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Part One: Background / Rationale for Family Therapy / Marriage / Divorce / The Role of a Father / Anger / Domestic Violence / Child Abuse / Guilt / Adult Detachment from Childhood Abuse / Love / Growth: Communication Problems and Solutions (Unhealthy Communication; Healthy Communication; Gender-based Communication Bias; A Lesson from Dog Training)
Part Two: Physical Affection and Attachment / Discipline / Punishment / Shaping Positive Behavior / Death, Dying, and Bereavement / The Loss of Innocence / Family Therapy / Special Hint: How to Say “No ” to a Child



IO one is an island, according to the old saying, and so it should be recognized that no psychological problem is ever a purely individual problem. Therefore, any psychological distress felt by an individual has roots in society at large.

Contemporary American society certainly offers ample opportunity for psychological distress. In a permissive, self-indulgent society, there is little use for self-discipline and self-restraint. Lacking traditional values of integrity, personal responsibility, and honesty, culture loses sense of moral direction, and anything goes. When anything goes, nothing means anything, and all paths lead nowhere. And right in the middle of nowhere you are sure to find distress, anxiety, and depression.

This does not mean, however, that all psychological problems can be solved by changing society. Although political activists work to spread this ideology through social media, for the sake of mental and spiritual health the individual must be responsible for recognizing and transcending—or “seeing through”—all the social illusions that can lead a person astray. Many persons have been brought to psychological and spiritual disaster by believing that they can change, control, or be responsible for anyone else.

In fact, any attempt to control the behavior of another person is just an unconscious attempt to control—that is, keep hidden, rather than face up to and heal—your own inner life, a life that to some persons is so embarrassing and shameful that they are terrified of anyone catching a glimpse of it. Nevertheless, until you have made peace with yourself you will never be able to live in peace with anyone else. So, as much as you might like to change others, you can’t change anyone but yourself. Then, it can be hoped, your example might influence others to change themselves.

This is how it works in life, and this is how it works in a family.




In the early part of the 20th century, the psychologist Carl Jung noted that children tend to live out the unconscious conflicts of their parents. And, as Family Systems Theory teaches, all too often a child will be marked as a “problem,” the “scapegoat” or “black sheep” of the family—the Identified Patient, in Family Systems language—when really the entire family is locked into some dysfunctional pattern of interaction.


An Example

A truly stunning example of a child “acting out” a family dysfunction can be seen in the 1964 movie, The Chalk Garden. I won’t describe the plot of the story here, so go rent the movie. But the basic problem is that parents often have children because of their own desires: they need to feel loved and they believe that a child’s helplessness will be a source of love; or perhaps they have in mind a particular role for the child to fulfill. As a result, they end up expecting that the child will grow up to be totally obedient to them as a sign of love. But the child feels suffocated by the parents’ desire and tries to find his or her own destiny. This search for independence only marks the child, in the parents’ minds, as disobedient, ungrateful, and unloving. Love quickly turns to hate and disaster follows.

Many of the clinical disorders of infancy, childhood, and adolescence, such as the Learning Disorders, Communication Disorders (e.g., stuttering), Attention-Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders (e.g., Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD), Conduct Disorders, and Elimination Disorders (e.g., Enuresis, or bedwetting), as well as the general Sleep Disorders (e.g., Nightmare Disorder and Sleep Terror Disorder) can all have origins within the overall family system.

In such cases, it’s always easiest to medicate the “Identified Patient” and then forget about the rest of the family. It would be far better, and more clinically appropriate, to ask some specific—and painful—questions about how the child’s symptoms may be reflecting parental conflicts and family anxiety.




How many people ever contemplate the psychological meaning of marriage?

Marriage has its origin in the concept of a man and a woman giving themselves to each other for life in order to bring new life into the world: to have children and to create a family in which the children are raised to honor such values as self-discipline, compassion, kindness, and mutual cooperation by which society as a whole can grow peacefully. Marriage, therefore, is an act of service, not a psychological “right” to seek out a “relationship” with another person so as to soothe a fear of emptiness. But when children learn only to seek what feels good in the moment, then society degenerates into a culture of insanity—as is happening right now.

Nevertheless, across cultures and through the ages, the concept of marriage has been perverted into a mere economic contract that simply guarantees the closed transmission of wealth, status, and power. The concept of “family” is irrelevant to this kind of marriage, except in so far as children serve as necessary and vital agents of the hereditary transmission of property. Keep in mind that none of this ever has had anything to do with romance—or love.

When most people today think of marriage, however, they think of love. Even though they might talk about committed relationships, to what is the “commitment”? Free sex? Financial security? Self-indulgence? What sort of commitments are these? When marriage is just a commitment to economics or lust there is no place in it for the moral or spiritual welfare of children or society.


The real commitment of an indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman for the sake of their natural children is the glue that has held human society together for ages. Altering this concept is like someone remodeling a house who decides that removing a load-bearing wall will give the house more openness—but as soon as the wall is removed, the whole house collapses.


And so here is precisely where the psychological problems begin. 


