Vol. 35 No. 5 · 7 March 2013

The Magical Act of a Desperate Person

Adam Phillips on tantrums

2696 words

Listen to this piece read by the author

No one recovers from the sadomasochism of their childhood. We may not want to think of the relations between parents and children as power relations: indeed it may sound like a perversion of parenting to do so. And we don’t want to think of parents and children being in any way sexually gratified by their status in relation to each other. But, to put it as cutely as possible, feeling big always depends on someone else being made to feel small. When your child zooms round the house saying he’s a superhero you can either remind him that he’s actually a little boy, or you can indicate one way or another that you’re impressed. When your child falls over you can get cross with her for not looking where she’s going, or you can comfort her in an affectionate way.

These aren’t pictures of the bad and good parent so much as responses – or states of mind – that every parent is capable of. In identifying with the child, in imagining his strength and vulnerability, we join him in something; in disidentifying we separate him out. If you feel for your child when she falls over you feel it in your body; if you scold her you are exempt. One is a sadomasochistic solution – the pleasure, the excitement is in correcting the child – and one is not. One response assumes a likeness between you and the child, the other asserts a difference, an innate superiority; one has to do with solidarity, the other is punishing. It is the difference between wanting to be right – wanting to win an argument – and wanting to be kind. Or between two types of authority. One is in essence humiliating and breeds resentment, one is reassuring and makes a bond. Is there a solution, a way to stop people wanting to humiliate each other?

We know that some people’s psychic survival – everybody’s psychic survival some of the time – depends on their capacity to humiliate others, to make others experience what they have suffered, as a way to reassure themselves that they are now the humiliators rather than the humiliated, to ‘convert trauma into triumph’ (in the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller’s terms), to transform the trauma of vulnerability into the triumph of omnipotent control, the trauma of being a child into the false triumph of being an adult. The child as abject supplicant becomes the adult as arrogant sadist. In other words we have to start from the position that the wish to humiliate is part of everyone’s survival kit: our (often preferred) self-cure for the inevitable frustrations of our own childhood.

There is something intrinsically and unavoidably humiliating about being a child. Every child has felt humiliated by his dependence on his parents – by his relative powerlessness in relation to the people he needs – and everyone has been left feeling vengeful by this ineluctable diminishment. The question is how much the parents have exploited the child’s dependence on them, whether they have made it feel more humiliating than it already is, whether they have used the child’s smallness to make themselves seem big. In so far as they do this – and all parents do it some of the time – it is not because they are bad people, but more often than not because they are re-enacting remembered or unremembered experiences from their own childhood. To punish child abusers is to punish them for the punishments they have suffered.

There are, then, two crucial facts about childhood. First, that the child is absolutely dependent on a person, or people, whom he cannot control (‘The mother is everything to the child,’ the psychoanalyst Enid Balint remarked, ‘but the child is not everything to the mother’). This can make the child enraged, both cruel and punitive. And second, that the child has to do something to transform – to make bearable – the unavoidable suffering this involves. The child, and the adult she will become, has to find ways of surviving the frustration and helplessness that is integral to the neediness of childhood. And the parent has to frustrate the child and help it bear this frustration. Sadomasochism is the solution to the problem for them both: the adult turns the anguish of having to frustrate his child into a pleasure in order to make it bearable, and the child turns his frustration into a pleasure. The adult becomes sadistic, the child becomes masochistic. Whenever something is unbearable we are inspired to find a way to get pleasure out of it: it’s a form of psychic alchemy.

As children we soon learn – even though we are prone to forget it – that we can’t always have what we want when we want it, and sometimes we can’t have it at all. Even if the defeats of appetite can be turned into triumphs of the will, we have to do something with, and about, our frustration. In the basic picture, in the founding double act of our lives, one person is helplessly in need, and the other person can take or leave this needing. As children, we can only assume that if someone doesn’t meet our need when they could, it is because they don’t want to. And in this sense, in this subjective sense, all the frustrations of our childhood are caused by a sadist. We took it for granted, as unredeemed pleasure-seekers ourselves, that our parents got some kind of pleasure from depriving us. Why else would they have done such an unnecessary thing? And we, in turn, helpless as we were, had to make a virtue of necessity, turn privation into a thrill, and develop a talent for masochism.

