Dr. Lynn Margolies
This column tells a story based on a composite of real-life situations in therapy to represent both teen and parent viewpoints on anger and guilt in families during divorce.
Disclaimer: The characters from this vignette are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events.
Sabrina, 18, was a freshman away at college. Shortly after she arrived at school she found out that her parents had just split up. Sabrina also soon discovered that her dad had been having an affair since she was in high school, and was still involved with the other woman.
Sabrina came across as superficially tough and apathetic but her hurt and desire for connection were just beneath the surface. She said she had no idea why she felt so bad - so depressed and anxious - and that there was no good reason for it. However, when the topic of her dad came up, Sabrina became visibly distressed. She was adamant that she didn’t want to talk about him, didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and “didn’t care” - but often ended up talking about him anyway. Also, Sabrina frequently commented that if she met her dad’s girlfriend she would “punch her in the face.”
Sabrina’s attitude towards her dad was a change of heart from how she felt towards him growing up. Even though he wasn’t around all the time, she felt a strong connection and identification with him. In this regard, she talked about how she was never a “girly girl” like her sister, and how she and her dad were both good at math and science.
Sabrina always did well in school until she went off to college. She was caught off guard this year when she began feeling homesick and out of her element - lost in a large school in the engineering department. Sabrina was noticeably hard on herself, hating that she was “weak and pathetic” and criticizing herself for not being able to focus on her work or get better. Her depression made it hard to concentrate and she found herself constantly ruminating, “What if I fail?” and worried about disappointing her parents. The pressure led to a repetitive spiral of poor grades and increasing panic, guilt and shame. Sabrina became uncertain of what she was good at or interested in, losing her focus and direction.
Sabrina didn’t tell anyone what she was going through and felt lonely and isolated. She didn’t want to talk to her dad and felt protective of her mom, fearful of burdening her. Sabrina mostly pretended things were fine, though occasionally dropping some conspicuous hints to her mom about wishing she (Sabrina) were dead.
Sabina’s mom, Deb, was in the throes of grief and depression following the breakup of her marriage. She wanted to help Sabrina and seemed loving but, at the same time, needed her daughter to be ok and was generally oblivious to what Sabrina was going through. Deb often gave quick advice or geared the conversation to her own problems, not taking seriously Sabrina’s expressions of desperation about whether she could survive.
Sabrina’s dad, Sam, was a high achieving, very successful engineer He held Sabrina to similarly high standards, confident (as she had been) that she would flourish in a related field. He seemed to love Sabrina more than anything but was somewhat emotionally immature - clueless about how to manage their relationship. Though he frequently came across as critical, reactive and not easily empathic or tuned in to feelings, he also seemed ingenuous, and was himself easily hurt.
Sam expressed his love and caring for Sabrina by giving her money and advice. On the one hand, he seemed to feel guilty when he recognized how much he hurt her by having the affair. But - on the other - he was mad about her ongoing anger towards him, arguing self-righteously that he, also, was entitled to happiness. Sam was very focused on wanting Sabrina to meet his girlfriend and be friendly with her - which would help his life be less divided. “Why should Sabrina be mad at her? And how long do I have to let her be mad at me? Plenty of families go through this. This can’t be all my fault. She’s just manipulating me into feeling bad. Sabrina’s problem is that she likes to blame everyone else but herself for her problems and failures.”
Sabrina was shocked, confused and devastated at the news of her parents’ divorce and her dad’s affair. She experienced her connection with her dad as having been severed. Disoriented by the thought of her dad as disloyal, she no longer could - or wanted to - identify with him and was too hurt and mad to let herself feel any connection to him. But the angrier she was, the more badness, guilt, and depression she felt. In addition, because the affair was secretly going on while she was still at home, she also felt she could no longer trust herself and her own instincts.
Children internalize how their parents see them and their expectations.
Sabrina’s adjustment to the pressures and challenges of college was impacted by the breaking apart of her relationship with her dad, an important part of her identity. Growing up, she internalized her dad’s positive view of her, as well as his criticism, high expectations, and easy disappointment in her. This relational pattern, combined with Sam’s inconsistent presence at home, was a recipe for a strong but insecure attachment to her dad even before the current episode. With this fragile foundation, Sabrina was especially vulnerable in the wake of rifts and loss in relationships.
Children come to experience themselves through the eyes of their parents - shaping their attitude towards themselves. Sabrina’s anger and disconnect from her dad, particularly in a context of failing grades, thwarted her ability to hold in mind the sustaining support of his positive view of her. She became progressively anxious and immobilized in the face of academic demands - taking on the role of “critical dad” with herself.
On the surface Sabrina blamed her dad for what he did and said she’d never forgive him. However, she was also quick to defend him and insist he was not the cause of her problems, maintaining that there was just something wrong with her. Sabrina initially refused to have me talk with her dad or allow him to join a session to begin a dialogue with him. She said it wouldn’t make a difference anyway because he would never apologize for what he did, or for anything - for that matter, acknowledging that an apology could be something that might help.
