“I am sick of the Problemʼs Dirty Tricks”

David Epston(unpublished paper)


Serena, a disgruntled eleven year old accompanied Jenny, her single-parenting mother in to my office. Jenny wasnʼt in a very good mood either. Whenever she spoke to me the was exceeding polite and good natured. When she turned towards Jenny, she couldnʼt help herself from scowling at Serena who made no attempt whatsoever at putting on a good face for me. Whatever the problem was, it certainly was one of those that had set each of them at odds with the other. In fact, Sernea looked vengefully at her mother as if she had been injured by her in some way or other. When I tried to translate the looks on her face, I came up with something like: “If you tell him what the Problem is, you will be very sorry when we get home afterwards!”

As is my custom, I proposed a tack that I strongly suspected caught both of them off guard. “Look, do you mind if we go about this conversation in a way that might be very, very different than what you both might have expected?” They both looked at me askance but I just proceeded with any further adieu. “I was wondering, Serena, if I might get to know you through your wonderfulnesses? You know- your talents, abilities and what your friends think is cool about you. Jenny, I wouldn’t be surprised if you wanted to know why. Well, by the looks on both your faces, this Problem has got you pretty upset with one other. So I have to assume that it must be a tricky Problem. And we might have to ‘team up’ if we are going to do anything about this sort of Problem. But before we even can think about teaming up, I guess it would be good for me to know what your wonderfulnesses are, Serena, so we can all see what you have going for you so we can think about how to ‘put’ that against the Problem that has got you so upset with one other?”

Serena and Jenny were certainly taken aback by this tack but if nothing else were intrigued by my proposal. They duly consented for me to proceed when I sought their permission to do so. I doubt, at this stage, they could have known exactly what lay ahead of them but at least both were now able to temporarily tear themselves away from the unspoken mutual recriminations implied in their scowling at one another.


I began by addressing Serena:

“Serena, it might make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps like a braggard, if I were to ask you about your ‘wonderfulnesses’”.

She concurred with a head nod but the look in her eye remained quizzical.

“In that case, do you might if I ask your ‘wonderfulness’ questions to your mum?”

She raised her eyebrows as if to say- ‘what is all this about?’ but stumbling over her words, she said- “yah, go ahead…ask her?” Although it was not entirely smooth sailing at the beginning of this half hour long discussion but by the end of it, I was not left in any doubt that Serena was a wonderful eleven year old young woman according to her motherʼs accounts. Jenny, initially with strained enthusiasm for the task at hand, proceeded to tell me about her daughter’s wonderfulnesses. She related to me that Serena could be “lovely, friendly and kind to little children”.

I refused to leave this matter there. I sought considerable elaboration of these claims by calling forth from Jenny a story in which Serenasʼ attributes were embedded in a story.

“Jenny, would you be so kind to tell me one story from amongst the stories you could tell me about how Serena goes about her loveliness, friendliness and kindnesses to little children. And when I hear your story, I will deeply understand how she practices such wonderfulnesses?”

Jenny blinked in response to the sententiousness of my expressions but then appeared to me to pass into a kind of reverie as if she was ʻlookingʼ over the past to find an apposite story. Jenny chose Serenaʼs attention to and care for their next door neighboursʼ young children in addition to her pre-school aged cousins as the crux of a ensemble of tales in which to portray her daughter. Slowly the enmity that had pervaded each and every interaction was fading.

When I enquired if such expressions of kindness were extended towards her at times when the Problem- “whatever it may be”- was set to one side, Jenny admitted that Serena “at times, could be a good help”. When I sought her to specify how Serena went about her helping, Jenny told of occasions when “you go out and bring in the washing off the line” before she arrived home from work which “makes it easier for me”. By now, Jenny started to appreciably warm up to these questions while Serena looked far less chilly than she had at the beginning of our meeting.

Spontaneously, Jenny had cause to commend her daughter for the way she ‘baby-sits for Olivia”. When I asked how significant this was for an eleven year old to be entrusted with the care of a youngster, Jenny agreed that indeed this was so. She then went on to tell me that she had gone along with her the first few times but when she observed Serena’s “nice considerate nature” she felt her daughter could baby-sit on her own. “Serena, have you turned this wonderfulness of yours into a form of gainful employment?” This was the first time she smiled coyly and replied with a muffled ‘suppose so’.

