With Courage, Change Can Happen

The Adult Child can resolve their distress, with help, to develop their emotional muscles and move toward self-awareness and an ability to authentically share their feelings with others.

Clare came into her recent session brimming with excitement. She announced that she was going to take her mother on a vacation - their first, ever! “The idea of going on a vacation came about as I was talking with Mom about my travel experiences with Charles and his parents.” Clare noted surprise at receiving an invitation from Charles’ mother to travel with them again this year. Clare politely declined. “The invitation prompted me to ask Mom if she had ever traveled and she said she hadn’t. I asked her if she might like to take a short trip with me and she said yes! As we talked about where she’d like to go, Mom said she wanted to see the Atlantic Ocean. I made a reservation at a lovely beach resort and she is as excited as I am.”   

Clare continued, “I never could have imagined all the life-changing experiences that have happened for me since starting therapy.” She acknowledged being grateful for her mother’s anger at the fierce grip Charles’ parents’ had on her and her own willingness to be exploited by them. “It was Mom’s demand that I be paid when traveling with Charles and his parents that created so many opportunities for change. Being stuck between Mom’s anger and then Charles’ distance was so horrible for me; I knew I had to get help.”

Your support of my suggestion that Charles come with me to a therapy session provided a safe space for us to talk openly. We were both amazed to discover how naïve we were about our parents’ control over us and how we willingly justified our go-along work attitudes. It was helpful to learn that Charles was angry with me for putting him on the spot and that he feared his parents’ reactions. Both of us talking together with you helped us see our patterns of dependency and anxious uncertainty with our parents. For as long as each of us could remember, we gave in to their expectations. Your help supported us growing a healthy friendship.

Clare laughingly noted that when she invited her mother to come to a therapy session with her she had expected it would be similar to her session with Charles. She never thought she’d learn about the challenging circumstances of her birth. “I know Mom wouldn’t have told me anything about her situation if my difficulties hadn’t triggered her distress. I am grateful she felt safe enough with you to share her feelings of humiliation and fear in our joint session. At times, I find myself overwhelmed with love and compassion for her. Yet, I have so many questions I don’t dare ask.” I asked Clare if expressing her questions in therapy as they come up might be helpful. “I like that idea and I’m okay waiting until she is willing and able to tell me more about that painful time in her life.”

It meant a lot to me that Charles was so caring after my session with my mother, even though it caused him a lot of anxiety to be close to my intense feelings. His support made it easy for me to be supportive of him when he dared to approach his brother after his parents had already blown him off. I am glad he asked to come in for another joint session with you and me so he could tell us what he’d learned about his brother’s stressful relationship with their parents. Charles said those two joint sessions with you were pivotal in helping him understand how defeated he always felt without knowing what he’d done to create his discomfort. Your support, and I guess mine and his brother’s too, helped him realize how important therapy can be.

Clare said Charles was shocked to learn how hurtful his parents had been toward his brother. She wanted me to know he was troubled by the extent of their acting-out behaviors: his father deliberately hiring compliant women whose attentiveness to him would mortify his mother in public settings and his mother’s insincere connections with anyone she thought she could manipulate and shame.

I was so happy when Charles told me he had asked you to refer him to a therapist for himself so he can create a healthy personal and professional life for himself with his parents. It feels good to know that my need for your support helped Charles want someone to help him.

As Clare’s session was about to end, she asked, “Is there enough time to tell you about the changes Charles made at work?” Yes, we have time. Clare said Charles took to heart his brother’s urging to protect her from his parents. This resulted in him making changes at work.  “I’ve been promoted to management; I’m getting a pay increase and my own office! Also, to break from his father’s hiring patterns, Charles put a man in my old position. It’s his hope this might alter his parents’ behaviors and create a win/win for all involved.”  

Clinical Considerations

The action of a pebble breaking the water’s surface is transformative. The rippling rings continue outward and beyond view toward distant shorelines, regardless of whether the pebble is a toxic family trance or the healing influence of psychotherapy. Intergenerational trauma stimulates shame reactions. Psychotherapy promotes healthy responses.

The term “Adult Child” reflects an individual from a family with unresolved trauma and intergenerational sorrow. Clare and Charles’ initial struggles together exposed the impact growing up amidst family secrets and toxic shame. Clare’s family’s sorrows were hidden. Charles’ family’s trauma’s lay in plain sight below the surface of his perceptions.

Psychotherapy with an Adult Child requires sensitivity to both known and unknown family secrets. In this final post about Clare and Charles, I use the lens of the Dysfunctional Triangle and the 4 Rs Model to review the challenges they tackled.  We start with the 4 Rs Model’s reactive stages of Rupture and Regression intermingled with the Dysfunctional Triangle roles as a means to understand how one person’s traumatic reactions can trigger distress in others.

