Turning Around the Negative Cycle in Families

on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 39 The Crisis in Parenting, 2001

Paul Andrews, SJ

February 2001

What is the real problem?

When you work with families, you get used to double-takes. The reason a family gives for seeking the help of a stranger is seldom the real reason. It is always more complicated than it appears. In a crisis, there is a tendency to find a scapegoat, draw a circle round her/him and say There's the problem. It is always more complex than it looks, and the initial problem is seldom the real one.


Jim is a quiet, agreeable 11-year-old, doing badly at school. On testing he turns out to be bright, but mildly dyslexic. His general ability is in the top half of his age-group, but his reading and spelling is in the bottom 5%. There is something more: he is diffident, almost cowed. It is only when you see husband and wife together that you sense the volcano of anger between them. Their son registers it as little animals sense the forthcoming earthquake long before the seismographs register the first shake. Helping Jim with his reading will be only a first step towards bringing him back to confident learning. The family has to tackle its problems too.

That is my first reflection: that the cry for help often comes from the family rather than the child. I am having problems with my 14-year-old son. He has become very difficult. I am at the end of my tether. Further complications emerge on enquiry: I separated from my husband last year…Matt is making suicidal noises. It is not a case of drawing a ring round Matt and pointing: There is the problem. Much more a case of enabling the responsible parent to survive and live with Matt and he with her. As Dilys Daws remarked: Children (and adolescents) are sent for therapy because somebody wants them changed. Obviously one does not take at face value the notion that it is the young person who needs to be changed. On occasion the best advice may be to seek family therapy. There are times, however, when individual therapy with a young person is the best, though by no means the only way forward.

Abuse is not normal

The first requirement is to recognise that there is something wrong. Some families live in a climate of mutual abuse which is as natural to them as water for a fish. They cannot imagine another sort of family, although the children may sometimes get a glimpse of one when they visit friends. Adults may see alternative styles when they watch soap operas on TV - though these tend to model conflict and break-up rather than stability of families. There will be no turning around until the family realise that things are not as they should be, and there are alternative ways of getting on together; until they recognise that while tension and arguments are normal, screaming and abuse are not.

Once a family recognises that things are not as they should be, there is often a widespread sense of guilt and failure, and a search for someone to blame, that most futile and destructive of quests. Mother is ashamed of her short fuse, or the fact that she is starting to dislike one or other of the children. Father feels he has grown away from his children, but shifts the intolerable guilt for that onto his wife. The children internalise the accusations and criticisms which come their way all the time. As they face the task of improving things, they all, at some level, fear that it will mean putting themselves in the dock. At the start all feel guilty, and find it hard to consider a change until they experience respect from the rest. The strong tendency to look for something to blame is itself a large part of the problem.

Can I praise the others?

The start of any repair process is respect for the others. Can you praise the others? Success is what we do with our failures. Recognise that each member of the family has invested in it. The family carries his/her hopes and expectations. It is not like a new couch or a new car that is expendable. Family is for life. It is never something you can leave behind, or pick and choose. The parents have restricted their choice by opting for one another, and for their children; and the children, though they do not choose their parents, have a stake in them as they will never have in any other human being.

Many years ago I was invited into a family where the daughter (call her Lara) was mentioned as a problem. She was the eldest, and as she turned into her beautiful teens, her father, who had loved her as his princess, was baffled by the change. She would spurn his advice but quote with awe what she had heard from some young friend down the road. She obviously preferred to be out of the house than in. From being a dutiful daughter she seemed to her father to have become something of a monster, looking to a wild bunch of friends for her style in clothes and make-up (tending towards the outrageous), her language (often rough or obscene), her morals (at least as expressed in her conversation) and her centre of gravity.

That at least was how it looked to her father. I sat down on one occasion with him, his wife, and daughter and asked them to say what they liked about each of the others, without ifs or buts. Lara had no difficulty: despite the difference in age and style, she liked her mother for her warmth, her father for being a strong and responsible provider, and for all the fun she used to have with him. But when her father tried to say what he liked in Lara, he could not finish a sentence positively. She can be good company - but she is never in the house. She is bright and intelligent - but she does no study and is wasting her brains. She is pretty - but look what she is doing with her face and hair and clothes.

In the comfortable suburb where they lived, the teenagers formed a large, noisy, visible group, and Lara found a welcome among them. The old wisdom is that teenagers look to their peers for matters of style and appearance, and to their parents for more lasting values. It seems to be generally true, but is not always obvious to the parents, because lasting values do not show on the surface, whereas lifestyle does. \'Style\' of conversation often means holding forth on matters of politics, morals, religion, in a way that deeply offends parents.

Three weeks of abstinence

What her father eventually did was heroic. He gave himself three weeks - his wife went along with him - in which he would hold back any criticism or comment on Lara, except to compliment her. It meant letting all sorts of annoyances pass unremarked. It gave him a space in which to sort out the trivial from matters of deeper concern. He found that most of what annoyed him was trivial, details of dress, appearance and conversation that changed even in the trial period which he allowed himself. He saw how much of Lara\'s posturing was just experimenting with style, trying to find what was really her. He found that she could still be a delight to him, she could still be funny and great company, though her quickness and sophistication often made him nervous.

Lara had in fact given up any hope of pleasing her father. She had unwittingly accepted the role of being a disappointment to him, a thorn in his side, and was beginning to find pleasure in her ability to annoy him. Now she discovered to her surprise that she could still please her father, and in a different way from when she was a little girl.

If there is a general rule, it must be something simple like that: stop blaming, start praising. But it is never that simple. The turn-about could come equally from the parents discovering that they have the right and the ability to say No, and to set limits to children\'s desires which bear no relationship to their real needs. One could argue endlessly about the details of this: how much money they should be given, what freedom they should have to go out or stay out or drink or absent themselves from a family meal. Basic to all these is the principle that a family is not a democracy, but a group with diverse experience and responsibilities, in which the adults have ultimately to answer for their children as well as care for them and listen to them.

A family may mean anything from two people to ten or twelve. I once taught a girl who was the seventeenth of twenty-five children of the same father and mother. These people know one another in a way that no stranger will ever know them; they can start a war by a mocking glance, a gesture of the hand, a mimicking phrase. If they are to seek help outside the family, a first question must be: is it help for an individual, or for the whole family? Will it be individual or family therapy? Even to answer that question one must have some understanding of the history of the family. Each of us brings a script to our dealings with others. Mother and father have their own histories which tend to be reproduced in the present. These operate below the level of consciousness, so it is almost impossible for a couple or family to tackle their own dynamics without help from outside. Only an outsider, and one with some training, can pick up the underlying patterns.

Family Styles

Family styles vary hugely. Some prefer arguments to atmosphere, others vice versa. In some, members blame one another constantly and use scapegoating. In others they cling precariously to one another and feel unduly threatened by any hint of separation, disagreement or even individuality. In others they maintain independence only by constant manipulation, fighting and abusive behaviour. In others they are endlessly competitive, striving for sexual dominance and fearful of being the loser. Other families can allow individuality without competition or conflict, and for at least part of the time they can show cooperation and creativity. It was about such as these that Lacan famously remarked: If you want an institution that will produce a creative and revolutionary people, you cannot find a better one than the Western nuclear family.

In turning around a negative cycle, the prayer for serenity has its place. You have to recognise what can be changed and what cannot, be wise enough to know the difference. Just as an alcoholic starts his recovery with the recognition that alcohol is something he can no longer handle, so a family starts its turnaround by accepting what is happening. Even to talk through the mess with somebody who will respect them all, can work well. Nearly always there will be attempts to suck that somebody into the mess, pressure them to take sides; their only value is in staying outside the war. Every therapist knows the anxiety of feeling that the family wants you to be effective, firm and in control, and at the same time makes you feel quite powerless. You can become the family scapegoat, feeling you have to do something, but worried about taking sides.

The price of break-up

All through this paper I have felt the tension between broad generalisations and getting embroiled in endless detail - endless because one could not start to do justice to the varieties of negative cycles in families and how they are tackled. Some messes seem so bad that you feel their only way forward is to break up the family and start again. The price for such a decision is huge. Spouses feel they have failed in the most important decision of their lives, and find every aspect of life, including the management of children, harder to cope with. There is often poorer communication with the children, less affection, inconsistent discipline and control, especially with sons. Children in turn tend to nag, whine, disobey, attack, demand more, and ignore mother, leading to a two-way escalation of coercive exchanges.

There are resources available in Ireland now that may prevent breakdown, ranging from the non-directive Parentline (phone 8733500) which I have known to be enormously helpful in defusing a crisis, to more structured interventions by professionals in the health boards or other bodies. The journey back is helped above all by parents who (both father and mother) stay close to their children and try to minimise on-going conflict between themselves. Children can also be helped - in sharply varying degrees - by therapy and counselling, both individual and group.

Those seeking an employment niche in the Irish scene should develop a skill and organise a place for group work with the young victims of family discord. It is more cost-effective than individual therapy, and can be more fruitful. It is exhausting work, because the therapists (usually a man and a woman, to take the roles of the parents in the exchanges) are at the receiving end of intense emotions. Boys in particular express their anger by noisily or cunningly disrupting anything the adults are trying to do. Yet it is effective, and much appreciated by the young people who want to keep coming despite the chaos they cause.

We used to smile at a prayer which was attributed to a synod of the Church of England: Lord, give us the grace to disagree without being disagreeable. Disagreement of some sort is built into the very make-up of a family; there are always clashes of interests. It is only when arguments move from being the small change of family life to being occasions of abuse and anger, that danger beckons. Even then, there are ways back, ways of turning around the negative cycle.


Fr. Paul Andrews S.J. was director of St. Declan’s Child Guidance Centre for nearly twenty years.  He works as a psychologist  and therapist with children and young people.  He has co-authored Parenting (1991), Nervous Breakdown (1994) and Check up Children (1994).  His book Changing Children was published in 1994 by Gill & Macmillan.

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.