Parent Competition - The Case of Greg

Greg, 17, had always been a bit rebellious, but had gotten good grades, especially in art, his favorite subject. He also did eventually comply with parental requests for assistance around the house, though halfheartedly. Greg's mother and stepfather brought Greg to me when Greg declared that the rules were just too strict, and he was moving in with his father in a different state.


Greg was an only child, and had little contact with his father since birth, at which time Greg's mother filed for divorce and Greg's father moved out. Greg's mother eventually told Greg that Greg's father had hurt her physically on several occasions and she did not want to put up with this anymore. Greg did like his stepfather who entered the scene when Greg was 5 and married Greg's mother when Greg was 7. The stepfather did become increasingly assertive with Greg, however, as Greg's mother turned to him for help with Greg's more oppositional behavior during his teenage years. Greg resented the increased role of his stepfather, claiming his stepfather was not his father.

Assessment & Intervention

Greg had been in therapy before. One of the earlier therapists or consultants, I was surprised to learn, was I, in the context of a one-session school-based collaborative team intervention. This had been ten years earlier. Greg's mother had decided at that time that my methods were too strict, and had taken Greg to more than one therapist, who related well to Greg, saw him individually, and did not aggressively challenge Greg's oppositional behavior, perhaps because it was not extreme. Greg's father refused to be part of the therapy and chose instead to criticize the mother's parenting and general character from afar. Though Greg underachieved in school, his teachers chose to minimize or ignore the behavior and to emphasize the "positives" instead, e.g., not failing and having a good personality.

After hearing the family story from the perspectives of mother, stepfather, and Greg, I suggested a review of the Rules of Life. All parties showed an initial willingness and ability to work at compromise and the development of a similar philosophy regarding responsibilities. After several minutes of discussion, however, Greg made it clear that no matter how much discussion and compromise we might do, he was still moving in with Dad.

At this point, I suggested some individual time with Greg, to which he agreed. During this time, Greg let it be known that he wanted to try to work out a relationship with his Dad, and he thought this would be more likely to happen if he lived with him. He had originally thought that his mother and stepfather were too strict, i.e., overcontrolling, and still did somewhat, but realized that his thinking had been influenced by his father's philosophy of unlimited freedom, i.e., undercontrol. Through his criticism of Greg's mother's parenting, Greg's father was also offering Greg overprotection from his mother's essentially reasonable expectations.


The case of Greg was brought to a head when, after two weeks of therapy and home discussions, Greg revealed to his mother that he had come to his senses and realized he didn't want to move in with his Dad. He said he had resented the control tactics of his mother and stepfather but through communication and introspection, he realized they were essentially right. Greg said he realized that though his father's rules were more attractive by virtue of being more flexible, they were not right and could lead to problems for Greg. Greg said he would continue to try to work on his relationship with his father, but from a position of strength, not using his father to avoid his mother's rules.


Greg was a child terrorist, but a mild one. Because his behavioral pattern was not extreme, parents, teachers, and therapists did not think it was essential to confront and change a chronic pattern. In addition, after one school-based session with a systems consultant, the school did not push further work with that consultant, choosing instead to be "even-handed" with other therapeutic approaches. The school maintained this stance, in spite of the persistence of the child's oppositional behavior and underachievement. It took ten years of ups and downs and continual frustration before Greg's mother decided to try again an approach that was offered to her ten years earlier.

More case studies:

Greg | Melanie | Jared | Samantha | Jeremy | Marie | Linda | Michael | Jonathan

For appointments and scheduled consultations, please contact Dr. J. Brien O'Callaghan at or write to him at J. Brien O'Callaghan, Ph.D., 246 Federal Road, C-32, Brookfield, CT 06804