Monday, November 9, 2015

If I'm not my story, who am I?

November 9, 2015
This last week, Dr. Ben Carson, a presidential candidate, has been defending himself from allegations that he has not been entirely truthful about his self-described untoward behavior as a youth.  Asserting that he was violent and wayward until he affirmed his faith, his life’s narrative is one of redemption.  He has castigated reporters who have not been able to confirm his most dramatic stories as sick and stupid, saying he is being victimized by a biased media.

Regardless as to whether Dr. Carson’s stories of his youthful behavior are accurate, embellished, or imagined, the situation raises an interesting issue – one mental health professionals and rejected parents may face in cases of severe parent-child alienation: When the facts don’t support a family member’s assertions, what is the best way to manage the situation?    

It’s not just angry, vengeful parents who make false allegations. In some instances, alienated children and teens occasionally invent stories in which they depict themselves as victims of the rejected parent’s bad behavior.   And unlike borrowed scenarios whereby alienated children repeat what they’ve heard from others, these stories can come from their own imaginations:  “He held me by the throat, pinning me against a wall, my feet were off the ground.”   “She touched me in the shower.”  “He hit me with a 2 X 4 studded with nails.”  After repeated questioning and retelling, during which they may embellish and add details, I suspect that some of these children come to believe their stories.  Or if not the story itself, the theme: “This parent mistreats me.” 

Rejected parents who have been confronted with false reports feel hurt and enraged.  In the worst instances, false reports trigger referrals to child protective services and criminal charges—frightening and embarrassing consequences.  Naturally, these parents want to set the record straight – both for themselves and out of concern that the children will grow up with a distorted picture.

But they face a dilemma.  On the one hand, rejected parents realize that their children are victims rather than perpetrators of emotional abuse.  Their children are caught up in a situation they didn’t ask for and don’t know how to manage.   These parents understand, therefore, that they have to tread carefully so as not to damage the children further or to react in ways that inadvertently confirm the false portrayal.  But on the other hand, these teens are agents of hurtful and damaging stories – they are no longer passive actors in the family’s drama.   And when kids misbehave, particularly in deliberately hurtful ways, parents feel a natural responsibility to address and correct their children’s behavior. But should they do so when the parent-child relationship is already so damaged? 

Rejected parents and mental health professionals quickly learn that confronting the false reports head on rarely works.  Like a presidential candidate who has been challenged about the truthfulness of his or her statements, alienated children are likely to respond angrily and defensively – now claiming that they are being further abused by people’s disbelief.  Why?  Because the false stories have become part of their narrative, woven now into their identity.  Without the story, these alienated children confront a frightening question: If I’m not my story, who am I?   

The key is to help these children adopt truthfulness as a source of identity without forcing them to lose face.  Rather than “setting the record straight,” it may help for a parent falsely accused to convey an attitude of letting “bygones be bygones” once the child making the false allegations begins to turn back towards the rejected parent.  A similar approach, now used by some mental health professionals, is to declare a moratorium on past statements and actions: “We are going to start with today looking forward, no more rehashing the past.”  And if perspectives are wildly different and can't be resolved, as hard as it is, some parents and their children “agree to disagree” – recognizing that being in relationship is much more important than being right.  


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