March 27, 2009

Rescue your Self from the DRAMA

Image by M.C. Escher 

Previous message: Teenage Runaways

"Almost 40 years ago, therapist Stephen B. Karpman identified a pattern of interactions in alcoholic-codependent families, which he named the "Drama Triangle". The pattern involves two people, most of the time, but any number can play.

"There are three roles in the Drama: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. You can draw a triangle, and write Victim at one point, Rescuer at the next, and Persecutor at the third. The triangle works like this: people move between these roles, and go around and around and around the points of the triangle in a neverending drama of rescuing, persecution, and victimization.” ~Stormchild on Gale Warnings

When the police were called about two suspicious-looking teenagers roaming a church parking lot, they arrested both of them on the spot and telephoned worried parents. Since my sisters and I were scoping out neighborhoods looking for vagabonds-without-coats, we immediately switched directions and headed to the location where the boys were being detained. The minute my younger sister saw both boys kneeling on the ground, she broke down sobbing at the wheel.

“I can’t do this! I can’t bear this!" Her vehicle slowed to a near stop in busy afternoon traffic. I was sitting in the back seat and recognized her panic. Been there done that myself. She was having a Xanax moment but without the Xanax. She’d never experienced nor anticipated experiencing anything quite like this in her incredibly bless-ed and blissfully charm-ed life.

Using my big-sister bossy voice, I shouted, “Pull over the car! Do it NOW, dammit!"

Loud voice + swearing = results. She navigated the car into the driveway and parked directly in front of two police cars. An embarrassingly lousy parking job, too, I might add.

We had reported my nephew missing the first afternoon he didn't return from school. We authorized police to arrest him as a runaway. Yes, we had the option for them to return my nephew without handcuffs or spending a night in detention; but we decided a Reality Check was in his best interests.

"Hey, kiddo, this is life in juvenile detention. It ain’t all its cracked up to be on TV or movies, is it? Where’s Will Smith when you need him, huh? Oh, that’s right. He’s sleeping in public restrooms on his way to be a stockbroker.” (see ref)

Well maybe they don’t arrest movie stars for sleeping in train stations, but they sure do bourgeois boys with ipods.

Was it easy to see a bipolar child kneeling on the ground with both hands cuffed behind his back? Did we not have sympathy for him or understand he had problems thinking things through to logical conclusions? Especially with a friend who also had problems thinking things through?

No, it wasn't easy. Yes, we were sympathetic. Yes, we understood his impulsivity. Did we feel the urge to step out of our vehicle, sooth him with comforting arms, tell the police to release him into our custody, take him home and fix warm soup with freshly baked muffins after letting him soak in a bubble bath?

Yes. Yes. And Yes.

Rescuing him was our automatic instinctual response to our role as parents. We didn't do that, however. We didn't rush to his side and wipe his tears even though he was weeping buckets at that point. He was terrified, ashamed, begging someone to save him. Anyone. And no doubt his kneecaps were killing him too, after genuflecting on the cold ground praying his faithful family would make his problem disappear.

We did not talk to him. We did not wipe his tears or tell him, "everything will be okay 'cuz we love you so much." We spoke directly with the police instead.

Officer-handsome-as-the-devil asked, "Do you want us to release him into your custody, or would you like us to take him to juvie?"

"Did he break the law?"


"What’s the penalty for running away from home?"

“Juveniles spend a night in the Christmas Box ‘til their parents pick ‘em up.”

The police had already removed his friend's handcuffs before our arrival. After listening to our conversation though, the other kid’s father asked, "May I call my wife?" In about two minutes or less, he returned and said, "We have decided to let our son deal with the law, too. Sorry, son. We love you, but this is best." Then he watched as police relocked the handcuffs on his son’s bony wrists, ushered him to their black-and-white, then protected his head while he climbed in the back seat. Well, watching a cop protect criminals’ skulls from the car frame was exactly like Reality TV---so at least the kid knew enough to duck his head.

Some people have questioned our decision to step aside. They can’t quite fathom why we didn’t intervene. We’ve even been asked if we had turnips for hearts. How could parents be so harsh when a child was clearly in distress?

I have an answer for that:

We knew our limits. We admitted this situation was way beyond our expertise. So far beyond our typical and norm, we didn’t have a clue about appropriate action. We called his psychologist for help the first night he went missing, and then, we faithfully followed her instructions.

She told us to back off. Meaning: don’t become a buffer zone between the child and the police. What she was really telling us without a PDF handout was this:
Parent the kid. Get your boundaries up. Stay out of the drama triangle.

If you think about her wise counsel, you’ll realize that rescuing him would have defeated his opportunity to hold himself accountable. We’d unwittingly reinforce perceptions that he was a victim. Claiming a stake in the victim position is a troubled teen’s favorite hangout, since victims don’t have to grow up. Maybe not ever if guilty parents perpetuate excuses for budding teenage narcissists.

