August 5, 2010

Exercising Parental Authority

Raising children so they become healthy and well-adjusted adults should be as instinctive, and as uncomplicated and natural, as it is for any other creature in the animal world. However, we humans we have largely lost our inborn, intuitive faculties in almost all areas, the result of armoring* and the influences of society. Childrearing is a case in point. What we can learn from Wilhelm Reich regarding how to best raise children is enormous, as he has told us how we can prevent the formation of armor in infants and children. Equipped with this knowledge we can make our way out of the trap that has caused humankind so much unhappiness.
Every decent parent wants their child to grow up to lead a satisfying life, to be self-sufficient, and able to deal with the inevitable hardships they will encounter. When I was a member of the American College of Orgonomy, I addressed the question of when to exert parental authority with a short response to a Q&A that appeared in the Journal of Orgonomy. I am going to expand upon my thinking on the subject here, as all parents face this difficult question. 
Healthy childrearing requires that parents exercise their natural authority appropriately. For this to occur, they must be able to accurately gauge and appropriately respond to their child’s needs. In principle this is simple, but it can be most difficult to carry out. Children need the freedom to make their own choices, or they will not be able to function as self-sufficient, independent adults. However, children often behave neurotically and, when they do, control by the parent is warranted. Reich tells us, in “Children of the Future” that: “Neurotic behavior cannot be dealt with by means of self-regulation. It forces authoritarian measures.” (Italics in the original.)
There are many situations in which authoritarian action requiring strict obedience is necessary. Children raised without externally imposed limits suffer intense anxiety and will often act out in an attempt to bring about the control they unconsciously crave and require. Children raised by parents who take an overly authoritarian approach also suffer. They are apt to grow up with a variety of inhibitions and a great deal of pent up rage.
There is no end to the reasons why parents fail to appropriately exercise their authority. This is because parents, like everyone, behave largely based on their particular character structure and how they were raised. Parents may be full of repressed anger, and telling their children how they must conduct themselves and what to do serves to make them feel better. Parents may be too concerned with what others--neighbors, friends, their parents--think is appropriate conduct, and may control natural, high-spirited behavior they would otherwise rightly accept. The emotional plague may also be at work. It is always suspect when anyone in a position of authority tells someone what they should do. The important point here is that parents too often exert their authority inappropriately in the service of their neurosis. They are unaware their imposed control--or lack thereof--is unjustified and driven by unconscious factors.

Determining the best way to parent in any given situation is not only confounded by one’s own neurosis, and everyone is more or less neurotic, but also by the sickness and complexity of society. The well-intentioned ideas of “freedom” and “growing up naturally” must be tempered with the realities of functioning in the real world. For example, if we were living in a “state of nature,” it might be perfectly all right for children, as they grow up, to continue to eat with their hands. However, given the culture we live in, such behavior would be inappropriate. Children who are not required to observe accepted social conventions will have a difficult time in life. Navigating properly in society does not come naturally and children require direction from parents.
When exerting authority, consistency is important. Unpredictable behavior by parents makes for children who are always unsure of how to act. Such children never know what is expected or what will be the consequence of their actions. This sort of upbringing is an important factor that lays the foundation for children to grow up constantly worrying and unsure how to act.
It is not possible, and thankfully not necessary, for a parent to always behave perfectly toward their child. More important than perfect parenting is their overall relationship. If there is mutual love and respect, a parent’s inappropriate exertion of authority in any given instance may be inconsequential. It is also quite OK, and even very valuable, for parents to admit their mistakes to their children. For example, a parent might say, “I was wrong not to let you play on your friend’s jungle gym. The idea that you might fall made me nervous, so I stopped you.” Such honesty helps children realize they are not at fault and nobody, not even their parents, is perfect.
Clearly, psychiatric orgone therapy enables one to be a better parent. All of my patients with children have reported to me that their children are far happier, and better adjusted emotionally, than they were as kids, and they attribute this generational improvement to therapy. As armor is dissolved parents naturally, and without any effort on their part, come into better contact with their children. This helps them to instinctively “know” what to do in any given situation. Treatment decreases one’s anger and the need to control, as well as other emotions that drive neurotic behavior. Also, during therapy, discussing childrearing issues as they arise helps parents gain clarity and act more appropriately.
Raising children is one of life’s most important and difficult challenges. Bringing up children who are relatively untroubled and have the capacity to be independent and self-sufficient is not only important for their wellbeing, it also ensures the continuance of a free society, which depends upon adults being able to take care of themselves.
* Armor (or armoring): The chronic muscular spasms (muscular armor) and character attitudes (character armor) which an individual develops that act as a defense against the breakthrough of feelings and emotions. Muscular armor serves, principally, as a defense against anxiety, rage, and sexual excitation. Character armor is the sum total of all the character attitudes which an individual develops in an attempt to defend against anxiety. Character armor causes emotional rigidity, impaired contact with others, and a feeling of “deadness.” Muscular armor and character armor are functionally identical. They are two sides of the same coin.


Brian Forrest said...

Excellent article Richard, I appreciate you referencing Wilhelm Reich's work as it corresponds to the different aspects of your subject.

Ed Malek said...

Like most people, I have come across beautiful infants and children who are full of joy, enthusiasm, and what seems like “knowledge” of their immediate environment. As Wilhelm Reich stated in his personal writings, it brings great pleasure when an adult can make emotional contact with these “children of the future”. I think this is so because as adults, we see clearly what the potentials for humans can be, and this encourages us.

What happens to these children? I wish I knew the answer, but when one looks at teens and adults, it is rare to see ones that still have the sparkle and grace of healthy infants. Something must occur between their innocence and growing up.

The “something” is both parenting and the emotional plague on the social scene. It is difficult enough for the well-intentioned parent to raise healthy children in our technology-driven (mechanistic) culture, but added to this is the destructiveness of certain societal norms that hurt children. Some of these are the confusing advice about childhood sexuality; the awful entertainment industry; and the anti-authoritarian culture that predominates America. Because this anti-authoritarian style influences the family, confusion and destructive acting-out is so common.

I recently saw a long-term couple in my office who complained about a terrible family vacation. As I am listening to their story, it became apparent that their toddler was the primary cause of their distress. Not withstanding the couple’s own issues, the child had frequent temper-tantrums and unceasing demands. I pointed out that their anger towards each other was really their frustration in being unable to enjoy themselves due to their inability to control their child. They admitted that the only thing to do in these episodes is to wear earplugs and tolerate it! They also spoke about the vastly different parenting ideologies and how confusing it was and how they felt shame at being inadequate parents.

This brings to mind Reich’s experiments with children and self-regulation (see Children of the Future, or a report at, and although times were authoritarian then, parents enrolled in the study also suffered from the “not-good-enough” guilt syndrome.

As Dr. Schwartzman has pointed out, parenting should feel natural for the parents in that they have a basic knowledge of the child’s needs, with adequate contact to raise joyful children. But this requires contact with oneself first.

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.