Thursday, January 26, 2012

I know everything I need to succeed in life...

Occasionally, I run across family systems that are heartbreaking.  Consider the following: my client: a middle-school aged kid.  His mom requested I work with him because of his behavior at home and at school.  Seems that all he wanted to do was play his Xbox.  He is very smart and schoolwork holds no interest for him, so he sometimes refuses to go to school.  His mom says that he often throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way.  He is close to neither parent and his siblings are old enough that he may as well be an only child. 
Using open ended questions, I discovered that he considers himself to be decently happy and content with himself, but has few friends.  Asking about the presenting issue as described by his mom, he admitted that he is spoiled.  I asked him to finish the following statement, "The most important thing in life is..."  his answer: to not be bored.  Though he is not a child of the 1990's, my brain sparked and connected to the grunge band, Nirvana and their hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  Part of the chorus pleads, "here we are now, entertain us!", helping the song to be hailed as the anthem of an apathetic generation who only wanted to be entertained.  As I continued to dialog with the kid, I learned that he described his relationship with both his mother and father as distant and faint.  Developmentally, it is my understanding that most children find their identity and sense of self through their connection with their family.  At his age, he should be starting to develop his identity apart from his family, but it seems like his family identity was never really formed, as he feels no attachment or connection, only entitlement.  Trying again to get a sense of his value system, I asked him to evaluate the following quote: "Show me the person you emulate and I shall know by this measure, better than any other, who you are yourself."  The young man was quick to analyze the sentence and reflected to me that he understood its meaning.  But when I followed up with, "So, who do you admire?  Who in your life is someone that you can see yourself growing up to be?"  He thought for a few minutes and then shrugged and said, "No one, really.  I think I know everything I need to succeed in life."
At first, I had to stifle an urge to laugh at the seemingly preposterous statement I'd heard.  My bemusement quickly turned to pity when I realized that far from being cocky or feeling entitled, this young man's problem was not a character flaw in himself, but a failure in his family system.  I felt sad for him because his parents don't know enough to challenge him or help him have a healthy sense of self. 
I have come to understand, as I work with various families, that kids' behaviors and beliefs are generally a response to their environment.  So, as I am presented with a kid whose troubled behavior or attitude is labeled by their parent as the presenting issue, I am always careful to examine the family system and try to work with the parent to depathologize the kid and help the parent to accept some responsibility for the resulting behavior which they say they don't want.
Anyhow, I am saddened because my role in working with this boy is limited and in order to really address the core issues, the needed work is with the family system, something that is unlikely to happen.  I think the best I can hope for in this situation is relationship triage, not relationship repair (as it relates to helping this young man to have a healthy connection to his family).

The situation invites me to reflect on my own family functioning.  How would my children be affected if I viewed their behavior as a function of their response to the environment that I create for them in our home?  Now, I don't want to take absolute responsibility for their actions, but do I really recognize and honor the influence I have on my children, or do I discount it?  If I have generally happy children, how am I influencing their happiness?  If I have generally anxious children, how is our home environment encouraging them to be anxious?  If my children are generally angry and hateful, what kind of environment am I providing for them?

Nietzsche wrote, "When you look into the Abyss, the Abyss looks into you," reminding me that I do not remain unaffected by the families that I encounter in treatment.  Even as I hope to influence them, I recognize that I am influenced in return.  Hopefully, I will embrace the opposite philosophy that my young friend espoused and will find freedom to grow by knowing that far from having everything I need to succeed in life, I recognize that I know nothing.  And that is the beginning of wisdom.


1 comment:

Marlis said...

Very powerful words, Jeff. Every parent should hear these spoken once in their lifetime. Preferably before a crisis hits.