We sometimes rank power relationships according to physical or economic factors and in terms of immediacy. Thus, children are to obey adults, residential staff are in charge of the inmates (children or adult), "control freaks" dominate their meek partners, and men are stereotyped as dominating the female, as having more than equal "rights." However, the more effective relationships, the more subtle and delayed ones, are often in the reverse direction. (1)
The child's tactics sometimes are reflexive and fairly clear. For example, Kitty experienced postpartum depression. Her gloom was aggravated by her conviction that "my daughter won't smile at me but she will at her father." Some coaching in how to talk to an infant alleviated a portion of Kitty's distress. Cases, however, become more complex as the child gets older. Their armaments increase in power and cleverness.
My most delightful source of referrals is a local pediatrician who sends me 3-4 year olds who are defiant, restless, hitting peers, and generally in charge of the house. Tom Phelan's "1, 2, 3 Magic" ($45 from ADD Warehouse, 1-800-ADDWARE) often solves the problem. The procedure involves time-out for 3 minutes, and sometimes with a Brody-Change-Over-Delay refinement ... the criterion for getting out of the penalty box is 3 continuous minutes of quiet. Complain a bit and the clock resets. (2)
I first meet with the parents but without their child, take a complaint/history statement, loan them the tape to watch (after I highlight key steps), and ask them to apply the methods at home. However, some parents don't implement the program although they think that they do.
On the second visit, all four of us are together. (I ignore their predictions that their child will destroy my cluttered office.) I have earlier informed them, in our first session, that it might be necessary for me to apply a time-out or ask them to do so, in my office when they bring their child. During this second visit, I tolerate their long-term, parental strategies for a few minutes and their lectures to their child. I even prompt them to "Give a Count."
Most children, even the 3-4 year olds, rarely need more than "1" in my office. If they need "2," then they will almost certainly get "3" at which point I ask dad (usually) to put his daughter (usually) on a small oak stool, facing a door. The child usually does better than the parent. Dad's become as upset as moms when their little girl rolls her lip out and blinks her eyes. Screaming is more tolerable for dads than little sobs. I've seen fathers break into sweats, fidget, or give me talks about "how beneficial it is to see what their child is actually doing" during these time-out moments. (3)
The notion is subtle, that their 3 year old (or younger) has powerful tools to motivate adult compliance and will do so. Screams, sobs, threats to leave home, "you love my sister more than me," or "commit suicide" are a few of many tactics the child will use. Not speaking (a time-out to use on parents!) seems highly effective. These basic strategies are amplified by other experiences the parent may have. Parents who were themselves reared by loud, strict parents may have resolved never to use the same methods. Some of them may have siblings who did elope, take up drug abuse, or kill themselves. Others have difficult memories of feeling abandoned by parents (whether or not such abandonment actually occurred).(4)
Parental vulnerability continues as their child passes through adolescence and adulthood. In one instance, an idealizing mother was driven out of many hours of sleep about what might become of her manic (but not bipolar!) teenage son because his father had left. In another, an older sibling committed suicide in young adulthood; the younger, now past his 30s, sometimes amplifies his own moods when approaching his parents for cash transfusions. I had periodic rescue missions with my own son through his teens and into his early 20s. I'm relieved that he's now so thoroughly independent and earning more than I do but still have memories and periodic lapses back into my standby mode.
I doubt that a "little person" sits between the ears and "decides" to manipulate mom or dad. The behaviorists have shown us well that consequences matter whether mediated by language or not. Thus, these feelings and behaviors do not stop with adolescence or even with the adult child leaving the parental home. They can predate language development and high level planning skills; they can perhaps exist independently of verbal strategies.
Suomi (1997) comments, "high reactive infants reared by unusually nurturing attachment figures are relatively precocious socially and typically rise to the top of their group's dominance hierarchy." Suomi's observations startled me because they reinforce the importance of adults' being responsive to children's strategies and because they could apply to a number of mother-child pairs that I know. He's talking about rhesus monkeys but describes some of my clients as shown in the following examples.