At my urging, Jenny now turned to another arena of her daughter’s wonderfulnesses(“Jenny, do her wonderfulnesses show up anywhere else in her life?”). Before I could propose some other sites such as “at school, on school holidays, in her sports, in the things she loves to do either by herself or with her girl-friends, etc”, her mother with a measure of pride in Serena said she could be “daring, fearless and brave when it comes to her cheer-leading and trampolining”. I quickly turned towards Serena and asked her the following question in a manner that smacked of mischievousness:

“Serena, whatever the Problem might be, do you think it knows just how brave, fearless and daring you so obviously are? Do you have any idea what it might think about you if it knew everything your mum knows about you?”

She seemed somewhat surprised by this form of enquiry but once again grinned and somewhat
hesitantly said she supposed it wouldn’t know this about her.

“Do you think this Problem is pretty clueless about you?”

She found herself unable to answer this so we just carried on as if she had.

“What do you think about us teaming up and telling the Problem about this.”

Once again, somewhat bemused, she said: “Oh…oh..okay!”.

“Well, say we all got together and told the Problem, whatever it may be- the truth about the kind of person you are that allows you to get out there and cheer-lead and jump up and down when you are trampolining, even though there is a risk of falling off and hurting yourself? Do you think this Problem would have second-thoughts about intruding in to your life if it knew full well just how daring, fearless and brave you truly are?”

Once again, she shook her head smiling and said- “I dunno!’.

“Jenny, most Problems have a pretty narrow version of a young person because they only know the kid in trouble and not out of trouble and probably aren’t that interested in knowing about their daring, bravery and fearlessness”.

She conceded with an uncertain smile that this was probably so.

“Serena, do you think your daring could cause some trouble for the Problem?”

Both Jenny and Serena considered it would be worthwhile informing the Problem- whatever it may be- how Serenaʼs daring might make trouble for the Problem.

Before we could take this up, Jenny sat up in her chair and proudly looked Serena directly in the eye and said: “You are independent-minded!” I asked Jenny if it was likely that she had fostered Serenaʼs independent-mindedness. Jenny had no doubt this was so and spoke of her child-rearing resolution: “I brought her up like that so that she can do things for herself. I donʼt like children being mollycoddled”.

Turning to Serena, I asked if she had been aware of her mother championing her independent-mindedness before now. Serena said this was news to hear.

“Is it good news or bad news to know your mother was behind your independent-mindedness all the way?”

Serena thought it was “good news”. I then asked if she was of the opinion that her mother was an independent-minded mother, woman and saleswoman. She had no doubt about this and furthermore when I asked if Jenny had a reputation amongst her family and friends for her independent-mindedness, they looked towards one another and commenced to laugh out loud. They didnʼt get to reply before I went on:

“Serena, do you think there is any of your motherʼs independent-mindedness in you?”

Serena confirmed this with a grin and then looked towards Jenny who was beaming with a measure of pride.
Jenny went on to say that she had always been determined that Serena “grow up to be an adult who can think for herself and be self-reliant”. Once again assuming a roguish manner,

“Serena,” I asked, “do you have any idea what the Problem might think of messing with an independent-minded young person? I am wondering if it might turn out very badly for this Problem whatever it turns out to be?” Serena looked to be in equal measures of mystery and bemusement.

She replied: I dunno!” Turning to Jenny, I continued to pursue these arcane speculations about the Problem:

“Do you think a Problem would prefer to do the thinking for Serena and make up her mind about things for her? Or even have Serena rely on it?”

Jenny and Serena thought any Problem, no matter what it might turn out to be, wouldnʼt like an independent and self-reliant mother-daughter relationship at all. That this could spell trouble for any Problem that tried to do an eleven year oldʼs thinking for them.

“Serena, by the way, what do you call this Problem?”

She answered me relatively matter of factly: “Dirty underpants!”

“Oh no, dirty underpants!” I exclaimed!

“Tell me is your dirty underpants problem like so many dirty underpants problems I have met over the years?”

“What do you mean by that?” Serena query was stated with considerable insistence.

“Well, I donʼt know a Problem that can play more dirty tricks on a young person than a dirty underpants problem. Can I run through some of its tricks that I have learned about from people your age? I will start from the least dirty tricks and then work my way up to the dirtiest of dirty tricks. Is that okay with you?”

