The Crazy-Making Parenting Style of Double Binds Contradictory parental communication is highly damaging to a child's psychological development

A child’s brain development is dependent on repetitive attuned communication. Yet many parents fail miserably in consistently relating to their child in an honest healthy manner. They confuse their kids with conflicting messages thus putting their vulnerable kids in a double-bind. This crazy-making type of interaction with one’s caregivers leaves a child totally confused about how to respond or behave.

For example, the father will denigrate the mother in front of the kids as being stupid/dumb. Yet insist the kids obey the mother because the mother knows best even when she may be wrong.

Or in my case, my aunt angrily accused me, aged 13 of trying to seduce her husband while my grandmother sat there disapprovingly. Yet a week later my grandmother insisted I go out for a ride with this same uncle in order to feel better. If I did not go I was a bad person not obeying my grandmother and not being grateful for the kind offer; if I did go, I was a bad person for encouraging my lustful uncle.

The Crazy-Making Parenting Style of Double Binds
Double Bind create confusion in a child’s map of reality and could lead to schizophrenia

Being in a double bind means you are wrong if you do something and wrong if you don’t do it and wrong if you try to comment on it. A child, due to his dependency on the parent/caretaker cannot confront the inherent dilemma and therefore cannot resolve or opt-out of the situation.

No-Win Kind of Communication

The conflict from these contradictory messages creates a mental schism. The dilemma is that no matter which message one responds to, it will conflict with the other message. It is a Catch-22 situation, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Psychologically you are caught in a bind, either way, you lose.

It was anthropologist Gregory Bateson who first referred to this no-win kind of communication as a double bind.

Usually, the parent/caregiver suffers from some type of personality disorder, or in some cases they could be unaware of their communication patterns.

Double binds are usually a form of covert-manipulation—the use of confusion makes them both difficult to respond to as well as to resist. Furthermore, in dysfunctional families, there are many-layered, intertwining double-binds involving both parents, siblings, grandparents, and other extended family members.

According to Gregory Bateson, the following the causative factors of a double bind

  1. Two or more persons
  2. Repeated experience
  3. A primary negative injunction
  4. A secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and … which threatens survival.
  5. A (possible) tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping from the field.
  6. Finally, the complete set of ingredients is no longer necessary when the victim has learned to perceive his universe in double bind patterns. Almost any part of a double bind sequence may then be sufficient to precipitate [the symptoms]

Caught Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea

Children trapped in this toxic communication pattern are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Being enmeshed in such a relationship is deeply distressing They are not allowed to question and denied the choice of getting away from the conflicting injunctions due to their dependence on their caretakers.

A child is cognitively immature to perceive the exact nature of the paradoxical situation in which he or she is. The core of the double bind how they are imposed on the child.

According to Bateson, double binds are damaging mainly because of the intense levels of involvement and lop-sided power between the participants. Unfortunately, by the time the child is old enough to see the wood for the trees they have internalized the double bind situation and is unable to confront it.

Continuously living and trying to respond to contradictory/double messages confuses a child’s developing map of reality. Everything they do seems to be wrong. It is confusing and debilitating. The child is tormented with self-doubt and constant arguments going on within themselves.  Eventually, they are unable to distinguish between real or imaginary. The voices in their head become relentless and pronounced as if they were someone else.  

At some point, the child could develop anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, paranoia, and other mental health disorders.

People of the Lie

Double binds are a common communication tactic often used as a form of covert manipulation. And narcissistic and personality-disordered people use double binds to keep their child/victim teetered to them. The child is unable to develop his internal locus of control because the choices presented are contradictory. What is right, what is wrong, or the best way to behave.

Psychotherapist M. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, illustrates this crazy-making parenting behavior.  parents give their son a gun for Christmas and don’t understand why he’s depressed. On evaluation, Peck discovers the older brother committed suicide with this same gun. When Peck questions the parents, they thought it odd the gift would cause a problem and protested that with their lack of money, the gun was a perfect, coveted gift for a boy his age. When Peck questions them that maybe they are sending their son a message that they’d like him to use the gun on himself, just as his brother did. The parents vehemently deny any such intention.’