And the police? The true rescuers? Well, they would have shifted to the third position as Persecutors when Rescuing moms and Victimized teenagers bonded together to avoid accountability.
The psychologist laid it all out and we trusted her advice since she’s worked with troubled teens for twenty years. She told us very few parents followed through because it’s so emotionally distressing, even when the best chance a child has to change the course of their lives is the first time they break the law. In her experience, parents should make the first experience the worst experience, ensuring our kids are as miserable as possible. Pain may be the best deterrent to future criminal behavior. If it hurts real bad the first time, he’ll think twice before upping the ante. Far better that he suffer in juvie than prison. 
“Let him own this himself”, she said. “Don’t take responsibility for the mess he created. Did he ask you before leaving? Did he talk to you about the thoughts he was having? You have ears, right? Did he try to communicate with you? Or did he arbitrarily decide life on the streets was better than homework, chores and family rules? If he’s old enough to make a life decision that profound, he’s old enough to handle legal consequences.” 
She’s right, you know. Families have rules but society has laws.
This is very important advice for parents whose marshmallow hearts deter them from setting boundaries or establishing expectations from family members. Living in a home with a family is a Privilege. If we’re fearful setting boundaries will alienate a troubled teen, we need to remember they’re choosing to alienate themselves. If we’re fearful our withdrawal will trigger their fear of rejection, we need to pay attention to the fact that they just ripped our hearts out by running away. If that’s not rejection at its finest, I don’t know what is!
Own your own pain and don’t assume the kid is suffering more than you are. He’s not.
I remember thinking “He needs to know we love him.” And then I realized something. Giving MORE love and reassurance after breaking the law would be rewarding him for hurting his family and society. The time to reassure him of our love would be after he respected his privilege to be in our family and in our society. So even though we wept all weekend, he didn’t see us cry. That’s because he was locked up in juvie until the courts released him the following Tuesday.
Note to the Wise: If yer gonna run away, don’t do it on a Friday when judges go home for the week-end. You’ll sit your fanny in a concrete room and ain’t nobody gonna get you out for Sunday brunch and Quiddler.
One more thing? We did not see him during juvie’s visiting hours; we did not spend our time baking cookies to take to juvie; we did not call him on the telephone. By Monday morning, he called us, his voice quivering on the phone. “Will you pick me up tomorrow when they let me go? Please?” 
We thought about telling him to get a taxi but decided that was going a little too far. 

Next up: What we did over the week-end instead of spending time in juvie with all those other parents reassuring their juvenile delinquents AND their parental egos.

(see: Runaway Teens: Level One Detention )



Sony Pictures, The Pursuit of Happyness

Previous Posts:


  1. What an incredible post.

    I'm sorry that you and your family had/have to go through all of this, but you have an incredible talent for finding jewels in the mud.

    "... victims don't have to grow up."

    Ye Gods and little fishes, CZ, that one little clause captures a fundamental truth at the heart of abuse dynamics.

    The abuser who victimizes does so to keep the target dependent, demoralized - to prevent them from being an autonomous adult.

    The Victim-Player in turn, when this is a Role in a Game, has a similar investment in avoiding adulthood and autonomy [spelled 'responsibility'].

    Thanks for provoking lots of thought. As ever.

    And.. um... many, many thanks for the backlink and the quote, too...

    Stormchild [abashed]

  2. I was a very troubled child growing up and got involved in drugs and alcohol and trouble with the law. Today, I am well but I had to go thru everything I did to be where I am at spiritually today. The core issue of my addictions and acting out where because I never felt loved, never felt worthy, never felt valueable. As a child, there was no one to listen to me. So I feel that it is extremely urgent and important to listen to your children today and hear what they need to tell you. Be open with how they are feeling and discuss EVERYTHING with them. Listen first and discuss second. And thats my contribution to this. Thanks.

  3. Thank you VERY much for posting, anonymous! I had intended on posting about the changes we made as a family that have encouraged my nephew to speak openly with us.

    I know he felt like people were uninterested in his feelings. Imagine growing up with three adult women in the house and no men (except for the two that ran away.)

    Empathic listening and compassion are essential. Learning how to do that without enmeshing ourselves with the child OR rescuing the child is OUR challenge!

    Thank you for bringing up the topic of Voice.


  4. I stumbled across your blog at midnight after my wonderful counsellor had suggested I look up Burns Drama Triangle, to help me understand my relationships. But what I found in your article was something that I will keep with me for future reference with my children, who are still quite young, but needing this constant reminder of responsibility for ones actions at any age - whether it be handing in homework on time, or simply getting up in time for school. Thanks

  5. I wish you all the best raising your children, anonymous! I wish I had known more about the Drama Triangle years and years ago...I guess what really matters is that some of us 'old dogs' still learn 'new tricks'.