Without any apparent reservations, Serena indicated that I should go on which I happily did.

“Well, Serena, here is No. 1 ʻdirty trickʼ. Does it pretend itʼs not a problem and you shouldnʼt bother yourself about it?”

Serena pondered this for longer than she was given to and then thoughtfully commented- “Sort of…..” Jenny was in doubt no about this ʻdirty trickʼ: “That’s right! It does do that!” Serena looked to her mother with considerable curiosity.

“Well, here is No. 2 ʻdirty trickʼ. Does it try to have you believe that if it is a problem, itʼs not yours but itʼs your motherʼs problem.”

Jenny smiled perhaps in recognition of so many arguments she and Serena had had over the Problem. Serena appeared uncertain or bewildered but did not object to my proceeding.

“Well, here is No. 3 ʻdirty trickʼ. Does it try its old favourite that if you do nothing about it or even forget about it, it will go away all by itself!”

Once again, Serena mused: “Sort of…..” but Jenny kindly insisted : ʻNo, thatʼs right!”

“Well here is No. 4 ʻdirty trickʼ. Now I need to forewarn you that this is a particularly dirty trick”. 

This introduction had obviously captured their attention and they both stared on me.

“Does the Problem tell you that it is good for you and will help you grow up!”.

Both Serena and Jenny laughed out loud saying that that trick would never work because they were too independent-minded to fall for that one. I expressed my relief here as I had to admit this had taken in quite a few young people her age and even older.

Serena replied: “Really!” in disbelief that such a state of affairs could happen. I had to assure her that it not only could happen but I had discussed such a dirty trick with some eleven and twelve year old young people. Serena, Jenny and I all came to the same conclusion that this was a ʻparticularly dirty trick”.

“Well, Jenny and Serena, if you think No. 4 was a particularly dirty trick, here is No. 5 which in my opinion is the dirtiest trick of them all. Serena, has the Problem tried to convince you that your poo smells as sweet as roses and everyone should wear some poo on their body for its perfume?”

They laughed out loud for sometime before Jenny called it to a halt saying: “You know thereʼs something to that”. I enquired as to what she meant. She told how she worked in a paint and home decoration shop in sales and often was told by her friends that she smelled of paint and turpentine and she didnʼt have a clue she did. She looked over at Serena and told her by way of commiseration rather than criticism: “You get so used to it that you canʼt smell it yourself”?

Serena looked thoughtful but kept her thoughts to herself for awhile until she expostulated: “I donʼt like it!” “What?” I enquired. “The dirty pants Problem!” “Do you think we do? I asked. “I suppose not!” Serena replied. Both Jenny and I tried to offer her some solace by indicating that we wholeheartedly shared her dislike of such a problem and the dirty tricks that made it possible.

“Serena and Jenny, I am heartsick to learn that this Problem has been playing the same tricks it has played on so many young people I have met over the years”.

I turned to Serena and spoke directly to her:

“Serena, you are now an independent-minded eleven year old and this comes from your mother both by the example she has provided for you and her fostering of it in you. Do you think the Problem’s dirty tricks are wearing a bit thin, even if they can fool you every so often?”

She replied that the dirty tricks could fool her “quite a bit” but in spite of that, they were “wearing thin”.

“Serena, if you weren’t quite so independent-minded, do you guess you would be fooled all the time rather than just quite a bit?”

She nodded in agreement as did her mother who was now a very respectful audience to this conversation. In fact, Serena jumped to the conclusion that “it’s a bad problem and I can do something about it!” Jenny and I were taken aback my Serena’s forthrightness in regard to the Problem and the dirty tricks by which it had duped her. I then asked another question which stumped both Serena and her mum.

“In that case, would you be willing to put pressure on yourself to put pressure on the Problem?”

“What do you mean by that?” Serena wondered aloud. I surveyed the Problem’s effects on their past and recent present.

“Look, the Problem has been putting pressure on your mum to put pressure on you. How about turning the tables on the Problem by putting pressure on yourself to put pressure on the Problem? 

“How?” Serena asked with considerable interest. It seemed like a viable tack to take to get her own back and out-trick the Problem.

“Well, you might have to play a clean tricks on the Problem instead of being taken it by its dirty tricks? Would that be okay with you? Would that be okay with you, Jenny?”

