Mind Matters: Children as emotional barometers

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who suffered anxiety and panic attacks. Unfortunately, his life was not a fairy tale. He was sent to the psychologist to help him with the anxiety that was thought to be “something about him.” The therapist, however, invited the family to the initial session and perceived that there may be more to this boy’s anxiety than its “just residing” in him.

The child psychiatrist who referred the boy thought it odd that this newly minted psychologist would need to see the family for the first session. Indeed, the therapist did then see the boy without his parents present in a later session but included his sister.

In this session, the boy blurted out, with great insight, that his anxiety kept his parents together, that they all lived under the same roof but that the parents were essentially divorced. Their united front to the world was the fairy tale. His sister retorted, also with incredible insight, “Well, I had anxiety last year, if you get better, I don’t want to have it again to keep them together.” These kids were the emotional barometer for their parents’ stormy relationship.

The therapist was astounded at how these two middle school kids could articulate Family Systems Theory, as played out in their little lives, as played out in their family’s drama.

The therapist knew her story was not so unlike theirs. She recalled how in her own early life, she was caught in a family triangle between her mother and her brother, who was 11 years older than she. Neither her mother nor her brother had any idea how their arguing affected her emotionally. Both absorbed in their own pain, they thought it was just about them. Yet this high schooler was suffering their pain even more.

Loving them both, she felt torn apart by their anger and resentment. She wanted to rescue them herself and somehow make peace. The therapist remembered literally crying out “We need some outside help for this family!” (Perhaps this is when the seeds of her profession began their long germination.)

It is a fact of family therapy that triangles happen in systems, especially family systems, whereby the tension and dysfunction of two people can get acted out by a third person. This acting out by this person falsely alleviates the tension between the two people. The most common, and yet saddest, triangle that occurs maybe when parents are at odds and the child (or children) becomes the carrier of the difficulties. The parents, instead of facing the turmoil between them, get off the hook and are distracted by the acting out of the child.

In the early days of family therapy, some would say the child becomes the “identified patient,” or the scapegoat. If the dysfunction of the parents continues to fester unheeded, then indeed the child could internalize the acting out and truly does become a patient.

Personality has a role in this too, of course. Some children, due to their temperaments, may be more prone to take on the mantel of the family dysfunction to save the family, while other children seem to have more Teflon temperaments, letting the family dysfunction roll off their backs a little more easily. However, that is not to say they are not affected too. In such dysfunctional systems, everyone suffers.

So, what is the antidote to these dynamics? Parents might recognize that their tensions, frustrations, and friction cascade down to their children. This is no pleasant waterfall but can be a drowning in emotional overload. It is important for families to consider individual and marital distress, and to find ways of communicating to repair discord.

First, what are the red flags that arise in their emotional field that need to be addressed in healthier ways? Suggestions for ways of coping include individual and couples therapy, exercise—even as simple as a walk around the block, journaling, sitting, learning meditation and relaxation techniques, and reading. However, individuals need to avoid using these techniques as a means of isolation, but instead as a means of emotional regulation. Stress is a part of life. Discord is a part of life. How we manage stress and repair discord can mean a world of difference for ourselves and our loved ones around us.

Suggested reading:

  • Harriet Lerner Ph.D., Why Won't You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts
  • Claudia M. Gold MD and Ed Tronick Ph.D., The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust
  • Daniel J. Siegel MD and Mary Hartzell MEd, Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive
  • Daniel V. Papero Ph.D., Bowen Family Systems Theory



About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.



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