February 27, 2007

Clarification On What Goes Wrong In A Psychiatrist's Family

Many interesting and varied reactions to my post, "What Goes Wrong In A Psychiatrist's Family?"  It struck a nerve with a lot of people, and others couldn't relate to it at all.  But I would like to clear up one element:

It's not that even handed, calm, unemotional criticisms directed only to the child's behavior is wrong; it is that no one does it well.  And that's where it all falls apart.


SOME psychiatrists think/try to do something noble (criticize behavior and not the child itself) but they are HUMAN, and get tired.  They will eventually get angry, and, from a kid's perspective, when the parent gets angry is what matters.  What did I do to piss Dad off?

The opposite of this, call it the non-psychiatrist parent, is calm, then gets a little angry, a little more angry, a little more angry, then yells, screams.  There's a build up.   A few years of this and you realize that there are some things that make Dad a little angry, and other things that make him really angry.  There's normal, varying levels of  human emotion to different situations.

But the child of a psychiatrist doesn't get that.  He gets binary emotional states.  "Lying is not acceptable behavior."  Later: "Yelling loudly is not acceptable behavior."  Later: "Picking you nose is not acceptable behavior."  Later: "Stealing is not acceptable behavior."  What's the relative value?  A kid has no idea-- he thinks the value is decided by Dad, not intrinsic to the behavior.  "Eating cookies before dinner is not acceptable behavior." Later: "Kicking your brother is not acceptable behavior." 

Ok, now here it comes:

After seven or eight or twenty five "not acceptable behavior" monotones, Dr. Dad can't take it anymore; he explodes.  "Goddamn it!  What the hell is the matter with you?!  What are you doing?!!"   All the anger and affect gets released, finally.  The problem-- the exact problem-- is this: the explosion of anger came at something relatively trivial.  Maybe the kid spilled the milk.

So now the four year old concludes that the worst thing he did all day was spilled the milk-- not kicking his brother, or lying, or stealing.  Had he not spilled that milk, Dad wouldn't have gotten angry.  

Add this up over, say, a year: mostly flat, neutral monotones, peppered with unpredictable yelling patterns, inconsistent explosions, and now the kid can't form a hierarchy of good and bad.  In fact, what he learns is that good and bad are defined almost exclusively by the reaction he gets from others (e.g. Dad) and not the behavior itself.  

You say: but the kid's not an idiot, he's going to know that stealing is worse than spilling milk.  Well, how is he going to learn that, except from you? You say:  just going through life-- every kid eventually learns it.  Yes, they learn that it is worse, but not why it is worse. The conclusion is that the hierarchy of bad and worse is determined by the severity of people's reactions.

You say: the solution is that Dr. Dad needs to work on maintaining his calm all the time, and not exploding.  Well, it's not going to work: he's human.  Eventually the electric bill will be too high, or his wife cheats on him, or he has the flu, or he's stuck in traffic all day.  And he'll explode (or, the alternative: check out.  "I'm not dealing with this anymore.") 

Consider this: a kid knows exactly how his father feels about a certain patient, or colleague, or friend, because he sees a consistent and predictable reaction in the Dad every time the person is mentioned. But the kid does not have that clear link for himself.  There's more informational affect from Dad talking to a patient on the phone then there is when punishing you.

Contrast this with the reaction of, say, a hypothetical "angry Dad" who has six beers a day after work: he's always pissed off.  Always.  Even though he flips out over spilled milk, he flips out over everything.  The consistency of his anger makes the anger attributable to him-- "Dad's insane"-- not to you or your behavior. You don't infer from this that what you did is good or bad-- you'll have to learn that elsewhere. 

But just as you've identified Dad as "Angry Dad" you might also infer that he hates you, that you are a bad person.  This is clearly not a good thing, but the point is that you develop an identity from it, you get defined (though negatively.)    The inconsistency of the psychiatrist-parent's anger is confusing; why this thing, and not the other thing?  Why so much consistent (same kind and amount) affect talking to an auto mechanic, and so little affect-- especially consistent affect-- with me?

So you have a psychiatrist-parent, who works long hours; who tries hard to be neutral even in punishment; who gives little in the way of emotional information about a kid's identity, but is so obviously clear about other people; who once in a while explodes, inconsistently, over unpredictable things. 

Here it is again, where it all goes wrong: the child develops an identity which is about the reactions of others.  "People's opinions of me are based on how I make them feel."

Disclaimer again, and for the last time: not all children of psychiatrists go insane, not all psychiatrists suck as parents, I don't know what I'm talking about, Bush lied, etc, etc.  Please understand I am not criticizing psychiatrist parents, I'm trying to understand something.

You come home, and find your kid has spilled the milk.  How do you react?  Ok, now ask your kid: how do you think I'm about to react?  The answer, ideally, should be the same.  If it's not, you've got a problem on your hands.



For one thing Dad shouldn't... (Below threshold)

February 28, 2007 10:18 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

For one thing Dad shouldn't be talking about his patients in front of his children.

It also sounds like the children have learned (from hearing dad to talk to his patients on the phone) that the way to get attention from dad is to be in crisis.

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It isnt just mental health ... (Below threshold)

February 28, 2007 1:30 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

It isnt just mental health professionals who are at risk of parenting in this manner.

