How Parents Create 'Problem' Children

Many couples find an outside prop to stabilize their relationship and repress their problems. The trouble begins when that prop is their child.

A black and white illustrative image showing a woman crouching inside a black triangle.
Heather West, Flickr

All parents lie – some of them are simply aware they’re doing it. That was said, albeit more gently, by Dr. Salvador Minuchin, a well-known psychiatrist and family therapist. “The only thing I know for certain about a family that comes to me for therapy the first time,” Minuchin has stated, “is that the story they tell in the first meeting is incorrect.”

One of the most widespread family narratives concerns the “problem child.” We are all familiar with this story. Maybe we ourselves were the problem child; possibly we have a sibling who took the thankless role on himself (while we emerged with the role of the “good child,” which deserves an article of its own). Maybe we believe that one of our children fits the description. Accordingly, shattering the myth of the “problem child” also gives considerable support to Minuchin’s provocative comment.

Be that as it may, the “problem child” is indeed the cornerstone of many of the stories families bring to therapy. Our family functions excellently, parents say, the only problem is that our 14-year-old daughter is a liar who’s always getting into trouble. Or, everything is hunky-dory except that our 26-year-old son never leaves the house. Or, everything is terrific – but our youngest daughter is odd, and her reactions are overemotional and awkward. One theme runs through such narratives: Our family is perfectly fine, we just have some difficulty with the behavior of one of the children.

Minuchin explains that he knows that the family’s story – that of the “problem child” – is not true because if it were, and if it accurately explained the situation, the family would be able to solve the problem on its own. After all, families do not start therapy the minute a problem crops up. They do so after various solutions have been tried and found wanting. In the case of the “problem child,” it’s likely that the parents tried threatening punishment and also using it, along with rewards, bribery, compensation and coaching-type assistance for the child – but to no avail.

Returning to the examples noted above: Even though we confiscated her telephone and then promised her a new phone, our 14-year-old daughter continues to lie; even though we bought him an electric bike and sent him to vocational counseling, our 26-year-old son is still living at home; and even though we take her education very seriously, our little daughter is acting in an awkward way.

It’s at this stage, when parents seem to be wedded to the “problematic child” narrative but no longer succeed in generating solutions, that they turn to therapy. This is also the place to introduce Murray Bowen, another psychologist who, beginning in the 1950s, laid some of the foundations of family therapy that continue to serve us. Bowen developed the idea that when relations between parents are conflicted, they add another person to the relationship and turn it into a triangle. This “triangulation,” as he called it, stabilizes the relations between father and mother.

Triangulation also occurs between two individuals who are not parents, in which case the third element can still be a person, though not necessarily. If I feel that my best friend is pulling away from me, I can try to create a triangle by persuading her to hook up with me against a mutual friend. If relations between my brother and me, which were once very close, have cooled since he got married, we can try to develop a joint passion for hiking the Israel Trail and thereby stabilize our connection. And if I am raising a non-biological child with my partner, and the bond between me and the child is shaky, we can try to sustain it by piously watching the “Big Brother” reality TV show.

Which goes to show that not every triangulation is problematic. From the viewpoint of family therapy, temporary triangulations are inherently not disturbing. If my husband and I do a Paleo diet together for a few months, and a year later focus on planning a family “roots trip” to Poland, and some time after that act together to take revenge on a neighbor who’s giving us trouble – we are effectively adding training wheels whenever we feel that riding a two-wheel bike is too hard. If this is not a permanent way for us to hide a deep, ongoing problem in our relationship, that’s fine. In addition, if what serves to create the triangle is an action or a goal and not a person, so much the better.

But couples are, of course, liable to get rutted in problematic triangles. Abraham and Sarah, Bill and Hillary, Brad and Angelina – each of those couples created a different, well-known triangle. Religious belief, a lover and an ideology of adopting children from the developing world can each act as an excellent prop for securing the relations between a couple.

But things start to get complicated when the couple uses one of their children to create a triangle that will stabilize their relationship. Unhappy families, we know, each do things in their own way. Some parents create a triangle by using a child as a messenger, and communicating with the child instead of with the other parent (“Tell Daddy he drank too much”). Others do it by becoming closer to a child so he will serve as an ally against the other parent (“What? Mommy didn’t help you get ready for the test? Come on, I’ll help you”). In these modes of triangulation, it’s relatively easy to see that the parents are trapping the child in their problematic relationship.

But there is also another common, and highly problematic form of triangulation. This occurs when the parents exploit the child to draw the fire they are aiming at each other and to divert their attention from their difficulties by creating a situation in which the child makes them feel that he is the source of the problem in the family. This is the parental mechanism that produces the “problem child” with whom we began. (In professional terminology he’s also known as the “identified patient” or the “symptom bearer” – that is, the one who has been chosen unconsciously by the family to embody its problematic elements.)

Channeling aggression

It’s important to state clearly that none of this is to suggest that children don’t have real problems. The main issue is the disparity between a family in which the parents are trying to cope with a particular, temporary problem of one of their children (a routine, even desirable situation), and a family in which the parents have permanently labeled one of their children as a “problem child.” When the story moves from the child having a problem to the child being the problem – you begin to suspect that what you are seeing is triangulation.

It sounds odd to suggest that parents may feel relief at knowing that their teenage daughter is lying and getting into trouble in school, at the fact that their son is not mature and is living in the house, or that their little girl is behaving awkwardly. But if we look closely, we can imagine the psychological advantages that this situation entails. The concept of the “scapegoat” is an ancient one. And it’s a lot more convenient to deal with the lies of the daughter than with the violence of the mother; to complain that the grown-up son isn’t leaving home instead of the parents facing the fact, say, that they haven’t resolved their mourning for the death of another child in the family; or, to argue over the little girl’s socialization instead of looking head-on at the fading of desire between the parents.

The serious difficulty derives precisely from the fact that triangulation by means of the child might turn out to be an effective solution that shores up the parental relationship, at least partially and temporarily. The problem of the child gives the parents something to talk about, thus blurring the fact that they no longer talk to one another as partners; the problem can compel them to cooperate in the public sphere when they need to solve the problem, and thus contribute to repression of the fact that they are no longer cooperating at almost any other level. The problem can also provide the parents with other objects at whom to aim their criticism – the child himself, the school principal and so on – and thus help them by channeling some of their aggression toward others instead of at each other.

This relative improvement in the ties between the parents constitutes a serious problem for the child, because if the youngster who’s caught in the triangle feels that the tension between the parents is diminishing, it will be more difficult for him to extract himself from the thankless status of “problem child.” In fact, triangulation traps him in a lose-lose situation. If he goes on being problematic, he will pay a steep personal price (e.g., expulsion from school, damage his health, stigmatization); but if the “problem child” ceases to serve as the black sheep, the stressful situation between his parents is likely to get worse.

It’s not by chance that we often see, in the family dynamic, that when the problem child at last starts to show signs of improvement, the other family members will unconsciously try to make him backslide by both overt and covert means. If the problem child stops smoking, someone in the family will offer him a cigarette. If the problem child starts to prepare for exams, suddenly one of the parents might offer him something far more tempting to do than study for an important test, and so on. One of the principles underlying the concept of the family as a system is that in the face of every attempt at change, an effort to preserve the existing situation will be made.

So, the next time we roll our eyes because the family’s “problem child” is at it again, that is the moment to remember that when we focus on this child, even the language we use shows us that we are entrapping him. We need to ascertain with ourselves that we are not sacrificing him on the altar of the temporary calmness he produces in the relationship with our partner.

Dr. Amalia Rosenblum is a family therapist. She can be reached at amalia.rosenblum@gmail.com.