The first installment from “The Mean Dad” series is on 12/4/16
AB: (See post from 12/19)
Session With The Kids:
The four of them–the folks plus Lila and Lance– trooped into my office. This is a family of quite tall and good-looking people. Like they’re from the Tribe of the Over-Endowed. As they settled themselves on my couches, I made a few preliminary comments to the kids, including telling Lance that his parent showed me a picture of some of his recent graffiti art. “Very impressive”, I told him. Lance smiled. I meant it. This kid does indeed have some artistic talent.
After a bit of banter, they launched into a recent argument between Dad and Lance. As we began talking, Dad insisted that Lance “sit up”. Lance straightened himself half-heartedly on the coach. Dad repeated his instruction more firmly. “Sit up”. Lance grudgingly complied. The old man still had a bit of sway.
Dad and Lance told a combined version of the story, which involved taking Lance to an art class. They called this a “trial class” and Lance apparently decided it wasn’t for him. He didn’t think it had anything to do with the graffiti art that he loved. He called his Dad after an hour and asked to be picked-up. When Dad got there, according to Jacob, he tried to find out why Lance wanted to bail on the class. Jacob thought the class might be ultimately helpful for Lance and he was trying to get him to explain his reasons for wanting out. This lead to an escalation of words, with Jacob ending up frustrated and angry.
“You acted like a douche”, said Lance, staring at his Dad. “You didn’t need to get so mad.” Apparently this kid wasn’t afraid of the old man. A faint smile crossed Jacob’s face. He’s not thin-skinned, I thought to myself. I wanted to explore this dynamic where the Mean Dad shows himself. But I noticed something. Since they entered my office, the kids continually looked at Mom. I asked them a question and they looked at her. I asked Lance to talk to Dad and he cast his eyes at Mom. Everything, absolutely EVERYTHING went through her.
I stopped the conversation and shared this observation with Dana. I talked about how the kids continually looked to her when they talked. When I asked a question they looked at her before answering. When Jacob talked to his son, Lance looked at Mom before responding. Wow! Dana heard the wonder in my voice and said, “I don’t WANT to be in the middle”. I said to Mom, “You’re incredibly powerful and I don’t think you know it.”
Lila chimed in; “My mom is always the peace-maker.” I said, “That’s too bad. Sometimes without meaning it, the peace-maker helps cause the war.” I meant this as a small comment, intended as an indirect challenge to Mom. I didn’t want it to sound harsh. She took it.
I told Dana, “You don’t even have to say anything and you’re in the conversation. You can be completely silent and you’re directing traffic without even realizing it. And your kids keep pulling on you to be there. They keep activating you.” Dana nodded. She looked like this made sense to her. Lila said, “It’s actually a two-way street”, meaning the kids and Mom activate each other. I agreed with her.
I wanted to be soft but still challenge Mom’s overprotection of her kids. I knew that this hurt Dad’s ability to maneuver freely with his brood. He needed to have his own voice, and I suspected Mom’s continual monitoring fueled his anger and made him more hair-trigger with his kids.
I asked Mom to turn her chair so that the kids couldn’t keep her glued to them. (I deliberately called attention to the power of the kids’ pull, though I knew Mom was the most important player in this dance.) Mom turned her chair away from her kids, faced Jacob, head down in an attempt to become invisible. She was with me.
I asked Dad and Lance to continue talking about the art class debacle. Once Mom receded Lance became more available for conversation with Dad. They entered into a rather lively back-and-forth, or as lively as possible with a rather hulking fourteen-year old boy. I told Lance that I think his father “lost it” when he felt blown off by his son. Jacob said, “Absolutely!”
I told Lance he should teach his Dad how to be the kind of father that he needed. “How else is he going to know?” I asked. Jacob smiled as Lance listened. I think Lance loved the idea of being his Dad’s “teacher”. . I commented on how competently Lance expressed himself with his Dad. Jacob, clearly enjoying the moment, said, “We never do this. Ever. This is great.”
I wanted Dad and Lance to experience each other in a new way, for them to feel successful with each other. I knew this would go a long way to diminishing Dad’s frequent seething. And it would be good for Mom to see that this was possible between them. I think she worried that Dad, unmonitored, would be dangerous. Not literally. Just that he might get too angry.
Mom said, “May I say something?” I asked her to direct her question to me. (This is structural family therapy stuff. I wanted her to stay out of the family dance for awhile to build up some intensity.) Dana started to elaborate on some aspects of the discussion between her husband and son.
No good. I wanted to give them privacy. I told her, “I’m actually not really listening to the content of their conversation. I’m just watching them talk. ” I added, “Dads and Moms are different. This is good.” She nodded. She resisted offering her comments. Dana was allowing me to be the therapist in the room. That’s a good sign.
We were approaching the end of the hour. As I continued to observe Dad and Lance I was struck by how lively Jacob looked. This guy was full of suggestions, observations, ideas about his kids. He was willing to do anything for them-perhaps too willing. I think both he and Dana suffer from too much helpfulness toward their kids. It’s a middle-class disease. They need to let them struggle a bit more. They need to let them develop their own voices, at their own pace. They need to let them fail. But this is for a future session.
Right now Jacob was in full bloom. He’s an incredibly funny guy, not too straight-laced or righteous. He goaded Lance; “You’ve got some amazing talent. You’re an incredible basketball player, but sometimes you look like you’re sleepwalking on the court. You’re a gifted artist, but you have to apply your talent. You can’t just go through life a Walking Penis!” He looked at Lila; “I don’t care what you do when you go to a party. I expect you’ll do the stuff I did. Just don’t get caught.” Etc, etc. His kids rolled their eyes, embarrassed/enjoying this free-wheeling Dad.
Jacob paused. He studied his kids, then said, “I just want a chance to be your Dad. I want to help you. I want to do stuff for you. I want to make a difference in your life. Make use of me while you can. I didn’t have that chance.” I looked quizzical. I thought his father died later in his life. Jacob said, “My mom died when I was eighteen. My family fell apart.” Silence. I noticed the kids looking at their old man with tenderness. He looked choked up.
Mom had rejoined the group. As we were getting ready to end the session, I made some reference to the caring Dad that had shown up tonight. Dana agreed. She added, “I know that he cares. It’s just his tone sometimes”.
I wanted to reinforce the notion that Jacob’s anger emerged in the context of the family music. His anger belonged to the dynamics of the family, not to Jacob alone. It was not a “personal problem.” I knew that Dana’s over-monitoring contributed greatly to Jacob’s frustration. Hence “tone”. I said, “Tone is a family matter.” Jacob agreed. “Definitely!” he said.
Speaking of tone…the mood felt lively and upbeat as they prepared to leave. As Dana approached the door she slyly turned to me: “Next time I’ll wear my dark glasses!”
We set a time for next week. Lila said, “Next time it’s my turn!”
Next Installment This Thursday….