The great philosopher Aristotle said that “To love is to wish good to someone.” [1] So if you think about it, all the moral decisions about marriage and family actually derive psychologically from love—real love, not the “love” of popular fantasy. Adultery, abortion, divorce, and euthanasia, for example, all defile love through a focus on personal pleasure and convenience, at the expense of the dignity—and even the life—of another human being. And what is depression and trauma if not the despair of seeing life turned into a piece of garbage?


Unfortunately, contemporary culture tends to think of “love” as a way to find personal fulfillment in life. That is, each person in a “relationship” expects the other to fill up the existential void in his or her life. Ultimately, this is impossible, and so when there are problems, the conflicts are usually about one person complaining of not getting what he or she wants. In this situation, only one psychological solution can be possible: Take responsibility for your own life satisfaction. True love is about giving, not receiving. If you’re mainly concerned about getting pleasure or security, you’re being selfish, not loving.


This means that you have to look carefully at your own life and stop blaming others. If you are not satisfied with your life, it’s probably because you are not living up to your inner potential or are in one way or another betraying your life values. This can be a hard lesson to learn, but be honest—an adulterous sexual affair, for example, is just a perverted attempt to avoid the real problem: yourself.





In 1997, a prominent psychologist wrote an article which appeared in an American psychological journal. The author reviewed several commonly held beliefs about psychology, and one of his claims was that the brain is quite resilient to the effects of trauma. He noted that rats which had been subjected to trauma as infants developed into apparently well-adjusted adults. 

I wrote a response [2] to his claim in which I noted that, unlike animals, we humans have language—along with a memory system with which to process it—and that trauma has a unique linguistic way of lingering in our unconscious minds. Humans, just like rats, may give the appearance of being well-adjusted, but, as any experienced mental health clinician has seen over and over, many of the seemingly “well-adjusted” individuals walking around in our society are tormented by inner lives of emptiness and self-destructive despair.
Professor, physician, lawyer—they all say the same thing to me: “I feel like mush inside.”
And most of them, as children, saw their families shattered by divorce or adultery—often the “adultery” of child sexual abuse.
We take divorce so much for granted today that it is hard not to find someone who has been divorced or who has married someone who has been divorced or who has parents or relatives who have divorced. And like that prominent psychologist, we brush it off and say, “It doesn’t matter.”
But it does matter.
Children need to have both a mother and a father who will protect them, care for them, teach them, and guide their feet through darkness into the way of peace. Even the trauma of losing a parent to death is less a trauma than losing a parent to divorce, for in divorce a parent essentially says to a child—and to a spouse—“My personal desires are more important to me than is your welfare. This family is nothing to me, and you are just an object to be moved around like a pawn in my self-indulgent search for happiness.”
Laboratory rats have only cheese and mazes. What can they say about trauma? Children, however, have phobias, eating disorders, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, sex, unwanted pregnancies, sexual diseases, abortion—and suicide, and guns—to “speak” about their traumas.
And yet we continue to look at divorce and say, “It doesn’t matter.”




We all need mothers—just as almost every animal in this world needs a mother. A mother’s role, right from the child’s conception, is to nurture a child so that the child can develop strength and inner security through emotional honesty. To do this, the mother must hold the child in her arms, providing comfort and tactile security, so that the child can experience the bliss of resting peacefully in total surrender to gentle love. Then, as the child gets older, the mother must provide the child with hope and encouragement as the child explores and encounters the world.


If the mother fails in her task by being emotionally cold or distant, or by being critical rather than supportive, or by being manipulative rather than understanding, the child will be crippled, at the least, with a terrifying sense of emotional emptiness and, at the worst, with a terrifying sense of being hated. Still, all is not lost, because the father, if he does his job, can “fill in” the lack left by the mother.


And here we come to the role of a father.

A father must “come between” a mother and the child to sever the child’s natural bond of dependence on the mother and to lead the child out into the world so that the child can develop his or her talents and take up a meaningful, productive life of honesty and integrity. In doing this, though, the father does not “eliminate” the child’s need for a mother; instead, the father redefines the child’s experience of a mother.


Most children experience the delight of being fed and protected when they are helpless infants. In fact, if they don’t experience it, they die. And the delight of this early infantile experience, which makes no demands on us and leaves us free simply to enjoy it, is at the root of our adult yearnings for a “utopia” in which all of our needs are taken care of effortlessly.

But to function responsibly as an adult, a child must pass beyond this care-free infantile state of dependence. If this task fails, the child will remain neurotically dependent on maternal protection and will be afflicted with doubts and anxieties about assuming personal responsibility in the world. Moreover, the child’s talents will either remain buried in fear or will be expressed largely through an unconscious grandiosity. And, in its most severe manifestations, alcoholism and drug addictions can develop in adolescence and adulthood, because all addictions have their roots in a desire to escape the demands of personal responsibilities and return to an idyllic feeling of care-free bliss.


A child, therefore, has three essential tasks which must be accomplished under the guidance of a father.

