Emotional Incest

The Hidden Breakdown between Parents and Their Children.

Screen Shot 2015 08 25 at 10.57.04 AM 300x300 Emotional IncestDr. Patricia Love’s book The Emotional Incest Syndrome has been a fundamental tool in my practice and has been critical to my understanding of what to avoid as a parent. I urge you to see whether the following signs of enmeshment occurred in your experience as a daughter or son.

I also encourage you to consider whether you are using any of these infringing behaviors on your children. Below are the signs of enmeshment often overlooked by well-meaning parents who were not given the necessary tools to protect their children’s dignity and individuality.

Indications of an Overly Close Parent-Child Bond

  • I felt closer to one parent than the other.
  • I was a source of emotional support for one of my parents.
  • I was “best friends” with a parent.
  • A parent shared confidences with me.
  • A parent was deeply involved in my activities or in developing my talents.
  • A parent took a lot of pride in my abilities or achievements.
  • I was given special privileges or gifts by one of my parents.
  • One of my parents told me in confidence that I was the favorite, most talented, or most lovable child.
  • A parent thought I was better company than his or her spouse.
  • I sometimes felt guilty when I spent time away from one of my parents.
  • I got the impression a parent did not want me to marry or move away from home.
  • When I was young, I idolized one of my parents.
  • Any potential boyfriend or girlfriend of mine was never “good enough” for one of my parents.
  • A parent seemed overly aware of my sexuality.
  • A parent made inappropriate sexual remarks or violated my privacy.

Indication of Unmet Adult Needs

  • My parents were separated, divorced, or widowed or didn’t get along very well.
  • One of my parents was often lonely, angry, or depressed.
  • One of my parents did not have a lot of friends.
  • One or both of my parents had a problem with drinking or drugs, or addictions to other behaviors, such as work, shopping, or pornography.
  • One of my parents thought the other parent was too indulgent or permissive.
  • I felt I had to hold back my own needs to protect a parent.
  • A parent turned to me for comfort or advice.
  • A parent seemed to rely on me more than on my siblings.
  • I felt responsible for a parent’s happiness.
  • My parents disagreed about parenting issues.

Indication of Parental Neglect or Abuse

  • My needs were often ignored or neglected.
  • There was a great deal of conflict between me and a parent.
  • I was called hurtful names by a parent.
  • One of my parents had unrealistic expectations of me.
  • One of my parents was very critical of my achievements, how I looked, or what I revealed to our community.
  • I sometimes wanted to hide from a parent or had fantasies of running away.
  • When I was a child, other families seemed less emotionally intense than mine.
  • It was often a relief to get away from home.
  • I sometimes felt invaded by a parent.
  • I sometimes felt I added to a parent’s unhappiness.[1]

Notice what fits your experience as a child and what fits your behavior as a parent. Summarily, the dynamics of incestuous families involve heavy use of denial, minimization, and rationalization, along with confused roles, secrecy, rigid beliefs and expectations, loss of trust in authority, and lack of expression of warmth. In fact, solidarity is only a pretense. When one really wakes up from such relational illness, as enmeshment, and tries to parent his or her children, the challenges can be overwhelming.

However, be encouraged. I know that you would not be reading this if you were not looking for ways to improve your relationship with your child. Prayerfully consider whether your relationship with your child would benefit from seeking your child’s input on whether they have experienced any of the above enmeshment qualities in their relationship with you. I strenuously urge you to see your child’s honesty as a blessing.

Technically, ask your child: “Did/Do you experience that you were my emotional support?” If they answer no, move onto the next enmeshment sign in the list. If they answer positively, ask your child: “Would you help me understand how I did/do that so that I can cease using you in this way?”

If they are interested in communicating what has happened with you. My coaching with parents is to do the following in response to their answers:

  1. Thank your child for their honest feedback.
  2. Apologize for burdening your child.
  3. Do not explain the context or excuse the behavior they believe enmeshed them.
  4. Take notes on what they say.
  5. Confess these concerns to a friend/counselor/pastor so that you are able to get support so that you can prevent any further enmeshment with him/her.
  6. Remember that is NEVER too late to establish safety and respect in your relationship with your child. It doesn’t matter if your child is 40 years old or older. You are the most powerful and significant indicator of their worth in their lifetime.

Thank you for reading this. I hope you are encouraged to take back the choice to recover whatever is broken between you and your child.

[1] Patricia Love, The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What To Do When A Parent’s Love Rules Your Life. (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 25, 26

Former Shelterwood Academy Therapist:

Mary Ellen McDonald-Mann, MS, LCSW
President of Mann Counseling Group & Co-founder of Last Battle, LLC

Video: Mary Ellen presents her new book From Pain to Power

OVERWHELMED

images 37 OVERWHELMEDAre you feeling overwhelmed?  I know that only this week I felt completely overwhelmed and not sure what to do next.  And the feeling of being overwhelmed does not seem to go away with age or experience.  It’s always right there, bubbling up as new problems and situations present themselves. And it appears that I am not alone.

