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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Family dynamics built on far more than cause-and-effect

Benjamin Garber

Families are fascinating.

Each has its own unique balance of power and control, give and take, loud and quiet.

And each has its own style of chaos and conflict, its own rhythm and land mines, its own magic and secrets.

We somehow knit these pieces together, like cogs in an emotionally intense and complex machine, to create the environment in which we raise our kids.

Families are complex systems within systems of moving parts bouncing off one another with the grace and energy of a kindergarten ballet. When one player stumbles or falls, another leaps and a third laughs so the first lashes out and a fourth bursts into tears while the other two band together against them – but just for a moment, until the unheard music that moves the dance forward changes tempo – the unseen conductor waves his baton and the next movement begins.

It’s odd that we human beings are inclined to think in simple, linear, cause-effect terms even though our experience unfolds in a complex quantum web of emotions and relationships that shift over time.

It’s an illusion to imagine, for example, that a single, logical sequence of domino-like events can be identified as leading 5-year-old Billy to pinch his younger sister over breakfast, no matter how loudly the little boy shouts, “She started it!” and no matter how pitifully little Sarah, the drama queen, cries back, “I did not! He started it!”

True, if the breakfast brawl had been captured on video for a CSI team to dissect, there would appear to be a demonstrable sequence of first and then second and then third events culminating in Billy’s heinous crime.

In this oversimplified, black-and-white view, even a rookie defense attorney could convince a jury that Poor Billy is the victim here, that he acted in self-defense and under duress because, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, underneath that cute little ponytail, Sarah actually did start it! Look! She clearly stuck her tongue out at Billy while Mommy’s back was turned, which prompted him to call her a “piggy” under his breath, which caused the little girl to touch his spoon – oh, the horror! – which provoked Billy beyond reason to defend himself and his property, to bear arms, so to speak, and to thereby pinch his sister’s right thigh, certainly a justifiable act of retribution and self-defense!

Your honor, I rest my case.

Oh, if only it were that simple.

This is precisely why we parents should never ask “Who started it?” or even listen to the bottomless pit, back-and-forth pleadings of a pair of kids eager to convince you that the other should be drawn and quartered, tarred and feathered, and otherwise disemboweled and disowned for his or her most recent capitol crime.

There is no first cause. Unless you witnessed a (seemingly) unprovoked act of aggression, both combatants are wrong. They can either go off and settle it themselves, or both will be punished. Case dismissed.

What no CSI team could ever see on video (and you can’t see, even when you witness one child’s seemingly unprovoked attack on another) are the enormous emotional and relational pressures that ebb and flow in each of our heads, the complex, irrational dynamics that defy domino-like explanations.

We are all constantly digesting and interpreting events, some as recent as my last keystroke, others as ancient as the pyramids.

Some are as immediate and apparently relevant as a little sister’s cooties. Others grow out of places and events and relationships that are far removed but, like a tick on a puppy’s coat, get carried great distances to infect the here and now.

No one can see that today is the day Billy is due to be line leader at school and he’s really scared.

Last week when Tommy was line leader, he tripped and all the kids laughed at him, and Billy’s worried that he’ll trip and then he’ll probably have to go the nurse like Tommy did because Tommy skinned his knee and got all bloody like Grammy got all bloody that time she fell down and went to the doctor in that really cool ambulance and then she got really old and died and Mommy cried a lot and Billy doesn’t want to make Mommy cry the way Daddy makes her cry, so he doesn’t want to be line leader.

Billy is like a balloon filled to bursting, the colorful latex straining to contain an almost overwhelming burden of wishes and fears and expectations and ideas even if the substance of those feelings seems to you and me like silliness. They’re real and threatening to Billy, and they’re relevant even if they’re invisible and unrecognized here at the breakfast table.

Stuffed inside this particular balloon are volcanic emotions that need to be disclosed and defused.

No one would ever expect Billy to learn to ride a two-wheeler on his own, and yet he has been left to grapple unassisted with what happened to Tommy and to Grammy and why his parents seem to yell and cry every night after he goes to bed.

If we aren’t surprised that Billy believes in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the Tooth Fairy, why would we be surprised by this jumbled, fantastical collection of ideas and emotions?

So there they are, brother and sister, rushing through breakfast trying to be on time for the bus, each carrying into the moment all the intensity and complexity and richness that makes up their lives when Sarah doesn’t like the taste of her orange juice (Mommy bought the kind with pulp by accident, she was distracted in the grocery store by a call from her OB-GYN telling her that she’s pregnant) and Billy thinks she’s sticking her tongue out at him and the balloon bursts.

But wait. Let’s not forget all the pressures that fill Sarah’s balloon and Mommy’s balloon.

All the invisible dynamics and expectations and fears and needs that help determine why Sarah sat where she did and how she responded to the juice and why Mommy had her back turned to the kids trying to hide her own volcano of feelings super-fueled by hormones and fears and a marriage that might be falling apart and bills that are overdue just when Billy pinches his sister. Again. He did it yesterday, too.

So, Mommy reacts however she reacts, and these emotions only add to everyone’s balloon and get carried off to school, where Billy will hit Tommy because he wants the yellow truck but really so that he’ll be put in timeout and won’t have be line leader and die and make his Mommy cry.

Of course, 5-year-old Billy has no idea how all those pieces go together. He just knows he’s mad because he’s in timeout. Again.

Do you think that story is complicated? This sort of dynamic complexity is constantly occurring in every family, each family affecting the others around it in a fractal succession of systems compounded exponentially over time to the point that out little cause-effect, CSI-like explanations make parents throw up their hands and quit. If there’s no simple cause-and-effect, if-then explanation, then why bother?

Because we must. Otherwise, we live in chaos. We must teach our children to be responsible for their thoughts and feelings and actions by our own examples and by own calm, firm and consistent parenting practices.

But with this knowledge of the complexity that defines our relationships – understanding how pressures build up and carry over from one setting to another, from one relationship to another – we must also look beyond the observable cause and effect to explain, but not to excuse.

Billy was wrong for pinching his sister. He knows the rules. In this family, pinching is unacceptable. Billy will have a timeout, and after five minutes, will need to explain what happened that put him in timeout, what he did wrong, what he did right and what he should do differently next time.

As part of that conversation, it’s important to understand the pressures at work inside the little boy’s head.

Say, “Is there something bugging you, Billy?” or, “I wonder if you guys heard Daddy and me talking last night,” or, “I’ve been thinking about Grammy today; how about you?” or, “What’s up at school today?” and then listen.

How can you listen best? Let the air out of your own balloon first.

Who listens to you?

Dr. Benjamin Garber is a child psychologist in Merrimack. To order his latest book, “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle,” or to reach him with comments and questions, call 879-9100 or visit Copyright 2012 Benjamin Garber, all rights reserved.