There was no dissent. And we went on to confirm such apolicy in general without any specific tactics being discussed. If nothing else, we had teamed up against the Problemsʼ dirty tricks and had outlined a response and named them as clean tricks.

“Serena, before we go any further, I need to know how much pressure you are willing to put on yourself to put on the Problem?”

Serena, although interested, justifiably wanted to know how to go about this. I told her of several young women who decided to put pressure on themselves instead of the Problem putting pressure on their mother to inspect and wash their underpants.

“Serena, an eight year old said that if the Problem had the nerve to dirty her bed, the next night she would put pressure on herself by sleeping in her sleeping bag on the floor to get back at the Problem for its dirty tricks. And you know she really taught the Problem a lesson because the Problem hardly ever messed her pants or her bed after that. There was a 15 year old who was very humiliated by the Problem and got so indignant that she gave her mother one thing of make-up every time the Problem messed her up and said her mum shouldn’t give them back to her until she went clean for a month or two. Are you surprised it worked so well that she got back all her make-up within three months?”

Neither of them seemed surprised by these outcomes. In fact, Serena displayed her independent-mindedness to the full by without much more reflection by telling us of her far-reaching conclusion. “Right, I will give Mum my cell phone, ipod and computer if you find my pants messed up!” Jenny looked stunned by Serena’s declaration and tried to talk her out of including her cell phone as this would be inconvenient for her when she wanted to pick her up after school. But Serena stood her ground and said this would be the necessary pressure to put on herself to put on the Problem. And it just had to be this much and anything short of that wouldn’t do the trick of her going clean.

We then creatively put our heads together and collectively came up with the following agreement. Admittedly, I led the way in the detail of the planning but each step of the way both Serena and Jenny confirmed it as their mother-daughter policy. Below is abstracted from the letter that I forwarded to them immediately after this meeting.

“Serena, you decided to put pressure on yourself to put pressure on the Problem. Here is what everyone agreed to do:

1) Serena will hand over one pair of her underpants to Jenny at approximately 8:30pm before she goes to bed.

2) Serena will state loudly and clearly to her mum: “I am giving you these underpants so you know that I am putting pressure on myself to put pressure on the Problem. It is no use putting pressure on you because all that does is hurt our daughter-mother relationship. And no matter how much pressure you put on me, that isn’t going to make my body clean and unsoiled. Because only I can do that!”

3) Jenny will state loudly and clearly to Serena: “I think it is very independent-minded and brave of you to put pressure on yourself to put pressure on this very dirty and tricky Problem. Thank you for not putting pressure on me because no matter how hard I tried in the past, it has not made your body clean”.

4) A decision should be quickly reached as to the state of the underpants- clean or dirty? If there is any dispute, the underpants will be set to one side in a special place until Aunty Judy can be contacted and come over to decide the matter once and for all. You both told me that you trust her to be fair. And for that reason, what Aunty Judy decides goes.

5) If the Problem has soiled Serena’s underpants, Serena will put pressure on herself to put pressure on the Problem by surrendering her cellphone, ipod, and computer for one week to her mum. After the week is over, Jenny will happily return everything to Serena.

6) After one month of Serena putting pressure on herself to put pressure on the Problem and going clean, Jenny and Aunty Judy will declare her a ‘clean’ eleven year old young woman.

7) Of course, after that there may be the odd slip-up if Serena gets overconfident and lowers her guard. Then we will return to David to discuss ways of “getting back on a horse after you have fallen off”.

Serena, I know I only met you for an hour or more today; but I have known this Problem for many years and consider it to be one of the dirtiest tricks going. I respect the fact that you have risked your ipod/cellphone/computer to go clean. And I suspect a lot of this has to do with how your mother trained you to grow up to be independent-minded. I believe you can do this!

Yours sincerely,


We were never to meet again although we reviewed matters on a regular basis over the phone and by email. There was a period of dramatic success over a two month period leading to Jenny and Aunty Judy declaring Serena to be a ‘clean’ young woman. As predicted Serena did become overconfident and perhaps complacent leading to predictable ‘slip ups’. However, according to Jenny, Serena merely renewed putting pressure on herself to put pressure on the Problem and it wasnʼt longer before she ” got herself back up on a horse” again.

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