As Clare became overinvolved with Charles and his family, her mother was unbalanced by an internal Rupture. Her mother’s Regressive feelings of anger about Clare’s circumstance overwhelmed and confused her. She badgered Clare, judged her harshly and made intrusive demands upon her. From the perspective of the Dysfunctional Triangle, Clare’s mother externally enacted the Persecutor Role while internally she was experiencing the anguish and misery of the Victim role.

Clare experienced a Rupture in response to her mother’s distress. As she knew to do, she buried her Regressive feelings as best she could as she obliged her mother’s demands. Clare willingly attended to her mother’s needs and endured her mother’s stinging slights. Dazed by her mother’s unfamiliar behavior, Clare assumed her familiar role as a Rescuer on the Dysfunctional Triangle.

Charles was next in line to experience a Rupture. Stunned by Clare’s demand, imposed on her by her mother, he satisfied her ultimatum knowing his father would be angry with his decision. As Charles regressive feelings swirled anxiously, he stepped into his familiar resentment in the Victim role on the Dysfunctional triangle. Charles denied his Regressive feelings, until his father lashed out at him with rage. Charles was now in the eye of a perfect storm as his father, in the Persecutor role, emotionally assaulted him. Beaten down and deeply wounded by his father’s rapid-fire attacks, Charles detached and gave in to his Regressive feelings of humiliation and shame.

Clare then experienced her second Rupture as Charles’ distance felt to be a personal assault from the Persecutor role on the Dysfunctional Triangle. Clare’s Regressive feelings awakened a sadness she didn’t understand. Isolated, overwhelmed and trapped between her Rupture with her mother and then her Rupture with Charles, Clare reached out for help in therapy.

When Clare came to therapy, she didn’t understand her feelings but knew the crushing pain was impossible for her to handle alone. She appreciated the secure setting of my office and my attention to her concerns. Clare exhibited an easy confidence which, from my assessment, may reflect stable early attachment experiences. I wondered if her easy confidence could be a defense that was now causing her distress. When Clare invited Charles to a therapy session, I noticed a rough impatience about her. It was now clear that important puzzle pieces appeared in her irritation with Charles that were otherwise concealed by her pleasing behaviors. In this first joint session with Charles it was surprising to Clare that while Charles’ distance seemed similar to her mother’s distance, it wasn’t about her. In the secure space of my office with me as her witness, Clare and Charles moved into Repair, the proactive stage of the 4 Rs Model, where they dared to understand each other’s experiences and convey their authentic feelings with words. 

In her joint session with her mother, I was able to understand more of what was going on for Clare. The sincerity of Clare’s mother’s love for her was as straightforward as Clare’s easy confidence. I was able to notice, however, how her mother’s traumatic secret caused Clare to be hyper-sensitive to her mother’s disconnections. Clare’s ever-watchful eye and attention to her mother allowed me to confirm the tension I’d observed between her and Charles. I sensed Clare’s irritation with her mother, and knew she could never have confronted her mother’s distance as she confronted Charles’s. Understanding Clare’s sensitivity to another’s distance from her, I appreciated Clare’s courage to reach out to a stable and safe connection when she felt trapped between her mother’s angry indifference and Charles sad detachment.

Important puzzle pieces provided insight and allowed significant healing events to unfold for Clare when she slowed down enough to engage first with herself, then with Charles, and then with her mother. Clare valued understanding how her mother’s internal Rupture unknowingly awakened traumatic memories, and fearing her daughter might be in danger. Clare’s mother’s Rupture and Regressive feelings unbalanced Clare and Charles and set off a succession of parallel Ruptures and Regressions that resulted in positive changes.

The rigid confining roles of the Dysfunctional Triangle, while painful, provide important information for the Adult Child about their patterns of stuckness when Rupture and Regression, the reactive stages of the 4 Rs Model, demand their attention to confusing and felt experiences of emotional distress. When Clare and Charles slowed down to explore their different experiences of Rupture and Regression, they began to appreciate how their Dysfunctional Triangle roles had been keeping them confused and isolated. They also discovered how Rupture and Regression were helpful in providing each of them important puzzle pieces from their pasts.

Connecting their puzzle pieces in Repair and Resolution taught them the importance of slowing down to recognize the confounding pull of family trance patterns. Stopping to make sense of difficult situations and to pick up new puzzle pieces kept them alert for times when they would slip back into old behaviors.

The toxic ripples that started Clare’s therapy journey eventually transformed into ripples of positive change. Her need for help in therapy started her passage out of her familiar Rescuer role on the Dysfunctional Triangle. Clare’s healing journey, however, cannot be rushed. She will steadily unpack and process the emotional impact of the intergenerational trauma she felt even though it was hidden from her. As Clare continues to develop healthy emotional muscles, she will further understand herself, her relationship with her mother, and her friendship with Charles as he begins his healing journey. Like the ripples moving outward upon the water beyond sight, Clare’s courage to heal will constructively impact known and unknown others.