Little Johnny had been acting out in school, disrupting the other students, cursing at the teachers, and fighting. The school wanted to expel him. His mom and dad were frustrated and desperate, so they took him to therapy.
Little Johnny slouched in his chair with his arms crossed, bored and unimpressed, as his parents proceeded to complain about him. The therapist listened patiently then asked what each of them did for a living. They got to talking about their jobs, and soon they began to bicker.
Around this time, little Johnny began to spin in his chair. As his parents’ bickering progressed into a full-blown argument, little Johnny began to spin faster. This finally caught the attention of his dad, who told little Johnny to stop. He stopped, gave his dad the finger, and then resumed spinning. His mother joined in and told little Johnny to stop. He stopped, told his mother to fuck off, and then resumed spinning.
Exasperated, they looked to the therapist, “do you see what we have to deal with!” Then they told little Johnny to stop spinning because: “the man doesn’t want you to.”
Having observed the show quietly and intently, the therapist now piped up. “Johnny, I really don’t care whether you spin in the chair or not; knock yourself out. But how about you stop just for a minute so I can tell you something important.” Little Johnny stopped.
The therapist thanked little Johnny for keeping his parents together for so long and for eventually getting them in to therapy. He told him that his parents’ marriage was no longer his responsibility and he could go back to school. He told him that he doesn’t have to be bad anymore, because his parents are going to keep coming to therapy to deal with their issues. Little Johnny’s mom and dad were flabbergasted.
My therapist told me this story a while ago and I find myself thinking about it now. Like little Johnny, I was a problem child. I used to tell my parents to fuck off on a daily basis. And what a great way for two people who aren’t getting along to come together, to discipline their child.
Here’s the problem: the life of a problem child is no life for me. Carrying around everybody else’s anger, and doing all of the fighting for them, stunted me. I became mean and argumentative and impossible to live with.
In an interesting twist of events, my parents sat down with my soon-to-become therapist years ago and desperately asked what to do with me. He suggested that they back off and give me space to figure things out for myself; and even though they were terribly worried about me, they did as he suggested. Without anybody to fight with, I could no longer avoid the fact that I was deeply unhappy. I became very depressed and eventually asked for help; enter therapist.
Now I am returning the very kind and unselfish act of love that my parents once showed me: I am backing off and I am letting them fight it out without stepping in. It is very difficult to witness. There are times when I would really like to be little Johnny. But their marriage is not my responsibility and I will not rob them of the opportunity to deal with their issues. Eventually, they will ask for help too.
My therapist doesn’t like the term “problem child.” He prefers to call us “whistle blowers.” We’re the little shits in the family who look around, throw our hands in the air and scream, “does nobody else see how fucked up this is?!”
As it turned out, little Johnny’s parents kept going to therapy every week. Each time they would remind little Johnny that they were working on things and everything was going to be okay. Little Johnny never got into trouble again.