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Children acting out parental struggles

Charlotte was an energetic, exciting, and dominant woman who loved variety.   She chose Charlie, her opposite, as a spouse.  Charlie ate the same menu almost every day:  two eggs for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, pasta for dinner.  This lack of imagination drove Charlotte nuts.  She craved new adventures, new food–never the same thing twice.

Charlotte loved to travel.  Planning the trip was a thrill in itself.  She cleverly arranged each leg of the journey to maximize the locale’s greatest hits and, naturally, its best restaurants.  If fried crickets were just the thing in Japan, Charlotte would seek them out for the first night of the trip.  Charlie would have to negotiate long and hard for the occasional stay-in room service meal, which he ate in  exhaustion from the day’s museum mastery.

When their two sons–Corey and Chris–began to mature,  it seems the parents had produced one of each–one adventure-seeker, one routine-lover. Now, you might think this set-up would be great: one kid for each parent.  However, the parents yearned for the idealized family, where all four members shared experiences together.  And there was no one to break a tie on any activity.


So, the one who cared the most fought the hardest and got his or her own way.  Corey figured this out quite young, and, with Charlotte as his double, became the junior activities director. When Corey was old enough, he took over trip planning, mocking his younger brother’s lack of interest.  “What could possibly be wrong with a trip to Morocco?  What else you have to do?”

Dad was sympathetic with Chris, who expressed his own viewpoint, but neither fellow wanted to provoke the anger of the Mom-Corey team.  Chris just went along with every vacation, although his lack of enthusiasm provoked Corey .  As time went on,  Chris grew old enough to stay home alone and offered to do that during holiday time.  Dad was happy to make it a two-some.  But Mom said that wasn’t a family, so Chris suffered along, not always in silence.

Chris shut down more and more; he was depressed.  His brother’s mocking of his friends and his hobbies ruined his pleasure, so he gave up most of his interests.  At least Dad understood, because he had done the same in order to find the energy for Mom’s intense and busy life.  Dad let Chris know he was on his side, but urged him not to provoke an argument with Corey.  “Just don’t fight with him. That’s all I ask,” was Dad’s request.

It’s clear in the story that Chris got a raw deal.  What may not be as obvious is the harm to Corey,  as well as Mom and Dad,  resulting from this family pattern. In family systems terminology, Chris became the Identified Patient.  The IP unconsciously agrees to manifest the problem that is actually a stuck family system.

Charlie became less and less spontaneous as Charlotte continued to make the family’s decisions. Charlotte forgot to trust the wisdom of her spouse, becoming frustrated and fatigued by the effort to run everything her own way. She complained that she always had to pick the movie, the place to eat afterwards, even the parking lot. Charlie argued back that she cared more than he did, and she overrode him anyway.

Corey missed out on learning one of life’s most precious lessons: let’s make a deal. That lost affected his relationships for many years to come.  He was used to others’ giving in to him, and used to telling others how to enjoy their lives. He was quick to mock the choices of others, and some people avoided him.  Girlfriends, initially attracted to his energy and dynamism, left for someone who could better accommodate their wishes.

The good news for a family like this–or one stuck in any pattern with rigid roles–is that a change in any one of the family members benefits the entire system.  Chris sought help from a family systems expert. He learned that Corey, like himself, was acting out a pattern that was not of his own making.  Corey became, in Chris’ eyes, just his brother, not the family “winner.” The power imbalance shifted for the boys, so Mom and Dad were less involved in their arguments.

If the family benefited from just one member’s positive changes, imagine the growth if all four were to seek the advice of a family therapist, either together, separately, or in pairs.  Change is hard, but, boy, is it worth it.



  1. Children acting out parental struggles - BlogCatalog - September 10, 2016

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