Monday, December 21, 2009

Confusion in Your Life and Mine, Part 2

Part 2 of Confusion in Your Life and Mine
In the first post the information on confusion dynamics did not address personal confusion in detail. Today I want to discuss just a few of the main sources of personal confusion; these sources are somewhat similar to those in the first post,but apply more to ordinary life.
1. Overload
Too much information floods too many of us. You know your own flood, and you have probably developed some coping tactics to survive it. You may write notes, or use an organizer either on paper or in a computer or hand-held device.
Does that work? To a point. But most people reach saturation/overload and need to escape. They go for a walk or a run if their neighborhood is safe at that moment. They meditate, if they know how and have a place and time for practice.
They may use one or another drug or substance.
You can list some of the ways you escape.
As you know, some coping tactics don't work well in the long run. Drugs and drinking can cause problems. Meditation needs careful support--from yourself and those around you.
So there may come a time when overload beats you down: too many deadlines, too many emails, help!
So you give up trying to cope, either temporarily or permanently (as by dropping a course or quitting that job.)
But sooner or later, some other source of overload looms. You start coping again. Or you get overwhelmed.
Here is the key idea
Too often the way people cope with any source of confusion--such as overload-- makes that source worse, or fails to reduce it. In other words
Sources-->;Confusion-->;Ineffective Coping--Worsen (or fail to reduce) Sources-->Ineffective Coping-- >on and on.
You may  be able to find better coping methods that work for you. Read on to see where we wind up in this post. I'll have more to say below, under the heading, What Do People Do About Personal Overload and Complexity?
2.  Complexity
Some problems don't so much overload us, as tie us up in the knots of complexity. One example: trying to find a job when the economy is on life support. This is a challenge because you need to know how to make your application stand out from all those others. That raises a set of complicated questions. Suppose you decide to get advice. Enter "How to make your job application stand out" in Google and you get over 1000 hits. That's an overload.
Oops, I said just above that "some problems don't so much overload us, as tie us up in the knots of complexity." Here we are back to overload. How'd that happen?
We got back to overlaod because sources of confusion may dovetail and make each other worse.
Here is complexity: gauging what the employer or employment agency wants and tailoring your information to suit their needs. You have to do some research about the companies your resume might go to. You need to keep that information in focus while at the same time you explore other companies with somewhat different needs.
But if you go looking for expert help to guide you through the complexity, you get overloaded with information. None of those 1000 websites asks themselves, what do I have to offer in this site that is different from all the others. None of them ask: will the seeker become overloaded? They're in the same spot you are! You're trying make yourself stand out in a crowd of seekers. They're trying to get ranked as high as possible in the search engines' lists of experts. But they wind up saying much the same thing in their sites.
3. What Do People Do About Personal Overload and Complexity?
The most fortunate are those who can go to a mentor, talk over the challenges they face, and come up with a plan. Mentors come in many forms: a guidance counselor, a friend, a therapist, sometimes even a relative!
Haven't tried talking this over with anyone?
Maybe you need to rehearse. Practice with someone. Not the person you plan to ask to be a mentor, they can be someone willing to let you rehearse the questions you want to ask your mentor. If you can get as clear as possible, that should help focus with the mentor.
No mentor in sight?
When I searched just now using "How I got my job" (In quotes) in Google, I got over six million hits. More overload! But buried in those hits are many success stories. These can be important in two ways:
you might get a specific idea;  or at least you might use these stories to keep you hopes up.
Fighting Discouragement
I'll stay with the topic of a job search, but almost anyone can also use this same advice: when you find yourself discouraged, get rid of that feeling. Check the internet for "Thought Stopping" or 'Positive thinking." Those sites can guide visitors to techniques for cutting down on the amount of time they spend thinking negative or discouraging thoughts.
This may sound hokey, but there is increasing evidence from brain research: stopping negative thoughts and substituting postive ones can change brain cell patterns in some people: that can help you to keep your spirits up. The idea goes back for thousands of years, in various traditions.
To wrap up for today: overload and complexity dovetail, no matter whether you're looking for work, or facing any other challenge. You can cope, but you may need some help along the way. I've offered a few hints; write, if you have time, to tell us what works for you.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Confusion in Your Life and Mine, Part 1

Time for a different topic. Confusion in ordinary life: yours and mine.

Unsolicited Advice: Don't lose your confusion by finding an enemy. This advice is explained below.

I first became interested in confusion about 35 years ago, noticing that in my own profession, psychiatry, we labored under a considerable amount of confusion--which went undetected by those of us on the inside. "Outsiders" and patients sometimes detected it.
One thing led to another and I wrote a couple of books on the topic. The later one is titled: Lethal American Confusion: How Bush and the Pacifists Each Failed in the War on Terrorism.
That book deals with confusion in high places. Now I'd like to spend a few posts exploring the way confusion affects most of us in our ordinary lives.
To set the stage, here is an excerpt from the website,, which I linked to just above.
Definitions from Lethal American Confusion
Note: In the following, I've added a few comments [in brackets], to suggest how the ideas might apply in everyday life; in later posts we'll explore that question.

I define confusion as both the ordinary feeling: mixed up, perplexed, baffled, etc. and also as one’s subjective feeling in response to the confusion dynamics of an organization.
The model of confusion dynamics starts from the observation that coping tactics against confusion often worsen the sources, creating a vicious cycle. The cycle looks like this:
confusion sources < -- > coping methods and psychological defenses against confusion
with the < -- > symbol meaning you can read the connection in either direction.

[This is a key idea: a vicious cycle in which defenses against confusion can worsen sources. That is, sources lead to defenses which worsen sources which lead to defenses, etc. This applies in ordinary life as well as in complex systems.]

What are some sources of confusion?
In Lethal American Confusion, I discuss some 80 examples of confusion sources or inadequate efforts in antiterrorist programs. These problems elicit many ineffective attempts to cope, for example by reorganizing several agencies into the Department of Homeland Security. The problems leading to confusion include:
• The ambiguity of the very concept of terrorism, which becomes apparent when one compares conflicting definitions from nations, factions, and scholars
• Uncertainty as to the numbers, connections, and locations of terrorists and organizations world-wide, no matter which definition one uses
• The complexity and overload represented (before the reorganizations) by 100+ US terrorism-related offices scattered among many federal departments and agencies, plus thousands of state and local entities; even the reorganization of 2004 failed in many instances to reduce infighting and lack of coordination
• Those scores of antiterrorism offices were still scattered among 15 agencies three years after the September 11th attacks
• With 17 different Congressional committees supervising them, before some reorganization
• Ignorance on the part of most of the public and many in Congress of the findings of three commissions in the decade prior to 9/11 detailing the need to coordinate US antiterrorist efforts
• The complexity and overload of information swamping 13 different intelligence agencies (this is in part a different group from the antiterrorist group) scattered among five departments prior to the reorganization of 2004
• The lack of coordination plaguing the CIA and FBI (even after legislation removing some of the obstacles); this slows the antiterrorist campaign
• The first 14 of 80+ items dealing with confusion, errors, lies, or misjudgments by the Bush administration.
• A table in Lethal American Confusion summarizes confusion in the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies; another table summarizes problems in the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

[You can perhaps see some of those same sources of confusion operating in your own life: certainly overload, complexity, and ambiguity plague many of us. And most of us need to get rid of the feeling of confusion using one or another defense.]

How does confusion become lethal?
Readers may well doubt my claim that confusion becomes lethal. This lethal impact can occur in several ways:
• The pre-9-11 confusion and competition among those scores of US antiterrorist agencies made us vulnerable to death-dealing terrorist attacks on September 11th
• The perplexity regarding how to proceed after those attacks led to the confusion defense: “Find-an-Enemy-and-Lose-Your-Confusion.” (Described below)
We attacked Afghanistan without conducting an intelligent debate on alternatives, dealing death and destruction to Afghans and sacrificing our own troops
• Pacifists contributed to this lethal confusion by failing to coordinate their dozens of proposals for alternatives to war
• Confusion due to administration misrepresentation, misunderstanding, or lies about Iraqi nuclear weapons led Congress to stand aside from anything other than endorsement of an attack on that country
• The false administration certainty of easy victory in Iraq led to a lack of contingency planning and lethal confusion when the insurgency and chaos erupted

What is the most lethal of all defenses against confusion?

One of the most destructive coping methods against confusion is "Find-an-enemy-and-lose-your-confusion." When faced with confusing or ambiguous issues, we oversimplify and polarize into either/or choices.
By grasping one side of the argument, or the other, you end any confusion you might have felt. Now you have only to concentrate on defending your own version of reality.
You decide (often unconsciously) that not you, but your opponent is confused, misguided, stupid, or worse. Often your opponent has used the same tactic, and sees you in a similar way.

[If you are in a partnership with someone, you may have found yourself perceiving your partner as confused, while you overlook your own muddle.]