1. To learn how the world works.

The father must teach the child not only about the abstract—and often dangerous—dynamics of social relationships beyond the family itself but must also provide instruction in the practical rules governing the physical world, including honest, productive work in the world.


Imagine a primitive society of forest dwellers. To teach the child how the world “works,” the father must take the child out into the depths of the forest and show the child how to survive and eat by using weapons, building fires, and making shelters. Now, the modern world may not be a forest anymore—though it is often enough called a jungle—yet the forest metaphor aptly describes the process by which a father must teach a child “how the world works.”


2. To learn to trust.

Yes, a child will more-or-less “trust” a nurturing mother. This sort of trust, though, is a necessary part of mother-infant bonding for the sake of the infant’s physical survival.

A deeper trust requires that the child grow to depend on and respect the father, a person different from the mother from whom the child originated; that is, the father is a different body and a different gender from the mother. The father—and only a father—can therefore teach the child to enter the world and encounter difference confidently. But, to be a successful teacher, the father must teach this from the place of his own faith and obedience. In other words, the father must live from his heart by the rules he teaches to his children. In this way the children can learn to trust him through his own integrity. Otherwise, the children will see him for a hypocrite and will disavow—openly or secretly—everything he represents.

3. To learn to trust oneself.

As a child receives instruction from a trustworthy father and develops a sense of confidence under the father’s compassionate guidance, the child will then be able to function more and more independently, assimilating the father’s external guidance into an internal, psychological confidence.


First the father builds a fire, saying to the child, “Watch me.” Then the father encourages the child to build the fire. Finally the child goes off into the forest alone, and builds a fire on his own, confident in what he learned from his father.



Now, considering all of this about the role of a father, look about you and see how many fathers fail miserably in their responsibilities. How many fathers are absent from the family because they are emotionally insensitive to their children’s needs? How many fathers are absent from the family because they are preoccupied with work or sports? How many fathers are absent from the family because of divorce? How many fathers are absent from the family because their adultery draws them away to another woman? How many fathers are absent from the family because they are preoccupied with their own pride and arrogance? How many fathers are absent from the family because of alcoholism? How many fathers are absent from the family because of illness? How many fathers are absent from the family because they were nothing more than sperm donors in a moment of lust? How many fathers are absent from the family because a woman decided she didn’t need a man to have a child? It can go on and on. And it does.


Consider communities in which single mothers are the norm, rather than the exception. What do you see there? A male disrespect for women, low educational performance, social disobedience, violence, drug abuse, prostitution, and a general lack of social opportunity.


And the sad thing is that when a father is absent—whether physically or emotionally—his lack causes a personal lack in the children. Lacking understanding of how the world works, lacking trust in others, and lacking trust in themselves, children—whether they be boys or girls—become lost, insecure, and confused. They lack confidence. They lack real faith. They lack a spiritually meaningful future. They lack life. All because their fathers were lacking.

Unconscious Distortion

Please note, though, that all of this lack resulting from the lack of a father is, in many cases, largely unconscious.

Yes, some persons are truly crippled—both emotionally and socially—by the lack of a father, and their lives become dysfunctional and stuck. And sadly, some of them die in childhood from abuse.[3]

But other persons are able to keep up a surface appearance of functionality; they hold jobs, they get married, and they have children. Yet under the surface of normality a deep secret of anger and victimization is buried. Here are the dark roots of symptom after symptom of secret resentment for the father.

In the unconscious, however, the anger gets distorted because it is difficult for children to accept being angry with a father from whom they still desire a sign of love. To protect themselves from the threat of their own anger, then, the children distort that anger by turning it against themselves to ensure that they do nothing.


Addictions (such as alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, smoking, marijuana use, video games, casinos, etc.) allow them to feel filled when they are really empty; thus they feel nothing.

Argumentativeness prevents them from accepting truth, which includes the truth that the father has failed them; thus they accept nothing.

Being late for appointments and meetings prevents them from having to wait; thus they wait for nothing.

Immodesty (whether as revealing clothing, gaudy make-up, tattoos, piercings, etc.) prevents them from respecting their own bodies; thus they respect nothing.

Learning disorders prevent them from discovering a world that seems hidden from them; thus they discover nothing.

Mental confusion (often expressed by forgetting things or as difficulty with math) prevents them from engaging with the the signs and symbols of life; thus they engage with nothing.

Procrastination prevents them from stepping out into the world they don’t know how to negotiate in the first place; thus they accomplish nothing.

Sexual preoccupation whether as self-created mental fantasies, pornography, lust, or sexual acts, prevents them from experiencing emotional intimacy; thus they are intimate with nothing.

Suspiciousness prevents them from having to trust a world they fear; thus they trust nothing.


In the end, all these nothings, taken together, lead to the nothingness of death: symbolic death, which keeps a child emotionally disabled as punishment for his or her anger, and real death—through slow self-sabotage or through outright suicide—by which the child, in making herself or himself the “missing one,” draws attention away from the truth that the father has been missing from the child’s life all along.