Bobb Biehl, a friend, mentor, and a guy that just happens to also be a world-renowned expert in leadership, shared a few thoughts with me as to how he works himself out of the “pit.” I pass these helpful tips along because feeling overwhelmed is unavoidable, but knowing how to dig yourself out of the “pit” faster next time is where the wisdom and growth truly resides. Here is an abridged version of what he shared:

1. STOP … recognize it … admit it, “What am I feeling? Overwhelmed!”

2. ASK “Am I tired?” … Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

* Fatigue turns us introspective and negative

3. UPDATE / CREATE my “Life Milestones List”

* Remembering past accomplishment brings a sense of deep encouragement

4. SHIFT my focus from “What I lack to what I have

            * Moving from negative to positive     

5. UPDATE / CREATE my Visual Perspective Chart to re-focus my thinking

            * Visual Perspective Chart … a sheet of paper with an icon of you in the center and all of the pieces swirling around in your head somewhere on the sheet. This gives you a visual picture of all of the pieces of the puzzle you are trying to put back together!

6. STOP comparing myself to any other human being on planet earth

            * I never want to compare and start feeling superior or inferior!

7. REMEMBER heaven … it puts all of this life’s pressures / priorities in perspective!

 

Now, you and I both have a process to help us find our balance faster next time, especially when there is no one around to help “dig us out”!

Thanks for the help, Bobb Biehl.
You can find more information on this and other topics on his website

 

 

Good Intentions

Screen Shot 2015 03 03 at 11.53.18 AM Good IntentionsWell here I sit in the airport of Jackson Hole on my way home after a week long vacation. Sadly, instead of spending the week on the world-class slopes of the Jackson Hole ski hill, I spent the week in bed, watching television in tremendous pain from gout. Even a doctor’s visit to my room and a steroid shot in the arm was not enough to mitigate the pain and swelling. Depressed, frustrated and feeling like a failure, I am committed to whatever changes are necessary so that I never experience this pain again.

My motivation is sky high and with study I have learned some really useful tips that will help eliminate my risk of gout attacks in the future. I am going to take control of my life; I am going to get healthy, eat right and get my life in order. My confidence in myself is high until I remember that I said the same things to myself last year when I had the last attack.

My own experience with gout is sadly very similar to what I see in myself as a parent. So full of promise, I think through all of the things I want to do with my son and daughter that will deepen our relationships, but never seem to get on the calendar. As a counselor, I find that parents want all the information on how to end the arguments, cutting, or drug use, but rarely put it into action. Is that you? You, me, and almost everyone else on the planet has the same stupid way of doing this. We want to be done with the pain, so we run out there and learn everything we can about what to do, and then we actually do nothing!

My biggest challenge as a counselor and a gout sufferer is motivation and putting the knowledge that is readily available into action. Sadly, we all have such locked-in ways that our good intentions are never acted upon. That is why I still suffer from gout and maybe you continue to repeat old destructive patterns in your home, only to watch the symptoms of such behaviors come out in your kids.

I know you don’t want to watch your kids struggle just as I don’t want to keep experiencing the pain of gout. And as I sit in my hotel room watching happy people board the chair lift for another run it is hard not to feel like a victim…like this gout attack is happening to me and I have no control of my current situation. In families, this type of self-pity leads us toward even greater fractures in our relationships with our kids and or spouses.

I know I am not a victim of gout, but that I have actually unwittingly been giving myself to gout. Living a gout lifestyle. So what keeps me from changing those wicked gout-giving ways? Maybe the same thing that keeps your family in a bind: Inertia, momentum, misplaced intentions, and maybe a dash of good old-fashioned laziness. So let’s get off our butts and own our issues. Let’s take back control of our lives and make some changes before the intensity of the pain begins to fade into memory and we are tempted to fall back into old habits. I know that if I go back to drinking beer and eating beef I will be right back next year on the floor writhing in pain, crying for Mommy, and swearing that I would do anything to make the pain stop.

Compassion Fatigue

iStock 000013332733Medium 300x200 Compassion FatigueRecently, I spent a few days at the NATSAP conference on behalf of Shelterwood. I was fortunate enough to hear John Townsend speak on boundaries. He shared about the cost of not keeping healthy boundaries for parents and care workers (compassion fatigue). Here are a few of the thoughts that I felt were particularly helpful.

Teens Need Boundaries

Adolescence is an important stage for kids to push against parents in an effort to build autonomy. Without boundaries, teens are more likely to become depressed, anxious, angry and detached. Of course, it is not easy to put boundaries in place and maintain them. Boundaries can feel like battle lines as teens love to say, ‘no,’ but often struggle hearing the word ‘no’ themselves. Yet we all know, as successful adults, that hearing the word no is a part of life. It is critical to be able to deal with our emotions when someone says no to us.