That opponent can be the Taliban, or the rival department in your own government agency or corporation. Some federal bureaucrats spend as much time fighting for turf as they invest in protecting us.
[And spouses may spend more time fighting than they do in nurturing the partnership.].
Although I concentrate on American confusion, the dynamics apply in all countries and large organizations.
[As mentioned above, I also devote a chapter in the book to criticizing the confusion among pacifist organizations in their postings in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.]
In future posts I'll see how specific I can get regarding confusion in ordinary life. We'll take a closer look at defenses against confusion, both constructive and destructive. And a question just occurred to me: how does a person's way of handling confusion influence their choice of partner?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Guide to the August, September, and October Posts

How the August, September and October Posts Might be Helpful To Parents, Youth, Counselors, and Others

Note: The posts are longer than most people will read on line. Download any sections you want to spend more time with.
Untangling vicious cycles, and better coping with stress can help reduce anger, fear, and other emotions in these times of unemployment, loss of housing, and other problems.

Summary of August, September and October Posts
  • October Apply the insights from the previous post (What Keeps You Stuck in a Vicious Cycle?) Use those ideas to get unstuck from these patterns:
  • Arguing and Temper Problems
    Inconsistency Cycles
    The Whine-Give in Cycle
    Triangulated: "Caught in the Middle"
    Child Abuse Feeding Anger and Rebellion
    Scapegoating Combined with Other Cycles

    Plus discussions of these topics:
    What if Everyone Your Know Beats Their Kids?
    What if You Stop, But Someone Else in the Family Keeps on Nagging, Blaming, etc.?
    And Several Other "What-if" Discussions

    Find out here what keeps people stuck in a vicious cycle. You've identified a cycle, but you keep slipping back into it. Why?
    Whose fault is a vicious cycle? Usually it's no ones fault! Remember Blame the Cycle, not the Other Person, not Yourself.

    Learn what I mean by a cycle and how to recognize cycles in your family or classroom. Some of the most painful problems in families reflect vicious cycles. We aim to replace those with cycles of love and support. (We also recognize that sometimes the feeling of love might not be there, but you can still have a policy of love: supporting the other person's healthy goals.)

    This section features links to one of the most popular sites on the Internet, where award-winning writer Vanessa Van Petten and her teen bloggers give adults a unique view into the way things look to teens.
  • September Of course I don't mean throw them into the trashcan. I mean to help you find vicious cycles--for example, where one person nags ("reminds") and the other avoids chores. I want you to understand the misery they create for families or classrooms. (Or dormitory roommates for that matter.)
    In the next few posts on cycles, I hope to show you some ways to get unstuck

    What a Resilient Child Ought to be Able to Say (Continued)
    Here is the last group of abilities of a resilient youth (or adult.) They are in the form of statements a resilient youth or adult ought to be able to make.
    Use these three sections on resilience to find out what your kids or pupils need in order to cope better with stress.
    As in Part 1 and Part 2 in August, I've included Do and Don't suggestions of ways an adult can support stress-coping or resilience.
  • August This posting offers suggestions for Internet safety for youth. And just for a change of scene, I've included a brief description of Ordinary Wolves, a fascinating account of a boy growing up in the wilds of the far north. He and his family show resilience and then some.

    Here is the second group of abilities of a resilient youth (or adult.) They are in the form of statements a resilient youth or adult ought to be able to make.
    Use these three sections on resilience to find out what your kids or pupils need in order to cope better with stress.
    As in Part 1 and Part 3, I've included Do and Don't suggestions of ways an adult can support stress-coping or resilience.

    Here is the first group of abilities of a resilient youth (or adult.) They are in the form of statements a resilient youth or adult ought to be able to make.
    Use these three sections on resilience to find out what your kids or pupils need in order to cope better with stress.
    As in Part 2 and Part 3, I've included Do and Don't suggestions of ways an adult can support stress-coping or resilience.
    These ideas come from a Civitan-sponsored study of coping by youth in some fourteen countries around the globe.
  • Better coping with stress can help reduce anger, fear, and other emotions in these times of unemployment, loss of housing, and other problems.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How to Stop Nagging, Blaming, and Other Vicious Cycles

Continuing the excerpts from my e-book, Stressed Family, Strong Family, available at

The second excerpt was titled

What Keeps You Stuck in a Vicious Cycle? Remember: The Cycle is no One's Fault: It Causes Itself!

Here is the third excerpt
How to Stop Nagging, Blaming, and Other Vicious Cycles
(Feel free to print out any of these chapter excerpts)

This is the third excerpt from Chapter 6 of Stressed Family, Strong Family

Chapter Title: Reduce Stress--Recycle Your Family!
NOTE: There are references in this excerpt to "the next chapter." That chapter is not up on this blog, but is available in the e-book, Stressed Family, Strong Family
Here is a list of the cycles covered in this post:
Arguing and Temper Problems
Inconsistency Cycles
The Whine-Give in Cycle
Triangulated: "Caught in the Middle"
Child Abuse Feeding Anger and Rebellion
Scapegoating Combined with Other Cycles
Plus discussions of these topics
What if Everyone Your Know Beats Their Kids?
What if You Stop, But Someone Else in the Family Keeps on Nagging, Blaming, etc.?
And Several Other "What-if" Discussions

Now, on to the excerpt.

We’ve already seen that arguments can break out between parent and child about chores. Or two parents argue, or a parent and a teacher disagree, or a child gets into conflicts with a teacher. Other family members, or even neighbors, may join in on one side or the other. This happens because people in cycles often try to “recruit” an ally to say that they are OK, and blame the other person in the cycle. You may have seen this happen in your family, or you may have yourself talked to neighbors, friends, clergy, or a counselors, trying to get them to agree that you’re OK and the problem is with the other person.
Maybe your family is fairly peaceable. If so, you can’t imagine the hell some people live through day after day if they struggle with negative cycles. Yelling, threats, tempers rising, things getting thrown or smashed. People get hit, and can get seriously injured in body or soul.
Some conflict-prone families argue about all sorts of things. Others get triggered by just a few touchy subjects.
Arguing feeds on itself. Anyone can start and anyone can respond. In too many families, the arguments never get settled. They just get dropped from exhaustion. Or they stop because somebody storms out, hits, makes a threat, or shuts up.
Arguing cycles often go together with nagging-avoiding cycles. Find one, you’ll usually find the other. People argue about whose fault it is that the kid doesn’t do homework. One spouse will accuse the other of nagging the child, or of nagging that spouse, and then they get into an argument about whether it’s really nagging or not.
Arguing about whose fault something is shades over into blaming.
A blaming cycle then gets tangled up with nagging and arguing. Words like "You always," or "You never," can be a clue that a blame cycle might be lurking.

Realize that the two of you get stuck in an arguing cycle. If the other person hasn’t read the description of positive and negative cycles above, ask them if they are willing to do so. After they understand what we mean by cycles, say that you feel like the two of you get stuck in an arguing cycle. That is, arguing just leads to more arguing.

What to do:
Tell the other person you can each have a different opinion. A different “take” on something. Neither has to prove they are right. Neither has to prove the other one is wrong.
Suggest this: When you start arguing, either one can say, “Wait, we’re going to get stuck in an argument. Let’s just say we disagree. You see it one way, I see it another. Let’s step back, stop trying to prove we’re right. Relax and do something else. Get untangled.” (You’ll find your own words for these ideas.)
Agree that either person can say something like: “Here we go again.” They say this when they see an argument starting. Agree to take ten minutes to cool down. Think over the situation. Make a new start.

When parents argue
If the argument is with the other parent, don’t drag the kids into it. Don’t complain to the kids about the other parent. Don’t tell them how wrong the other parent is.
A lot of couples argue about the kids: how to discipline them, what privileges they ought to have. We already saw how nagging a child can trigger an argument between parents.

What to do:
Find someone who can help you agree on how to raise your kids. They can help settle the arguments between you. Believe it or not, some kids can help their parents make peace. You can ask that type of youth what they think will work best. Then both parents should give this a good try. But be careful not to put that kid in the middle. Don’t expect him or her to decide who’s right or wrong.
Some kids will take advantage of the splits and arguments between parents. Kids will go to the softer one to get what they want. Then they tell the other one that they got permission.
If You Need Help Finding Strengths in An Arguing Child
You can look on arguing as a type of assertiveness. See Number 5, ASSERTIVENESS, DRIVE, SELF-DEFENSE, SELF CONFIDENCE, in the next chapter. (Not included in this blog post.) Those abilities can often harness the same energy as arguing, but in a more constructive way.

When do kids break rules?
• When the rules are not clear
• When you and the other parent disagree with each other on rules
• When you or the other parent fail to follow through on penalties when the kids break the rules
• When you or the other parent let one kid get away with more than the others can
• When you're not around to see that kids behave (and they don’t have enough internal control to follow the rules when you’re not there for whatever reason--they’re too young, too impulsive, or too easily influenced)
• When you give in to whining or tantrums and don’t stick to a rule (you’re teaching that kid to break the rule)
• When there’s no reward or encouraging praise for following rules. For example, a youth tells the parent about a fight the youth got into. Instead of thanking the kid for disclosing this, the parent starts lecturing or imposes a punishment.

