A few weeks ago, a woman named Barbara walked into her kitchen and discovered her 11-year-old son Brian fishing around in her purse. Uninvited, he was helping himself to $2 for lunch at school.
"You wouldn't make my lunch, so now you've got to pay for it!" Brian shouted.
A week or so earlier, Brian had been having trouble finding something in the refrigerator. He took out his frustration by throwing the contents of the refrigerator all around the kitchen.
When Brian was in the second grade, he decided one day that he wasn't going to school any more. It took nearly a month to get him to change his mind. Last year, he briefly took up smoking cigarettes. This year, says his mother, "Brian taught me how to curse. I'm pretty good at it now."
"I hate to do it," says Brian's father, Billy, "but I sometimes think, 'Well, let's see, he's 11. That means only seven more years at home.'"
"Brian," says his mother, "is the most powerful person I know."
Clearly, this is a family with problems. Just as clearly, the blond boy named Brian is the maypole around which those problems spin.
But the family is not the sort that needs the cops or emergency counseling. Their troubles are the festering, escalating variety, the kind so many families have and don't know how to handle sort of surrendering the checkbook to a psychiatrist.
This spring, the family found at least a first step toward improvement. Billy, Barbara, Brian and 7-year-old Jennifer spent two Wednesday evenings telling their troubles in a family counseling session counducted before a graduate-level psychology class at Bowie State College.
This participation was arranged through the eight-year-old Family Education Center, a collection of Bowie parents who charge nothing to participating families and whose motive is that they simply want to help other parents cope.
The education center struck a small vein of gold with Brian, Billy, Barbara and Jenny. No miracles suddenly materialized, and no one promised that there wouldn't still be incidents. But as Billy said afterwards, the sessions "at least give us some place to being."
Billy and his family did not come to Bowie State easily. They had been to a professional counselor some years before, with mixed results. While the parents found it useful on that occasion just to talk things through, they were frustrated when the counselor could not precisely explain why Brian was the way he was - or name an ailment he might have.
In addition, perhaps because they expected a solution that would magically "take," the parents were disappointed when Brian kept behaving essentially as before.
The parents were also understandably reluctant to hang their dirty laundry before a class full of strangers. It took them weeks to work up the courage to volunteer, even though Barbara had been a group leader of a related program, called Parent Study Group, and was familiar with family counseling.
But the family finally decided to take the plunge. As Barbara put it, "We didn't have much to lose."
For the students, the dynamics of the family couldn't have been more classic. The class was studying Adlerian psychological theory, and Brian's maneuverings were an excellent example of what Adlerians call "Goal Two" behavior. As Andrea Williams, who teaches the class, explained it, Brian seeks power and revenge within the family in inappropriate ways and in excessive amounts.
"What you need is a little detente, some SALT talks," she tol his parents. The way to get them, Williams suggested, was for the parents to stop fastening on a notion of the ideal family and begin to "do what you want to do because you want to do it, not because you think you should."
But Brian is a tougher case than that. Not only is he precocious (he used the word "aggregate" correctly and smoothly in a casual sentence), but he is sophisticated.
"Lately," said his mother, "he's been telling me how much he hates child psychologists." And his favorite phrase has a ring of savvy and sassy truth: "You can't make me."
Above all, Brian is a child who loves to test limits. Midway through the second session at Bowie State, and midway through a rather mild debate with his, Brian suddenly tested hard.
Without warning, he glared at his mother and hurled a common expletive at her.Forty people shifted uneasily in their seats. But Barbara had been advised the week before not to rise to Brian's bait, not to make it worse. She kept her cool, Brian didn't get the power or revenge he sought, and the moment passed.
One consequence of Brian's behavior within the family is that Jennifer has adopted the role of "Little Miss Perfect." Her mother told the Bowie State class that Jenny is consistently cooperative, pleasant, responsible, even-tempered and good in school.
But Andrea Williams saw this as a sign of further trouble. She warned that Jennifer's behavior was a direct reaction to Brian's, that she was competing for a distinctive role in the family in reaction to her brother's, and for the favor of her parents at his expense. The more Brian acted "bad," the more Jennifer would act "good," Williams said.
Barbara confessed that she found it difficult to see why Jenny's "goodness" should be suspect. Throughout her adult life, Barbara said, she has held to a fantasy of ideal family life in which "we love, we care and we share." Despite Brian's frequent tantrums, "there are times we have it," she said.
"That's nice," replied Williams, "but all it is, is nice. The more you want it, the more he's going to see to it that you don't get it."
But when Brian spoke to the class, he showed signs of being willing to bend.
Brian insisted that he is happy "only when I'm not with my Mom and Dad," and he told the class he is still determined to "walk out and go live somewhere else." But until he does that for good, "I think we can all be more cooperative some of the time."
Andrea Williams left one especially vivid impression on the parents. She sensed that they have tried to act "by the book" around Brian, as if one false move would ruin his development forever. So she asked the parents to extend one arm straight out in fron of them.
"That," said Williams, "is how far your influence goes. Brian is very much under that influence - but he is not under your control."
When the four participants left Bowie State after Week Two, they were a Norman Rockwell picture of an American family.
Brian ceaselessly bounced a tennis ball and told a stranger about his athletic exploits. Jennifer, a copy of "Bambi" under her arm, ceaselessly begged to be taken for an ice cream. Billy gamely said no, all the while trying to steer the kids toward the car.
Over in a corner of the parking lot, Barbara was smailing.
"I feel like I've lost 10 pounds. It's really pulled a lot of things together," she said.
"I don't think there's any doubt that you've made remarkable progress," said Andrea Willims. and with both hands, she grasped Barbara's arms for a long, sympathetic moment.