Family Therapy: Navigating No-Win Situations

Carl Grody

2020 has been the ultimate double-bind year.

Double bind is the fancy therapy term for “darned if you do and darned if you don’t,” and that describes our ongoing situation perfectly. Everywhere we look and everything we do confuses us about what we’re supposed to do next.

Take education, for example. (I’m writing this shortly after Columbus announced a delay of in-person classes until mid-January because of the pandemic.) Should children be in school where they learn more effectively and interact with other kids, or should they be at home to keep COVID-19 from spreading?

That’s a puzzler. By committing to in-person school, you risk the health of staff and students. But if you commit to online learning, kids fall behind academically and lose the chance to grow emotionally through being with classmates. Obviously, that’s not a good option, either.

That’s the double bind. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.

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This happens in families, too, often in small ways that you don’t think would be a problem. For example, imagine a parent getting upset when their child doesn’t clean their room properly.

Parent: “I told you to pick up your room!”

Child: “I did.”

Parent: “There are clothes in the corner that you didn’t put away. This room isn’t clean!”

Child: “I tried to clean my room. I didn’t see the clothes.”

Parent: “I’m docking your allowance. Now do it right!”

Sure, the child missed the laundry in the corner. But imagine being on the receiving end of that at work.

Boss: “I told you to finish your report by noon.”

Employee: “I did. You’re holding it in your hand.”

Boss: “You forgot to include this morning’s numbers. This report is useless!”

Employee: “But I worked on that report for three days.”

Boss: “I don’t care. You’re staying late tonight to fix it.”

That wouldn’t seem fair, either.

This approach confuses kids. If they don’t clean their room, they’ll be in trouble, so they do it. But after they clean their room, they’re in trouble anyway for not doing it well enough. The result is a child who shuts down like a deer in headlights, wondering why they bothered to try in the first place.

2020 turned a lot of us into deer in headlights. The pandemic made us second-guess what we do: who we see, where we see them, how we shop (curbside pickup is fantastic), whether we work from home or the office, where we sit in the office to minimize exposure to heating and air conditioning vents, etc.

Now imagine processing pandemic double binds from a child’s perspective. At the risk of adding another conundrum for you, double-bound kids need patience at the same time the coronavirus saps patience from you.

Double binds guarantee frustration and anger. The longer you feel trapped by indecision, the more frustration builds like magma in a volcano waiting to explode. That happens to us as adults, too, but kids are less equipped to deal with those feelings. Often, they even lack the vocabulary to put those feelings into words.

Be proactive. Talk to the kids about confusing issues and let them know you’re confused, too. Explore with them what it means to be in a no-win situation and how to work through it. And when they still “lose it out of nowhere,” take a deep breath and look for their double bind. That will help you understand how to help them through their angst. (By the way, this works with spouses and significant others, too.)

But just as important is to notice how double bound you feel, too. As parents, we’re often our own worst critics. Take a deep breath and trust that you’ll figure out what to do next. After all, 2020 is just about over.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.

This story is from the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.

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