Steve, 11, had increasing difficulty making and keeping friends. There were few invitations to "sleep over" or visit another youngster. At school Steve was teased a lot, and his mom reported that he usually walked home alone.
Steve started watching more and more television. His grades worsened slightly. His parents remarked that Steve argued at home, but their biggest concern was his sad mood.Everyone was surprised when the school guidance counselor recommended that the family - not just Steve - visit with a psychologist who specialized in family therapy.
Steve, his brother and sister, and his parents began attending meetings twice a week with the family therapist. It became clear that there was a lot of tension in the family, particularly between the two boys and their father.
In spite of Steve's mother's report that "everything is OK in our family," Steve's father had a long list of complaints about what Steve did wrong.
"He has a single-mindedness . . . a stubbornness and a need to be most obstinate when the people who care about him are around," the father said.
"I don't know why, but it's his temper tantrums that bother me the most. He seems vindictive and out of control. . . . It kind of reminds me of how scary my own father was."
As he went on with what Steve did wrong, Steve's mother interrupted. "You know, I never thought of it before, but my husband was a lot like Steve is today."
Steve's father looked angry. He looked sternly at his wife, as though she had exposed a secret. She didn't stop talking, and soon there was a good deal of discussion about their marriage. She talked about how he often had to do things his own way, and was unwilling to compromise with her. She described how he was particularly stubborn when she tried to help him.
Over the course of several family meetings, Steve's father came to discover how "I'm sitting on a fence . . . looking back at my own childhood with my parents, and looking ahead at how Steve and I are getting along.
"You know, I think I'm so hung up on getting control because I'm not sure I know how to relate with him or his brother. I never really learned how to get along with people . . . and I certainly didn't with my father. He had temper tantrums and he was stubborn, and that's really the only way I know how to act myself."
At certain stages in growing up, children "use" their parents and siblings to find new ways to act with other children. During these stages, there is a particular sensitivity to parents. Attitudes, fears and behaviors that direct parents are most important to children.
Children watch how their parents act, how they treat each other, and they listen to what the parents say about others. They interpret everything according to a child's perspective, and essentially own these characteristics in the long run.
This is true of aspects of their parents that they dislike as well as aspects that they respect or enjoy.
Thus a child's development is influenced as much by the way parents run their own lives as by what the parent directly tries to teach the child.
Regardless of how insensitive or uncommunicative a child might seem with parents, the parents' attitudes toward work, play and marriage are the most important foods for thought for the child - young children as well as teenagers.
As family therapy progresses, children can learn about their parents' confusions and previous hurts, so that the family can better work together.
Steve and his family had a rich experience in family therapy. Not only did Steve gain by getting closer with his friends and with his family, but he came to understand that a lot of his temperamental rigidity was a reenactment of what his father's father had done many years earlier.
Steve's parents also re-examined their marriage and their own pressures to repeat attitudes and ways of acting that they had learned from their parents.
Steve's dad said: "My parents are both gone, but it is as though our kids woke my dad and mom up inside of me. I've been listening to echoes of what I've copied from them, and this has made me act more temperamental myself.
"It was as though I was making sure the two boys would copy it all over again. The biggest surprise of these meetings for me was learning that we could all get along much better, by figuring out what was already inside of us before we came."
*Dr. Schwarzbeck is a consultant to families, schools and hospitals in the Seatle area.