“My sister, Shannon, is cold, distant and, at times, very mean. She just tries to control me in every situation,” says 16-year-old Allison.
Her father, Robert, agrees. “I think that Shannon only thinks of herself. Shannon is a master manipulator,” he says.
Allison has been called “bitch” and “stupid” by her sister. “She likes to create drama,” Allison says.
According to Robert, Shannon’s antics started in childhood. “From the age of 4 on, Shannon would do things that were just completely cruel,” he recalls. “For four years, she would never tell her natural mother ‘Happy Birthday’ on her birthday.”
Allison has a theory about this. “I think this is her way of taking the attention off my natural mom and putting it on her,” she suggests.
Robert feels that the household is more peaceful when Shannon is not around. “When you drive up to the house, everybody gives a sigh of relief when they see that her car is not here,” he says.
“Shannon, what do you say about all that?” Dr. Phil asks when the video clip ends.
“It hurts,” she says simply. “I mean, to think that your family is going to say those things about you.”
“Is it true?” Dr. Phil presses.
“I don’t think so.”
Dr. Phil emphasizes that he’s not concerned about taking sides. “What I care about is do we come up with something where we can have some peace and harmony in this family,” he says.
Allison wants peace as well. “I want to be able to have my sister to lean on,” she says.
Dr. Phil fixes his gaze on Shannon. “Isn’t it true that much of the time, your behavior can be absolutely, insufferably deplorable?” he asks. “You do throw tantrums. You get mad, you yell, you scream, you cuss, you told your dad to F-off. You told Hilary to F-off.”
“I know I make mistakes. I know I flare up. I know I get upset with things, and I yell and I say things I shouldn’t say,” Shannon admits.
“What are you so angry about?” Dr. Phil probes.
“A lot of things. Hilary moved in not even a year after my mom died. I wasn’t ready for changes that she had, and it’s just been downhill from there,” Shannon confesses.
Dr. Phil observes that this is not a Shannon problem, but a family problem. “You’ll have one person who becomes what I call the target patient, the squeaky wheel. It’s real easy to drag them to the altar of the therapist and say, ‘Fix her. What a mess!’ But you’ve also got to step back and say, ‘Wait a minute. Why is she doing that?’ Do you think she was born this way, or do you think it’s a product of her learning history, Dad?”
Robert replies, “All of the above. Maybe. I don’t think it was a learning problem because, certainly, her mother and I spent endless hours talking with her about the behavior, trying to correct it. None of it ever helped.”
“You don’t think that you, your decisions, your parenting, her biological mom’s parenting, any of that contributed to it?” Dr. Phil asks Robert. “You just think she’s like Damien, bad seed, just showed up with some type of disorder?”
“Yes,” Robert replies.
Dr. Phil wants Robert to reconsider his answer. “If you really believed that, why would you be mad at her?” he asks. “If you think it’s genetic, if you think it’s a brain disorder, if you think that it is involuntary, why would you be mad at her?”
“I’m not sure that I’m mad at her,” Robert says.
Dr. Phil disputes this. “You said you wouldn’t cry if she dies!” he says in amazement.
Robert clarifies. “I said I wouldn’t cry if that aspect of her died or went away,” he says. “It’s not as much anger as it is frustration that you try, and try, and try, and try, and you get nowhere.”
Addressing Hilary, Dr. Phil points out that she moved in and started rearranging Shannon’s mom’s personal effects. “Do you understand how hypersensitive a child might be to that?” he inquires.
“Yes,” she replies. She didn’t want me moving anything in the house.”
Robert chimes in. “Her behavior way predates that,” he insists. “So to tie it with anything that happened, even her mom dying, as terrible as that was for all of us, it just is not right.”
Dr. Phil questions the method Hilary and Robert used to coax Shannon into attending a behavioral school. “You were going to go on vacation. You said, ‘We can’t leave her with a nanny,’ so you told her you were taking her on vacation. You took her instead to a school that was for really problem, hard-case kids and drugs. You dropped her at the school where they had a rule that you can’t talk to her personally or see her for a year.”
“We wrote to her every week,” Robert makes clear.
“No, there were times when you didn’t even write to me,” Shannon shoots back.
Dr. Phil wants to get the facts straight. “You didn’t talk to her for a year. You didn’t touch her, you didn’t hug her,” he points out.
“Yes, it was the hardest thing I ever did. It was harder than watching my wife, their mother, die in front me,” Robert divulges. “I felt like I was driving her to her execution, but I knew it had to be done.”
Dr. Phil shakes his head. “I have to tell you, if I take my child somewhere for whatever reason, and somebody tells me, ‘You don’t see her until she does A, B, and C,’ and that turns out to be a year, that’s not OK,” he admonishes.
Dr. Phil turns to Shannon’s friend, Jennifer, in the audience. “What’s your experience of her, as somebody who’s outside the family unit looking in?” he asks.
“She lived with us for about four months,” Jennifer says. “I never found her to be disrespectful. I found her to be very receptive to anything my husband and I had to say to her. She was a joy. She truly was.”
Addressing Robert, Dr. Phil asks, “Have you ever had any trouble with her in terms of drugs? Promiscuity?”
When Robert answers each question in the negative, Dr. Phil turns to Shannon. “You do have a job and you’re making some progress on your job at this point.”
Hilary interjects, “But she’s not doing very well in school, the last time we checked. She had about a 1.8 grade point average.”
Dr. Phil is flabbergasted. “Why did you feel that it’s important to point that out right now?” he asks Hilary.
“I guess I felt it was important because she acts as if she does everything just wonderfully and beautifully, and that’s not the case,” she replies.
Dr. Phil points out that he condemned Shannon’s bad behavior previously, but also wanted to praise her for the progress she’s made. “I just thought it odd that during that time, for you to point out, ‘Let’s not get too happy feet here, because she’s not doing real well in college,'” he tells Hilary.
When Robert says that Shannon acts disrespectful to her family, but differently in public, Dr. Phil explains that she is expressing situation-specific behavior. This means that Shannon has the ability to control herself, which argues against a brain dysfunction. “You can’t flip that on and off,” Dr. Phil says. “In this situation, there’s something that’s eliciting that behavior. Would you agree?” he asks Robert.
“Could it be you?” Dr. Phil probes.
“No,” Robert says quickly.
Reiterating that he is not ascribing blame to Robert, Dr. Phil says, “You’ve got to say, ‘If there’s something I’m doing that contributes to this, whatever it is, I’ve got to be open to any possibility. If I can heal that wound, if I can change that, then I want to do that.'”
Robert agrees. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do with her. If there’s some solution, we would love to have it,” he says. “If you can show me how it was us, that’s fine.”
“How I can show you that you have a role in it is it happens when you’re there and not when you ain’t!” Dr. Phil retorts.
‘No, that’s her choice!” Robert argues. “She chooses not to do well with her family.”
“I think I’ve been very clear that her behavior is absolutely unacceptable,” Dr. Phil says.
Noting that Hilary and Robert feel that Shannon has manipulated him, Dr. Phil says, “This isn’t about blame. It is about responsibility. You’re her father. You’re a player in this, good and bad.”
“Absolutely,” Robert says.
“It’s not about blaming you, it’s just about saying, ‘If I have power as a parent to help prepare her to be more successful and harmonious in life, put me in, Coach,'” Dr. Phil tells Robert.
Dr. Phil offers to arrange professional help, first for Shannon and her father, then for the rest of the family.
The family says they will accept the help.