Double Binds

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Child Development
Handeling Anger as a Parent

A Double bind is when we find ourselves in a situation that feels like no option is a good option. We place people in double binds when we set them up for failure, offer them no positive way out and when we put them in a position in which no response is good enough.

When we criticize someone for not doing something we think they should be doing, and then tease them or react with verbal shock when they do do it, we are placing them in a double bind. They are criticized or made to feel uncomfortable no matter what they do.

Types of Double Binds

Double messages

Either verbal, nonverbal or a combination of both can create a confusing situation for the child. When a parent says, "I'm not angry!" while tensing muscles or raising their voice, s/he is sending a double message to the child. Which is the child going to believe?

"We are going to the show now. Make sure your brothers and sisters behave while were gone. And don't be bossy!"
Mother says, "I love you," but is stiff and unfeeling.

Frank rarely ever makes his bed and his mother frequently gets angry about it, and sometimes criticizes him for it.

One day Frank was expecting a new friend to come over and his mother saw him making his bed without being asked. "I never thought I'd see the day that you would make your bed without me yelling at you! You're so meticulous about it, you look like a regular housekeeper." Her response was punitive and negative. Frank was so hurt that he vowed never to make his bed again.

His mother had made it impossible for him to change. She had placed him in a role and had not allowed him to escape from it even though she thought she wanted him to.

Contradictory messages
"Stop acting like a child and grow up." Later the parent says, "You can't do that, you're not old enough."
Torn Loyalties
Father: You may not leave the house tonight.
Later when the father has gone...
Mother: Dad's just upset. You may go, but be home before your father gets back.
Example -- Based on a True Story
A family goes to the grandparents house for Thanksgiving dinner. The grandfather is a convicted child molester who has done his time. The grandmother stayed with him in spite of the fact that he molested their own children. The mother's two young daughters dislike the grandfather and want nothing to do with him. After arriving back home the mother asks the oldest daughter if she had a good time. The daughter knowing that her mother would be angry if she said "no" decides to lie. Later the younger sister tells the mother the truth. The mother flies into a rage and punishes the older girl for lying. The mother created a situation in which the daughter was unable to respond without getting into trouble.
Controlling with guilt
Parents sometimes blame children for things that are beyond their control, to manipulate the child's behavior. "My ulcer is acting up again because you children fight all the time. If you don't stop, I'm going to be sick again."
Controlling with Flattery
Parent to a child, who often causes trouble: "You are a really nice boy. You are mother's big helper, aren't you? Come help me pick up the toys now."

See how the parent uses guilt by flattering the child,(Your are a really nice boy) telling him who he is (mother's big helper) and then asks for a certain behavior. The child in this situation experiences momentary confusion. He likes the flattery but can't internalize it as truth. He is then asked a question (aren't you) which he is not expected to answer. This creates an instant cognitive crisis, setting the child up for taking on the role that was just assigned to him, rather than allowing him to determine for himself what and who he really is. The child then feels shame if he doesn't do what the adult has asked him to do, because he will feel as if he was admitting that he wasn't really a nice boy. In fact, he realizes that he doesn't want to clean the room and so he must really be a bad boy rather than a nice one.

The child does what is asked of him out of guilt, but begins to feel bad about himself because he knows the secret, that inside he really isn't a nice boy. This is the beginning of the child learning how to control others by manipulating them with flattery and guilt. It is also the beginning of the deterioration of any positive sense of self-worth.

Later in the child's teens, the parents who used this technique will be the ones who complain that their out of control child is very manipulative. When their teen turns to gangs for identity, they will complain that it was because he fell into a bad crowd. When actually what happened is that the child was never able to form his own identity because the parent was always telling him who he ought to be. When their young teen begins to realize that he has been manipulated all his life, he will become rebellious and actively work against the values that his parents taught him as a child.

Catalyst to Change

We can make it easier for other people to change by doing the following:
  • Counsel with them when an important decision needs to be made, when needs are unmet or when responsibilities are not filled. This needs to be in the attitude of assistance not coercion or judgment.
  • Show love, encouragement, and support for the good qualities of the person. Give credit for the benefits of work that have been received.
  • Extend massive doses of support and encouragement when an error is obvious, acknowledge, or apologized for, and express appreciation for work well done, even when it is "expected" work.
  • Encourage their self confidence by giving them space and support in making their own decisions. Let them know that your love for them is unconditional and is in no way hinged upon the decision they make.
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