There is no current psychiatric diagnosis for this collection of symptoms, so I have named a psychoanalytic diagnosis: Ira Patrem Latebrosa (hidden anger at the father). This is an anger at the father that so cloaks itself in invisibility that a person afflicted with it will deny that it even exists. Yet it does exist, and the evidence above proves it, like tracks in the snow that reveal the presence of an animal lurking nearby.





Anger, and coping with anger, can be a big problem for many persons. Part of the problem, though, is that most of us don’t understand the difference between feeling hurt and getting angry.

We all feel hurt or irritated when someone or something obstructs our needs or desires. The obstruction can be something ordinary, such as what a child experiences when told that he or she cannot eat ice cream before dinner; it can be something more serious, such as someone being late for a meeting; or it can be something that might bring us to the boiling point, such as a rude driver who suddenly cuts in front of us.

Unlike the feeling of irritation, though, anger is not an emotion; instead, it’s a desire to cause harm. For many persons, this statement is counter-intuitive and confusing because it contradicts popularly held, but psychologically incorrect, cultural beliefs.

Consider here that emotions serve to inform us about our spontaneous reaction to the reality around us; we are not morally responsible for our emotions, and therefore we are not bad for having emotions. In its true psychological sense, though, anger refers to the desire to hurt the cause of an injury; and revenge refers to accomplishing that hurt. Therefore, unlike emotions, anger and revenge are both acts of free will for which we are morally responsible.

Because anger is not a feeling, it is possible to “be” angry even though you do not feel anything. This is the problem with unconscious anger: you don’t feel angry, so, even as the anger works its poison in you, you believe it isn’t even there.

Revenge, too, has its way of being hidden from direct awareness. Although it can be enacted openly and actively through hostility, cursing, sarcasm, sexuality (pornography, promiscuity, adultery, masturbation, etc.), or disobedience to authority, it can also be enacted secretly and passively through passive-aggression as well as through self-sabotage—for example, drug use, alcohol abuse, gluttony, obesity, smoking, suicidality, or the inability to achieve goals (i.e., fear of success).

Anger has no fitting place in a family because, to be healthy, a family should be oriented toward love, growth, and mutual support, not revenge and hostility. But when parents fail to understand and guide their children’s emotional experiences, the children will be fearful of the unknown, and they will be overwhelmed with negative beliefs about themselves:
I don’t matter.
I have no right to succeed.
I am worthless.
I am bad.
Without my father’s [or mother’s] love I am doomed.
And resentment and anger will stain their lives.

In contrast to all the dysfunction of anger, then, we have another option. That is, when we are hurt, we don’t have to fight back, trying to hurt others as they have hurt us. To do this, though, it is necessary that you admit openly to yourself the truth of how you have been injured; furthermore, it is necessary that you then endeavor to feel the entirety of the emotional pain caused by the injuries. Many persons unwittingly block this healing process because they cling to a false belief that they are responsible for and therefore must protect those—such as their parents—who injured them. Sadly, rather than protecting anyone, this unwillingness to admit the truth only drives the hurt into the unconscious where it stews in hidden resentment that causes psychological complications of anxiety and depression, family enmeshment and loss of personal autonomy, and physiological illnesses.




As sure as there are marital problems, there are many couples who resort to violent confrontation. Those who seek to console, to understand, and to love are strong in wisdom, and violence has been said to be the last resort of the weak.

Although some people claim differently, domestic violence is not so much a political problem rooted in “male domination of women” as it is a psychological problem rooted in an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own life. Granted, there are some persons—male and female—who are so filled with frustration and anger that they will attack anyone—including children, and pets—without provocation. But just as often there is provocation, and violence becomes a sly family dance. There are even some people so good at subtle provocation that they always come off looking like innocent victims. It’s a dirty business overall. 


The DSM-IV [4] diagnosis called Intermittent Explosive Disorder is characterized by several discrete episodes of failure to resist aggressive impulses that result in serious assaultive acts or destruction of property, and it describes a sort of aggressiveness that is way out of proportion to anything that could have precipitated it. For example, a family member might go into a rage because the mashed potatoes have lumps in them. Or someone might throw a punch and start a fight after he accidentally bumps into another person who then says, “Watch where you’re going!”
Unfortunately, this diagnosis, like any other psychological diagnosis, tells us little, if anything, about the underlying reasons for the behavior. It really amounts to nothing more than a fancy way of describing a bad temper in a person who cannot manage anger, forgive others, or live with true peace of mind.


Even in a case that seems “political”—say, for example, the wife wants to work outside the home and the husband does not want to allow her—the real problem derives from a lack of loving communication. The woman harbors anger and frustration toward her husband and criticizes him at every opportunity; the husband feels threatened, rejected, and humiliated, often triggering traumatic memories of abuse he suffered as a child. And violence erupts because real communication has degenerated into a power struggle. Neither partner has approached the problem from a position of empathy and unconditional acceptance of the needs of the other. And when empathy is lacking, everyone, including the children, suffers.


California law mandates that when a psychotherapist or any other mandated reporter has knowledge or suspicion of it, the “unjustifiable mental suffering” of a child witnessing family violence is to be reported as child abuse.