In any of these cases, kids figure out how to “get away with it.” Or they decide it doesn’t matter if they follow the rules or not, because no one pays any attention, or no one praises them when they do. (Obviously you don’t praise for every little thing, but rather for following important rules.)
Call these inconsistency cycles.
What makes parents or teachers inconsistent? Various reasons: They get discouraged, overwhelmed by stress. They feel sorry for the kids. They have a hard time when kids whine or cry. They want the kids to shut up. They themselves grew up in chaotic homes with no rules.
For these and other reasons, parents will fail to follow through. They make threats they don’t carry out. They get into conflicts with the other parent.
If the rules don’t work, parents feel driven to screaming or hitting.
What to do:
Consistency, consistency, consistency. The effort will pay off in the long run. Get your partner to agree. Discuss rules with kids. Give the kids a chance to create rules along with you. Then stick to them. Have rewards for good behavior--praise, hugs, an allowance, or privileges.
Remember, even most adults need some kind of reward for their behavior. Kids need rewards even more.
This should get you on a better path, if the cycle has not been running too long. You need to set up a fair deal with the kids or pupils.
To learn more about fair rewards, see Gerald Patterson’s books. He is the expert on setting up fair rules and sticking to them. LIVING WITH CHILDREN is one of his titles, still in print after forty years!

Some kids will whine, plead, beg, bug, or browbeat until you give in. When that happens, the child “wins.” They get what they want. They put the parent (or sometimes a teacher) through the wringer, and the parent lets them get away with something. This makes them more likely to whine and beg next time.
In other words, kids do what works. They try to wear you down, change your NO to an ALL RIGHT. The next time you say NO you’ll hear “Oh, why can’t I, please, all the other kids can do it, you never let me do anything, they all laugh at me because you’re so strict and I have to stay home all the time. Please, please, you never let me do anything, why can’t I?”
So the adult tries to stop that mouth--by giving up and giving in. Or hollering or hitting, which will only cause more trouble.
The whine cycle often links up with the inconsistency cycle. When you don’t stick to the rules, kids can get what they want by whining. They learn that they can push you into agreeing.

What to do:
Choose your battles wisely. Pick the big issues and stand your ground. For example, keeping your kids off the streets is important if there’s trouble there. Getting them to put homework ahead of TV or other pleasures is important. Telling you the truth about who they are hanging out with is important. On the big items, have clear rules, written down if necessary, and stick to them.
Other things are less important. Watching stupid programs when they do watch TV is less important. Listening to junk music doesn’t rot their brains. Whether they always eat what you want them to is less important. (Most doctors or nurses advise vitamins, once kids are over a certain age.) With a typical kid, you don’t need to get too concerned about less important things.
Go ahead and give permission for small things. Don’t wait until you’re being whined at or bugged. Just make sure that what they want is not harmful.

Looking for Strengths in this Child?
You can consider the ability to wear you down as a kind of assertiveness and drive, as described in Group 5 in the next chapter. Group 5 covers strengths of Assertiveness, Drive, Self-Defense, Self Confidence.

What does triangulated mean? The word obviously comes from “triangle.” It’s a three-way tug of war. For example: Mike visits his separated father, Dan. Dan tells Mike that the boy’s mother, Marie, is a rotten person. When Mike is with her, Marie tells him what a terrible person Dan is.
Each parent is dumping their bad feelings onto Mike.
Mike feels caught in the middle of this triangle. He loves both parents. But whenever he’s with one, he has to listen to bad things about the other. This creates intense anxiety, despair and rage for many children. His parents couldn’t stop “fighting through the child.” If each parent hires a lawyer, this adds more two people to the conflict. Sometimes there’s also a third lawyer, for the kid or kids.
Blame cycles also get woven into this web. Each parent blames the other for messing up Mike’s life. Mike ends up like a fly caught in a web. The more he struggles to get out, the more he gets tangled.
The anxiety and anger can trigger behavior problems in the child. Then the parents have another thing to fight about.
Some scapegoats started out as the point of a parent-child triangle. If the adults then focus on the scapegoat’s actions, they fight about how to handle him or her.
Children can carry the scars of triangulation and blame into adulthood. Kids from such conflicted couples often have more trouble with their own partners when they grow up. They never learned from their parents how to settle conflicts.
Here’s another kind of triangulation. The child bugs one parent, who says no. The kid then lies to the other parent, saying they have permission. Kids will do this to couples who are together, or separated.
I’m amazed at how young some kids learn to pull this. I know one family where a bright first child before the age of three was already falsely claiming she had gotten permission from the other parent (who was not in the room and hadn’t been asked.)
At such a young age, she may have imagined that she really did have permission. Children at that age don’t have the same view of “truth” and “lies” as we do. But her attempt to “con” the other parent seemed identical to what older children do.
Where did she learn this? She didn’t spend time with older kids where she might have picked this up. I still don’t understand how she learned it. Fortunately, her parents are consistent. (They were also amused to hear this tiny mite claiming imaginary permission from the other parent.) They check with each other and care deeply about consistency. They didn’t make a big deal about “lying,” a concept which means little to a three year-old..
She didn’t continue this for very long--kids don’t usually continue ploys that don’t work.
Getting Free of Triangulation
This pattern really will test your ability to work together. Parents need to agree on rules and consequences and check with one another when a son or daughter says the other gave permission. The longer you wait to get your act together as parents, the harder it can be to change the pattern.

We’ve already discussed this cycle when we talked about scapegoating and triangulation.
Physical child abuse includes such things as hitting, beating, locking up in a room without food or water, tying to a bed. Psychological abuse often goes along with physical: parents, siblings, or peers call the kid stupid, worthless, a slut, etc.
Abuse of any youth usually causes anger and rebellion. The anger and rebellion lead to more and more bad behavior. The parent tries to curb the bad behavior with more beatings. That makes the youth even angrier.
Most of the cycles above can trigger physical abuse. Or it can develop “by itself.” Parent and child each see the other as responsible for the misery, anger, anxiety, and pain.
The parent is using the only method he or she knows, trying to control the child or teen. The child is dealing with his or her anger by taking it out on anyone around him. As we’ve seen already, kids may also get into drugs, sex, and alcohol, or run away.
If the cycle has not gone on too long, you might be able to back off. Use the same
method as for the nag cycle. Stop the abuse, change to rewards for good behavior. Expect a time of confusion. You may see some worsening of the bad behavior before the new system starts working. I make it sound easy, and you know it’s not. You will need to find a friend to support you as you make this major change.
If the abuse cycle has been going on for a long time, you will most likely need outside help. This is true especially if you’re also stuck in other cycles like scapegoating. A kid who’s both scapegoated and physically abused has a mountain of misery to climb over. They usually carry huge load of anger along that long, twisting trail to adulthood. No wonder some kids get lost, collapse, or fall off the path.

This is one of the most serious patterns that can develop in a family or classroom. Scapegoating means that all the problems in the family or class get blamed on one child. Or the family blames one of the parents for all their troubles. People might say: “If only Stan would straighten out, our family (class) would have no problems.” Or “Everything would be fine if only Sarah didn’t get into trouble all the time.”
Some scapegoats are always in the “hot seat” because they have a mental or emotional problem. The youth (or young adult) is depressed, hyperactive, suicidal or homicidal, or in trouble with the law. Or they might be psychotic, hearing voices, feeling like people are out to get them. In some of these families, the rest of the family has not had therapy to help them understand the scapegoat’s condition. And sometimes no one helps the one in the hot seat.
If one of those serious conditions exists, and all the problems in the family get blamed on the scapegoat, this is a somewhat different situation from the usual scapegoating pattern. In this case my suggestions about scapegoating may not work. You will need to talk to a counselor or therapist to find the best approach. You can use my suggestions if the counselor agrees, but the ideas here cannot take the place of expert help.
I would like to set aside those serious mental illnesses. We will look at the other families who get stuck in a scapegoating pattern. Any family can slide into this pattern--they may not even notice. They think every family has a problem kid or parent.
Causes of scapegoating
What causes scapegoating to develop? Often the parents have conflicts they have not dealt with. But the parents don’t argue with each other about in-laws, money, sex, work, etc. They fight about how to discipline one of the kids, who has become the scapegoat. Therefore the parents don’t deal with their own adult conflicts. Sometimes one parent really would like a divorce but feels they can’t. Sometimes the reason is that the problems with the scapegoat are so pressing that the parent can’t bring themselves to leave the other one saddled with all the care and anguish.
So the scapegoat has become the problem that draws attention away from the parents’ problems.
Any kid caught in the middle of parents’ fights is apt to get into trouble or have temper outbursts or other problems. Those symptoms confirm everyone’s belief that the scapegoat is the sick one. They see is the problems with the scapegoat, but not the other problems in the family.
Arguing and blame patterns go along with scapegoating
You can look on scapegoating as a severe form of the blaming pattern: all the members blame the scapegoat for all the problems and painful feelings in the family.
In a family I saw years ago in the office, Josh got blamed for all sorts of things. This went on for years during his childhood and teen years. His parents had conflicts in their marriage and took some of those out on Josh.
When he was about nine or ten, he would wake up in the morning determined to stay out of trouble that day. But sooner or later something would happen. He would get blamed by one of his parents for something he didn’t do. Or a brother or sister would “set him up” by blaming him for something they had done.
Parents will usually believe the brother or sister. Then they punish the scapegoat for something a sibling’s misdeed. This makes the scapegoat even angrier.
Of course, Josh did things for which he deserved blame. This would happen even when he was trying to behave. So he got punished, both fairly--for what he did--and unfairly, for things he didn’t do. After a while he quit even trying to behave. Even when he did something good, the parents didn’t believe he was sincere. They just figured he was trying to butter them up, to con them. His parents suspected he was being good so that they wouldn’t punish him when they heard about yet another misdeed.
This mistrust of the scapegoat hurts everyone. Parents and often teachers stop seeing any of the kid’s good points. Strengths get lost. The kid gets to the point where he or she gives up, and shows fewer and fewer strengths.
Parents or teachers don’t deliberately scapegoat one kid. This pattern is a cycle, like the other cycles we’ve seen. Maybe the scapegoat is a kid from an earlier marriage. Maybe he or she reminds the parent of some relative they hate. Somehow the scapegoat gets into the role of “the only problem in this family.”
A scapegoating cycle breeds tragedy. If a scapegoat does not have a mental illness to start with, he or she will often develop one after a few months or years of this pattern. Depression, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual acting out, rage outbursts, school failure, and delinquency are common reactions.
Back to Josh: He used his brains to earn praise and support from teachers. This is unusual, because many family scapegoats get into the same trouble at school. Josh’s teachers may not have realized how vital their support was. It helped him survive the hell he felt in his family life. He went on to college, escaping from the family web. He did well, and became a psychologist working with kids and families. He sometimes tells a scapegoating family about his own experience, so many years ago.
His parents have long since stopped blaming him, and feel very proud of his accomplishments. But the sad memories from childhood will never fade for Josh.
Too many scapegoats lack the abilities Josh had; they end up as scapegoats in school and in the community. I once had a letter from an adult prisoner who had read my description of scapegoating. He said that he recognized exactly what had happened in his own family. He took his anger out on the community and wound up with a long jail term.

