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Understanding “Family Drama”...we all have it!

By Stephen Schultz


I recently had an experience at a family reunion where the family seemed to be involved in some “Family Drama”. I’m sure that all families go through this at one time or another. We have all experienced the “behind the scenes” communication, the hurt feelings and the occasional yelling that goes on when there are emotional family discussions that take place. My reference to "Drama" is based on my 20 years of parenting experience with my own children as well as over 25 years of working with families through delicate familial situations.

Please allow me to share a parenting principle that will create a foundation for further discussion. For those of you who have children, I know this will make perfect sense. The concept is that of an “Extinction Burst”. The word “Extinction” refers to a behavior or attitude that parents would like to see their child stop. The term “Burst” represents a description of the behavior once “Benevolent Structure” is put into place.


We have all seen the 3 or 4 year old child who we catch in the kitchen with an open package of OREO Cookies. They are sitting on the floor with crumbs in their hair and all over their little cheeks. As a parent, you know it probably isn’t a good thing for them to eat an entire package of cookies, so you attempt to reach down and take the cookies away. You smile and say, 

“Let’s wait until after dinner hon, then we can all have a cookie.”

All you want to do is “Extinguish” the behavior. But, before you even bend down all the way, the child is grabbing a handful of cookies with one hand a shoving two more cookies into their mouth with the other hand. They let out a blood curdling cry of “NOOOOOOO”, then stand up and run away! As a parent, you step back and say, 

“WOW where did that “burst” come from?”

As children mature into adolescence, the “Extinction Burst” principle still exists; it’s just a bit more refined and manipulative. Again, we have all experienced the child who asks one parent if they can do something. When they get a “NO” answer, they immediately run to the other parent and ask the same question. If the answer is still no, a temper tantrum ensues. Often parents receive the “Silent Treatment” or some other physical or emotional “Burst”, thus upping the ante.


Most children and teens, over time, develop an understanding of “Benevolent Structure”. They realize that when their parents provide “Structure”, the parents really do have their best interests at heart. Even if they don’t like the structure, they recognize that their parents are interested in their safety and wellbeing. By the time someone is in their 20’s, there should be a pretty good understanding of “Benevolent Structure”. Some teens and young adults simply struggle with the concept of “Benevolent Structure” and they do the 20 year old version of “grabbing their cookies and running away”.

If you find yourself in a situation where your teen or young adult is struggling, I’ve provided some links to assist in understanding a little more about the thought process and behaviors you are witnessing. Most of the “Drama" comes from rationalization and the associated cognitive dissonance.
If there are serious concerns that need to be addressed through therapeutic efforts, here are some resources to explore for teens and young adults.

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