There are some social venues where many people are socialized to be phobic about expressing any kind of negative emotion, especially anger, and especially when dealing with their children.

These venues include and are not limited to the peace movement, the New Age scene and Buddhist practitioners.

Many persons in these venues are socialized to become anger phobic and may, with the best of intentions, provide the pattern of inconsistent parenting described above.

I've been through this, and not as a parent. Years back I was in the peace movement, and we were not supposed to show violence, either verbally or physically.

I lived in a room-mate situation. One of the people had a cat and she didnt bother to get the cat spayed.

So her cat got knocked up and had kittens. Our pal was besotted in a love affair and neglected to litter train the kittens. She was constantly over at her boyfriend's house and ignored how the house was beginning to reek.

She kept delaying finding homes for the kittens and I kept being oh so understanding.

I kept this up and kept this up.

One day, I arrived home after X told us she'd be finding a home for the kittens.

I arrived that night and my other roomie said, glumly that the kittens had not been placed yet, because the vet was concerned they might have feline leukemia.

After weeks of suppressing my anger, I exploded and yelled, 'I wish I were a cat! Cats get more respect from X than people do!'

For entertainment, go read various reports on the message board for www.rickross.com and read what it does to people to be in organizations where they are trained to feel fear and shame about their own angry emotions.

When you're estranged from your own anger, you're thrown off balance in all kinds of ways.

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Ken Wilber writes extensive... (Below threshold)

March 1, 2007 3:16 PM | Posted by Oz: | Reply

Ken Wilber writes extensively about this sort of phenomenon in the New Age, Buddhist and peace movements (see "Boomeritis Buddhism": http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/boomeritis/sidebar_h/index.cfm/).

It seems to stem from this attitude of "nonjudgmentalism" that pervades these groups. The understanding is that judging is bad, not judging is good. Except that itself is a judgment that juding is bad, so these folks covertly do what they condemn in everyone else and ought to throw themselves out of their own club. But in an effort to be "nonjudgmental," they simply render their judgments unconscious, and unconscious judging is much less responsible, consistent, and trustworthy than unconscious judging. Judging is inevitable, and when kids don't see their parents doing it in a coherent fashion, it is no surprise that they develop a lot of psychological baggage.

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Ken's a very questionable s... (Below threshold)

March 1, 2007 3:45 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Ken's a very questionable source of information about Buddhism--IMO he's best considered an entrepreneur and an empire builder.

There is no legitimate way that anyone can disagree or take an adult and autonomous stance in relation to KW. Anyone who does is issued a color coded label and accused of being in orange or mean green meme.

Ken makes all sorts of claims about developmental psychology but he's never been trained psychometrics or developmental psychology, nor has he been licensed to practice as a clinician.

He is unable to cope with peer review, and is accountable to no one but himself.

He has endorsed hurtful and questionable teachers, such as Adi Da, A Cohen and M Gafni.

For more info on Wilber go to:


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None of this rings true. Y... (Below threshold)

March 1, 2007 9:59 PM | Posted by dinah: | Reply

None of this rings true. You just don't know what you're talking about....

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Curious response to my post... (Below threshold)

March 2, 2007 4:08 PM | Posted by Admin: | Reply

Curious response to my post. You could have said I was wrong, I'm an idiot, I'm not a parent, etc, etc-- but what you said was, "this doesn't ring true, you don't know what you're talking about." The implication is that I have no insight into what goes on in a psychiatrist's family, which is prima facie incorrect. I've treated lots of psychiatrists and psychiatrists' kids, and well, I'm a psychiatrist.

Are you saying that my thesis-- when psychiatrists' kids go bad, they go bad in the same way-- is wrong; or are you ok with the thesis, but not my explanation?

If the former-- you think they go bad in a random distribution of badness, with no bias towards any particular form of badness, well, then that's that. We disagree. But if the latter-- and this is where it gets interesting-- where is it wrong?

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I agre; it is a curious res... (Below threshold)

March 2, 2007 11:47 PM | Posted by Roy from Shrink Rap: | Reply

I agre; it is a curious response. Do they go bad in the same way? I suspect so. I don't think anyone could look at my interactions with my son and think, "He must be a psychiatrist."

Contrary to popular belief, most psychiatrists turn off shrink ray at quittin' time.

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I think "what goes wrong in... (Below threshold)

March 6, 2007 9:40 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I think "what goes wrong in a psychiatrist's family" is pretty much the same thing that goes wrong in any other family. For example, maybe mom is cheating on dad (or vice versa). It matters not if one of the parents is a psychiatrist, the children will pay the price for the fact that the parents are screw ups and don't get along. If the parents don't love each other that will affect the children - occupation is irrelevant. I think if the parents are well adjusted the liklihood that their children will be well adjusted is significantly higher.

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you're brilliant!y... (Below threshold)

April 17, 2007 12:53 PM | Posted by cris: | Reply

you're brilliant!

you're onto smt - about parents in general, no particular profession in mind.

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Specialists claim that <a h... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2010 10:04 PM | Posted by GarnerNorma26: | Reply

Specialists claim that credit loans aid a lot of people to live their own way, because they can feel free to buy necessary stuff. Moreover, different banks give short term loan for different classes of people.

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