What to do:
10. Look at your family or class. Ask yourself, what other problems do we have? Do we have problems we overlook in our focus on the scapegoat. Make a note of those problems and talk about ways to work on them together.

11. If you don’t see any problems except those of the scapegoat, ask someone who knows your family or class. Do they think the scapegoat is getting blamed too much for whatever goes wrong?

12. If the answer is yes, talk to the family or class about this. Tell them that you see that the scapegoat has been getting too much of the blame. Say that you expect everyone to follow the rules, and to admit it when they do something wrong. They need to stop blaming the scapegoat for their own misdeeds. You will also expect the scapegoat to admit it when they do something wrong.

13. You need to spell out clearly what is OK and what is wrong for everyone in the family or class.

14. If you don’t have a system of rewards, even such a simple one as saying “Thanks” to your kids, then start doing this. You will need to give fair rewards to everyone, the scapegoat included, when they follow the rules.

15. Some scapegoating families don’t trust anyone outside the family. They may not even trust a counselor until they really get to know them. One of the family members may have to go to the counselor by themselves at first. After the counselor hears about the scapegoating pattern, he or she may ask the entire family to come in.

16. If you have lost sight of what’s right about the scapegoat, look at the next chapter, titled “370 STRENGTHS.” That long list will help you find some good qualities you have overlooked.

17. Parents need to take a look at the other problems that got pushed aside in the focus on the scapegoat. If your marriage or partnership is in trouble, get some help with that. If there are in-law problems, begin to tackle those. These problems won’t take care of themselves, and they will take a lot of work. If they were simple, they would not have gotten pushed aside.

18. If you’re a teacher, are you getting frustrated “teaching to the test?” This pressure to make the school look good creates stress for teachers, administrators, and students. Are you taking your anger out on the kids?
Ask yourself the tough questions: What can teachers do to support each other? How likely is an easing of the pressures you are feeling? Do you need to change careers?
You and the other teachers can find kindred souls on the Internet. Check out the teachers’ chat rooms and other resources.

When a parent is the scapegoat
This is a difficult situation, often involving an addicted parent. The same ideas apply. Look for other problems hidden behind the anger and fear swirling around the scapegoat. But that scapegoated parent will need to get help for his or her own problems. And the family needs to stop scapegoating. The family with a parent scapegoat will usually need a therapist.

Some families have a series of scapegoats
Some families or classrooms will have one person in the hot seat for a few days, weeks, or months. Then the focus shifts to another. The shift in a family may be from one kid to another kid, or (infrequently, in my experience) from a kid to a parent or teen. You can handle the situation in the same way as above. A counselor or therapist can help you untangle the binds that keep everyone snarled and snarling.

What if you are the scapegoat?
If you are the scapegoat, you will have a difficult time changing the pattern. The rest of the family or class may mistrust whatever you do when you try to make things better for yourself. I advise you to talk first to a counselor for guidance.
Otherwise you may find that family or class undermines your efforts. They may feel suspicious of anything you say. They may not be able to hear your views. Even if you make a genuine effort, they may think you’re conning them for some hidden purpose. (And you may have done that in the past.) The counselor can help figure out what to do and say.
Remember: trying to “straighten out” or “clean up your act” can take a long time. The family may do things that end up provoking you back into the old ways. (They may not realize they are provoking you.)
They may continue to blame you for everything. They may not even notice when they do this. But they may be able to “hear” this from a counselor who gains their trust.

If scapegoating has gone on for a long time, or if mental illness, drugs, or alcohol are involved
If the scapegoat is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they and the family need to get involved in AA, Alanon, Narcanon, Alateen, etc. And you know what I will say next: therapy! The longer the scapegoating has been going on, the more effort you will need to put into changing.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill gives families hope, courage, and knowledge.

Scapegoating combined with physical or sexual abuse
One of the most destructive of all patterns in a family is the scapegoating of a physically or sexually abused child. A victim of physical or sexual abuse will often misbehave, take out their anger on others, or develop depression or other signs of emotional distress. The family may not see that the beatings are feeding the misbehavior. No one may know about the sexual abuse. And they don’t see that the scapegoat is getting blamed for everything.
Sexual abuse is usually hidden; only the victim and the abuser know about it. (Occasionally a parent, or one of the other kids may know or suspect.) The victim may misbehave or get depressed as a way of handling the anxiety about the abuse. If their behavior leads to scapegoating by the family, this creates extreme stress. Most people can’t imagine the daily hell the child or teen suffers through from a combination of abuse and scapegoating.

Suicide or homicide by scapegoats
By now you can understand why some scapegoats try to kill themselves or someone else. Their anger, loneliness, depression, despair, or self-blame can become unbearable. Finally they lash out at themselves or someone else. Some may suffer a psychotic break from the stress in the family and at school.

Bullying and Scapegoating
A youth being bullied and a scapegoat have a lot in common. In the last few years, schools have begun to pay more attention to the destructive pattern of bullying. Both the student being bullied and the bullying schoolmate have emotional problems, sometimes severe enough to require professional help. Your school should have an anti-bullying program you can turn to. If not, the counselor or assistant principal should be able to assist you in finding a path to help, perhaps together with other parents and school staff concerned about bullying. Bullied kids have in some instances carried out their suicidal or homicidal thoughts.

If You Need Help Finding Strengths in a Scapegoated Child
A child who is coping with scapegoating has had to develop the ability to survive in the midst of pain and heartache. No surprise: Some scapegoated, triangulated kids grow up with a lot of empathy for the underdog. That’s a Group 4 strength, in the next chapter. I’ve mentioned elsewhere a scapegoat who grew up to be a child and family psychologist. He can really feel what kids are going through.
Kids caught in a triangle learn to cope with stress (Group 6) and some learn to assert themselves (Group 5.)
We can leave the painful territory of scapegoating now, and look as some other patterns.

There are countries or districts or ethnic groups where beating children is the usual form of discipline. Some of these groups live outside the U.S.; others live here. You may be from a family or a group where almost everyone you know beats their kids. Another form of punishment is harsh criticism: calling the kid names, insulting them, swearing at them.
It doesn’t matter if beating is common in your experience. Research in many cultures shows that it’s not as effective as praise and rewards for good behavior. Ronald Rohner and his associates at the University of Connecticut studied information about child raising in over one hundred different cultures, from many different countries. In those cultures where children are frequently beaten or harshly criticized, children have the most emotional and behavior problems. Acceptance, rewards, and love work best. Kids also need clear rules and guidelines.
It doesn’t matter how common the abuse might be in a your ethnic group. This combination of love and clear rules works better than harsh criticism and beatings.
Other studies indicate that abuse in childhood appears to harm brain function in some individuals. The emotional side of the brain lacks the self-control that’s usually provided by the thinking side. Kids have more trouble with rage outbursts. That only worsens the abuse.
Those brain changes appear to continue into adult life.
Sexual abuse also appears to cause long lasting changes in brain function. The shame and secrecy in such abuse add yet another burden. Those changes make the victim more vulnerable to emotional problems.
But the results of sexual or physical abuse can be reversed. Therapy and medication, if needed, can turn a youth’s or an adult’s life around.

Sometimes the other parent, or a brother or sister, will start nagging, blaming, or reminding, after you’ve quit. They can’t stand the tension of seeing the kid “get away” with not doing their chores. This is especially hard in the first few days, before they understand what your goals are.
What to do:
You need to stay alert for this. If the child or teen spends time with a divorced parent on weekends, for example, make sure they are also willing to stop nagging or reminding. If you and the other parent can’t talk about this, you need to get some help so that you can. Otherwise your ex-spouse may undercut what you’re doing.
I hope you can talk about nagging with an ex-spouse. If you can talk about that, you may be able to go on to talk about other things, as well.
Tell the other kids that they can help by not nagging. You don’t want them to take your place as a nagging tag-team.