Boundaries will feel harsh if they are not built with love and empathy. But make no mistake; there still needs to be a line. Without boundaries, teens can become aggressive, believing that the world is their ‘property.’ Other teens that have experienced boundary violations may become depressed and allow others to trample on their boundaries sexually, emotionally, or physically because they have come to believe that they have no ‘property.’

If not creating boundaries leaves our kids or clients struggling into adulthood, then why is it so hard for us to maintain clear boundaries? Why might we so quickly give in to the demands of our teens, friends, co-workers or spouses?

  1. Afraid of losing the relationship

Relationships are critical to each of our lives and they are often what keep us going. It is easy for us as parents or counselors to build entitlement within our kids or clients because we are safe for them and we feel special when they seek us out. So we might give them extra time, money, or praise when what would actually be better for them is to hear the word ‘no.’ They need to hear no even when giving them a longer counseling session might seem useful, or when giving them their full allowance even though chores are undone in order for them to buy that special pair of pants that will generate a hug and a smile. Teens become entitled so quickly when boundaries are not kept. It is so easy to drift from compassion into co-dependency. When we are afraid of losing a relationship with a distant teen, friend, or spouse, he or she quickly has leverage on us and this is a dangerous power for anyone to have, especially teens. In order to combat the need for your teen’s approval, try to create a ‘life team,’ a group of adults that can support and encourage you outside of the home. Don’t rely on your kids to nurture you, lest you give them too much power.

  1. Conflict Avoidance

Each of us learned how to deal with conflict when we were nine years old. Take a moment to think back to those young years in your childhood home. Maybe you learned how to explode with anger, change the subject, or laugh. Each of these techniques does not really deal with the conflict. The inability to manage conflict leaves you weak in the face of opposition and trying to defend yourself when you actually do say ‘no’ in order to create a boundary around a behavior. Townsend encourages people to role-play in an effort to change the neurology in the brain. It is critical that we as parents and care givers learn to confront conflict and become able to embrace the emotions that come along with saying ‘no’ in order to win the long- term battle of autonomy.

  1. Fear of Failure

We create a fragile teen when we don’t think they can handle boundaries. They become more insecure when we fail to provide the security of rules and follow through. Teens need to learn how to adapt to the difficulties of the world and that failure is part of life. As parents and counselors, we often perceive struggling teens as weak and incapable of dealing with failure. We might unconsciously believe that their drug addiction, depression or anger is the result of difficulty in their lives, and that if we can just remove the difficulty, then they won’t need to self medicate by cutting their arms, getting high, or acting out sexually. When we see them as fragile, we tend to compensate for their weaknesses and enable them to maintain these behaviors. Trying to keep your teen happy and safe will wear you out and fail to teach them how to survive on their own. So often we tiptoe around our teens when they struggle with depression, anger, anxiety, and/or learning difficulties that we actually build greater insecurity in them and continue to perpetuate a dependence on us. While this might make us feel needed and important in the relationship, we are actually just enabling co-dependence.

If you struggle to create boundaries with your teen, ask yourself these four questions when they make a request for your help:

  1. Is this something that they can do for themselves?
  2. Do you have the resources to help?
  3. Will you feel cheerful or resentful after helping them?
  4. Is the outcome going to build autonomy or dependence?

Hope for Teens with Anxiety Disorders

thoughtful med 300x200 Hope for Teens with Anxiety DisordersEveryone has times of feeling anxious, scared or fearful. In fact, our bodies have an innate ability to sense and respond to pending danger that helps us survive. Unfortunately, anxiety disorders can feel like a car alarm repeatedly sounding when there’s no real threat. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern for teens in North America, affecting an estimated 4% of all children, impacting their day-to-day life, friendships, school performance, physical health and their sense of well being. My colleagues and I at Shelterwood are concerned that in this modern, fast-paced, plugged-in world, anxiety disorders in teens are greatly increasing. We are seeing more teens than ever before that are constrained and made miserable by their fears when they should be feeling safe, secure, confident and happy.

Symptoms of anxiety include a rapid heartbeat, difficulty catching one’s breath, a sense of doom, sweaty palms, an upset stomach, and even nausea and vomiting. Focusing on the feelings can cause them to intensify, a vicious cycle. Anxious symptoms become a true anxiety disorder when anxiety leads to avoidance of the situation that is causing the anxiety and causes significant physical distress and disruption of daily life and functioning. An unresolved anxiety disorder can often lead to depression or substance use problems in future years.

