gets to the outside world they wind up back in the hospital because they do not know how to accept their place. They have no awareness of how small they are.
I have arrived at a place where all families are alike. They are alike in the way all basketball games are alike. Basketball games have a lot in common no matter where they are played, no matter who is playing, no matter how many players. The goal is to get the ball in the basket, to win, to have fun playing strategically and skillfully. Games are distinguished by the varying levels of skill, but at base the strategy, the moves, the required talents are in common.
I hope you can see how the dynamics of the family described by Amy apply to other kinds of families.