The first installment from “The Mean Dad” is on 12/4/16
AB: Here’s Session # 2 from The Case of the Mean Dad:
Session with the Kids:
I’m never sure what to expect when I have the kids come in following a meeting with the parents. Sometimes the picture is quite different than the one painted by the older folks. In this case, these four robust- looking kids were well-behaved, but not TOO well-behaved. As they seated themselves on the couch, I noticed that Lila, the eldest, was the obvious CEO of this sibling operation. Demonstrating the calm competence of a surgeon, she kept four-year old Mia occupied while simultaneously checking on her 11-year old sister, Jenna, and fourteen-year old brother Lance.
I began by connecting with each of the kids, verbally and through play. Soon Jenna opened up a discussion of family stresses by wishing out loud that “there wasn’t so much yelling at home.” She made it clear that she meant the arguments between Dad and Lila. Jacob muttered something about wanting Lila to “take better care of herself.” He cited her refusal to go to an early morning Spin class as a symbol of her personal neglect. An avid triathlete, Jacob has voiced fears about his own potential for “falling apart”, and he appeared to project these fears onto his oldest child. Lila, by the way, is a pretty, 5-foot 10”, big–boned, healthy-looking young woman. In no way would one think of her as “fat.”
Lila became tearful. She clearly looked like the child most under pressure. Lance saw Lila’s tears and put a protective arm around her shoulder. I told Lila that I was impressed by how caring she was toward her brothers and sisters. I said I notice that she had been “on duty” since she arrived. I expressed admiration for her obvious competence in making sure everything was ok, but wondered aloud if it felt heavy for her.
The parents watched silently as Lila talked about the heavy responsibility she felt, both for her siblings and to try to please both her parents. She said her mother is a “saint”, but she worries she’ll never be able to please her Dad. Lila said some of the best times she has with her Dad is when they’re riding bikes in the forest near their home, but because of their respective schedules they don’t get a chance to do that too often. There was longing in her voice. I thought to myself… so Dad and daughter DO know how to have fun together!
Lila impressed me as a very close observer of her family. She knew the weak spots and she knew the strengths. I always get the kids’ take on their parents’ relationship. This gives them a chance to let off steam about what they are thinking and worrying about anyway, and it’s usually helpful for the parents to hear it. Lila nailed it. She said she feels lucky because she never worries about her parents’ marriage. “They still love each other, even if my Dad is an awful grouch sometimes.” I agreed with her. Jacob and Dana’s love seems real, and strong.
Lance, who had been a strong, though mostly silent presence, decided to weigh in. He said he worries about his Mom. He said, in a somewhat self-mocking, censorious voice, that his parents have a “uxorious”marriage. We all burst out laughing. Since I, along with everyone else, didn’t know what this meant, Lance clarified that he felt his Mom was too submissive to his Dad. (I looked it up later and actually it means a man being excessively fond/submissive to the wife.)
In the remaining moments of the session I knew I wanted to reorient Dad toward Lila. He apparently thought of her as someone who needed “fixing” and I needed to disabuse him of this notion. I talked about how terrific these kids were, making sure to give the parents–especially Mom–credit. I laid it on thick about Lila’s demonstrated competence and thoughtful comments about the family. I worried out loud about the heavy sense of responsibility she felt.
Dad’s tone shifted toward one of more respect toward this eldest child. He joked that he would be advising her on running her own company one day, and how much fun that would be for him. He ruminated out loud that he “worries” about his kids. He wants to “make sure they’re ok.” He may not have wanted to reveal any tenderness when he said this, but to my ears it was unmistakeable.
We ended the session with the idea that they kids would come back with their folks in a few weeks to report on the state of the family weather. As they left, I felt optimistic about this case. How come? Dana’s initial phone call had made their situation sound somewhat dire:
Perhaps most importantly, this family has powerful internal medicine: Caring + humor. Dad especially. He’s just been hiding it. He’s not really the overly critical bastard that he pretends to be. In his little book, “How to Cure a Fanatic“, the great Israeli writer Amos Oz characterizes fanaticism as an “uncompromising self-rightousness” that is found in families as well as among ideological groups. I’ve seen this phenomenon frequently. It’s a kind of rigidity that makes change difficult. Oz, who describes himself as “a recovering fanatic”, says, “I’ve never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor.”
In this family, Dad’s “Bad Guy” status results not from any intrinsic rigidity, but rather from some personal insecurities, his worries about his kids, plus emotional isolation from his wife– especially in the heat of battle. I gather that what happens is that when Dad tries to correct one of the kids–especially Lila–Mom often tries to smooth the waters, which feels to Dad like Mom is playing on the kids’ team. Dad can’t get mad without being made to feel like a clumsy, over-bearing brute. This makes him dig his heels in even harder.
We agreed to again in several weeks. The couple elected to come in on their own. They said they had “some things to discuss.”
As it turned out, this cased became more complicated than it first appeared.
Next Session: The Couple