Codes of Love: Healthy Father-Child Relationships with Mark Bryan

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Mark Bryan, a Harvard-trained educator who specializes in human development and psychology, will discuss the 'coded' language families often use to communicate, and how understanding this language can strengthen relationships.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live. Today we will be discussing Codes of Love: Healthy Father-Child Relationships, with Mark Bryan.

Mark Bryan is a Harvard-trained educator and former member of The Dialogue Project at MIT who specializes in human development and psychology. Mark Bryan is also the co-founder of the Artist's Way Workshops and was a member of Oprah Winfrey's Change Your Life Team. He is a weekly columnist for and has written several other books, including The Prodigal Father: Reuniting Fathers and Their Children, and Money Drunk, Money Sober.

Mark, welcome back to WebMD Live.

Bryan: Great to be here.

Moderator: Can you tell us about the codes?

Bryan: Basically, I found that families often speak love in code. Words and gestures meant to convey love get misinterpreted as control or criticism. You go home for the holidays, and your mom tells you you've gained weight, and our initial reaction is to feel offended, when she may just be concerned about our health. Sometimes these codes can be very simple, and we can interpret them properly by taking an attitude of curiosity and asking what they mean by that. And not just reacting.

Moderator: How have you figured these codes within families?

Bryan: I've had an ongoing workshop for the last several years, and my experience with building back families where they've had estranged members, divorced parents who haven't seen their children, I realized that not even just the disengaged families had issues about feeling love, but also families that were still together and living in the house. Houses with grown children, and both sides of that equation in the family feel unloved - the sixty-five year old dad who did the best he could with his children, and can't understand why he doesn't feel that they love him.... and these children, who are thirty-five, don't feel the love that's offered to them.

Bryan: So I ask a question in the book, "What if you were loved more than you know?", because I think that's the truth.

Moderator: That's an attitude I've never heard before

Bryan: I think we have a culture of suspicion around the family, because sometimes the basic Freudian model of psychology causes us to search a simple cause and effect solution. That advocates our responsibility for our own behavior. If we're having trouble, then it must be something that happened in my childhood, when in fact that's not the case. Issues of temperament, genetic predisposition, nature, nurture... all combine to make a complex mix of inputs and outputs. I call it "a spirit of family noir"... everybody's looking back looking for dark shadows, when we've got a lot more positives... the family love and loyalty, struggle, becomes the narrative that we use to make meaning in our world. If my narrative about my life is that I was born from these poor, disadvantaged, hillbillies... then what I'll expect of myself is lessened, and what I respect about them is lessened... and so what I've done in Codes is decipher how to work back our personal narrative; who we think we are isn't the truth, and that's probably the most profound part of my work. "I'm not who I thought I was," and that's important because when I go back to the four R's... Remember, Reflect, Refrain, Reconnect... and when I go back and do that, and I'm reconnected from that new perspective, I uncover a lot of loving families that I didn't realize that were there.

I've been doing these workshops for a while, and it drastically changes people's perceptions of who they are. Now I'm not just a poor hillbilly kid; I'm a child of very hard-working, handsome, smart people who were traditionally community oriented; Scotch-Irish-English in their heritage, and they worked real hard... and they overcame many hardships that I'll never understand. Once I've experienced, or walked in their shoes, that changes my past -- that's very important. It actually changes my past; people don't really believe you can do that, but you can change the way you react, understand, and are in the present because of the past. We're looking for the positive narrative of our lives.

Moderator: So you rewrite the narrative so it's just as true, but with more empathy and with a positive slant?

Bryan: And the reason you need to rewrite it, is because so many of our memories are forged in the limited abstract thinking skills of a child. As an eight-year old boy hearing my parents argue, I'm afraid my world is going to split apart... when I don't understand the larger adult concern of raising children, paying the bills, living away from their emotional support... so when I can now rediscover that my parents aren't just crazy people who fought, they were people who loved their children enough to stay together, and loved each other enough to stay in the conflict, despite it being difficult, and that's an amazing statement... particularly in today's easy-divorce world. So I change my subjective experience of my family without them changing themselves; my family didn't change, and my mother who I loved dearly, didn't change. She still calls collect, drives me crazy, but I love her. I've separated her behavior from my love for her!