If a child asks you to remind them because they have trouble concentrating, find out what’s going on. Some kids with attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity (ADD, ADHD) need “prompts” (reminders) to get them to focus. They have trouble planning, trouble deciding what to do first.
What to do:
See if you can agree on how much to remind. If the youth will go and do the work after that, fine. At least he or she recognizes the need for a reminder. Knowing what he needs and how to ask for it-- a step toward responsibility.
Talk to the guidance counselor at school. They can suggest ways of cutting down on distractions. Distractions are things like a TV or video game going on in the room or the house while this kid is trying to do homework. Counselors know practical ways to help most kids get homework done.

What if your son or daughter totally refuses to do homework or chores? Whether you remind them or not, they still don’t do what they’re supposed to. They may not even argue, they may just ignore you.
You stopped nagging, but they still avoid the work. They may say that homework is stupid. They tell you they already know most of the things on the homework. They don’t care if their grades suffer. They can pass the tests anyway.
Suppose this is true. This student passes tests without studying. Perhaps even does well on tests. What do you do then? This is a hard question. The answer depends on how you see your job as a parent. It also depends on how you feel about a rebellious child. And your approach depends on your beliefs about school.
Those are all questions of values, and I can’t tell you how to feel. Some parents--and even some teachers--would agree with the student. They would say that, for bright students, a lot of homework really is stupid--wasted time. Better methods of teaching and learning exist.
What to do:
As I mentioned above, some parents in the U.S. become convinced that school is not the best place for their child or teen to learn. They decide to teach them at home. Sometimes they send them to public middle or high school after home teaching in the earlier grades. Many of these kids do well on college entrance exams and go on to college with no problem.
But some kids really can’t do the work
Some students really need help with schoolwork, but they refuse it. They can’t do the work because of learning problems, reading problems, or emotional struggles. But they don’t want to admit this. So they refuse to try. After a while, they get far behind. They feel they can’t catch up. Then they have even more reason to quit trying. All nagging does is drive a bigger wedge between parents and kids.
The youth gets caught in a cycle:
Avoids schoolwork -- > falls farther behind-- > can’t understand the day’s lessons -- > more reason to avoid-- > falls still farther behind-- > etc.
What to do:
This type of student should get help from the school. Specialists can pinpoint learning or reading problems. Talk to the teachers or other staff about getting an evaluation.
The rebellious student may also need counseling for their feelings, as they get help in catching up. Some therapists will see the entire family to help become more supportive and effective..
But catching up--and then keeping up--with schoolwork is a key step.

Looking for Strengths in this Child?
Kids caught in a triangle learn to cope with stress (Group 6) and some learn to assert themselves (Group 5.)

What if the other person really causes the problem? You know it; you saw them do whatever it was. They are definitely to blame. You feel: I can’t let them get away with it. They have to accept the blame, the responsibility. They have to learn to clean up their own messes. They ought to fix their own mistakes.
Or you know that you really cause the problem. You are too harsh, irritable, impatient, angry, or depressed. You get so upset that you take your feelings out on whoever is around. So you’re deciding as you read this that you really have to change your ways.
If the other person really is at fault, you may want them to change. When you are at fault, you want to change yourself. These are worthy goals, but they can lead to excessive blame. They can make you too critical of the other person or of yourself.
Let’s find a better way to improve this situation. You don’t have to scold or blame. For now, quit blaming another or yourself. To repeat: stop the blame. Try to get untangled using the method in the next section. Just blaming yourself or the other most likely hasn’t worked, or you wouldn’t be stuck.

NOTE: If you can’t stop those blaming thoughts, try the ideas on thought stopping in Chapter 4. That section is titled, Relaxing and Coping With Feelings.
Why Don’t We Recognize Our Cycles: Good or Bad?
Why do most people see the problem as coming from the other person and blame them? Or why do some people always blame themselves when it’s really a two-person cycle they are both caught in?
The reason is that we are not very good at seeing cycles. There is probably a region in our brain that is programmed to blame the other person or ourselves. But we don't seem to have a brain center that automatically recognizes cycles. Our brains have to be taught to see cycles. Maybe when our brains evolved, our ancestors didn’t get into vicious cycles while living in caves, hunting, gathering food.
We don’t learn about vicious cycles in school, or in most families. Not unless someone points them out to us. That’s my job in this section. It’s as though I were your family doctor or nurse, and I have to tell you that you have cancer. Perhaps a better example would be telling you that your whole family has TB. Vicious cycles can be that serious. And that contagious. They spread as third or fourth members of a family get drawn in on one side or the other.
Remember: good people can get into bad cycles. You’re not at fault, you’re not a bad person because you get into bad cycles. Even some of your friends may get into bad cycles in their own families. Some families hide their vicious cycles so well that friends would be amazed to know what goes on behind that door.

Vicious Cycles Keep Us From Seeing Strengths and Abilities
We’ve looked at many strengths and abilities in the earlier chapters, and we’ll see more in Chapter 7. Sadly, vicious cycles often keep us from seeing strengths in the other person or even in ourselves. A vicious cycle eats up much time and energy. Parents get so frustrated that they lose sight of what the youth does right. Some kids spend hours practicing basketball, video games, drums, or guitar. (Playing video games as a strength? Yes, becoming good at video games has been shown in some studies to improve reflexes and the ability to make decisions.) Maybe they even do some chores around the house or apartment. But they rebel over homework. The parent has to keep reminding them. Or they do homework but rebel about chores.
Those frustrating tangles over chores or homework can shove strengths into the background, out of parents' sight.

What to Do to Rediscover Strengths and Abilities
1. Make a list of good things this youth does.
2. If you have trouble thinking of a child’s good qualities, look at the list in the Chapter 7 “Three Hundred Seventy Strengths.” You’ve already read about some sections of that chapter that might be helpful for some of the cycles.
3. Take comfort from those strengths. Remember those good things the next time you start into a bad cycle. This will help you use some of the ways of blocking bad cycles you’ll be learning in this chapter.
4. Even if you don’t think the good things the child does are that important, realize that he or she is doing some things right..
5. Don’t focus on those things they don’t do.
6. You can also follow steps 1 through 5 if you get into vicious cycles with your partner or spouse. Teachers and counselors may recognize cycles with their own partners.

You might be thinking: a kid like the one we saw earlier, who asks to be reminded is not responsible. He’s not doing his job. The parent needs to teach that child to take responsibility. The parent should insist that he do it without being reminded. Even if the youth asks to be reminded for a while, the parent refuses to remind.
But if it’s really the parent who insists that the child do the chore without being reminded, who has taken the responsibility?
Answer: the parent.
Why do I say that? Because if the child forgets, the parent will most likely need to have a talk about responsibility. (Or the parent will get angry and say unkind things about this youth.)
But lecturing about taking responsibility doesn’t teach responsibility. It may teach obedience. But that’s not the same as taking responsibility. I don’t want to blame a parent for teaching responsibility the only way they know how. But parents and teachers need to ask themselves: when I remind the child, who is really taking responsibility?
Responsibility means you remind yourself. Not that you “give in” after someone bugs you enough to do the chore.
But I was writing earlier about kid who realizes that he or she needs to be reminded while learning to remember on their own. They want to take on the responsibility but they know they will need reminding for a time. After a while, they may not.
For example some youths who have attention deficit disorder (ADHD) may realize that they forget, and may have reached the point of admitting this to themselves and others. They may have noticed that they can take on more responsibility if they have a time of practice. Being reminded can help during that practicing period.
By asking to be reminded, that youth has recognized the need to correct his or her tendency to forget. By admitting this, he or she has learned something important: to know what you need and to ask for help when necessary.
Now we need to look beneath cycles at some of the feelings covered up by the cycle.

Underneath many cycles lie major feelings. These are feelings you probably don’t talk about. The cycle sucks up all your attention. Any cycle can hide feelings: blaming cycles, nagging cycles, or one of the others.
What do I mean by cycles hiding feelings? You can get a clue about the feelings underneath your cycles. See if you feel one or more of these ways--fill in the blanks with your own words:

11. If you really loved me you would__________ (finish that thought with whatever triggers the blame, nagging, or other cycle; example: If you really loved me you would do what I ask right away.)

12. If you cared about me (or my feelings) you wouldn’t nag or blame me for __________

13. If you (loved me, respected me, valued my ideas, etc.) you would not call me stupid and criticize me. (Name-calling can go with a nag or blame cycle.)

14. If you had more respect for yourself, you wouldn’t blame yourself all the time.

15. If you respected my relatives you wouldn’t blame them for _____________

16. If you could see the good things about our son (daughter, kids), you wouldn’t nag or blame all the time. (Use the strength or resilience lists in this book to see the good things about a youth or adult that people have lost sight of.)

17. If you were smarter, you wouldn’t argue. You’d see that I’m right.

18. You think you (know everything, are smarter, superior, better than me, etc.)

19. I (know more, am smarter, superior, better than you, etc.)

20. If you trusted me you wouldn’t nag or blame me about ____________.

These feelings and many others often lie beneath cycles. You can feel some of the pain just by reading these examples. Other feelings beneath cycles include: feeling unworthy, inferior, dumb. Those feelings can drive a cycle where you blame yourself.
Be alert for these feelings when you end a cycle. If you can’t handle the feelings that start to come up, there are some good self-help books on feelings. I'l repeat my previous recommendation of an excellent book for people with depression; Feeling Good, by David Burns, M.D. He has also written a workbook that helps with both depression and anxiety. These books can also help if you are seeing a counselor.
Suppose a couple gets into such a bad set of cycles that they separate or divorce. Their in-laws may then get sucked into blaming one or the other spouse for the breakup. Blame splits the extended family into factions. What can you do to get unstuck?
You and the willing relatives can use the ideas here to avoid blame cycles or other reactions to the breakup.