Many persons who get violent have been abused in some way as children. When a child is abused, he of course feels very helpless and vulnerable, and so unconscious defenses work very hard to keep this feeling under “control” by pushing it out of conscious awareness. When that child grows up, he may feel the unconsciously motivated need to control and manipulate everyone in his home; whenever he feels insulted, all the old vulnerability “leaks out,” and he can resort to violence out of pure frustration for not being able to do anything else. (Remember: Violence is the last resort of the weak and powerless.) In the end, he “loses control” because he never had it in the first place.

So, if you are prone to violence, the real “cure” in all this is in (a) admitting your old emotional wounds, with therapeutic help; (b) recognizing when those wounds are being triggered by a provocation; and then (c) mustering the self-discipline to walk away from the situation before the tension builds to violence. This is an emotional process, not an intellectual process, so you don’t learn it by reading about it; you learn it from encounter with others in a safe setting.

The most effective treatment for men who are prone to domestic violence is group education and treatment in a men’s group, rather than individual psychotherapy. Many domestic violence programs offer such treatment for men, whether they come voluntarily or whether they are mandated into treatment by the court after being arrested for violence.


In California, domestic violence is illegal (Penal Code 273.5), period. It’s considered a crime against the state, regardless of whether the abused person presses charges or not.



As for those who are abused by violent offenders, there can be many reasons why a person gets involved with someone prone to violence. Sometimes it’s a matter of having been abused as a child and unconsciously seeking out the “familiar.” Sometimes it’s a matter of being attracted to the illusions of control and power in another person that on the surface seem protective but that only mask the underlying aggression and violence. And sometimes it’s a matter of having a rebellious and argumentative nature of one’s own that “plays off” the hostility of another.

In any event, once subjected to violence, a person can begin to perceive the violence from the perspective of an external locus of control and can then make the tragic mistake of trying to appease the offender. Unfortunately, this only makes the victim all the more susceptible to further manipulation by the offender.

The only real solution then is to (a) seek physical safety; (b) learn to recognize the dark human capacity to harm others in order to make oneself feel powerful; (c) encourage the offender’s healing through proper treatment; and (d) work to achieve one’s own capacity for forgiveness, and, if possible, reconciliation.




Whenever parents are violent, with or without provocation, there is always the possibility of child abuse—and even animal abuse. Families can be very good at hiding their “secrets,” so it might take an alert physician who notices a child’s injuries, a teacher who notices a child’s neglect, a veterinarian or animal control officer who notices a pet’s neglect or injuries, or a dentist who notices facial injuries, to uncover the hidden violence in the family. 
And, with or without violence, child sexual abuse can be another hidden secret of even the most apparently upstanding families. The DSM-IV
 [4a] diagnosis called Pedophilia is characterized by recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a child or children generally less than 13 years old. Technically, though, this diagnosis cannot be made unless the fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. It’s an open question how much most child molesters are distressed by their behavior—unless it be the distress of worrying about getting arrested for their crimes.


In its unconscious dimension, pedophilia is really a sort of sexual vampirism in which the adult seeks to cheat his or her own emotional death by preying on the vitality of young innocence.
Through my clinical work I have seen that fantasies related to pedophilia are “fueled” at the core by feelings of unconscious anger. The pedophile, lacking an innocent childhood himself, craves to devour the innocence of his victim child, and, in devouring it, to defile it. To his conscious mind, all the pedophile sees is desire, and he might even interpret this desire as “love,” as the name pedophilia (from the Greek paidos, a child, and philos, loving) suggests. But, ironically, in its deep unconscious reality pedophilia is nothing but envious hatred for the good and the innocent.
And when priests, rabbis, and ministers molest children, it only goes to show how much they are caught in the grip of false spirituality. Instead of seeking divine sustenance through spiritual denial of self, they choose to deny the good in order to glorify their own perverted emptiness.





(bruises; burns; internal injuries; fractures; etc.)

(lack of medical or dental care; lack of food; lack of sleep; inadequate hygiene; unsanitary living conditions; etc.)

(belittling; screaming; threats; inconsistent parental responses; family violence; etc.)

Note that even dog bites can be a sign of emotional maltreatment. Why? Well, remember that dogs are pack animals and are very sensitive to each other’s status within the pack. A dog that bites a child may perceive the child as being lower in status than itself because it has witnessed the child being maltreated by other family members.

(sexual contact between minors and non-minors or between minors; sexual exploitation such as pornography or prostitution)

Sexual contact can refer to penetration (genital, anal, oral); fondling; kissing and/or hugging in a sexual way; and “showing” the genitals.
Note that the above definition applies even if a child says the experience was pleasurable or non-threatening. On the purely physical level, some aspects of coercive sexual contact can feel pleasurable to a child. Moreover, men who have been abused as children are particularly apt to deny that the experience was abusive because many cultures socialize boys with the false belief that males should be always eager for sexual activity. But abuse is abuse, simply because using a child for erotic pleasure strips the child’s vulnerable ego of its dignity and humanity and makes the child’s body into a mere object; this experience leaves the child with the life-long psychological scars of guilt and anger and of feeling unconsciously like a piece of garbage.