Bryan: That's why I want the reader of the book to engage it, whether they read it lightly, or they really have to work at doing the exercises, that they can take the path that I did, and my clients have... where we move from where I say in the beginning of the book, "I wrote this book because I used to hate my family," and I end the book with how I fell in love with them again.

Moderator: How do people go about rewriting their lives who went through divorce, abandonment, and/or emotional or physical abuse?

Bryan: Of course they would, and I always say "don't go where angels fear to tread." There are people out there who are deeply sick, and they will hurt you... and they often hurt their children. We hurt our own children on a political level everyday; where we talk about how we love our children, but don't really love them. We are a country that acts like we love our children, when we do not... so there are many individuals who do that as well. And for those individuals who've grown up in that world, I want them also to be able to rediscover whatever positive there was. I think its particularly important for people who've been abused to come to some understanding what abuse is and how it affected them... but an important component of my work is that you don't need your family to participate.

The vast majority of us worry about how to stay married ourselves, and that's the first humbling that most of my grown clients feel... is that when they have a child, and they're tempted to do the same things their parents did to them, when they said they never would. I think this is the work that we need to do, particularly those of us who are not yet married, or are participating in the major family-values of America right now (serial monogamy), and if we want to settle into a truly intimate long-term relationship, this is the work we need to do.

If I'm judging my parents as somehow flawed, then I'm judging myself as somehow flawed, because they're my genetic heritage and who I am in many ways. But I'm also going to judge my lovers, my wife or husband, against that same impossible standard, and I'm going to tend to judge them more than I love or accept them. This realization has a profound effect on my clients, and during my last tour, I was surprised how many tears were shed... elder men and women, WW2 vets were crying in the bookstore about how much they felt they lost... because little hurts do add up.

Moderator: How does the father role play within a family?

Bryan: I think that the statistics and clinical work that's been done has solidly on the side of a two-parent family, with minimal conflict is best. I'm not going to tell the single moms or dads that they can't effectively raise a child without the other partner, because they can... but I think it's important and ideal for a child to have two-parent family, because when a child loses a father... and I'm very pro-mother and pro-father... because if I disrespect the other parent, I shame the child because that child will carry that anger as shame. If my father is this lazy, good-for-nothing that my mom says he is, then who am I going to be. The same with men that are angry with their ex-wives... your job is to love her again so you can parent the children. The father role has been shown time and time again to be important to a child's sense of confidence, a child's ability to take risks, and disengaged from their mother so they ... 

shows up for me in my counseling and teaching, are single moms who are asking their 7-year old child about their boyfriends... you know, "what do you think of Charlie or Michael?" They're asking pseudo-adult questions to their child, and I ask parents to please get some support for themselves, because children shouldn't have to bear that burden. A ten year-old child isn't capable of understanding the adult financial trouble, and shouldn't have to make excuses to the landlord, dodging the creditors, etc.

Moderator: What codes do fathers give to their children?

Bryan: A perfect example from my personal life, is when I was twenty living a life in Florida, and I called home for money... "Dad, I need a hundred dollars to eat," and he said, knowing that I wasn't living a proper lifestyle, that I was more interested in drinking and partying, he said "Mark, I am confident that you have the resources to find that money, and why don't you call me when you get it and tell me how you did it." And I slammed the phone down, and I was so angry... but he was teaching me a very important lesson in self-reliance. And it's true that most teens that are successful have part-time jobs. The wealthier the family, the more likely the teen is to work, because they're instilling a work ethic in them. I think that's very important, and I think we as parents, need to remember that they have friends... they need parents. It's our job to set limits, and be willing to take the heat for setting those limits because ...

Codes for fathers is about self-reliance, or duty, or the tough realities of the world. My dad often speaks his love in a code surrounding his sports-watching, I realize that men often use sports as a way of translator for each other, so it's a chance to get together, and cheer on the struggle of their team, is really a way of sharing an emotional experience together that isn't touchy-feely.

That's one of the most important things I learned, that men translate their love to each other by osmosis. It's very rarely direct, in the way we think it should be. I tell a story in the book about a student of mine who called and said, "My 80-year-old dad is having his birthday, and I never really had a good relationship with the guy, and I don't know if I should go to the party or not." And I told him, "It's past time for you and I to worry about what kind of father we had, but that we focus on what kind of son we can be." And he ended up going to that party, and it actually surprised me when I said it to Jack and it was true for me, too. My concern about my dad's anger, seemingly emotional distance... I mean, he was working two jobs. The sports Code is one, the Code of self-reliance is another, the Code of clean the garage (neatness) is another. We have to realize that kids do what they see; if I tell them not to drink, but I'm pounding down six packs... they're going to do what they see. I tell parents who are concerned about their kid's college, to go online and take an online course themselves...