Anger and indifference may be self-protective.
Sabrina’s opposition to trying to work things out with her dad allowed her to maintain a self-protective posture of anger and indifference. Despite her protests, however, she eventually gave in to the part of herself that longed for connection, and agreed to allow me to talk with both parents and participate in sessions with each.
In family therapy with her mom, Sabrina told her mom how she felt. With help, Deb was able to recognize the importance of tolerating her daughter’s pain, and was able to be present with her in her distress, rather than deflect it. This helped Sabrina feel “seen” and comforted, lessening her desperation, but still not making up for her broken relationship with her dad.
Therapy With Dad
In individual sessions, Sabrina’s dad seemed eager to understand his daughter and repair their relationship. At times, he struggled - retreating to the original story he told himself about her being at fault. However, like Sabrina, Sam easily felt bad and guilty, making him want to run away. Both Sabrina and her dad tried to ward off the self-loathing and pain that accompanied their guilt, vacillating between feeling bad about themselves and then using anger at the other to escape these feelings.
Sabrina’s shame and self-recrimination, however, was a reaction to the internalized critical voice of her dad, not the result of any actual wrongdoing. In Sam’s case, unlike Sabrina’s, there was “legitimate guilt “ - a built-in response of conscience designed to alert us that we did something wrong and betrayed our own morals. When guilt turns into self-loathing or self-punishment, however, it loses its utilitarian, evolutionary function by turning us inward towards our suffering - rather than outward towards making amends in relationships.
What should dad do to make things better?
Sam needed to bear and “own” the legitimate part of the guilt he felt, instead of projecting it in the form of blame, or sinking into despair. Doing so would allow him to begin to truly take responsibility for his actions by accepting the consequences - his daughter’s anger at him. In this way, a space would be created for Sabrina’s feelings and the burden of her guilt for having them would be lifted.
Sabrina needed her dad to feel bad about what he did, not primarily so that he could be punished and suffer, but as a way to get him to “know” her experience of hurt and rejection - which she had no other way to communicate. Through the unconscious process of projective identification, Sabrina tried to get through to her dad - making him feel bad and pushed away, the way he made her feel. Once Sam was able to recognize this behavior as a communication he needed to receive, rather than react to, Sabrina became noticeably calmer and more contained.
As he understood these dynamics, Sam felt more empathy for his daughter and was able to apologize for what he did and express regret. He realized that Sabrina’s anger did not mean she really hated him, or that he had to suffer and couldn’t allow himself to also be happy. This awareness, along with recognizing that accepting her feelings was the only route towards mending their relationship, freed him up to tolerate however his daughter felt towards him, even if it was unpleasant. Sam learned to notice Sabrina’s anger and respond by telling her that he “got” that she was mad at him and why - and that, in spite of it being difficult for him, he was ok. Concurrently, he began working towards allowing himself to feel remorse without self-recrimination.
Sam also recognized that he had imposed his own standards for himself onto Sabrina, pressuring and constraining her. He owned up to having been critical of her and pointed out to her that he could see she learned this from him. He told her he thought she was now treating herself the way he had treated her - demanding that she meet expectations, or suffer demoralization. Taking ownership of ways he treated Sabrina allowed these powerful patterns - now in an orbit of their own inside her - to potentially free up and become available for change.
Sam struggled to accept that Sabrina was a different person from him. He wanted to embrace that, let go of needing her to be someone else, and help her develop in her own right. Sabrina in turn began spending more time with her dad. Though reluctant to trust him, or seem forgiving or praiseworthy of his efforts, she was noticeably less resistant to him and less tormented within herself. With this progress, Sabrina was able to accept help from her dad and address the other issues in her life.
Tips For Parents
• When your child is mad at you, or says he/she hates you, remember that these are states - not permanent conditions or truths.
• Take a leap of faith. Reassure yourself that teens will likely “come back” to you. Remember that this will happen sooner if you can accept, and be interested in, how they feel and not need them to feel otherwise or lecture them about your own feelings. (How teens handle their anger, however, is another issue and is “your business” in terms of what is acceptable or not.)
• Try not to be reactive or defensive - this will likely escalate or prolong how your teen is feeling. Recognize that hurt is often underneath anger. Try to manage your own feelings of rejection and anger.
• Know that equanimity in the face of your teen’s anger is privately comforting and sustaining to your teen. This composure is a reminder that the relationship will not be destroyed if they are angry and that your love is not contingent on their reassuring you.
• Consider your teen’s perspective and your role in the situation. Take responsibility for your part and apologize. Remember that you are a role model.
• Prepare yourself for your teen’s anger towards you and practice. Picture “holding your own” - reminding yourself that this is difficult but that you can tolerate it, and that your teen’s feelings now do not mean he/she will forever hate you.
• When your teen’s anger is received as a communication (vs. acted upon), and then you as a parent understand and articulate it back to him/her, the feelings can be “digested” rather than harbored or acted out.