The family that operates heavily in denial can cause untold confusion to children, who are attempting to understand their place in the world.  These families operate with common identifiable characteristics and consequences:
  • The family will insist on complete honesty
  • There will be significant emotional or physical punishments for ‘lying’
  • There will be significant emotional or physical punishments for telling the ‘truth’ about the parents behaviour or something the parent wants to keep hidden

In a double bind such as this the child is unable to produce a sufficient response free of blame or resulting in attack, and can rarely untangle the dynamics or parental games at play here.

Significant punishments for truth telling may occur in these circumstances when a child speaks openly about his/her feelings as a result of some mistreatment by the parent.  Telling mummy or Daddy that they are in anyway less than perfect is to tread on dangerous ground.


Tim and Jo are brothers

Tim the youngest sibling has learnt to manipulate his mum, he is viewed as helpful and honest as he always tells his mum what his brother has really been doing.

Tim states that Jo hit him when the reality is that Tim hit Jo.

Tim is therefore wrongly accusing Jo of some negative action

Mum takes Tim’s accusation as the truth despite Jo’s protestation of innocence

Mum threatens to tell Jo’s Dad that he was naughty AND is lying

Dad comes home and puts Jo to bed for his negative behaviours

Jo has neither lied or hit his brother, his protestations of innocence have been ignored and he is being wrongly punished.

Mum later comes to Jo’s room to make sure he is okay, she states you know I love you very much and she asks:

Do you love mummy?


Jo is in an impossible double bind here, if he says yes at this moment he will feel a deep dishonesty and incongruence within himself and be lying to his parent.  If he says no and tells the truth about his feelings in the present moment he will be punished with the emotional withdrawal or anger of his mother.

 Children living within these families will experience a sharp anxiety response to phrases such as: 'don’t you lie to me – you know what liars are, get' etc, often left ambiguous to cause maximum fear.  Families in this pattern often espouse religious beliefs and a child who lies may be referred to as a sinner, or be threatened with the wrath of God or hell of the devil.

Some children are highly adaptable to these circumstances and may learn to manipulate their parent/s (like Tim) or simply to live under the radar, by ignoring or becoming ambivalent to the games on display.  The child most in danger here is the one who takes on the role of pleaser and/or is highly sensitive and empathic.  This child may internalise the parent’s demands of complete honesty as one of their own personal core values, and therefore self-esteem begins to be affected each time a dishonest statement is made.  Therefore, dishonesty may become personally painful to the child and they will do all they can to avoid a lie, either by themselves or others.  These children may become highly sensitive to the dishonesty and denial in operation within their family and in society at large.  As adults they will often say they always felt something was wrong or that they didn’t feel that they truly belonged in their family unit.

The reflection of the denial in the family is witnessed in many of the systems in our society, and children in this circumstance may feel an overwhelming need to point out the inconsistencies between the ethos and the practice, and be unable to cope with a systems blatent disregard of the standards they espouse.  Sadly this disparity between claimed ethical standards and genuine practice is heavily evident within the mental health system, and affects greatly those children who are seeking an understanding of their family dynamics.

For further information on double binds look at the work of Gregory Bateson or R D Laing

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