Moderator: How, what ways can a father improve on communication with his children?

Bryan: Let's let fathers off the hook because they communicate differently. Even in gay marriages, of either two males or two females, and they're raising children... even their behavior tends to break down into stereotypical roles. One of the women will become the more aggressive, male-figure of the two, and it's the same with male couples -- one will take on the more homemaker role, while the other takes on the more traditional "male" role. I find this very interesting. Maybe it's just the natural split that happens, so I think that if we just allow men to communicate through their actions; the male side of the role is often one that learns by doing, so I often tell fathers to go do something with their kids. They're not used to sitting in that unnatural silence.. and not that I agree with that training, but the truth is that we have to deal with what we have. I tell fathers to take them to an arcade and play some games with them! 

...participate (especially for non-custodial dads), to participate in their children's schooling... show up and meet their teachers, friends... I think children need two sets of eyes to be perceived and really seen. So I ask all non-custodial parents to participate in the schooling of the child as best they can; if we let the father off the hook... my dad, Lieutenant Bryan, is never going to be touchy-feely.. and to discover the strength of that is very important. There is a side of my father, that strength and authoritarian stand, that I need... to call on that for my self discipline. And if I'm throwing away that vision of my father as too strong, then I lose that part of my self that I need to succeed.

Moderator: What differences are there for fathers communicating between their sons and their daughters?

Bryan: I'm glad you asked, because often people think of father and sons.. and I chose to put a father and daughter on the cover of "Prodigal Father", because I think the daughter's relationship is just as important, because she learns how to relate to men through that relationship with her father. With two parents, the father figure works as a magnet to draw the child, boy or girl, out of the mother's orbit a little... so that the child can begin to differentiate themselves a little, to tell they're individuals away from the mom. Father's style of play is very different than their mothers; dads are going to throw you into the air, and they're going to throw you just past where you feel comfortable... and those thrills are very much the purview of the father in the family. A daughter learns to be safe with men from her father, which is why it's such a sacred trust.

Moderator: What do you think fathers and their children should be aware of when communicating between each other?

Bryan: I think the most important thing fathers need to remember is that children are not adults; they're children. And there are several developmental stages the child goes through. You can't explain to a six-year old your divorce as you can explain it to a sixteen year old.A lot of divorced parents start interpreting normal teenage behavior of separation as somehow due to the divorce, instead of it's just normal for teenagers that don't want to hang out at home, and be with their parents too much. I think that's important for dads to remember, the developmental stage. Children of all ages, even myself at 47, have to remember that there's no way for us to know about growing up in the sixties or seventies, was like. I can't know what my father's life before I was born was like, and I have to respect that he's probably learned some things along the way that have value to me. Not that I want to get lost in the past, but I want to understand it because it affects who I am today and what my future will be.

Moderator: How do single-mother families work without a father figure, and can it be substituted?

Bryan: I think that single-parent families are the most difficult job in America; it's funny that parenting is the most important job we do, and it's also our most important societal contribution. As the two-parent marriage breaks down, it makes it very difficult for both parents... and in particular on the children, because in a single-parent home, the child loses both parents... or both traditional roles, because now mom has to work, so the child loses the mother... most single moms work harder than I can even think of myself working. My son has sole custody of his two daughters, and he works all the time -- he works, goes to college, and is very busy. So I think that we need to stop blaming them culturally, as if it's something that's their fault, and we have to understand that the role of the single, or non-custodial parent is extremely difficult. Most people don't know that women who don't have custody of their children don't ...