Not surprisingly the poor child suffered from schizophrenia.  Of course, the above is an extreme case of parent-child double bind.

Nonetheless, most often caregivers don’t realize the contradictory ways they communicate with their kids. Inadvertently through their words and behavior contradict from moment to moment and situation to situation.

Avoiding Double Bind Parenting

1)  Be Aware of Your Shadow Self and Past Programs

First, as a parent be aware of your own past programming and trigger-points, Don’t project your kinks onto your child. See the child as a separate entity. When they say something Don’t try to dismiss, invalidate or attack them.

If they say are feeling sad, don’t brush it off by saying ‘How can you feel sad when I do so much for you.’

My father had an incredible way fucking up my mind. He expected me to talk to him during dinner. If I did not say anything while eating he’d attack me saying, ‘Can’t talk to your father’, and when I brought up a topic about my school day he’d attack me saying ‘why can’t you be like so-and-so, they are so much better than you.‘ Every day at dinner was torture, my mind would be churning about what to speak, and then it’d replay the many scenarios as to how my conversations would be construed.

The mixed messages we receive as kids keep us ruminating in a never-ending loop of confusion and anxiety.

2) Congruent communication – Pay attention to your words and  meta-communication

There is a subtle difference between ‘talking to your child and ‘talking with’ them. Kids are highly perceptive they notice the small visible changes in unspoken cues when a parent is talking, They notice every subtle meta-communication tick of their parents – a frown, inappropriate smile, or voice tone, clenched fists, stiff posture, Your words, and actions have to be congruent.  All aspects of your communication have to be consistent, agree with each other, and make sense.

You tell your child you love him yet when he comes to hug you, you push him away. If you don’t feel like hugging at the moment give him a plausible reason and that it has nothing to do with your love for him. Be honest, don’t deny his perceptions of a situation

3)  Be Consistent – Avoid Guilt-Tripping or Shaming

Be consistent in what you say and do in your interaction with your child. You cannot change your dictates from day to day or situation to situation. Don’t force them into submission by guilt-tripping and shaming them.

For instance, you tell your child he is overweight because he is not going out to play, and when he does go out to play he is being selfish for ignoring his baby-sister.

A young child is not cognitively developed to understand that maybe mom is having a bad and so not to take what is said today as the gospel truth.

Discipline does not mean dumping your shit on to them.  Be clear when you want to discipline them and guide them to a correct choice of action.

4)  Allow For Conflict Resolution

Don’t play dictator with your kids, your word should not always be their command to follow blindly. A free and open discussion will allow for conflict resolution and easy choice-making. Listen and try to reframe the situation from all parties’ points of view.

Just because you are the parent does not mean you will be 100% right. It is okay to not be perfect and own up to your limitations and contradictions.  Your child does not need an infallible god, they just need honest good enough parents.

Double-binds | Narcissistic ‘no-win’ Mind Games

Recovery From Double Binds

 A childhood filled with minefields of double blinds makes us vulnerable to further being double-blinded in our adult relationships. We invariably miss the subtle, or not so subtle cues, that could help us steer clear of yet another toxic relationship.

It is only since I began my healing journey did I realize how confusion and conflict ruled my life.

It takes a lot of work to acknowledge and accept the truth as it is. For me, it has been trying to not brushing away the implicit messages of a person’s behavior. Anytime someone behaves in a contradictory manner I ask, ‘What do you mean?’ or ask for some kind of clarification. If their answer is not forthright, I have no hesitation in putting up strong boundaries or simply walking away.


Ref: The Double Bind Theory: Still Crazy-Making After All These Years

Image Source: Pixabay

Further Reading:

Language Of Change Paul Watzlawick  

5 2 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments