That Forever Dance
Mom and our little lady are locked into a dance. It’s a power struggle. One between the little lady’s aggressive impulsivity targeting what she wants when she wants it and Mom’s obligatory responsibility—and privilege—of training her to ask. They cannot escape the dance.
Some children would acquiesce to the parental squashing right away. Parents might call them “pleasant” or “cooperative.” Other children would vociferously buck up against Mom, refusing to cooperate, demanding to get their way and throwing hissy-fits when they don’t. Such children might be called “trouble” or “nasty.” Or “strong-willed.”
If parents are successful in their training, however, the easily squashed “cooperative” child might grow up to become a loyal follower in her job, marriage, and the church. The strong-willed “trouble” child might emerge a determined leader. But the parent has to train smart. And the child has to learn smart.
As noted in the previous article, the child has three options.
First, she could just keep rebelling against Mom, demanding her way, and throwing hissy-fits when Mom doesn’t cave.
If the little lady remains determined, she can “hook” Mom. If Mom falls into her trap and gets hooked, she’ll easily slide down the slippery slope to get hooked again. And, with that inevitable slide, will come losing her cool time after time—getting very angry, pulling her by the arm for a time-out, yelling at her, calling her names, spanking, or even slapping her. Now Mom and her little girl are doing battle—over and over again—each determined to win the war.
A mom’s other way of coping? In a feeble attempt to get unhooked, Mom gives up on her little lady. She just lets her have her way, time after time.
Either way Mom handles it, the little lady wins the battle. That is, her hostile aggression is rewarded. Yes, believe it or not, Mom’s aggression in retaliation for her little girl’s aggression is actually rewarding. After all, the little lady succeeded in bringing down this sixteen foot all-powerful, all-knowing, god-like adult to her level. That’s pretty powerful. For a little girl, it’s awesome…frightening, but awesome. So even if she gets spanked or slapped, the little girl earns her reward for her aggression by bringing the parent down. Beyond that, Mom is modeling using aggression to deal with aggression. So the little lady is being trained that primal aggression—used to get your own way—is wise.
Tragically, as Mom and the little lady continue in this dance, the little lady emerges into her teen years as a big lady who talks back, is nasty, self-centered, and entitled. She may become so defiant and oppositional that she no longer stays within the family’s guardrails. Once she hops off the family track and over those guardrails, she becomes delinquent. Character disordered. She ends up with little wisdom for how to conduct herself with others. She becomes one of what M. Scott Peck calls the “people of the lie.”
At the heart of it, the little lady now turned young adult is lying to herself. The fact is, however poorly the parents have disciplined, she has witnessed her parents’ values. She really does know that one key reason Mom “lost it” time after time was that Mom couldn’t stand her lousy mouth. Her attitude, behavior, body language, tone of voice, and things she said were out of bounds. Mom simply wanted her to be “nice.” But she wouldn’t. And Mom had had it…time after time. Now, as an adult, that little lady secretly knows that she is continuing to buck up against the values delivered to her. But she refuses to admit it to herself. She lies to herself. She blinds herself to the truth. Another instance of the psychopathology of everyday living.
But, let’s back up. The little lady and Mom still have two other options.
Option 2: If the little lady takes Mom on, and Mom gets hooked but does not relent, the little lady may choose to cave instead of continuing the battle. But such caving is not giving in to Mom because she sees the wisdom of this all-powerful, all-knowing giant. No, she’s not caving because she agrees. She’s not caving because she sees the light. She’s caving to get this giant off her back. Her goal is simply to shut her up. So the little lady will keep her own mouth shut while Mom is yelling and lecturing her, just waiting for her to shut hers.
If that becomes the pattern, the little lady wins again. It doesn’t look it. It looks as if Mom won, but she hasn’t. The little lady has simply gone underground to emerge another day for another battle. She continues the battle in her heart. She may look compliant enough, but become depressed as she takes her mother on time after time in her heart. She may take Mom on passive-aggressively, by becoming stubborn, avoidant, and procrastinating. She may even become a low achiever, not measuring up to Mom and Dad’s expectations as a way to get back at them. For her, such a high price is worth the victory in the unseen battle in her heart.
But—once again, the little lady now become adult no longer even has a clue what battles she’s fighting, what ways she’s fighting, or the price tag to her own lifeline for waging them. At least, not consciously. That’s the blindness. She knows…but pretends she doesn’t. And that’s just another instance of the psychopathology of everyday living.
There is yet a third way. And it’s the way through for both the parents and the little lady. But, like I said, the parents have to teach it smart. And the little lady has to learn it smart.
Frank Barbehenn is an expert on integrating psychology with faith. He is the author of Faith of a Father: from Torment to Trust—Forging Our New Identity in Christ. This book has received industry recognitions including being an International Illumination Book Award Winner and an International Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist.
Frank is a licensed psychologist in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and has been in practice for 35 years. He specializes in relationship and trauma therapy. He also trained in theology. He is a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a Fellow with the American Psychotherapy Association.
He is an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa. and has been on the Permanent Judicial Committee of his Presbytery. He has been a middle school and high school teacher, as well as adjunct faculty in psychology at the college level. He has led seminars, taught Adult Education, year-long discipleship programs, and led church committees.
Frank has been married for forty-four years and is a father of three——Paul, Matt, and Kristen——and the proud grandfather of five (as of this writing): Dylan, Leah, Jacob, Hannah, and Sarah. He loves to sail and play golf, along with launching model rockets with his grandchildren and chasing them around the house as the “Grampy Monster.”
Finally, Frank is the survivor of multiple traumas, including emotional trauma at the hands of his own parents, beginning in infancy.
Sponsored by Frank Barbehenn