What if the other person refuses to talk about the cycle?

10. They might be willing to read this chapter, or some other part of the book. Ask them.

11. Whether they read the book or not, you can still control your part. If you’re a blamer, stop blaming. Say something like, “I don’t want to make things worse between us. I don’t want to blame you, that just makes us get into an argument. I’m going to try to quit blaming you.” (Or nagging or criticizing you, etc.) You can add that you read about blaming in this book.

12. Stop defending yourself against blame. If the other person blames you, say, “You may be right, and I’ll try to (change, stop doing that, etc.) If you see me starting to do (whatever you get blamed for), remind me not to.”
NOTE: To do this, you will need to put aside your pride. You will need to fight that urge to defend yourself by criticizing or blaming the other.

13. Keep in mind that for a while things may get worse, not better. That’s because the other person doesn’t know any other way to connect with you and keeps slipping into the same old blaming or nagging way.
When the other does the same old thing, this may not be on purpose. The other person may not even realize they’re doing it.
See the section below: WHAT IF THINGS GET WORSE, NOT BETTER?

14. But the other person’s acting in the same old way won’t work, because you are not joining in with your usual blame-back. After a while, the other person may do less blaming.

15. They may begin to talk about whatever the two of you need to talk about. Whatever feelings the blame cycle had been hiding, as we saw above. This may bring up painful things about the two of you that neither has wanted to talk about. Or you may find yourselves enjoying each other’s company in a different way.

16. You can remind them that you are willing to talk. You are willing to listen to their concerns. But you don’t want to talk about all the troubles in the past. Trying to go back over past complaints might lead to more blaming.
Don’t go there.

17. Then the two of you might start working together on chores, or whatever the blame cycle involves.

18. If they are still not interested in trying, you can talk with a friend or counselor if you need support. They can encourage you to keep on trying to improve things.

You know that changing a cycle is hard work. Suppose you’ve tried the ideas above. Now you wish you could tell me: “OK. I tried to change the cycle. Now things are worse. I quit nagging and the chores still don’t get done.” Or: “I quit blaming and we still get into arguments.”
That’s often true! Things do get worse, for a time. Most parents, spouses or teachers make two mistakes when they try to stop nagging or blaming.
1. They don’t wait long enough. You will probably have to grit your teeth and hold your tongue for days and days. (Just don’t let your tongue get caught between your gritting teeth.) You and the child or teen may need weeks to work on this problem. Two adults in a cycle also need a lot of practice getting unstuck.
If you can stop your part, your nagging or blaming, you’ve take a vital step. But keeping silent while the problem gets worse--to do that you need unusual strength (and confidence in me!) Or you need to find someone outside the cycle to praise you and keep you on track.
Why do things get worse for a while? Kids need to learn to remind themselves. You’ve been reminding them, acting as their memory. So they didn’t need to remember for themselves. Reminding themselves takes time to learn.
And when you nagged, you paid attention. Some kids don’t get much attention for what they do right. They settle for nagging or anger from the parent. That’s better than no attention at all.
Other kids get a kick out of dawdling, bugging the parent to the point where the parent blows up. It’s a kind of power, a kind of independence. “My mom can’t make me do it.” Some kids think this means they’ve begun to grow up. They confuse rebellion with independence.
Still other kids just seem to miss the old familiar pattern. They feel weird if you are no longer on their back. Their world has changed, and this can be confusing. They don’t know how to relate to you if you’re not nagging or blaming.
Or they might feel you’ve given up on them.
Suppose two adults are in the cycle, not an adult and a child. Some of the same ideas apply.
Whatever the reason, yes, things will probably get worse for a time. As I said, you may need to find someone who can praise you for not nagging.

2. Another reason for failure: You didn’t reward the youth for doing the chore or the homework.
By “reward” I don’t mean a bribe. Some parents think a reward is the same as a bribe, and they don’t approve of bribes. A reward is something that you have agreed to give each time. A bribe is a spur of the moment “deal.” In a bribe, you tell the kid at that moment you’ll give them such-and-such if they do what you ask. The next time they do the same chore, you may not give them a bribe.
A reward is something you have both talked about in the past, something they earn by doing the chore or homework. The reward happens every time. It’s part of an agreement that will last.
Most kids and most adults need to get something in return for what they do. If your kids get an allowance, you can give them the allowance in return for doing the chores or homework. If you don’t have the money to give them a regular allowance, praise or thanks can go a long way.
Thank them, or give them a hug if they will tolerate it. This may be enough of a reward for doing the chore.
Some teenagers feel like they are too old to need a parent’s praise or hugs. Hugs or praise will probably not work with them. Even then, if they will let you hug them, go ahead. Tell them most people need praise, a word of thanks, or hugs now and then.

3. Some families never thank each other--for anything. If you start thanking the child or teen for doing chores, this may feel really strange. Both you and the youth will have to get used to your saying thanks. You might try thanking other kids for what they do. Thank your spouse. This might also seem weird. Others in the family may make fun of you. They may start saying thank you in a joking or sarcastic tone. This can be especially true if your culture has no tradition of saying thanks. If this would be really unthinkable in your culture, don’t do it.
Just remember, many families say thanks. They respect each other. Saying thanks can improve the feeling in your family. Then you’ll have even more to feel thankful for.

4. If you have been yelling a lot, start speaking in a normal voice. They may need to get used to your normal voice. You need to get used to speaking that way. If kids ignore your normal voice, go up close enough to touch them, to get their attention. Don’t do this in an angry way. Put your hand on their shoulder if this doesn’t bug them too much. Tell them you want them to get used to listening to your normal voice.

5. Another type of reward: you can link privileges to chores. Your son or daughter can get together with a friend, if they get their chores done without being reminded. They get to stay up late on Friday night if they got their homework done. They get to use the car if they do their work. And obey young-driver rules and drive safely.

6. Don’t get discouraged by slip-ups. The youth or adult will forget sometimes. Don’t make a big thing out of it, but wait and see if he or she seems to be heading in the right direction.

Don’t ride those negative cycles into a brick wall. Find some positive cycles, with help from a counselor if your need it. Tell us what you learned, and how to improve this section on cycles.

Suppose you have not been praising or rewarding any of your kids. They see you start to reward the one you’ve been nagging. Your other kids get jealous. They ask why they can’t get the same deal.
Good question! Why shouldn’t they get the same deal? They deserve it, especially if they haven’t been driving you nuts. They may have been doing their chores, finishing their homework without being reminded. They deserve the same rewards you have set up for the one you used to nag.

Many teachers expect parents to force or somehow to get kids to do homework. The kid may flounder and fail to do the work if you stop nagging. Without it, he or she doesn’t know how to get started on homework. The teacher sends a note home asking you to “check” the homework.
What to do:
When you quit nagging, tell the teachers what you’re doing. Explain why. Alert them to expect things to get worse for a while. Print out the section of this book above if you can and ask them to read it. After the student begins to do more homework, the teacher should begin to understand how this approach works.
In the U.S., the federal government will nag and even punish the school if kids’ grades aren’t high enough. The city or town will lose money if a school doesn’t measure up. So the government’s nagging can put a lot of pressure on teachers to nag. I don’t have any answer for this. Some parents take their kids out of school and teach them at home (“home school.”) But that is a very big step.

That's the end of the excerpts from Chapter 6: Reduce Stress--Recycle Your Family!
Remember the key ideas of this chapter:
  • Good people can get into bad cycles
  • Don’t blame the other person, or yourself, for causing a bad cycle.
  • Blame the cycle, and change your part in it.
  • Don’t ride those negative cycles into a brick wall. Find some positive cycles, with help from a counselor if your need it. Tell us what you learned, and how to improve this section on cycles.
If you send me email feedback on any of the excerpts from August through today, I will send you a free copy of the entire e-book, Stressed Family, Strong Family.
In your feedback, please tell me
  • which section you read (or skimmed)
  • what you learned,
  • what you changed in your handling of situations in the family or classroom,
  • and what I left out, that you wish had been included.
William R. Taylor, M.D.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What Keeps You Stuck in a Vicious Cycle? Remember: The Cycle is no One's Fault: It Causes Itself!

Continuing the excerpts from my e-book, Stressed Family, Strong Family, available at

Today I'll present three excerpts:
1. One More Thought About Arguing (continued from the previous excerpt)
And these two new excerpts

(In future posts we'll look at more examples of vicious cycles: whining/giving in; blaming; arguing; and the worst of all: scapegoating. The September posts described coping strengths found in fourteen countries across the globe.)

Here's an advanced look at the summary of today's post. If you're pressed for time, this might help to decide whether to save this for reading at leisure.

Summary of Today's Post
We've looked at vicious cycles, such as nagging/procrastinating. We've considered what keeps people stuck, and emphasized that a cycle is usually no one's fault.

We've looked at some "What to do" ideas for getting untangled.

The key point to keep in mind: After a cycle get started and runs for a few days, or weeks, either person might start it. We usually blame the one who "started it"; we think it's his or her fault. But if either person can set it off, either they both cause it, or no one does.

