Sunday, December 09, 2012

Drama Queens: A Generational Curse?

My maternal grandmother's life was an ongoing melodrama about the Perils of Christine, the poor victimized heroine who was misunderstood and undervalued by all. After a short, intense honeymoon period, all her relationships would end up being flushed down the toilet when other people refused to follow her scripts. Her episodes of chest congestion were imminent pneumonia and her hemorrhoids were colo-rectal cancer. She could scream and hit and throw things with the best of them.

She lived to be 92 in a world that failed to live up to her expectations, wondering why so few people came to sit at her feet and partake of her superior wisdom. Today, she would probably be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and walk out after the first ten minutes of cognitive therapy, proclaiming that the therapist was a charlatan and an idiot very much in need of an extended course of electroshock treatments.

My mother believed her mother's scams for a very long time. At age 85, she is still struggling with the fact that she was unable to please her mother. She honestly believed that her mother's soap opera was more important than her own. She got her self-esteem by devoting herself to me. When I told her that I was not interested in being the purpose of her life, it broke her heart.

I am a drama queen too, but I didn't dare to act out much until I grew up. I spent the decades between 20 and 40 trying to understand myself and control my destructive impulses. I flipped between extreme grandiosity and feeling that I was the worst piece of shit in the universe. No happy medium was possible.

My daughter held it all in. I wish she had been a drama queen. I would have been able to understand her better.

My granddaughter - ah! That's an adventure yet to be written. Hopefully, all the wisdom we have accumulated in the past generations will help.

It is better to have a drama queen child than a drama queen parent. If a parent understands what is going on, there is still hope for the child. Parents can get help, learn to cope, and maybe break the cycle.

The basic rule is simple: Figure out what the child needs (focused attention? limits? a break from being nice all the time? fair treatment? solitude? sleep?).  Then provide for those needs when he is not acting out. (Yes, there are male drama queens as well.)

Say no calmly, without blaming. Arrange things so that acting out is consistently counter-productive to achieving Her Majesty's self-willed goals. (We often reinforce negative behavior without realizing it.) Understand that unconditional love is not the same thing as unconditional surrender.

Get adequate rest, recreation, and de-programming. Work as a team with your spouse and other important care-givers. Get knowledgeable help with parenting skills, anger management, assertiveness and boundary-setting. While it is not possible to transform someone's essential personality style, it is possible to channel it in more positive directions.

In many cases, these things are generational. If we can break the cycle, the devastation is arrested and future generations have a better chance at the good life. Mental health is worth working for.

The bad news is, personal change takes a lot of energy. The good news is, it's worth it. Today's drama queen may be tomorrow's teacher or musician or politician or inventor. Who knows? She may even become a child psychologist.

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