better regularity than men do. And single dads harbor the same resentments about the absent mother that single mothers do about their absent dads. It's not gender specific; it's role specific. It's very hard to be a "visiting" dad, and to lose the daily contact with the children, the little moments of bliss that happen between a parent and a child, and to be reduced to a visitor in your own home, and it's also very difficult to be a single parent, raising children, running off to school, dating, all the logistics of that... damn, it's heartbreaking. We are trying to act like, because divorce happens so often, that it's a good thing, when it's the most difficult thing we'll ever go through in our lives. I was divorced at twenty, and it broke me for years... so I urge every divorcing parent to find help. What I ask them to do about their children, is to watch their grades... a very important fact for parents -- Parents assessment of their children and particularly their children's mental well-being, only matches the observance of these children by outside trained observers fifty percent of the time. Half the time, we're not going to see what an outside observer will see, because we have our own defense mechanisms, and our own issues to deal with. So I ask parents to watch the grades; a child's grades are an indication of where they are. If they're struggling, its an emotional red flag, particularly if they were doing well. Get them help. Much too often, we act as if some problem with our children is a passing phase when they need clinical intervention. It's very important that if grades are not good, then we get those kids help... and also help for ourselves if we can afford it. I very much appreciate what support groups, because they're inexpensive. They're very important to people; find somebody to talk to as an adult, and find someone for your children.

Moderator: How different are the codes between mother and father to their children?

Bryan: I'd say the most important difference is that moms are usually teaching us about nurturing and homemaking, and observance. For instance, there's a conversation in Codes of Love, where these two grown daughters with their kids, are dissing their mother... and it's a mom's job to tell us what she thinks, and so giving them some latitude about that will help a lot. Once I understand that it's not personal, and she's not trying to control me, she's just thinking about me when I was 10 years old at Christmas. I'm 46 years old, and I want my own space.. .I don't have to argue, I can set a boundary instead of a barrier.

And with dad, it can often be simple things like the map home... or looking at the weather child and "Son, you'd better take route 30 instead of Route 9." He wants me to know, to be aware of these road conditions -- my first reaction is to tell him that I'd been driving for over 20 years, but as long as I can understand that he's speaking in Code, and that he loves me, then I don't have to react in that way. If your dad or mom can't talk to you about your weight or retirement, then who can? So I think we need to change the culture in America from suspicion about the family, to a culture of what I call family spirit... that focus on the strength, and the traditions... the good things that were taught. When we can do that, we'll all be a lot happier.

Moderator: What messages do children receive when their father is an alcoholic?

Bryan: I have a whole section in Codes about alcoholism. I treat anxiety as a virus, and when you have a virus like high anxiety within the family, then the virus causes 1 of 3 things. It causes marital conflict, where the children are fine but the mom and dad fight. Or it causes one parent to become very over functioning and the other to become under functioning. One takes control and the other takes hiding behind a bottle, or something negative. And the other third way, which we see a lot, is that one child will carry the anxiety for the family. That will be the troubled child... who's always in the principal's office, that she's the problem... when its actually more systemic. I'm a systems thinker, and the whole family is a single organism... and the message of an alcoholic parent, at least in the way its been traditionally viewed in the clinical world, is that this person, or father, wasn't there for me. Instead of looking ...  is that alcoholism is a sign of underlying, untreated depression, and not a moral failing... and the reason why people have alcoholism is because of more anxiety in the system. And I think also that because anxiety is higher, it's just stressors... the more stress, the more anxiety, the more anxiety, the more the virus hurts us. When I understand that the people who drink alcohol, are at least 60 percent of the time battling a neuro-transmitter problem. They're often trying to self-medicate a depression, because of the release of these neuro-transmitters, or they're trying to have focus when they never had that, and this can become an addictive process. Short-term fixes instead of true help can become a spiral. I think when we start to look at alcoholism that way, I can start to understand what my father was going through, so its just not a moral failing, but most importantly -- if I'm coming from four generations of alcoholism, then I need to know that information... not because that my dad, but because I'm probably going to be susceptible to the same kind of bio-chemical imbalance, and when I know that, I can reach out for help in a way that doesn't rely on alcohol. Often alcoholism will skip a generation, because children of an alcoholic might not drink, but the anxiety passes through the generation. If you've got a straight A student who's never missed a day in school, I'm as concerned about her as the one that's failing. Does perfectionism become her? How is her life, is she happy? Is she allowing herself to be a child, or is she lost in a pseudo-maturity?

Moderator: That's me and my sister.

Bryan: I call it the Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman syndrome. Here's Michael Jordan that everybody adores, so where is Rodman going to go? He can't compete for that role. So he gets tattoos, and totally acts out the opposite of the hero role. He takes all the animosity, and Michael gets all the admiration. If I were working with the Bulls as a family system, I'd have Michael lean into his dark side a little, while reminding Dennis of all the good things. It also happen geographically, where the son lives three thousand miles away from the mother, and the daughter lives two blocks away... and many times for the child that got away from the family, we'll feel that we're superior because we got out, but our distance is an expression of the same anxiety, and the same virus that keeps my sister bonded to my mother. So when that distant son or daughter comes home, the brother and sister gets freed up a little bit to travel and find ... that the anxiety within the system, can cause us to react. Let's look at alcoholism as more of a hidden depression...

