Little Murders: When Children are Full of Revenge

Sign up for our 2017 MAMFT In-Home Therapy Symposium on October 20 in Holyoke. This blog post is written by presenter Howard Wolfe, LMFT.

On October 20th, I’ll be presenting a workshop at the MAMFT’s annual In Home Therapy Symposium. The workshop will be about how children can destroy family life through “little murders.” They can murder meal times, play times, vacations, morning and bedtime routines. These little murders are often acts of revenge. This workshop will explain the dynamics involved and discuss method to prevent it and heal it.

We often think of children as passive recipients (or victims) of parent’s approaches to discipline. But what if we think about children as having goals and actively working to achieve these goals.

Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs suggested that we need to give children credit for having goals. He suggested four main goals: Attention, Power, Revenge, and Discouragement. Because humans are social animals, these goals are social—that is, they hope to impact other people, especially parents.

The dynamics of revenge, as suggested by Dreikurs, goes something like this: The child gets “hurt” by a parent and then seeks revenge by hurting back. Revenge can be active or passive. Active revenge may involve the child hitting the parent and calling them hurtful names. But revenge can also be passive, such as when a child secretly hides or breaks something that the parent needs or cherishes, tortures a sibling, or just finds just the right way to ruin time together. The ultimate criteria, though, and more important than what the child does, is that the parent feels hurt by the behavior, that the arrow has hit its mark.

Parents, unfortunately, often react by hurting back, creating and reinforcing a feud. They focus on the child’s unacceptable behavior and will attempt to get control of the child through yelling and punishing. This fuels the child’s need for revenge. Around we go.

I find in my practice, children who have the goal of revenge and are feuding, are most likely to be bright, sensitive, and have good memories, and are more often boys than girls. They are particularly ‘thin-skinned’ and are hurt by things that most people would be surprised by having that sort of effect. They are the sort of behaviors that parents respond to by saying, in effect, “Get a grip! Its no big deal!” And when we respond that way, the child is unable to ‘discharge’ or ‘heal the wound.’ They have excellent memories and they accumulate and keep track of these hurts. Many times they will have lists of grudges. Because they are unable to heal the hurts through an empathic connection with a parent, they will turn inward to narcissistic soothing and revenge.

  • What starts the cycle? Initially the child gets hurt by something the parent does. This is often very subjective. Examples might include
  • Having a new sibling who gets preferential treatment
  • Not taking the child’s needs seriously (needing a new hockey stick, wanting to stay home because they ‘really’ are sick; difficulty with certain situations because of dispositional issues.)
  • Trying to get the upper hand in a power struggle (“Because of your behavior, you will never go to another birthday party again.” or “You’re grounded for life’)
  • Being embarrassed by a parent or a situation, like losing a game or making a mistake.

Unlike some family issues which can be easily corrected, the child who seeks revenge develops a narcissistic and self-protective shell which can insulate him or her from all reason and correction. The original pain is kept alive in the child’s memory and imagination to act as a reminder to be vigilant and defensive. If you have ever been burnt on a stove, you may remember the incident and be on guard and even proactive every time you cook.

How do we stop these feuds? Great patience and maturity by the parent is required because they need to admit to themselves the effect of their parenting. We must accept the fact that we have hurt the child whether intentionally or not. Above all, we must be willing to find a way to like and love these children, even though we are getting hurt by them. We must tease out of the child, in a very loving and empathic way, what has hurt them. We must apologize for the hurtful action. And we may need to repeat this to convince the child of our sincerity and overcome the child’s narcissistic protective shell.

How do we prevent hurts from becoming grudges and feuds? First, we must become aware of the signals in ourselves that tell us what the child’s goal might be. Did the child act in a way that had the goal of hurting us? Are we feeling hurt by something a child does or says?

If we suspect the child has been hurt, we need to acknowledge the hurt. “Did something hurt your feelings?” “Did I do something to hurt your feelings?” (Note: You generally want to avoid saying,”That hurt my feelings”. Or, “That hurt so and so’s feeling,” because you don’t want to tell the child that their attempts to hurt are working.)

Then we need to fix things up. Apologize. Make amends. Problem solve a solution to minimize the likelihood that it will happen again. Being empathic with the child can soften the blow of the inherent unfairness of life. We need to find ways to model a process of repair and reconnection.

Howard Wolfe, LMFT, works with families in his private practice in Arlington.

Posted in Families Through the Lifecycle and tagged , .