Anxiety, however, exists on a spectrum. A certain amount of anxiety is normal and beneficial. It keeps our teens safe and conscientious; it motivates them to perform well. Teens who tend to be anxious are often model students: high achieving, diligent, analytical, sensitive, alert, creative and imaginative. Two little anxiety and a teen may take foolish risks or lack motivation to succeed. But too much anxiety and children become so paralyzed by fear that they may be unable to leave their parent’s side, leave the house, go to school, make friends or participate in normal life.

The good news is that anxiety can be very successfully managed or treated when required. Regular exercise and reliable routines in teens are often all it takes to quell mild cases. Mild and moderate anxiety is very responsive to cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a process of addressing in the unhelpful thoughts and actions that underlie anxiety. Other examples of types of therapy include stopping thoughts, talking back to negative thoughts, not believing everything you think, relaxation techniques such as breathing, mindfulness meditation, and gradual safe exposure to the things which one fears.

Teens and adults alike could benefit from learning simple techniques to turn off their body alarms that are sounding unnecessarily. In more long-term or severe cases of anxiety – such as panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder – treatment may include a period of anti-anxiety medication in addition to teaching the teen age-appropriate techniques.

If you’re worried about your teen’s anxiety, we would also love to visit with you and provide support.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder might be the official mental health title, but many of us simply know it as the winter blues.  While the medical classification of this seasonal pattern has changed over the years, the recognition of this depressed mood has become more common.  It appears that its prevalence ranges from 1.4% in Florida to 9.9% in Alaska.

As Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years have all passed, winter is beginning to hit hard and maybe you have begun to recognize some of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

– Difficulty waking up in the morning
– Nausea
– Tendency to oversleep and overeat, especially having a craving for carbohydrates
– A lack of energy
– Difficulty concentrating on or completing tasks
– Withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities
– Decreased sex drive

snow med 300x199 Seasonal Affective DisorderAs we struggle with the change in sleep patterns, inactivity due to the weather, and hormonal fluctuation due to less sunlight, it becomes much more appealing to stay indoors rather than drive through the cold to meet up with friends. Emotionally, it can become difficult when our schedules are controlled by the weather. So, how do we break out of the pattern of winter hibernation and isolation when it is so appealing? Here are a few ways for us to intentionally combat the emotional struggles that come along with the winter season.

  • Exercise! Exercise increases serotonin levels, helping us to feel excited and motivated. While it’s hard to get up the energy to go out to the gym on a cold night, families can unite during these times. Put in a game on the Wii or do a fun workout video in your living room, together. This approach is good for a few laughs as well.
  • Engage together at home. While it may feel like a chore to go out, bring the activities home. Playing board games together, baking, reading, watching a movie, or playing charades can be fun to do together without having to make the commitment to go out.
  • Build in time to relax too. Celebrate reading a book and having hot chocolate. Light a candle and listen to relaxing music. Take a bubble bath. Intentionally planning relaxing time rather than just isolating yourself can be a healthy way to combat the negative feelings associated with winter.
  • Be productive. When it is not appealing to be outdoors, take advantage of getting household tasks done. Celebrate completing goals, even completing household chores.
  • Intentionally plan outings. Winter introduces many activities such as sledding, skiing, etc. Go out to the movies, to a museum, or a play. Then, reward yourself later with some relaxation time.

The winter months can be long. They can feel exhausting. But, there are some practical things to boost our mood during these times. What are some ways you have found to combat with winter blahs or seasonal humbugs?

Why is it so hard to let go of our kids?

Letting go of fear and responsibility for your teen will be part of the therapeutic process that you will go through while in Shelterwood.  Take a moment to read through some of the common internal dialogues that we often go through as parents when we have a fear of change.

1. Fear of the unknown

Parent:  If I can’t change my child’s behavior, how can someone else?  Will Shelterwood staff be manipulated?  What if he gets sick or she is mistreated?  Who else is going to be in the program?

Teen:  Can I contact my friends?  Do my parents care about me?  Whom can I trust?  Only losers are sent to residential group homes.

We are most at ease when we are completely familiar with our surroundings and sure of what the future holds for us.

2. Fear of failure

Parent: What if I spend all of this money and they don’t change?

Teen:  What if I can’t change?  Is this who I really am?

People expect to get everything right the first time instead of taking time to work things out and getting them right at some time.

3. Fear of commitment

Parent:  What if we give everything to this process and our child remains angry and distant?

Teen:  I don’t feel confident that I can achieve what I really want in life.  If I focus on what I want and then fail where does that leave me?  I think I might be better off not trying.  I don’t want to feel trapped by high expectations and responsibility.

People should be honest with themselves and commit to a few simple goals.

4. Fear of disapproval

Parent:  What if my teen never forgives me for this decision?  What will my parents, friends, siblings think of my parenting if I need to place my teen in a program?

Teen: What if I commit myself to my goals and my parents still disapprove? If I change, are my friends going to dislike me?

You will learn very quickly who your false friends are and who is truly on the side of your self-esteem.