News & Views - Jun,
1998 Issue #52
WHEN PARENTS PLAY TOXIC GAMES
By: Tom Bratter, President
John Dewey Academy
Gt. Barrington, Massachusetts
(Tom Bratter is a man who tends to be brutally frank regarding
the good of his students, especially when he thinks parents are undermining their child’s progress toward a healthy adulthood. His
frustration shows clearly in the following article written shortly after dealing with parents of several children who undermined the
school’s interventions and gave in to their child’s manipulations. He makes two points. One is that toxic games by parents can be
destructive to the child’s future. The second is that Freud’s recommendation of isolating the family from the treatment of the child,
if followed, has the effect of encouraging parents to fight back in negative ways. Although many would think that the words he uses
are too harsh, most would also understand his frustration in seeing a kid manipulate him/her-self away from learning responsible living.
The John Dewey Academy rejects Freud’s (1920) harsh condemnation of the culpability
of the family, whom he believes, sabotages the treatment and recovery of the adolescent by being intrusive.
The interference of relatives in psychoanalytic treatment is a…danger. It
is impossible to approach relatives of the patient with any sort of explanation, one cannot influence them to hold aloof from the
whole affair, and one cannot get into league with them because we run the danger of losing the confidence of the patient…Those who
know the rifts…formed in family life will not be surprised…when they discover the patient’s…relatives are less interested in seeing
him cured than in having him remain as he is. (p. 398)
We encourage family participation. By including the family we can educate,
rather than treat them so they can help their son or daughter to help him/herself. Despite being responsive (nightly at least one
parent calls me at home), some parents permit adolescents to intimidate/manipulate them. For those who leave against the advice of
the staff or are expelled, we urge the family to find another residential program. Our students are astute clinicians because intuitively
they sense parents often will acquiesce. While painful to admit, in ten cases I have been “fooled” by parents whom, I thought, would
prevail by sending the student to another special purpose school.
What I find appalling is the extent to which some families pander to the
outrageous demands of the adolescent by providing generous allowances, purchasing cars, condoning drinking and smoking. Indicating
extreme anger, I wrote in brutal terms: In view of recent events, I am tempted to limit enrollment to orphans! This year’s senior
parents not only are unappreciative but also, more seriously, sabotage the chances of their adolescent to survive and succeed…When
their adolescent was disrespectful, refused to commit to remaining nicotine and alcohol abstinent…parents remained silent implicitly
communicating approval of self-destructive and anti- authority behavior. Less than 33% of the senior parents had the decency to call
to thank when colleges of quality admitted their children.
The legacy of the class of 1998 is their poisonous disrespect, mistrust,
and blatant violations of rules. To stop this noxious legacy, radical and drastic action was initiated. For nine days, the juniors
slept in the group room. Classes were canceled for three weeks, while we repaired the damage done by seniors and their parents. We
divided students into two groups. The first group of ten has demonstrated a commitment to the principles of The John Dewey Academy.
The second group of nine, now four, slept in the basement until they not only decided whether they wished to remain but also convinced
peers they will change. Seven students have either left or been expelled reducing our numbers to sixteen causing a financial crisis.
Consequently, I contemplate selling the school.
While adolescents feel entitled because they have been forced to endure residential
placement, incredibly some parents forget their terror and sense of impotence to persuade the student to stop self-destructive, deceitful,
drug-related acts. Some parents play lethal games of not only avoidance-denial but also minimizing the frightening reality the adolescent
remains at extreme risk to destruct.
Admittedly, these three are extreme examples that hopefully will prevent
others from duplicating duplicitous behavior. I like writing brutally candid letters hoping to force the family to recognize reality
and not pretend the problem will be self- correcting.
First: A student’s sister confided she loved to drive at excessive speeds
when inebriated. Two of her father’s brothers killed innocent individuals driving while drunk. One month after writing the following
letter, the family welcomed their son home.
Your daughter exhibits poor judgement driving at excessive speeds…SHE ALREADY
HAS HAD TWO ACCIDENTS…What is your response? To prohibit her from driving at night…(1) Are you so stupid, crazy and naïve to think
Wendy cannot and will not drink during the day? (2) What message is communicated to Wendy when you permit her to continue to drive?
(3) That you approve of alcoholism? (4) That you are resigned alcoholism is inevitable in your family?…Fact: Alcohol is poison. Fact:
A car can be a weapon which can kill…Should Wendy maim or kill herself or others, I will view you to be accessories. You possess the
power. As parents, you have the obligation to prevent your daughter from becoming a menace to herself and others! By not demanding
she stop drinking as a minor immediately, Wendy feels you condone her drinking and drug use. “Is this the message you wish to convey
to your immature, and impulsive sixteen year old daughter?”
Second: Expelled for getting a tattoo, her family imposed no consequences,
though they know the younger brother is a keen observer of the escapades of his sister. They ignored a letter.
Your daughter needs to be held accountable for her behavior and suffer consequences
for her irresponsible, deceitful, self- destructive acts if she is to learn the wrongness of her ways.
By permitting her once again to “run away,” you deprive her of the most valuable
learning experience of her life which not only would have yielded enormous payoffs but also places her at extreme risk to FAIL…What
Gayle fails to recognize is if she were to stay and do what she needs to do, she would gain their respect and affection. If Gayle
claims she does not know this, she deliberately distorts.
By remaining silent in her desperate time of need, you permit your darling
daughter to leave (1) flawed and weak with a continued record of not completing anything. (2) With a warped definition of friendship.
(3) Being addicted to the extremely self-destructive philosophy “I want what I want when I want it and I do not give a damn about
future consequences and the impact it will have on others.” (4) Gayle feels entitled and while protesting she hates the label of “air
head” does nothing to rid herself of the image of “poor little rich girl.” Had you been assertive by demanding she remain, you would
have given her the most valuable gift of her life: TO GRADUATE WITH PRIDE, SELF-RESPECT, CONFIDENCE, AWARENESS, AND POSITIVE MOMENTUM.
I predict your family always will regret not forcing her to graduate the right way.
Third: This reality is ominous and obvious. I wrote the mother:
Are you so ignorant not to recognize when you treat Jason as if he is “emotionally
ill,” he becomes enraged? He hates you because you did not avenge his father’s murder. I predict should Jason return home it is inevitable
he either will assault or murder you!…I have worked with enraged masochistic- sadistic adolescents for almost forty years, so I am
not a novice. Are you so ignorant not to recognize you will sabotage his treatment by encouraging him to return home?
I wrote Jason: You have placed yourself in a “no win” position. The objects
of your rage are the two people with whom you can live…Should you become violent, you cannot claim it was spontaneous. The Court will
know your acts will be premeditated, guaranteeing you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, probably being incarcerated.
Decide whether to stay, change, and invest in yourself and your future or leave and in so doing decrease dramatically the chances
for you to use your awesome intelligence.
Freud is correct concerning the toxicity of families, but is wrong to exclude
them from treatment. With no communication, it is assumed the noxious impact of the family will escalate because there are no checks
and balances. Obviously, even when there is intervention, the family can remain a formidable foe. Learning from failures, in the next
issue of Woodbury Reports, I will discuss a creative remedy to parental passivity and sabotage.
Freud, S., (1920), A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.
New York:Boni and Liveright.
Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced
without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)