When the American family therapist Carl Whitaker was asked how to define a good parent, he replied: ‘Someone who enjoys being hated by his children.’ It may be sadistic to enjoy being hated by one’s children, but it may also be that it’s the only way of enduring a child’s hatred. Children always hate their parents, however much they love them, because the parents, from their point of view, are the sole source of their frustration. Children don’t know about Freud’s useful suggestion that desire is by its nature insatiable (‘Desire is always in excess of the object’s capacity to satisfy’). Anyone who tries fully to satisfy anyone else – and this is particularly true of adults in relation to children – is playing a game that can only be lost. The promise of total satisfaction is a promise of catastrophic disillusionment, which makes it an incitement to violence. Every child feels punished by being frustrated, and is then sometimes punished on top of that for his response to being frustrated. At its best, parental authority contains rather than creates this fateful escalation.

Punishment, it’s worth noting, and the authority that legitimates it, is based on a prior knowledge: you can only frustrate someone if you know what they need and you can only harm or discipline them if you know what gives them pleasure. What a child needs is the first thing parents are supposed to know; it is our most fundamental knowledge, the knowledge on which all other knowledge is based. We get this knowledge from our culture, mediated by our own parents, which makes it of some interest, to put it mildly, that we live – now – in a culture in which there are so many competing stories about what children need, about what being a good parent may mean, about how dangerous authority may be. In the much spoken of detraditionalising of modern cultures, child-rearing practices (and the care of the elderly) are the first casualties. Now that our parental instincts – our traditions – are fading, it seems that we must choose how to bring up our children. People will always have parents, but they may not have parents who know what they’re doing. We have nostalgic and reactionary longings for the people who do know what they’re doing: experts on child-rearing, experts on education, experts on mental health. But we should be encouraged (as well as troubled) by the radical uncertainty of contemporary parents. When I believe I am who I think myself to be I am not merely, in Freud’s familiar language, in denial, but deluded. What psychoanalysis adds to the conversation about parenting is that the parents, the authorities, are at their most dangerous when they believe too militantly that they know what they are doing.

It is not surprising that in the so-called modern era – at least from the end of the 19th century – family life has been considered difficult. It could hardly be anything else. But it has lately become so distressing as to make people wonder what the alternatives might be. When the death of the family was being predicted in the 1960s – The Death of the Family was the title of a slightly crazed but shrewd book by the anti-psychiatrist David Cooper – it was because the life of the family was increasingly unbearable for large numbers of people. The problem for many modern parents – and this is to some extent the legacy of psychoanalysis, which is part of the legacy of romanticism – is that they are continually being reminded that because they were once children, children is what they really are: that to be a child is to be authentic.

This cuts both ways. At its best it breaks down what we have been encouraged to think of as the Victorian divide between adults and children, making parents more sympathetically imaginative about their children’s needs (though by privileging the child’s point of view the adult’s point of view is easily lost, or made to sound too self-important). But at its worst it produces adults who are complicit with their children, and so merely enact a child’s view of what it is to be an adult: adults as superheroes, super-hedonists, super-moralists; adults as people without limits, people who can do whatever they want. Real limits, as every child knows, are found and made by experiment, by testing them out: they aren’t limits until they are tested. The overprotected child begins to believe there must be something truly terrifying out there, or that he must be terrifyingly weak, if so much protection is required.

