Children have moments of looking at themselves apart from the established structure. This becomes more pronounced in the teen years. This can become a major source of contention inwardly where the child sees himself in a way that may not meet to the approval of the family structure. The structure where authoritarianism reigns may shun the thought and creative expression of the child leading to repression of independent thought and action.
The child is expected to do those things which protect and preserve the family structure. The structure may be faulty, but nonetheless it is maintained, at times violently so. Being a deviant from the structure can have dire consequences for the child, from within the family structure itself and as a result of the energies wasted in a struggle to change something where they have not been empowered to evoke change. They are left only to comply. Their unhappiness and discontent will be ignored to preserve the ‘integrity of the family structure.”
Often there exists the situation of self fulfilling prophecies within certain structures. What one hears they unfortunately become. If a child is told that he is a certain way, and this becomes a repetitive message, it is likely he will behave in like fashion. The child may repeat the very language he hears, not necessarily knowing its meaning, but knowing it conveys a feeling and can be used as a defense. There exists at times in families, one who will do all possible to preserve the structure, no matter how dysfunctional it may be.
This person often utilizes an authoritarian stance and expects their children to respect them solely for the sake of their presumed authority. Their objective is control, and the independent or creative nature of the child is looked upon as a deficit. The child’s only voice is to be the parental voice, if it is not, punishment will certainly come. This person is many times a person who implies the idea of ‘do as I say” but not necessarily as they do.
This creates despair in the child, leading to states of hopelessness and depression. They may begin to question their sense of self, their own identity. They become anxious, fearful children who appear timid because they dare not speak something which could bring them punishment from the authority in charge of the structure.
This learned behavior begins to manifest outside the family structure as well, as these are the children who then become easily swayed by peer influence. These are the children who do not really know themselves so they adopt the traits of those around them, seeking to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging. They are thus always victims of control.
Once they branch out from the control of the authoritarian parent, they are bound to be controlled by some other party who will influence their decisions and deprive them of critical thought. They may not realize they are being controlled, thinking they are somehow apart because they belong to a ‘clan’ who dresses this different way or that, but nonetheless they are under the control of something or someone. These children are usually the underachievers. They are not sure of what to strive for, thus they often do not strive at all. They allow life to merely ‘happen’ rather than taking charge themselves.
The overachiever is one bound by feelings of inadequacy and this often takes its roots in the familial structure. It is often in these situations where there exists a force within the family who has defined the rule of what it means to be ‘successful’. There is the constant pressure and drive to have the child to conform to expectations. Those with this structure in place highly value competitiveness. The siblings are often competing for attention for one another. It is often the only child or the firstborn who is placed in the glorified role. If they meet the expectation, they are heaped with praise, if they do not; they are likely to be cast aside.
Once cast aside, or in the worst case, cut off from the family, they often enter into depressed states. They may seek various avenues to mask their feelings of inadequacy. These feelings of inadequacy may impair their future relationships. They may become those always striving for an unreachable ideal, always slightly out of reach. They cannot fully accept themselves in the present moment, but always want to be gaining or achieving more. They become individuals whose level of dissatisfaction can become immense.
There exists in some families as well where the gap between ages of the siblings is significant, and where one sibling may have been seen as having provided a contribution to the family and deemed ‘successful’, and the far younger sibling once reaching the ‘freedom’ of adulthood develops a resentment towards the older sibling and adopts a victim mentality. This then can lead to the younger sibling entering a period of rebellion, rejecting opportunities, and seeking to align himself with those who standards are lower than himself or that of his family. By doing this, the younger sibling can stave off their feelings of inferiority.
There is the public image and the private image. This dichotomy often creates great confusion and distress and can lead the child to questioning of reality and their identity. What is meant by the public image is what the leader(s) of the family structure wish to convey to the outside world, whereas the private image is that dysfunction which lies within that these individuals are wanting to conceal at whatever cost.
Familial secrets exist, trust is lacking, and children are guarded about their expression. Children may be lied to and dilemmas between family members masked or suppressed. The real nature of things may be shrouded in confusion and ‘mystery’. Mixed messages may arise, or the members of the family may see themselves placed in ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t situations.” Some family members may frustrate themselves in striving for the ‘ideal’ structure which never arrives.
In the dysfunctional structure, as in oppressive societal regimes, there are those who seek rebellion. Rebellion against the structure becomes more pronounced in the stage of adolescence where already the teenager is beginning to exert a greater sense of autonomy and desire to be apart from the familial structure. However, because children lack the resources for which to engage in a rebellion that could be successful, the rebellion is always squashed.
What does this leave the child to do? They can do little but endure and await the period where they can break free from the structure that they find oppressive. What is termed ‘conduct’ problems is usually this desire to break free from what the child has perceived as oppressive in their lives. Often without the appropriate guidance and ‘moral compass’ coming from the familial structure, their rebellion turns not just to fighting the familial structure, but the structures outside which also resemble the authority they have found oppressive.
This type of rebellion is usually futile and self-destructive. There exists the warring between parents themselves, which cause the children to be placed in the predicament of divided loyalties, not knowing which parent to turn towards. There may exist the opposing styles, one parent who is permissive and one who is the authoritarian. This scenario leads to immense conflict.
In the worst scenarios, the combination of ‘seared in’ memories of trauma, with the dynamics as mentioned above leads to the disintegration of the person. Reality is too painful, and is questionable. Reality is not reliable. As a result, this member of the family seeks to ‘break out’ and develops the behavior that would be termed psychosis. They retreat into their own inner world, their own sense of reality and identity.
This too is often a painful journey, but not anymore painful than the experience of the structure they have felt subjected to. Children in some structures are still viewed as ‘property’; therefore they are often enslaved to the faulty structures. Mere compliance does not earn one’s freedom but neither does active rebellion. Cycles exist, once a structure is learned, it is bound for continuation.
The child in many instances will perpetuate the structure that they learned once they have their own family to lead. The stresses and trauma of one can often become the stresses and trauma of all, it becomes a collective trauma. The faulty structures within the family dynamics are seen in society as a whole. Therefore, we are all shaped by the society and the family structures in which we have encountered.
Thus, concepts of ‘mental illness’ or the ‘unruly child’ all take shape and form by the experience one has in the family and ultimately in society. These are not biological processes, but rather social and political processes.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.