Emotional Torture? When Parents Put Kids in a Psychological Double-Bind.

effects of double bind on children

psychological double bind effects

I first came across the phrase ‘double-bind’ at university whilst studying for my first degree in psychology – it struck a chord immediately.

In its simplist terms, the child who is placed in a psychological double-bind, by parent/s or carers, finds him/herself in a ‘no win’ and ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ situation.

As a child, I experienced this myself and found it emotionally excruciating. The double-bind involves profound, deeply contradictory and confusing communication problems within the family. It is common in highly dysfunctional and disturbed families, such as the one I grew up in (or, perhaps to put it rather more accurately, failed to grow up in).

The concept of the double-bind was illuminated by the psychologist Bateson. He explains it in terms of having six key elements which I have tried to summarize below :


1) It involves two or more people. One of these people is usually the mother, but could be the father or another person responsible for the care of the child. The second person is the child him/herself. If a third person is involved, it is usually another parent.

2) The experience of being placed in the double-bind is ongoing throughout a significant period of the individual’s childhood. In other words, the double-bind does not refer to a single event, but is a recurrent, repeated and pervasive element of the person’s childhood. To employ a simple analogy, if s/he were a fish, the experience of the double-bind would be the water in which s/he swam.

3) It involves a primary injunction. The primary injunction can take two forms :


a) An injunction not to do something, eg ‘don’t do this or I will punish you.’


b) An injunction to do something, eg ‘if you don’t do this, I will punish you.’

4) It also involves a secondary injunction. This is a much more subtle injunction and is NOT explicitly stated but is tacit  (non-linguistic) as so much of human communication is (eg an expression, intonation etc), This makes it pretty much impossible for the child to precisely identify, let alone explain, the nature of the interaction and why it causes him/her so much distress. Also, because it is so subtle, it is very easy for the parents or carers to deny.

The secondary injunction, also enforced by threat of punishment (including of couurse psychological punishment – the most damaging kind), and, this is the KEY POINT, DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS THE PRIMARY INJUNCTION, thus putting the child in an impossible and unresolvable situation.

If more than 2 people are involved, the double-bind may be that if a child obeys one of his parents, this necessarily involves disobeying the other.

But the plot thickens :

5) There is also an injunction preventing escape. As if the above were not confusing enough already (my head has started to hurt writing this; I might be forced to have a lie down in a darkened room), there is also a tertiary injunction which closes off any escape route from the double-bind explained above. Essentially, this third injunction is that if the child evades the double-bind choice, s/he will be punished for that too.

6) Learned Perception. Bateson also made the CRUCIAL point that once the child has learned to perceive (often, on an unconscious level as the whole disturded interaction process is so complex and subtle)  their dealings with their family in terms of being perpetually placed in a double-bind, ANY SMALL SUB-PART OF THE BEWILDERING DOUBLE-BIND INTERACTION PATTERN EXPLAINED ABOVE WILL BE SUFFICIENT TO PRODUCE EMOTIONAL DISTURBANCE WITHIN THE CHILD. This will most frequently take the form of EXTREME, FRUSTRATED RAGE or PANIC.


In its simplest terms, the double-bind can be illustrated as shown below :

i) the child is presented with a choice (derived from the primary and secondary injunctions). The choice is between A and B.

ii) if the child complies with the first injunction (choice A), s/he is punished. However, if s/he complies with the secondary injunction (choice B) s/he is also punished.

iii) and, just to put the tin lid on it (an English expression, admittedly a rather silly one, if you are from outside the UK!), if the child evades the choice between A and B, s/he is punished as well.


Having been thrown out by my mother at age 13, I had to go and live with my father and step-mother, both of whom did not want me there, but they were just about prepared to grudgingly tolerate me. I was treated like a stranger but with an icy politeness in an attempt to conceal, I suppose, their fundamental distaste for me (this failed, as the young are wont to say these days, EPICALLY).

In retrospect, although I could not articulate, or even properly understand, this at the time, I now perceive the double-bind in which I was placed to be as follows:

CHOICE A : be warm and friendly towards my step-mother and father. However, if I did this the punishment was to be rejected, pushed away and rebuffed,

CHOICE B: withdraw and become non-communicative. When I did this the punishment was that I was scathingly told I was ‘morose’, ‘sullen’, ‘hostile’, ‘difficult’, was ‘moping around with a self-pitying expression’ and that I was ungrateful to them for ‘taking me on’ – after all. I was being done a great favour, wasn’t I?

And, as described in Bateson’s model above, the escape routes were all closed off. For example, had I suggested, say, family therapy, the idea would have been dismissed. After all, the problems were all in my paranoid imagination, weren’t they? I would be told I was being melodramatic, making mountains out of mole hills, being generally difficult, silly and looking to create problems which simply did not exist.

Obviously, that example is grossly over-simplified, but I hope it conveys the gist of what I was attempting to explain.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2013 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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