Uncertainty about how to be an adult is the reason so many adults seem to be acting out a caricature of adulthood, exposing it by performing it at its most ridiculous. Like a transvestite, the adult impersonator, the child dressed as an adult, performs a precocious cartoon of what they have been subjected to: pompous potency, sentimental moralism masquerading as morality and so on. Being a parent must always in some sense be performing being a parent: first we identify with the parents and then we become them, as the traditional story goes. If children can make parents feel powerless, what kind of power do parents have? Or rather, what kind of power, or authority, do they want to have, or assume they should have, given how inadequate they are now prone to feel when they are doing that most ordinary thing: living in a family and bringing up children?

If authority is a solution to frustration – a way of managing it, a way of bearing it, a way of stopping it turning into murder or suicide or torture – what kinds of authority are most suited to the frustrations of childhood? Or to put it less abstractly, what is the best thing to do when a child has a tantrum – the primal scene of frustration, and not only for children? Once again, broadly speaking, the child can be punished, penalised, made to sit on the naughty step. Or the parent can stay with the child with a view to containing him: stopping him harming himself, stopping him doing too much damage, but not trying to stop him having the tantrum – which of course involves a belief that the tantrum will end.

The child has the tantrum often over some apparently trivial thing, though the thing represents a catalogue of pent-up frustrations. It is the magical act of a desperate person: if I get enraged enough I will get what I want, or I will destroy myself and the world in which I have to suffer such torments. The child needs to know that there is someone stronger than his rage who can hold him and his world together: he needs to have that experience. Afraid of being too powerful, of being able to destroy his world, the child needs the adult above all to show him that there are brakes on his fantasy life, in which all violence is murder and all appetite voracious. The parent who punishes the child for his tantrum – punishment being itself a kind of tantrum, a despair about the rules rather than their enforcement – says to the child: my tantrum is more powerful than yours, but tantrums are all we have got. The child is made to suffer for his suffering, as if to say: suffering inspires suffering, rage and frustration create nothing but rage and frustration. The child who is punished for his frustration learns that frustration is contagious, and has to be evacuated as rage. Frustration is not a raw material to be transformed but a foreign body to be expelled. The punitive parent is giving the child what we have learned to call a double message: he is being told by someone who is enraged by their frustration that he should not be enraged by his frustration.

People punish other people when they don’t know what else to do with them. But it is clear that once again there are two stories here and the difference between them takes us to the heart of contemporary perplexities about parenting. Consumer capitalism has conspired to persuade us that we are phobic of frustration, that frustration is the last thing we want. All the difficulties of modern parenting are to do with how and why and whether and of what children need to be frustrated. And, unsurprisingly perhaps, the way adults deal with these issues is bound up with the history of their own relationship with frustration.

For many people the whole experience of frustration is only made bearable through the sadomasochistic solution of making the frustration and the frustrating not only pleasurable but at best sexually exciting. But by becoming what some psychoanalysts have called either frustrated satisfiers (masochists) or satisfied frustrators (sadists) we get muddled. And these fateful and terrible muddles are often the consequence of making pain pleasurable, of never knowing the difference, if there is one, between mastering pain and enjoying pleasure. It’s not that we should exclusively – that is, in a superior, sadistic way – disparage the sadomasochistic settlement. We should just be dismayed that sadomasochism has bewitched us into thinking there is nothing else we can do: it is so much second nature that it addicts us into thinking it is the only available recourse.

Like all compelling self-cures, it is a way of forgetting what the original problem was that it solved, and of forgetting that the original problem might be redescribed. The problem might be not how we can, as parents, avoid frustrating our children, but how we can make frustration more bearable for them – and for us. If frustration, like the conflict it necessarily entails, isn’t taken to be a problem, we might be able to do something other than try to solve or resolve it. By definition frustration is something we can’t just leave as it is. It makes us work – it gets us to work and gives us work to do – but we aren’t always sure what kind of work would be useful. And many so-called satisfactions don’t appease or even touch the frustration we feel. Frustration is something that, in desperation, we are always tempted to make pleasurable or to punish. It’s worth wondering why this is the repertoire; and what our lives would be like if we couldn’t turn pain into pleasure.

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