Guilt results from childhood psychological wounds of family dysfunction. Parents all too often fear real love themselves and shrink from the time and the hard work it takes to teach their children real love. So the parents resort to using guilt to control their children, constantly telling the children that they are “bad” and threatening the children with the fear of punishment.

Now, if this happened to you, in your inability to understand just why your parents were so mean, you most likely came to believe that something must really be wrong with you and that you really deserved everything that happened to you. Thus you cultivated a secret shame—and guilt—yearning to be punished for being defective. Furthermore, you would have become angry at your parents because of their dysfunction—and then you would have become so terrified of your anger that you secretly desired to be punished for your anger. Call it a sort of double masochistic whammy.

Thus whenever you do (or feel or think) something “bad” you don’t want to admit it or seek help because you are terrified of the scorn that will be inflicted on you if anyone discovers your secret. And so you do anything to hide from discovery, while your secret festers in the dark depths of your heart. Moreover, in this forlorn state, you are far removed from real love because all the good you do for others is motivated unconsciously by the desire to appease others to keep them from abandoning you if they should discover your real thoughts and feelings.

Now, it’s bad enough for a family to be burdened with guilt over all the mistakes and injuries that have occurred in it over time—even across generations. But the narrow psychological path out of guilt is more painful than the guilt itself. It’s a classic situation in which the cure is more painful than the symptom. That’s why alcoholics and addicts, for example, remain stuck in their addictions. The cure is too painful compared to the relative ease of denial and self-destruction. For the dreaded cure is nothing other than repentance, penance, and forgiveness.

To understand this, you need to realize that any damage that was ever done to you has in turn led you to damage others. Those who are hated learn to hate; those who are abused learn, if not to abuse, at least to hold on to anger, a lack of trust, and an unconscious desire for revenge.

But if you allow yourself to step outside your own identity and to feel sorrow for the pain others experience because of the damage that you have done to them, then you will be ready to find healing from the damage that was done to you in the first place. In other words, it’s the sorrow for others—out of true love—that makes it possible to accept that terrible, painful “cure” for your own guilt.




When an adult wants to heal from childhood emotional abuse, and if the parents who inflicted the abuse have no intention of changing their abusive behavior, it will often be necessary for that adult to detach from the family to find protection from continuing family abuse.

In this case, keep in mind that a family system is like a living organism that will do anything to maintain its equilibrium. If family members sense that one member is trying to alter the system’s equilibrium by detaching from its abusive patterns, that member will be perceived as a threat, labeled as a “black sheep,” and much pressure, such as manipulation with shame and guilt, will be applied to draw that member back into the family dysfunction.

Consequently, if you seek to detach yourself psychologically from your family’s abuse, the retaliatory threat from other family members may be so great that you will also need to disengage from the family physically, so that you will have some “space” for your own growth. It’s critical, though, that this physical separation be done for the sake of your healing and growth, not out of anger or hatred for your family. When you leave your family because of anger or hatred you are really hiding from emotional pain, not growing emotionally.

Note also that if you disengage yourself from your family physically but falter in the work of psychological detachment from your need for their approval, you will fear to speak the truth. Hence you will always be in danger of sabotaging your own freedom because of your fear of being left alone if you hurt someone’s feelings. The irony is that in your fear of speaking the truth you really are hurting someone: yourself.




What exactly does it mean for a parent to love a child?

From my clinical experience, I have learned that most parents do not know the true answer to this question. Most parents will say something like, “Well, I tried my best, so that means I loved my children.” This really amounts to more of a defense than an answer. The defense hides a truth, and the truth is not pretty, for the truth is that the parents failed to give their children everything the children really needed.

Nevertheless, “to love a child” does not mean simply to give the child every “thing” he or she needs. Why? Well, to give the child every “thing” he or she needs is impossible. No parent can do this, and it’s foolish to even think that it’s possible.

Real love, though, is possible because real love is not about giving “things.” Real love for a child means that a parent is willing to go to any lengths—to do anything it takes—to be emotionally genuine with the child. That is not easy because it means that the parent must give everything of his or her own being.


For example, if, during a family crisis, a father were to take his son to a sporting event, the father would be implicitly saying, “This is how I hide my emotional pain behind illusions of grandeur and triumph.” In contrast, if the father were to take his son for a hike and were to talk about his current helplessness, acknowledging what the son needs from life and admitting that he cannot provide those things for the son right at the moment, and explaining how a dedication to acts of patience, kindness, and forgiveness will get them both through a difficult situation, the father would be offering a profound model of healthy coping skills.


Therefore, notice that I said that real love is possible. Yes, it’s possible, but it’s also rare. It’s rare because most adults are too terrified to be emotionally genuine, and they are too terrified to look psychologically deep enough inside themselves to become emotionally genuine and to give of themselves honestly in real love. Why? Well, most adults have suffered the emotional pain of having parents who were not emotionally genuine. Most adults were not loved by their parents, and so they are terrified of loving their children. And so we come full circle: emotionally crippled children come from emotionally crippled parents.


