A fairly common practice of too many parents is to make their child an intermediary when a fight is going on between husband and wife. When parents do avoid assigning the child this role, the child will appoint himself or herself without prompting. Attempting the impossible and never giving up, as children tend to do, will always result in symptoms of some kind.
Children forced to endure parental fighting or to witness one parent being abused by the other will suffer emotional turmoil, including fearfulness, becoming withdrawn (so that he does not have to take sides), or acting out as a behavior problem in order to draw attention to himself as a decoy and stop the threatening struggle. Bed wetting, for example, or nonconformity in school, can sometimes accomplish a truce and also provide a way to vent the unavoidable rage the child feels as a result of what he is being put through.
If it isn’t the marriage itself that is the source of the child’s unrest, it is often another kind of unhappiness on the part of one or both parents. Every child who senses unhappiness, fear, or other distress in a parent will try to fix it. He will not only believe that he is able but will actually take it upon himself as his own personal responsibility, often for life.
Children are not aware that their power is limited. Thus, children undertake the task of rescuing Mother or Father or both. If they try to be a better boy or girl, perform perfectly in school (or misbehave), be quieter or noisier when Mommy’s upset, go to bed earlier, stay up later, stop fighting with siblings, start fights with siblings, try something different, or try everything harder, they will achieve their goal. When they fail, and they always do, they believe it is their fault.
In one case of this kind, I was a young woman’s 30th doctor. She came to me at the age of 19, never having been out of a mental hospital for more than six months from the time she was 13. She arrived with the firm expectation that I would put her back in the hospital, as all 29 other doctors had done.
When the entire family was called into the office, everyone showed up except the father, who had long ago abandoned them all. The patient, however, deep in her subconscious, continued to hope that repeated hospitalizations would bring him back. Through all these years, the family had deteriorated through the mother’s lost ability to govern, with the result that they were more sick than the patient.
They did not need to deal with this fact, however, because they kept their focus on the patient, who cooperated fully. She was the endpoint in every matter discussed, and the family was entrenched in a process of shunning their own problems by projecting them onto the patient.
All through the first family session, the patient was the only one openly upset. She spoke with emotion, cried, complained, and argued, but the rest of the family stayed composed as uninvolved observers. When all of this was pointed out, that the patient was expressing all of the emotion for them, they seemed unconvinced.
I suggested that the patient felt all alone in being the only one to admit the pain, that she was crying on behalf of them all, that she was suffering in their place. This arrangement was not fair, I contended, and it was too much for the patient.
Finally, one of the brothers sprang up and ran over to comfort her. Next, a sister followed; then, Mother. Before long they were all weeping and yet with great relief because it was good to have everything out in the open.
All resistance and denial were given up by the family, and they began to talk honestly about the real causes of their suffering. The patient was relieved of her obligation to continue as mentally sick. Instead, she began to lead her family into some deep insights about the way they had all dealt with emotional pain in the past. She never returned to the hospital.
Mixing children in parental struggles is pervasively destructive simply because children believe what their parents tell them, no matter how preposterous. They try to adapt to the role they are assigned or place on themselves. Children will participate in any and all madness.
The dilemma for children is that there is no normal way to react to craziness. If only professionals could accept this fact, they could identify who really needs help in a family.