Sarah says, "George (an intermittent heavy drinker, a candidate for a bipolar label, and the youngest of 5, therefore, Born to Rebel?) had me and his 4 older sisters taking care of him. If he was irritable at breakfast, Susie would pamper him. We're still doing it (he's 40). He lives with me, Gail is making him do a budget, and Susie is pushing him to see a doctor." Sarah also works in an adult residential facility. "The guys at the Home are the same way ... check their histories. A bunch of momma's boys who drink and can't stand to be alone. Momma died and they needed somebody to take care of them and put up with their drinking."
A family doctor that I know is thankful that Pete (10 years old, frequent mood swings, obsessive, and "nerdy") has two bright, supportive parents. But, she wouldn't call them enabling. And she would likely be confused if I referred to them as his tools or as an extended phenotype. ( )
The "little manics" sometimes are idolized by their mothers. Joyce (a single mother) buys her son the best sneakers, the best brand shirts and pants. They both are fanatic about his looks. She pampers him on a variable-ratio payoff with property and affection (and he emits the high rate, relentless behaviors usually associated with VR schedules!) while bullying him into behaving in public. The threat of private school and removing him from his alliances (a.k.a. "friends") have been sufficient to support an A average and enforce respect to his teachers (a major problem in past years when she was less firm and automatically on his side in teacher conflicts). Both of them appear to be manic and have recurring problems with anxiety.
Gail comments freely that her 11 y.o. son, Mark, is "perfect, all I ever hoped he would be" but her annoying husband is "all the bad things she never wanted." Her husband sees Mark as temperamentally identical to himself. Gail is herself isolated from friends and family support except from her mother. Gail explains, "Mom is always there for me," perhaps a subtle difference from "always on my side" and perhaps not. Anyhow, Gail will "always be there" for Mark. She will not have an easy time as he matures and she becomes more aware of his similarities to his father. She may work harder to erase them, to save him from being like dad (who's really a pretty good guy aside from being passive aggressive at times) rather than admit that she's attracted to those traits in Mark just as she once was in his father. The BIG step will be admitting that she's still attracted to them in his father!
George (11 years old) gets "weirded out" in strange settings although he is usually arrogant. Although he "has always told us what to do," seat him with strangers or a new context and he becomes hypervigilant, anxious, and tearful. Arrogance returns as soon as he sees an exit. (5)
Jeannetta (4 year old) expresses great separation anxiety; however, she is thoroughly domineering once assured of her mother's availability. There is a smaller expression of either trait when left in dad's company. Jeannetta, at 4, has tools and uses them; her mother reinforces the tools. Barkley has commented on the ease with which children acquire ODD tricks; is this a shadow of a Psychological Adaptation?
It appears that these enabling mothers, the ones that I urge to arrange "therapeutic walls" for their children, may be doing a useful service for their driven but anxious children as they move from reactive alpha infants to still reactive alpha adults. Alpha's future wife will be recruited because she can fill the same role. (As posted elsewhere, the anxious enabler sometimes will gain substantially by her affiliation with an obnoxious rock thrower.) Hank is 7 y.o.; his mother comments, "He seems so hard on the outside but I know that he's really soft on the inside." (Hank just went through a 4 week interval of clinging to mom, crying about going to school, complaining about his stomach, sleeping on the daybed instead of alone in his room, and telling her often, "I miss you." Who could possibly resist such a strategy? I think he will use it often because it will be reinforced, premeditated or not. An extinction strategy could produce a depressed child or one who looks for another source of reinforcement, one that will pay him for complaining.)
Mechanisms? A lifetime of analysis can be devoted to the serial events between an egg's demand, "Hey, get me a sperm" through alpha marrying mom's replacement. The mechanisms could include mom's (and dad's) seeing her child as an extension of her personal territory? Imprinting in both directions? Supernormal stimulus effects since these kids may be livelier, larger, and physically healthier than their midpack peers? Just as girls tend to prefer males with vigor, size, coordination, and resources, mothers may likewise favor children with those traits. (I'm ignoring emotional stability since manic guys become superconsiderate and protective when courting; things are different once they make their sale.) It's already shown that mothers of many species neglect and may abuse or ignore her less active, the more sickly offspring.
