Family Feud

Dear Dr. Darcy:

My daughter is (and always has been) a big problem in our family. She sucks the life out of her father and me (and always has), she shares secrets which creates unnecessary drama between her siblings, she overspends at college (putting us in terrible debt) and is committed to destroying every family gathering by acting out. Her siblings have had it with her as well.  Last week I learned that she isn't going to go to her cousin’s wedding (I learned this by reading her email and as long as I'm paying for her college I will help myself to checking her email - its my right).  If she doesn’t go to her cousin’s wedding, my sister (her aunt) is going to have a big problem with me and I in turn will have a HUGE problem with my daughter.  How do I make a 19-year old college freshman be less selfish?

ANSWER

You can start by being less selfish yourself.  Your daughter is the ‘identified problem’ in your family.  Every dysfunctional family has one.  The identified problem child is usually an emotional mismatch for one or both parents:  Either the child wants more than the parent(s) is comfortable giving or the parent wants more than the child can give.  In resilient families, this mismatch is negotiated and compromised on the part of the parent, who, as an adult, is better able to manage their needs than a child.  In less resilient families the parent(s) huffs and puffs, announcing that they’ve successfully raised other children with whom there were no issues, and (unconsciously) decides that since they’re in the right, they’ll continue parenting as they’ve been rather than accommodate their parenting style to fit the unique needs of their child.  Thus begins a life-long situation in which the parent(s), exhausted and beaten down by their ‘difficult’ child, overtly or covertly complains to various family members (usually siblings) who in turn both reinforce that the child is difficult and become resentful of the child who is selfishly sucking the life from their innocent parents.

You are not innocent.  You have created this situation.  You need this child to be fucked up so that you don’t have to focus on whatever it is you want to be distracted from.  And you wrote to the wrong expert if you’re looking for empty validation and someone to join you in bemoaning your fate as a parent.

Perhaps the most troubling part of this is the enormous disconnect between what you say and your awareness of how fucked up you sound.  I’ll point out a few quick examples:  She shares secrets which creates…drama between her siblings. Given her reputation in the family, I don’t understand why her siblings are telling her secrets.  It’s as though they are setting her up to behave in a manner similar to the way she’s acted her whole life.  And where is their responsibility for having provided her with the toxic information that then creates drama between her siblings?  Next: She overspends at college (putting us in terrible debt). If she has access to a family credit card that has no limit, who is at fault here?  Finally: If she doesn’t go to her cousin’s wedding, my sister… is going to have a big problem with me… Sounds like the family drama pre-dates your daughter’s birth.

That you don’t hesitate to break into your adult daughter’s email tells me that your family is accustomed to operating without boundaries.  When you decided to pay for her college, did you mention that she would have no rights to privacy if she accepted your generosity?  What other rights did she unknowingly waive in exchange for free tuition?  I bet you can’t even list those terms, as I’m sure they change with your mood to justify whatever it is you want to do in the moment.

Lady, you need a shrink.  Times like this I wish there was a law that allowed adult children to sue their parents for the cost of the therapy needed to undo the harms of their childhood.

Writer’s Stats: Female, heterosexual.