De-coding a Defiant Teen’s Message to his Family

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I had seen the Franklin family for about three sessions on zoom, and I still didn’t really have a handle on what was going on. When I say “what was going on”, I mean what was happening in the family operating system that was contributing to the rebellious behavior of their oldest son, Thomas. As a family therapist, I inherited the conviction, borne out over many years, that problematic behavior in kids is 99% of the time rooted in the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, dynamics in the family.

The Franklin family (all names and identifying data are of course disguised to protect confidentiality) consisted of parents, Gene and Sandra, and three kids; Thomas, 17, Lance, 15 and the little daughter, Gretchen, 6. The family came to see me because Thomas was doing some serious parental chop-busting; not doing his homework almost to the point of failing out of school, staying out past curfew, and occasionally getting into near knock-down-drag-out fights with his dad.

The zoom sessions didn’t capture the underlying stresses in the family. Thomas was polite and respectful to both parents, and revealed himself to be a very sensitive young man. He of course had some advice for his parents, which was mostly of the “hands off” variety. He wanted to be free to, as he said, “determine my destiny”, to make his own decisions about his schoolwork. “Butt out”, was his plea to his parents. Of course their anxiety about his possible academic failure made this difficult. Recently Thomas, handsome and athletic, had acquired a serious girlfriend, whom, he said “really wants me to do well and is helping me get there.” It looked to me like Thomas was fighting with someone in the family by his mostly passive-aggressive behavior, but I couldn’t understand who, or what was keeping this fight alive.

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When a child or teen is showing troubling or defiant behavior, the young person is often, consciously or unconsciously, trying to heal wounds or power imbalances in the family. I know this may sound crazy to the uninitiated, but often what may look like “crazy” behavior on the part of a teen is their attempt to help the family. There has been a lot written, researched and studied about this phenomenon, but it has been lost to the general public, along with many gems in the family therapy field. This is mostly due to the ascendence of the biological model, the “chemical imbalance” model that has taken over the mental health field. The power of relationships on mood and behavior has been eclipsed by the emphasis on “genes” as a determinant of mental health.

Back to the Franklins. As I said, I didn’t really have a handle on what was going on with this seemingly loving family. Then they showed up in the office and I got to see a live action demonstration of what was behind Thomas’ acting-out. Early in the session, which included the mother, father and two oldest boys, Gene, the father, was pushing his sons around in a petty way, insisting that they throw out their gum, and a few other orders that seemed harsh and dictatorial, almost like he was inviting a power struggle from his sons. Gene was an expert at digging in his heels. Maybe that’s where Thomas got it. It was almost a burlesque of what a “stern” father was, like Gene had seen a movie of a no-nonsense dad and he was doing a rather amateur imitation. Meanwhile, Susan, the mom, sat quietly in her chair, watching the display.

Of course I commented on this rather sad scene. I said to Gene, “It looks like you’re treating them like little kids who need close monitoring. These are almost grown men, especially Thomas. He’s going to be living on his own at college in a year or so. Maybe you’re fighting battles you don’t need to fight? What’s going on?” Gene appeared to resent my rather modest challenge to him. He said, something to the effect, “I’m not sure they know who’s boss. They’re always testing the limits.” I said, “Yeah, that’s pretty typical. But it looks like your approach may be adding fuel to the what would otherwise be a slow burn.”

At this point Sue chimed in. “It’s always been important for Gene to establish his authority. I think that’s because his father could never stand up to his mother. He would always retreat, and that was very hard to watch. Gene’s mother would walk all over the father and no one stopped her.” Ah hah….now we were getting somewhere. I turned to Sue, “That was a very helpful observation. Maybe that’s why Gene finds it so hard to back down. When he saw his father continuously back down, it felt dangerous. What happens when you guys fight?” Sue paused, “Gene is the alpha in our relationship. I am the one who backs down” , she said with a slight smile on her face.

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It was true, Sue had a real gentle demeanor. And her career as a meditation teacher supported her image as a peaceful person, perhaps even a conflict avoider. I asked her about how she felt about conflict. “Not good” she said. “I’m a terrible fighter. I’d rather avoid it, or give in, if at all possible. I especially hate it when things get out of hand”, she said, motioning to her husband and Thomas. Gene was watching her. He said, “I’m incredibly surprised to hear that. It sounds like I’m an abusive husband. I don’t see myself that way.” He was right. He wasn’t an abusive husband. He was a caring man, worried about his son and his family. But he could be incredibly pig-headed. Susan said, “No, I don’t mean to imply that. But you know how you are…”

This was not the turn of events they, or I expected. I felt like we just had our first real family therapy session, though we’d met several times before. Now I, and they, saw, or felt, these painful undercurrents that had been part of the family operating system for some time. Thomas’ “bad” behavior was now cast in a different light, a re-branding. In our session he no longer looked like a teenager hell-bent on defiance, but rather as a sensitive young man worried about subtle but troubling imbalance in his parents’ marriage, and in the family.

At this point I looked at the sons, Thomas and Lance, and they were riveted by this conversation. I guessed that this imbalance of power was something they saw, and worried about. Maybe even Thomas was trying to help. In his attempt to “defeat” his father, he may have been getting back at him, thinking he was helping his mom. I asked Thomas, “Is this something you’ve thought about? Does it feel some times like your Dad is too strong? Too strong even for your mom?” Thomas was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “My mom is such a softy. She doesn’t know how to fight. And my dad doesn’t quit. When he gets an idea in his head it’s his way or the highway.” I asked, “Do you worry about your mom? Do you think she can stand up to him if needed?” Again Thomas paused, “I don’t know.” I said, “Maybe you’re trying to show her how.”

Gene didn’t seem very happy. I think he felt exposed, though I did my best to show him respect and care. But if this therapy was going to be successful, Gene, and Susan would have to become patients. That’s probably what defines family therapy. The family moves from seeing one person as the patient to accepting the idea that the family is the patient. That’s when healing can begin. I wish I could say that’s what happened with this family.

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That was the last session I had with them. I haven’t heard from them; that was nearly six months ago. I’m not sure if they went to see someone else, or just continued with Thomas’ individual therapy. I’m frankly a bit surprised. I would have bet that this father, Gene, could handle the challenge and rise to the occasion. I thought he had more curiosity about himself, or a bit thicker skin. I’ve seen many, many families over the years with similar dynamics and most often families return and keep at it. They are usually rewarded. It is a bit of a stress-test for families, particularly when someone in a position of power feels their ego challenged. It is a test of character, and ultimately of mental health. To allow oneself to be challenged, to be able to expand our self-image, these are necessary ingredients for a happier, freer, more fulfilling life.

2 comments

  1. Dear Amy, thank you for this vignette. I missed your posts.
    I am currently working with a family, the teenage daughter entered medical school but fails to “move out” (literally and emotionally from the family due to difficulties in the marriage of her parents. The mother asked now for couples therapy, she keeps coming to the sessions and the father constantly misses out (while he complains to feel excluded from the family)
    I feel inspired by your posts, please keep writing! Love, Raluca

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