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




When parents put their child in a so-called ‘double-bind there is often a contradiction between the parent’s verbal message and body language.

An example of a double-bind: The parent may profess to love the child’s company and yet the child senses the parent becomes uncomfortable and irritated whenever s/he enters a room where the parent is already present, ignores him/her, or always seems to avoid interacting with him/her, both emotionally and physically; for example, the parent may grimace, turn away and recoil if the child tries to show affection or gain emotional comfort by, for example, clasping the parent’s hand. Indeed, this particular example chimes very well with my own childhood experiences, which I’m sad to report; in severe distress (before I knew better) I would clasp my mother’s hand which would remain inert and utterly non-reactive, like a cold, dead fish.

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 most simple 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. Being perpetually trapped in a double-bind situation can seriously jeopardize the child’s mental health.

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 first described by the psychological researchers Bateson et al. (1956). Bateson 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 himself. 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 he were a fish, the experience of the double-bind would be the water in which he swam.

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


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


b) An injunction to do something, for example, ‘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 (for example, 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 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 course psychological punishment, the most damaging kind), and, this is the KEY POINT, DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS THE PRIMARY INJUNCTION, thus putting the child in an impossible 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  :

5) There is also an injunction preventing escape. As if the above were not confusing enough already, there is also a tertiary injunction that 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, 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 disturbed 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 :

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

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

c)  if the child evades the choice between A and B, 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 stepmother, 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 icy politeness in an attempt to conceal, I suppose, their fundamental distaste for me.

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 stepmother 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 favor, 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 molehills, being generally difficult, silly, and looking to create problems that 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.

The classic example given of a negative double bind is of a mother telling her child that she loves them, while at the same time turning away in disgust, or inflicting corporal punishment as discipline: the words are socially acceptable; the body language is in conflict with it.

Other examples of double binds:

  • a double bind is created if a child makes a correct observation but is then punished by his/her parent/s for having made the observation. For example, the child may be a victim of domestic violence or witness domestic violence between his parents but his parents convey the message to him that he needs to treat the situation as if it is not happening/never happened and to view his parent/s as loving and peaceful (Watzlawick). If this happens over a protracted period of time the child might grow up to question his own perceptions of social situations and struggle deeply with how to perceive them. This, in turn, can lead to confusion in knowing how to behave and respond in these situations. (Watzlawick).
  • Another example of a double-bind occurs when a child is expected to have feelings that don’t match the emotions s/he is currently experiencing. For example, a narcissistic mother who uses her son to reflect well on herself (narcissistic mothers tend to objectify their children and see them as an extension of themselves) may expect her child to be happy and enthusiastic about piano lessons (because the mother is desperate for him to become a world-famous concert pianist) whereas the child hates doing it and is more interested in football. (Watzlawick).


Like Bateson, Laing suggested that childhood environments in which the double bind scenario is frequently and chronically played out may lie at the heart of the development of schizophrenia of the person subjected in early life to such an environment and that the odd behavior the schizophrenic displays, only intelligible in the context of his/her psychologically childhood experience (the confusion of being constantly on the receiving end of contradictory messages), is essentially an expression of profound distress. Laing was also of the view that such odd behavior (e.g.confused and convoluted speech patterns) could, in fact, ultimately be of benefit to the schizophrenic (or otherwise psychotic individual) providing a kind of emotional catharsis which could prove transformative and lead the individual to develop acute insights of which s/he would otherwise have been deprived – what we might today describe as a form of posttraumatic growth. He even suggested such a process (‘going mad’ and then recovering) could be compared to a kind of shamanic journey (Louis, 2006).


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Bateson, G., et al. (1956) Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behaviour Science.First published:1956

Laing, R.D. (1960) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Louis, B., 2006, Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM, and the New Psychiatry