Note that this does not mean that parents have to be perfect. We all make mistakes, but if parents are willing to admit their mistakes and learn from them and keep trying to do what is good for their children, then real love will be possible.


So, if you—the parent—want to know what good you have done for your children, look not to the “things” you did for them but to the way you gave of yourself genuinely to your children. If anything falls short, then resolve now to do anything it takes—even enter psychotherapy—to remedy your failures of emotional genuineness. In short, be willing to do anything it takes to help your children, now, while you have the chance.




The beginning of the solution to all family problems is to realize that just as plants can’t grow in chalky soil unless you add to the soil whatever is needed to make it healthy, so children—and husbands and wives—can’t grow unless you give them whatever support and encouragement they need to become independent and responsible. No one can grow in the “chalky soil” of pre-existing desires and expectations. And what a child or spouse needs might not be what you had expected—or wanted.

It’s unfortunate, but parents who do not raise their children with truly unselfish love thereby contribute to the child’s tendency to fall into perversion in seeking acceptance from the world—and then these wounded children have their own children who start the cycle all over again.

Therefore, it’s important for all family members to be aware of what other members are experiencing, and healthy communication within a family becomes an essential element of this awareness.

Unhealthy Communication

All too often, communication becomes unhealthy and takes the form of unconscious anger through


innuendos and hints;

not saying anything at all.

Healthy Communication

In contrast, healthy communication is direct, immediate, and clear, and it is a good model for learning healthy assertiveness. It depends on Facts, Opinions, Emotions, and Needs.


An Example


I had an important appointment this morning, and when I got in the car I found that you had left it with barely enough gas to get to the gas station. Stopping for gas made me late.


I believe that none of us should park the car at night if it’s almost out of gas.


The whole experience left me feeling irritated and frustrated.


I need to be able to leave in the morning without having to deal with unnecessary delays, and I need the car to have a reasonable amount of gas in it at all times, no matter who used it last.

Gender-based Communication Bias

Note also that, in most Western cultures, women have been socialized to depend on emotions as the basis for communication while men have been socialized to depend on thinking and intellect for communication. This gender-based communication bias can cause considerable problems. For example,


a woman might seek emotional support and a man will offer an intellectual problem-solving response, or


a man might seek concrete information (“just the facts”) and a woman will offer an emotional response.


Quite often men are socialized to be aggressive and hostile in their communication, but when women try to attain “equity” with men through aggression and hostility, it only makes matters worse, not better, because then all communication degenerates into endless arguments and rebuttals, and the underlying emotions get trampled underfoot on the battleground.


Therefore, remember that healthy communication generally involves both emotions and facts, unless the situation (e.g., an emergency) specifically requires one side or the other (e.g., emotions) to be suppressed.

A Lesson from Dog Training

Families are often taken by surprise at how easily and quickly attempts at honest communication can fall into misperceptions and angry rebuttals.

Actually, this is a common problem, and it happens to one extent or another in most families. Despite the parents’ best attempts to protect and discipline a child, there can be elements in the parents’ words and behavior that leave the child feeling misunderstood and criticized. With no one to correct the miscommunication, the parents will become more and more frustrated, the child will become more and more hurt and angry, and a huge emotional rift will separate the family.

The child, in feeling hurt, alone, and frightened, will do and say things to express disappointment, but the parents will find the child’s behavior disrespectful, will get offended, and will say, “This deserves the belt!”

Parents, however, can be of greatest help just by not taking their children’s behavior personally. Rather than respond with indignation at what children say or do, it is very important for parents to think, “This is the way my child is expressing hurt and fear. It’s a plea for help. This child needs comfort, encouragement, and protection, not criticism or punishment.” But if the parent takes the children’s behavior as a personal offense and reacts defensively and critically, it will only provoke the children into more hostility.

When children act or speak disobediently, a parent can non-threateningly remind them that their communication has gotten off track and that the parent is willing to help them express themselves more honestly. “That was a rude thing to say. That’s unacceptable behavior. Say it again, but this time say it without anger.” And, until the child does speak politely, keep repeating, “That was still said with anger. Say it again, from your heart, politely.” Wear her down with gentle teaching.

Have you ever seen a program on TV about a Mexican dog trainer? In the course of psychotherapy, several of my clients have told me about the program. It all seems to begin with a family whose dog is out of control. Everyone grumbles and says, “This dog is bad news. It needs medication or something!” Then the dog trainer comes in, works with the dog, and in a short time—with appropriate discipline and punishment—the dog is gentle and obedient. It all proves the point that the dog’s behavior was the result of the family’s misguided attempts to control it! It wasn’t really a “bad” dog and it didn’t need medication. But the dog trainer knew how to understand the dog’s issues.

Now, I wish that changing family conflicts were as relatively simple as dog training. Altering misdirected communication in a family takes a lot of work. But if you’re willing to try it (and if you can convince everyone in the family to try it as well), the most difficult of children would turn around like one of those dogs on TV.