I prefer to say that the cycle causes itself. Then we can get to work on ideas for untangling, rather than blaming someone for starting it. After all, blaming is yet another cycle. See how cycles can hitch onto one another.

Hitch together enough vicious cycles, and your wagon will take you straight to the divorce court.

That's the end of today's summary. Now on to the post!

15. One more thought about arguing (continued from last post)
Realize that the two of you get stuck in an arguing cycle. If the other person hasn’t read the description of positive and negative cycles in the previous post, ask them if they are willing to do so. After they understand what we mean by cycles, say that you feel like the two of you get stuck in an arguing cycle. That is, arguing just leads to more arguing. If the argument is with the other parent, don’t drag the kids into it. Don’t complain to the kids about the other parent. Don’t tell them how wrong the other parent is.

What to do:
Tell the other person you can each have a different opinion. A different “take” on something. Neither has to prove they are right. Neither has to prove the other one is wrong.
Suggest this: When you start arguing, either one can say, “Wait, we’re going to get stuck in an argument. Let’s just say we disagree. You see it one way, I see it another. Let’s step back, stop trying to prove we’re right. Relax and do something else. Get untangled.” (You’ll find your own words for these ideas.)
Agree that either person can say something like: “Here we go again.” They say this when they see an argument starting. Agree to take ten minutes to cool down. Think over the situation. Make a new start.

That takes care of the loose end from last post. Now on to the new post for today.

How you get out of an arguing habit depends on what keeps it going. You or the other person many be caught in one or more of the following traps. If you can get out of the trap, you can settle arguments more easily. Here are some of the reasons people get trapped in arguing.

Note: Some of the “What to do” suggestions here can help with other vicious cycles.

A. Not being able to admit when you’re wrong
Let me ask you: are you one of those people who have a very hard time admitting they are wrong?
Yes? Then read on.

What to do:
Take a look at your reasons.
1. Do you fear losing respect if you admit that you are wrong in an argument with a child? Do you fear that the child will quit obeying entirely? This will not usually happen.

2. Try admitting your mistakes and see if this relaxes you and the youth.

3. Do you feel stupid if you admit you’re wrong? No need to feel that way. Give yourself credit for facing up to a mistake. That’s not stupid at all.

4. Did people call you stupid or make fun of you growing up? They may have made you feel as though you should hide mistakes.
Put those feelings aside and focus on the present. Those scenes from the past don’t belong in your present-day mind.

5. Do you hate for the other person to “win?” Is that because they make fun of you? Do they act superior? Show them in a polite way how they look and act when you feel they are acting superior.
Can you two each admit when you’re wrong? Ask them if they are willing to try.

B. Not being able to learn from another person
Do you feel like you have to know all the answers? Hate to admit you don’t know something? This feeling can drive arguments about who’s right.

What to do:
1. Ease up and allow someone to teach you. Admit you could be wrong. Tell the other person you’re willing to learn to do something different. You want kids to have a good attitude about learning. Show them you can learn.

2. Do you feel like the kid is too young to have a good idea? Give them a chance. Listen to their thoughts. Kids can come up with good ideas if they feel respected. That’s how they learn to think for themselves. Believe it or not, some kids can even help their parents make peace. You can ask that type of youth what they think will work best. Then both parents should give this a good try. But be careful not to put that kid in the middle. Don’t expect him or her to decide who’s right or wrong.

3. Of course, some kids are just trying to get what they want. They may want to make you feel you’re in the wrong for making them do their work. Stick to the fair rules and limits you have agreed on. Work done earns rewards or privileges. Work not done gets no reward.

4. Suppose you find that you can accept ideas from people outside the family. Listen to your spouse, son, or daughter the way you would listen to an outsider.

C. Being unable to argue with the person you’d like to (boss, teacher, spouse, in-law)
Maybe you are angry with someone else, such as a boss. You can’t get mad at work. Instead, you argue with your family,
Your son or daughter may feel angry with a teacher or a friend. They can’t get mad at this person, so they take it out on you.

What to do:
1. Realize when you’re not the real target, or when you’re taking out your anger on someone else. Don’t argue back if it’s another person taking out anger on you. Let them blow off steam for a while. Look for a chance to ask how things went today in school, or on the job. Wherever you think their anger may be coming from.
When you catch yourself taking out anger on the wrong person, or when they point out that you are, apologize. (Hard to do, I know!)

2. Don’t try to solve the problem right away. The other person may come to see that they were dumping some anger on you. Then maybe the two of you can figure out how to deal with that teacher, boss, or other kid. Talk about whoever has made them angry.

3. Don’t take out your anger on the kids. If you do, then admit you were in the wrong. Apologize.

D. Being “naturally” short tempered
Some people have a short temper by nature and jump into an argument too fast.

What to do:
1. You can learn self-control. Get a book on controlling your temper. Your library probably has several. If you can’t find one, ask a librarian. You don’t have to go through life with your temper on edge.

2. You can enroll in anger-management courses. Check with the school or a local group like the “Y’ or the “4H.”

E. All you ever knew was arguing
Maybe you grew up in a family that argued all the time. You may not have learned any other way to get along. Use the suggestions in A, B, and C above to find ways to stay out of arguments. Find a way to exit if you get into one. Anger management classes can help you, also.

An Aside About Anger Management Classes
Arguments or other conflicts between partners can lead to hitting, beating, strangling or other abuse. Sexual abuse of partners also occurs. Some courts will require an abusive spouse to go to anger management classes. These can be helpful if the person admits they have a problem. It doesn’t help as much if they go just because a judge forced them to, though sometimes that’s the only way to get them to try anger management.
“Road rage” (trying to cut off, chase, hurt, crash into a driver who has made you angry) also can lead to referral by police to anger management classes.
A member of the clergy can sometimes convince a spouse to go for anger management help, if you can’t get the message across.
In addition to anger management classes, a therapist and psychiatrist can work together if the temper problem comes from mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, etc.

F. The arguer has a mental illness or an addiction to drugs or alcohol
Some kids or adults suffer from severe depression or other emotional problems that make it hard to control their temper. If they use drugs or alcohol, this can also make them lose control easily. We speak of “dual diagnosis” when a person struggles with both mental illness and an addiction.

What to do:
1. The mental problem, or the drug or alcohol problem, needs treatment. That treatment should help control temper outbursts.

2. The same is true for temper problems due to brain damage. Kids or adults get brain damage from a head injury, lead poisoning, infections, or other causes. The cause needs treatment. Then medication can help with temper outbursts and arguing.

3. Also, anyone who has been through a frightening or life-threatening situation may develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The youth or adult may have trouble with temper control, among other problems. They may need special help if the condition has lasted for months or years.

G. Other problems that may need treatment: A need for excitement can trigger an argument. People don’t know how to relax or enjoy a calm talk. Combat makes them feel alive.
Hiding feelings of inferiority can lead people to argue, in order to keep their self-respect. A counselor can help with this.
Getting sexually turned on by fighting can lead people into arguments. Spouses may end an argument by having sex. This means that arguments bring a powerful reward--if the sex is good for both. No wonder they fight!

If you are not much interested in background information about cycles,, you can skip down to the section titled Vicious Cycles in More Detail. You will find suggestions there for help with several more types of cycles. If you want to know what I think about the key ideas, read on,
The key to getting out of a cycle: you first need to realize that


That’s another way to say “blame the cycle.” Don’t blame the other person, don’t blame yourself. As I said above, by the time the cycle has been running for weeks, months, or years, either person might "start it" on one day, and the other person may start it the next time. Neither one is at fault, but both share equal responsibility for recognizing and changing the pattern.

The cycle causes itself! That might seem like a wacky idea. We usually think that the trouble between people comes from something inside one or the other. (And sometimes it does; for example, a grandparent might have Alzheimer’s Disease, the confusion and loss of memory of some aging brains. This condition can lead to enormous stress in a family, especially if that family gets into blaming or arguments about caring for the person.)

But I’m interested here in those cycles that cause themselves, clashes between people that don’t have a disease that causes the problem. How does those cycles develop?

We’ve seen that, once the cycle has been going on for a few weeks or months, either person might start it. Either the one who nags, in the example above, or the one who procrastinates might have seemed to have made the first "move" in the cycle on a particular day.
Then the other reacts. And it’s those back and forth reactions that keep he cycle going. No one person is the cause. You do your part, or no cycle exists. The other person does their part, or no cycle exists. Neither of you is more of a cause than the other.

This idea that “it takes two to tango” gives you the key. Let’s use that key to unlock cycles.
But this idea about cycles goes against our strong need to blame someone when we get stuck in a cycle. We learn to blame, to point fingers, to pin the rap. You can see this blame game taking place on any playground or ball field. You’ll hear it in many kitchens and bedrooms. Probably even in your own.

Let me repeat: the nagger blames the procrastinator: "If he only did the chore right away, without being reminded, I wouldn't have to nag him."
And the procrastinator? He says: "If she didn't get on my back all the time about chores and responsibility, I would do the stuff myself without being reminded."
Or those thoughts may remain unspoken, or even unconscious.

But usually each one sees the other as the cause of the round-and-round struggle.
They may have even hitched another cycle--a blame cycle-- onto the nag-avoid cycle.
If you convince yourself that the other person started it, that it's their fault, you have found out who to blame. And when that person feels blamed, he or she will usually blame you in return.
Try to remember, blame the cycle, not the other person, not yourself.

