Double Binds and Parental Threats to Survival

It’s horribly common for parents to threaten their children with murdering them.  And the death threats that are given seem remarkably similar throughout the world.

What so many of these threats of punishments have in common is that they imply a serious threat to the child’s survival.  Often the power of life and death is held in the hands of the parent who also claims the right to administer such violence.

Persistent use of such threats creates a significant problem in the parent-child relationship: from the child’s perspective the parent regularly poses a major threat to the very survival of the child.  Often the message is:  “You must love me and respect me even though I frequently threaten to kill you.”

I would like to believe that most of the time the parent doesn’t really intend to murder, or even, harm their child.  Such threats are simply regarded by the parent as “just a figure of speech.”  The child may learn to regard such threats in a similar vein too.  After all, they hear the threat but find themselves clearly still alive and unharmed afterwards.

But such threats also carry with them an implicit structure, a deeper level implication or meaning that is not readily apparent. The parent may think of such threats simply as a “figure of speech” that should not be taken seriously.  Yet of course, herein lies a problem, the very point of such a threat is that the parent does want the child to take the threat seriously, just not literally.

One respondent told me of a story.  At age 11, he was driven to the hardware store by his parents who told him on the way there that he would have the pick out a cane that would be used to thrash him with when he misbehaved.  This child remained quite quiet during the journey and also during the time in the store where his parents purchased garden tools but no cane.  Remaining rather quiet on the journey home, his parents enquired as to his apparent “sulk” whereby he confessed to his fear that they had forgotten the cane and would be returning to the store later to fetch it.  It was at this point that the parents expressed surprise that he would think such a thing as the comment previously was “just a joke” and “nothing was meant by it.”  The child was then severely chastised as the parents expressed their disappointment that their child would dare believe they were capable of such a thing.

So, caught in a bind between having to take the message seriously, whilst simultaneously dismissing the message, the child is left to work out what exactly the nature of the relationship is between themselves and their parent.  In the above example, the respondent told us that the message that was delivered in the car on the homeward journey was, “You do not respect us as parents because you think we would harm you” and, “You will be punished when you [incorrectly] believe what we tell you.”

It’s ironic,” he told me, “because my parents always seemed to think that the highest value to instil in me and my brother was that we should always tell the truth.”

In the Metaphors of Movement model, we hold the speaker to account for their verbal utterances by taking the utterance literally.  What this enables is to do is to examine the deeper structure that produces the utterance.  Often this structure is outside of conscious awareness hence the commonly reported, “it doesn’t mean anything, and it is just a figure of speech.”  But there is a subtext.  Here are some suggestions, and I’ve love to receive some feedback or other ideas regarding these.

 “I’ll wring your neck.”

  • You are like a chicken.
  • You are equal to livestock.
  • I own you.

“I’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks”

  • You will be crushed.
  • I stand above you.
  • You are there for me to dump on.

“I’ll make you wish you’d never been born.”

  • Your birth into this world was your choice
  • Relief from the suffering that I will inflict on you comes through wishing for death.
  • Relief from the suffering I will inflict on you comes through changing the past.
  • Your birth was a mistake.
  • I will be the tool of your suffering.

“I’ll thrash you to within an inch of your life.”

  • Your life is measurable.
  • Your life has been measured by me.
  • I will damage you only so much that you will not be dead, but only because I want to you acknowledge and be conscious of the harm I will do to you.

“I’ll have your guts for garters.”

  • You will be mutilated and turned into clothing accessories.
  • I can take ownership of your guts/body
  • Your entrails are going to be worn as a trophy to decorate me and display the fact that I have more power and strength than you and have killed you. It will serve as a sign for others.

“I brought you into the world, and I can take you out of it.”

  • The permission/power for me to kill you exists because I gave life to you.
  • I own you.

“I’ll hit you so hard, I’ll knock you into next week.”

With violence, I am more powerful than the laws of physics and time.