Continue to Part Two . . .

Part Two: Physical Affection and Attachment / Discipline / Punishment / Shaping Positive Behavior / Death, Dying, and Bereavement / The Loss of Innocence / Family Therapy / Special Hint: How to Say “No ” to a Child




Anger and Forgiveness
(Fourth Edition)

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1. Rhet. ii, 4.
2. Richmond, R. L. (1997). The fourth pleasing idea. American Psychologist, 52, 1244.
3. Schnitzer PG, Ewigman BG. Child deaths resulting from inflicted injuries: household risk factors and perpetrator characteristics. Pediatrics. 2005 Nov;116(5):e687-93.
    “Young children who reside in households with unrelated adults are at exceptionally high risk for inflicted-injury death. Most perpetrators are male, and most are residents of the decedent child’s household at the time of injury.”
4, 4a. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Additional Resources
Animal Abuse:
Animal Cruelty / Human Violence  from the Humane Society of the U.S.
Child Abuse:
American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children  “is a membership society dedicated to serving professionals who work in child abuse and neglect and thereby improve the quality of services to maltreated children and the adults who share and influence their lives.”
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect
National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse
Child and Adolescent Mental Health:
ADD   provides “information and discussion about the diagnosis and medical treatment of ADD/ADHD” and describes “the many social consequences people with ADD/ADHD neurology not infrequently struggle to cope with.”
Autism  from the National Institute of Mental Health
Autism Research Institute
Cancer: Support and Resources  from the National Cancer Institute.
Children and Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General  provides comprehensive information about child development, mental health disorders (including ADHD), and treatment.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Activities  from the Center for Mental Health Services.
Conduct Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment in Primary Care  from American Family Physician.
Contemporary Pediatrics®  offers many helpful articles.
Depression in Children and Adolescents  from American Family Physician.
Guidance for Effective Discipline  from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Helping Children After a Disaster  from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Helping children with learning disabilities toward a brighter adulthood  from Contemporary Pediatrics
Mental Health Disorders in Children  from THE MERCK MANUAL
National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect
RETT SYNDROME-SILENT ANGEL'S  offers information from the perspective family coping.
Self-Injury in Adolescents - AACAP Facts For Families  from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Sleep Disorders and Sleep Problems in Childhood  from American Family Physician
Sleep disorders in children and teens  from Postgraduate Medicine
Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents  from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
When parents have a drinking problem  from Contemporary Pediatrics
Child Psychology:
History of child psychology, testing, psychiatry etc.  provides an overview of the history of child psychology through many articles by and about the most famous psychologists who worked with children.
Psyche Matters: Infant and Child Psychology and Psychoanalysis Resources  provides information about therapy and analysis for infants & children.
Domestic Violence:
Domestic Violence - International Resources
Domestic violence: Ways to get help  from the Mayo Clinic.
Family Violence Prevention Fund
Marital Rape
National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (NCFV), Health Canada
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
On-line Domestic Violence Survival Kit
The White Ribbon Campaign  —Educational Materials: Men working to end men’s violence against women.
Family Systems Theory:
Allyn & Bacon Family Therapy Website  provides an overview of important family systems therapists and historical concepts.
Family Systems Theory & Concepts  provides a slide presentation of basic family systems concepts.
Bowen Family Systems Theory, family healing meditations  provides some helpful family systems healing concepts.
Alzheimer’s Association
A Practical Guide to Caring for Caregivers  from American Family Physician. (A confusing title! It is a guide for family members who take care of persons with dementia.)
Elder Abuse  from Emergency Medicine
Guidelines for the Evaluation of Dementia and Age-Related Cognitive Decline  from the American Psychological Association.
Late-Life Depression  from Clinical Geriatrics Magazine Online.
The Merck Manual of Geriatrics  provides numerous articles which discuss mental and physical aspects of geriatric care.
Recognition and diagnosis of dementia  from the National Guideline Clearinghouse.
Marriage and Family Issues:
Abortion and breast cancer: The scientific link
Family Matters and Resources
How therapy can be hazardous to your marital health
Smart Marriages
Marriage and Family Therapy:
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy  provides information and resources for marriage and family therapy.
Directory of State MFT Licensing Boards  provides the regulated titles and addresses of state boards regulating marriage and family therapists.
Strategic Therapy:
Strategic Therapy  —from Jay Haley on Therapy.
Substance Abuse:
Adult Children of Alcoholics
Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholism  and other publications from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse  is “a non-profit organization working to minimize the harm associated with the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.”
Cocaine Anonymous
Drinking and Your Pregnancy  and other publications from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Droginformation  is a Swedish site with articles, in English, about marijuana abuse.
Drug Use And Dependence (Substance Abuse)  from THE MERCK MANUAL.
Narcotics Anonymous
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration  is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Adolescent Violence
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Depression and Suicide
Identity and Loneliness
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Reasons to Consult a Psychologist
Sex and Love
Spirituality and Psychology
Terrorism and Psychology
Types of Psychological Treatment
The Unconscious
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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice



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