Enough for Today
We've looked at vicious cycles, such as nagging/procrastinating. We've considered what keeps people stuck, and emphasized that a cycle is usually no one's fault.

We've looked at some "What to do" ideas for getting untangled.

The key point to keep in mind: After a cycle get started and runs for a few days, or weeks, either person might start it. We usually blame the one who "started it"; we think it's his or her fault. But if either person can set it off, either they both cause it, or no one does.

I prefer to say that the cycle causes itself. Then we can get to work on ideas for untangling, rather than blaming someone for starting it. After all, blaming is yet another cycle. See how cycles can hitch onto one another.

Hitch together enough vicious cycles, and your wagon will take you straight to the divorce court.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Stop Nagging, Blaming, and Other Vicious Cycles

(Feel free to print out any of these chapter excerpts)

This is the second excerpt from Chapter 6 of Stressed Family, Strong Family
Chapter Title: Reduce Stress--Recycle Your Family!


You first need to realize you’ve gotten caught in a cycle. This can be hard to see when you are in the middle of an argument or are busy nagging.
Remember that neither of the people in a true cycle causes it. THE CYCLE CAUSES ITSELF.
Pick a time when you’re not blaming, arguing or fighting with the other person. If you never have any peace between the two of you, get help from a counselor. You need to be able to talk calmly to each other once in a while for my ideas to work. If you are seeing a counselor, he or she may use some of these same ideas.

1. Practice what you’re going to say to the other person about the cycle you see the two of you stuck in. Try saying it out loud, when you are alone, or say it to a friend. This will help you feel less tense when you bring it up with the person you argue with. In your own words explain that you have read about cycles and nagging or blaming. For ideas about what to say, see Step 5.

2. What if you two never talk? If you and this person don’t usually talk together, tell them that you want to try. See if you can get the other to agree to practice talking together. Tell them something like: “This book shows some ways for people to talk to each other. I’d like to try the ideas.”
You could start by talking about something easy--things you each like. Or you can talk about a TV program, maybe while you watch. What you are doing is practicing for the time when you can begin to talk about more serious matters.
Don’t be too upset if this feels strange. When people haven’t been talking, it can take many tries to get used to it. Keep trying. You can even say something like: “Talking like this feels weird.”
But be careful not to blame the other person for never talking! You can say something like, “I guess we’ve gotten out of the habit of talking.” (If you once had a habit of talking.)

3. After you get the habit of talking, go on to step 5. Try talking about one of the blame topics--the things you can’t talk about without blaming each other. And remember, most couples have some things they just can’t discuss. Pick one of the things you can talk about, not one of those impossible topics.

4. If you just can’t talk about anything, even pleasant things, see a counselor, member of the clergy, or other trained person who can help.

5. If you are able to talk together say something like this (use your own words): “You know those times when we get into arguments about ____________? (You fill in with whatever you usually argue about.) Well, this book calls it a blame (or nag)
cycle. You know how we go back and forth, back and forth, same old arguments? Until I blow up (or cry, or whatever you do.) “
You go on in this talk to say something like this:
“This book says that these cycles get going and after a while it’s nobody‘s fault. We just get stuck in it and keep going around and around. One wrong word or look, and we’re off. Either of us might start it or keep it going.
“You know: when I say you’re ___________ (whatever you say), and you get mad and tell me _____________ (whatever the other person tells you.) I’d like to try to stop doing that. Do you want to try to stop?”

6. If you just can’t talk about the cycle without getting into blaming, ask a counselor or someone you both trust to help you talk about it.

7. If the other person is willing to try changing, agree that either one of you can say, “I think we’re getting into a blame cycle again. Let’s back off and try to relax.” There are more suggestions about changing the cycle in the next section.

8. Even if the other person doesn’t think you’re starting into the cycle, can they agree to stop and relax when you ask?

9. If you can each back off, find something else to do. You’re not shutting the person out. You can each do something separately, or maybe there’s something you both feel like doing together. Anything as long as you don’t get into blaming.

10. Then you can talk later about whatever it was that you started blaming or nagging about. Suggest something you can do to handle the problem. You can use the ideas in the next section.

11. Remember: both of you will be changing the way you see yourself and the other person. This is a hard job, and will take those qualities mentioned before:
Time: You will need time to try the changes.
Patience: You need patience when you slip back
Courage: Courage to keep on trying
Hope: Hope will give you that courage
Compassion: Compassion helps forgive yourself or the other person when you slip back into the old patterns.

Does that sound like a tough list to live up to? It is. But those five things, time, patience, courage, hope, and compassion will help you along the hard road of change.
Don't be Discouraged if You Backslide

Most people find that they slide back into a cycle, maybe several times, when they are learning a new way to look at cycles. The next steps help to keep up your hope and courage by stopping the cycle when you get caught up in it.

And keep in mind that some kids will take advantage of the splits and arguments between parents. Kids will go to the softer one to get what they want. Then they tell the other one that they got permission.

Don’t ride those negative cycles into a brick wall. Find some positive ones, (such as praise, encouragement, humor) with help from a counselor if your need it. Tell us what you learned, and how to improve this section on cycles.


1. I've described some ideas about changing the nag-shirk and blame cycles in the previous section. But those ideas may not prevent the cycle from breaking out between the two of you. Habits are hard to break. The you risk getting into a new round of the cycle.

Clues to Trouble:
Accusing one another with words like "You always," or "You never," can be a clue that a blame cycle might be lurking.

What to do: When one of you realizes you’re starting on a blame or nag cycle again, remind the other of your plan above. Don’t do this in a way that accuses them. Keep your tone calm. Say something like, “seems like we’re starting in on that cycle again.” Or you could even say, “Here comes that blame cycle again.” (Or nag cycle, or whatever you’re about to get caught up in.)
Remember, by saying “we” you are reminding both of you that it’s no one’s fault.

2. Don’t make the other person feel stupid or bad because the two of you have slipped into a cycle again.

3. Don’t accuse the other of causing it. You agree to cool off, stop arguing, or whatever your part of the cycle is.

4. Ask if they feel like you’re blaming or nagging them, etc. If they feel that way, apologize and tell them again that you’d really like to stay out of the cycle. If you’re feeling nagged or blamed, say so in a neutral tone. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I felt like you were nagging me just then. Did I take what you said the wrong way?”

5. Use this escape route.
First, each one listen while the other says what they would like to do to make things better. (See “What you can do instead of the cycle” below.)
Listen to the other person's plan.
Don’t interrupt them.
Don’t disagree, or tell them the plan won't work.
Then say what you would like to do to make things better. The other adult or kid listens, does not interrupt, does not say your plan won't work.

6. You don’t need to agree on one plan. If each of you can try your idea, go ahead. Ask each other how you’re doing in a day or whenever you have had a chance to try the plan.
7. What you can do instead of the cycle

First, tell the other person you are not going to blame them, remind them, nag, or whatever. (Unless they ask you to remind them. If they want you to remind them, go ahead. At least they have realized they need reminding.)
Second, tell the person you are going to take a break, stop this conversation, and do something else for a while. Tell them you are not running away from the problem.

8. If you are a kid, change your part in the cycle. Quit blaming your parent or teacher for your problems. Start doing your chores, your homework, whatever you are supposed to do.
Don’t blame others, fix your own part of the cycle.

Most important: do those chores or homework without being reminded. Even if you still get reminded once in a while, keep on doing the chores or homework before you get reminded.

Don’t start blaming your parent for reminding you. When you get reminded, you can say, “Mom, I already did it. See?” Say that in a calm voice. Don’t yell.

Do the best job you can. If you need help with homework after trying your best, ask for help. If your parent can’t help, ask someone else who can. That might be another kid, or a teacher, a tutor, or a family friend.
And if you really did forget to do it, say this so a calm way. “Sorry, I forgot to do it. I’ll do it right now.”
If you want to be reminded for the first few times, ask your parent to remind you. You’re taking at least some responsibility by admitting you forget and asking for help. Later on you can take the whole responsibility by doing it without reminding. Then tell your parent, “I think I can do it without reminding. Let me try.”

9. Kids may need a reward after doing the chores. They can watch a TV program, play a video game, go out and play, whatever works. This is not a bribe, this is a way to teach them to do their work before they play.

10. If you need help finding strengths in an arguing child, you can look on arguing as a type of assertiveness. In the next chapter, see Number 5, ASSERTIVENESS, DRIVE, SELF-DEFENSE, SELF CONFIDENCE. (Note: this will appear in a future post.) Those abilities can often harness the same energy as arguing, but in a more constructive way.

11. As an adult, try to take a break from the cycle by doing something else instead of nagging or arguing. Explain that you’re not mad, not walking out on the problem. You just need a break and you want to stay out of the cycle. Take your mind off the problem. Do a chore of your own. Take a walk if you have time and your neighborhood is safe.

12. Offer to tackle the chore together with a youth. Team up instead of arguing about it. Dividing up the chore will require teamwork. You may have different ideas about how to do it. See if you can try the other person’s way. Or see if they can try yours. (Suppose the problem is homework, and the kid has tried and needs help. You can go over it with him or her, if you know how to do it. If not, write a note to the teacher saying that your child tried and needs help with this homework.

That's the end of this second part of Chapater 6