Moderator: Instead of a disease?

Bryan: I think that it is in some ways, a disease... I think its an expression of anxiety, and they have the virus of anxiety, whatever that is. Half the time, the behavioral intervention works beautifully, and half the time, chemical intervention works. So you can try either one, and whatever works... I'm a pragmatist. Therapy works... there's lot of clinical evidence that therapy and intervention works. It can change lives -- it changed mine. I got sober at 29 years old... and I lost my twenties... from a gifted kid to a man who was lost, and intervention saved my life and made my life, and that's one of those things that I'm so passionate about in my work. I know what it's like to have early failure, and in one of the ways, I'm trying to pass on what I've learned. More importantly, the more we can be one person helping another, and have an attitude of curiosity about our families, the more likely we'll be to seek help and not live the patterns of the past... we'll be ... failing.. and that's the difference.

Moderator: What is the state of most nuclear families and is the definition of the nuclear family changing?

Bryan: I don't see it anymore as just the one household... I think we have to start to see it in a more extended perspective, because otherwise, we're too easy to throw away the whole paternal image of the family. I think the definition of the nuclear family should include both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.. because even though they don't live in the same house, they're part of the same system. Then perhaps the child won't have to lose their grandparents on the paternal side, that they'll keep rooted in their large familial family... because that's very important. We forget what the purpose of a family is, to invest in support and the evolution of its members... across the life course, we welcome them in... the cynical phrase of "you're born alone, you die alone"... and that's bull. I didn't know who was there at my birth, that there was a whole extended network of family members that were surrounding us at birth. If we live a life that we're supposed to have, there'll be a network of family members at our death, too. Because the way we die, defined how we lived... and those alcoholics that die alcoholics often die alone.

Moderator: How do estranged children and parents make the proper steps in reforming a relationship?

Bryan: The most important thing to do in being reunited and working towards reconnection, is to realize it's a process... and that first, as a prodigal father, let's say... a father's who's been gone for some length of time, the longer that I've been long, the longer it's going to be for me to establish trust and to become a parental figure in my child's life. That I need to know that I need to assess myself, and whether I'm able, capable of this relationship... I need to find support for myself, and that's why I wrote Prodigal Father -- its a step-by-step process of reuniting a father with his children. I need to know that there's going to be specific arc -- first there's the doubt, doubting myself, and I'm going to tend to rationalize my absence... none of which is necessary... that it's going to be awkward for you and the child, and that there's a leverage point, and that's the old relationship with the wife. The relationship that determines the amount and quality, is not the relationship between the father and child, but father and mother ...  To go from a very loving and engaged father, to slowly becoming a visitor in his own home, often hurts him enough emotionally and gets them so angry that they're unable to see their children at all. So we need to know that so we can seek help; if a man has been gone from his children's lives for more than a year, then he should seek professional help or some kind of support group as he goes to rebuild that relationship. Because there's many things we don't want to do -- blame our ex for our absence, can't continue to hate him/her ... but I want to end this with ... I was away from my son for ten years, who I had when I was 17 years old... and I never spend a day without thinking about it -- I call it "The Haunting." I work with a thousand men who've been separated from their children, and I never met one who didn't think of their children everyday... this haunting stays with you, so there's no way to ever get away from that, the moral judgment of that action, but I've been reunited with my son, and I've been at his marriage, the birth of my first grandchild, and he and I talk every other day.. and have been for over 10 years. It's the most important thing in my life, and that haunting has ceased. What I want to give those men and women separated from their children, and those raising themselves... is hope. Because it can be done -- we need to talk about it, ask for help, and websites like yourself -- WebMD -- and the kind of work you' 're doing is very important. We really need guides, so I honor them for looking for the answer, if they're reading this, and for you and your website for passing it on.

They can reach me at or directly at

Moderator: Mark, thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next Monday at 1 p.m. EST here in the Mind Matters Auditorium when we discuss "Sleep Deprivation: The National Nightmare" with Dr. William Dement.


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