Some enabler mom's could feel resentful and betrayed when the affectional exchange proceeds in only one direction. Equal reciprocity, an even swap, does not exist. The exchanges routinely favor the child who is running his own genetic program for the interest of his genes, not his mother's. Likewise, her genes are running her genetic program for his interests, not for hers. She may at times be either manic or a "sucker" herself in her sewing circle, she is nearly always a "sucker" with the child. (6, 7) She will cry, lecture, and lose sleep when he lies to her, takes her things, or calls her names when she refuses to surrender the car keys. (8) Cleaning his room is probably more in his mother's interest than in his own. The child will lie to mom but get highly upset if she lies to him. Kids run their own program, not for their parents' benefit and parents are programmed to benefit the kids. Push the limit? Women and children first to the lifeboat! Your last morsel of food ... eat it yourself so you might reproduce again?, give it to your healthy 6 year old? (certainly), give it to your infant? (possibly not), give it to a sickly offspring? (likely not).
1) I once trained institutional staff in client management. The aide group was not often comfortable with my notion that the clients (average I.Q. of 25) were actually in charge of the aides (average IQ perhaps average). Disgruntled husbands often learn that their wife has the bottom-line authority. The middle-aged manic on my couch is silent while his thoughtful wife interrupts him and says, "you're going to do what the doctor tells you." (Manics can hit a wall at any age! And many of them act like little kids, still arguing with mom.) I know a 4 year old who, informed at age 3 that a sibling was on the way, reacted with prolonged tears and shouting, "How could you do this to me!"
2) There are individual refinements for age, activity level, and for shaping the sitting behavior.
3) My own adaptations are still functional. I get anxious and restless to the same cues that arouse the parents. I explain this and that I have to work very, very hard to maintain a dispassionate exterior in order to model the effective technique for them.
4 ) There's a trap for many children of driven parents, that of escaping parental tactics, forswearing them, and finding that your child uses them on you. Or, of having married a man similar to your abusive father, divorcing him, and finding that your son has very similar tactics, including lying, threats, insults, assault, and defiance. This similarity can work to the child's interest should it be necessary for the grandparent to assume more than a casual role in child rearing.
5) Bill Jenson (1995) noted that some teens may be oppositional and delinquent in many ways but still have more social anxiety, various phobias, and perhaps depression than average adolescents. He labels them as "tough kids," others would likely call them "bipolar." perhaps Suomi would consider them to be high reactive alphas.
6) Suomi (1997) has also commented that high reactive female infant rhesus can often become abuse mothers later unless they have extensive social supports. Manic moms run to doctors!
7) You can extend the model and ask if the last morsel goes to a healthy son or healthy daughter as a function of the mother's age.
8) Her reactions might be more extreme given any tendency for her child to act like one of her own parents who DID make her their priority because she was downstream from their genetic influence. Another model might suggest that children are in r-Selection, treating adults as a novel, rich environment of limited duration. Adults, however, are in K-Selection, their environment at carrying capacity. Thus, many rules exist along with a high investment in offspring.
Jenson, W. (1995) A parents guide to raising tough kids. ChADD presentation, November, Washington, D.C. Contact Dr. Jenson in the Educational Psychology Program, University of Utah. He, with Rhode & Reavis compiled a "Tough Kid Tool Box" that contains reproducible forms and programs suited for elementary years.
Suomi, S. (1997) Nonverbal communication in nonhuman primates: Implications for the emergence of culture. In Segerstrale, U. & Molnar, P. ( Eds.) Nonverbal Communication: Where Nature Meets Culture. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 131-150. (References to the original articles cited by Suomi were excluded above but available on request; send me an email, email@example.com)