Case Studies, the Teenager Who Was a Liar: Helping a Family Redefine Its Story

By Minuchin, Salvador; Nichols, Michael P. et al. | Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2007 | Go to article overview

Case Studies, the Teenager Who Was a Liar: Helping a Family Redefine Its Story


Minuchin, Salvador, Nichols, Michael P., Lee, Wai-Yung, Psychotherapy Networker


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BY Salvador Minuchin, Michael P. Nichols, and Wai-Yung Lee

Adolescents bring their own brand of headaches to their families. Using a personal arithmetic, they know they're two or three years older than their parents think they are, and they demand a relaxation of the rules before they know what to do with the autonomy they insist on. The parents are caught. They've "been there," but that was a different time. They'd like to share their wisdom to protect their adolescent from the uncertainties of life, but find themselves with a child they don't recognize. Since they're uncertain about face=+Italic; howface=-Italic; to protect their child, they increase control, while the adolescent, certain that this is unfair, tests the rules. A therapist who enters this minefield needs to empathize with both camps, working both sides of the street, like any competent professional, in the search for better pathways.

As if coping with the demands of adolescence weren't enough, doing so in a blended family adds a whole new set of challenges. Blended families have to go through the same process of accommodation and boundary-making as any families, but with one big difference: in first-time families, parents have time to forge a bond before they have to deal with children, but blended families don't have that luxury.

The Boyds are a threesome: Mary, Richard, and Whitney, who is 15 years old. Whitney is Mary's child from her first marriage, which ended in divorce when her daughter was an infant. Mary married Richard one year later, and now they've come to therapy because Whitney can't be trusted. She lies compulsively, and most of the time, she's caught in the lie.

When they enter the room and settle down, Mary takes the lead, telling me that her daughter "has lied to us as long as I can remember." This is clearly impossible, but it isn't the logic of the statement that's the problem, but the intensity of the assertion: "as long as I can remember." The family's interaction has been restricted by a story that started at the beginning of time

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Richard then takes up the story: "We don't know why. We thought we could fix it ourselves, but it's gotten worse."

"We've tried everything," adds Mary.

Most families define their problems like this--in a way that invites the therapist to join them in the trap of their fixed perspective. Asking for more details at this point may reinforce the family's certainty that Whitney is the patient and her lying is the problem. If I join with the parents, I may lose Whitney, and I certainly can't join with their narrow definition of their daughter and themselves. I need to introduce uncertainty, curiosity, and hope into the family dynamic. And I must also make contact with Whitney.

I ask the parents' permission to talk with her for a while, and I start by saying that I'm curious about her life. We talk about her school, her friends, her interests. She tells me that she keeps a diary, that she likes poetry, and that she writes poems but doesn't show them to anybody. I ask her if she knows what a metaphor is. We agree that a metaphor can bring something to attention by calling it by a different name. I say that, in effect, a metaphor is a poetic lie.

I'm pleased with this image. It transforms a symptom into a skill, and I'm pretty sure it appeals to Whitney, who's bright, engages with me easily, and, like any young person, would like me to understand that she's more than just a liar. I know that the parents probably feel I've been seduced by Whitney, however, and have fallen for her lying.

I ask, "Can you talk with Whitney? I'm a stranger, and you've come to see me about something that's very significant for your family. Maybe you can talk together, and that'll help me to know how you deal with each other.

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