Nick and Madison shared a personality tendency toward anxiety. Nick saw aspects of his mother in Madison and projected onto his daughter the underlying vulnerability, helplessness and lack of security he felt stemming from the sudden traumatic loss of his mom. Madison had already been experiencing herself as lacking control and vulnerable to being hurt. On top of that, Nick often “gave” Madison his own anxiety, causing her own state to escalate.

In family therapy with Nick and Brooke, the dynamic between Madison and her dad, in which he passed his anxiety onto his daughter and made her feel bad about herself, played out in a similar way between the parents. Brooke inadvertently created a feeling of insecurity and sense of failure in her husband through her constant criticism of him. Becoming aware of these feelings and understanding what led to them allowed Nick to awaken and be empathic to the similar unintended effect he had been having on his daughter. Recognizing also that his wife’s “nagging” was in part driven by her concern and fears about his health, that allowed him to experience it differently.

Madison learned that she did not have to take on her parent’s feelings.

Madison worked in therapy to separate her own inner experience from her dad’s and learn that she did not have to take on his feelings when he was anxious about her or believe that his fears represented the truth about what would happen. As she understood that her dad’s reactions were the result of his own anxiety and often had little to do with her, she became less reactive to it.

Madison’s symptoms were alleviated as a result of her parents’ improvements in therapy as well as her own. Nick and Brooke learned to better understand Madison and their effect on her. Nick became aware that he identified Madison with his mother. He began to recognize the impact of his mother’s death on him, leading him to feel unsafe in the world, and unwittingly impose this onto his daughter. Nick became more self-aware and better able to manage and contain his feelings, as well as “own” them rather than project them onto his daughter.

Madison gained control over her panic attacks, which ultimately remitted, as she became able to accurately identify, understand, and bear the feeling of anxiety rather than be frightened of it. She developed the courage and ability to better articulate what she felt scared and angry about (adjusting to high school, feeling helpless, her dad’s attempted hold over her), rather than have it spin out of control and manifest physically.

Tips for Parents

  • Keep in mind that children are affected by the dynamics in our relationship with our spouse and that we cannot effectively keep this compartmentalized.
  • Children are affected unconsciously by unarticulated, “unknowable” issues lurking from our past. The more we allow ourselves to know, understand, and digest our own experiences, the less likely it is that they will be projected onto others, and the more control we will have over our effect on our teens.
  • Our own state of mind and tone when talking to teens will determine the effect of what we say.
  • Notice the effects of your behavior and interventions on your child. Consider other approaches if what you are doing is not “working” to create the intended effect.
  • It can be difficult to know whether our own past is at play or whether our reactions are “legitimate.” We should suspect that our own issues are creeping in when:
    1. our feeling reactions (anger, self-righteousness, shame) are powerful and require immediate release.
    2. we are certain we are “right.”
    3. we feel the need to “teach a lesson.”
    4. we take our children’s behavior personally.
    5. we find ourselves being repetitive or in a repetitive cycle with our children.
    6. we find ourselves lecturing.