Children’s Responses to Rigid Parental Expectations

On the outside, Steve became the man his mom wanted – obsessively driven and protective, with a reflexive survival instinct to dominate and attack. Underneath, however, Steve felt anxious, empty and lonely. He was also unsettled by the awareness that he was easily triggered into a detached anger and ability to get out of control.

Unlike his brother, Drew couldn’t develop the image or behaviors expected of him, and felt inadequate and ashamed. He learned to lie, and alternated between accommodating and rebelling. Insisting that no one could stop him from being himself or make him into someone else, Drew developed an “identity” based on needing to prove he could defy his family’s values and attempts to control him. In doing so, however, ironically he took on the familiar role from which he was escaping, in which he was the object of others’ fantasies – desperate to secure love and affirmation, but betraying himself.

Steve felt terrified and helpless as he witnessed his brother setting himself up to be victimized. His efforts to force him to behave not only failed but inadvertently trained Drew to be submissive in close relationships, and tempted him to break out and do the opposite of what the family wanted.

Steve felt protective of his brother and cared deeply about him. But when they talked, he lectured and made fun of him, modeling himself after his mom. Feeling overpowered and judged, rather than cared about, Drew shut him out and counterattacked, rigidly determined not to submit. This defense provoked Steve into asserting more dominance, perpetuating a battleground and stalemate between them.

Effects of Growing Up in a Stressful Environment

Steve and Drew were driven by a chronic sense of agitation and reactivity as a result of growing up in a highly stressful, chaotic environment. With looming emotional or physical threat, children are catapulted into a constant state of hyperarousal. This state perpetuates ongoing activation of survival instincts such as fight and surrender, persisting into adulthood even when threat no longer exists. Overwhelmed physiologically, and armed with a paradigm of rigid relationships, Steve and Drew were unable to extricate themselves from a battlefield mentality.

Therapy helped Steve and Drew see that they were re-experiencing the pervasive anxiety and power struggles they internalized growing up. As they recognized this, and saw that their fights were fueled by trying to fend off being overpowered or shamed, they no longer felt so divided. Also, when Steve recognized that his approach was reinforcing Drew’s inability to hold his own in other relationships, he was determined to learn more effective ways to relate to him.

Learning to Communicate Differently

Coached to use a softer tone and express caring directly, Steve began to reach his brother emotionally in the sessions. In turn, Drew became less defensive and more cooperative, and began to see that resisting others was not always the way to be true to himself.

Leveling the Playing Field

When the brothers first moved in together, the therapist empowered Drew to temporarily be in charge of household decisions, letting him know that he was on his honor to consider what was fair and take care not to abuse his authority. This strategy was designed to change their power dynamic, and give the brothers experience learning to consider the concept of fairness and respect for one another’s autonomy.

Respecting Autonomy and Learning to Negotiate

When being introduced to the concepts of negotiation and persuasion, Steve was instructed to practice making requests and tolerate the possibility that Drew might say “no.” They learned how to recognize the beginning signs of agitation and step back to calm themselves before engaging in conversation.

One night, dressed in a skimpy outfit, Drew woke Steve asking him for a ride to a party in town. Steve felt his anger beginning to boil. He felt held hostage and was outraged seeing Drew dressed this way. Steve knew that if he let his brother take the train looking so provocative, Drew would be at risk for danger. But he felt jerked around and didn’t want to be seen with his brother dressed that way. Previously, a predictable power struggle would have erupted in which Steve would make fun of and attack Drew, who would protest, “ You can’t boss me – I’m my own person.” In the end, one or both would get physically injured, or Drew would run out and in fact get into trouble.

This time, Steve remembered how it usually played out. He calmed himself – attempting to step back from his survival instincts and commander-in-chief mentality. Instead of attacking his brother, Steve asked Drew to make a deal with him: in exchange for the ride, Drew would put sweatpants and a sweatshirt on for the ride. Drew initially started to engage reflexively in a control struggle, but Steve did not take the bait. Aware that they could persuade but not control the other, or use physical or psychological force, they managed to stay in the mindset of negotiating. Neither was happy having to compromise. But they smiled proudly as they told this story from the perspective of brothers on the same team.

Therapy helped Steve and Drew become less polarized and see that they struggled with counterparts of the same dynamic and that they were not so different from each other after all. As the brothers learned to solve differences together without force, they experienced a true sense of empowerment and the possibility of freedom from the inner world of the past that entrapped them.

Negative Effects of Authoritarian Parenting

Power plays can unconsciously protect people from a feeling of separation, loss of control and helplessness. But demanding submission and obedience can backfire. It can teach children dependency and automatic behavior and discourage the development of problem-solving, judgment and autonomous thinking. Requiring children to surrender themselves leads to the development of a false self, precluding authentic relationships and impeding the development of identity and self-reliance. Further, forcing obedience breeds aggression, resentment, and the need to escape through disobedience or becoming submerged.

Parents Letting Go and Tolerating Separation

Ultimately, in this case, Kate was able to loosen her hold over her sons, recognizing that she was unintentionally passing on family dynamics that created aggression, fragility and division instead of strength. As these patterns were made explicit, they could be changed, freeing Steve and Drew from expectations that did not fit them, and creating a space among them to accept and navigate differences.


Disclaimer: The characters in this vignette are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events in therapy to represent real-life family dilemmas.