    I can give you another link to a woman's blog that is very very helpful:

    Another good site discussing the Drama Triangle is this one by Lynne Forrest:

    Good luck! And thank you very much for posting a comment.

    Big hugs,

  6. The urls didn't post accurately. Let me try again:

    (if this doesnn't work, go to each site and use their search engines to retrieve articles on The Drama Triangle.)


  7. This advocates holding a child responsible for a poor reaction to something caused by deficiencies in his parenting. Rehabilitation, not punishment -- particularly this sort of authoritarian punishment -- is a more effective approach. Children need support from their parents. This indicates an understanding of what a child is going through -- simply put, if a child is having his needs neglected, how is it appropriate to punish him for his response? I would advocate this approach for drama with other adults, who should have more skilled problem solving abilities, but for a child, this is extreme. A thing of nightmares and the cause of permanent damage in relationships between parents and children. I'm glad it seems you were able to go on and address these problems. But for parents visiting this page in hopes of advice in dealing with troubled teenagers, this psychologist's advice is poor and this was a poor example to use to demonstrate this technique. By the time a child reacts like this, the damage has been done and the onus is on the parent to correct it through compassion, not authoritarianism. It's harder work to rebuild trust over subduing them into a fearful submission, but it's worth it not to sentence your child to further trauma.

    1. It's always useful to have alternatives and what we chose to do as a family is viable alternative that teaches children about consequences. Five years later, the consensus remains the same: my nephew has stayed out of trouble. He attributes his "wake up call" to the time he spent in juvenile detention without his family, without cookies, without anyone rescuing him from the MESS he created!

      Believe me, juvenile detention is a cakewalk compared to prison. I have watched friends and family members do the 'rescue routine' because they couldn't stand their pain. It didn't have as much to do with the child as themselves. Letting my nephew sit in jail wasn't easy for us but we trusted the psychologist's advice AND our intuition. We only needed a little nudge in the right direction and we were able to deal with "our" feelings watching him go to jail.

      Granted, where we live, juvenile detention is not the horror story it might be in larger cities. I don't know that, but it's a good guess. It is a well-guarded situation with individual cells for each of the boys. We knew he would be safe but miserable, of course. And he was.

      As far as being an authoritarian without compassion, must not have read very much of my blog.

      Do you have a blog about parenting? If so, I'd love to read it.


  8. This is a weird story for me. Is running away from home in and of itself a criminal offence? The kids were detained for "being suspicious?" If the parents had not picked the kid up, would he have stayed in juvie indefinitely, in the carceral custody of the state until he turned 18, or whatever the minimum age is for exercising the right to be out of your house past dark?

    1. Hello Unknown. Several years have passed since writing this entry, which gives credence to our decisions. At least I hope so. Your comment however, is welcomed. My nephew didn't just run away---he vandalized a local church. He stole items from the library (no, he's not much of a gangster is he?) for which he was required to make restitution. We hoped he would learn that "Running away from home" is not a good answer to his troubles. It's better to own up to whatever is troubling him and talk about it with family members. Confrontation, as ugly as it can be, is a better way to live life than running away.

      I re-read my post and would like to add a bit more information for readers. While police were on the lookout for these two boys, an officer came to our home and explained the juvie system in our city. We were well-informed of the juvenile system before making the decision to let my nephew spend the weekend in detention. We didn't blindly trust the system without any investigation on our part. We knew what to expect and we knew how safe he would be before we agreed to his arrest.

      I am sure there are situations where a child would not be safe in detention and in that case, an alternative approach would be recommended.

      Perhaps I'll write more extensively on my blog because this post (while it may appear to be weird) touches on the topic of parental narcissism and adolescent narcissism. It teaches direct consequences for chosen behaviors without parental intervention (a permissive style of parenting that doesn't teach kids to be responsible for their own lives).

      I noticed in the prior comment that the writer suggested "we" (his parents) were at fault since he chose to commit a crime. Well, that's exactly the issue causing so many problems for parents today---as if parents have more influence over their teens than socialization, than peers, than the media. ha! I believe my parenting skills are vital but also recognize my limitations. As long as parents can be blamed for whatever a child does (even breaking the law), the child doesn't learn responsibility for him or herself. I believe this will hinder their future happiness and competence in life. It's so easy in today's world, to blame parents rather than examine the way we raise our kids as a society.

      So while I still believe we did The Right Thing because my nephew loves his family today and has never ever done anything like that again, your point is well-taken. I would hope that any parents facing a situation similar to ours, would seek further information before making their decision.



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