In my previous article, “The Lost Child Syndrome”, I introduced the concept of the Lost Child and described how it commonly manifests itself in the family. The Lost Child addresses the different roles other children may take on within a family when they have an acting-out brother or sister. Some of these roles include the Lost Child, Scapegoat, Hero and Mascot. While these roles and behaviors may be more subtle, if left unaddressed, professional treatment may be required to restore family order. As such, Part 2 of this article series will provide parents needed resources to identify these negative and destructive roles, and in their stead, create positive family roles.
The first step in the change process is to recognize the described roles and behaviors of the Lost Child Syndrome in the family. As denial and minimization are enemies to change, recognizing these roles in the family are key to progress. See last week’s article to help with the identification process.
Once a family begins to recognize the dysfunctional roles of the Lost Child Syndrome in their own family, however, it is then important to address them openly and without delay. These roles and behaviors are not a phase. It is important for the family to talk about these roles openly in a family counsel. The presence of the whole family ensures the continuity of language and protects against misunderstandings. It also permits the family to discuss what function they believe the role serves in the family and how other family members’ behavior may be encouraging or sustaining it.
For instance, in the role of the Lost Child, the family would need to discuss openly why they believe the particular child is seeking to be invisible. They would explore how this role is played out in the family and how others reinforce this role. They would also discuss why the child may have assumed this role, what fears or issues motivate it, and what can be done to resolve it.
A helpful tool in this process may also be art therapy. This is a great way to facilitate conversation within the family on any issue. It may include having each family member draw their feelings or their view of the family roles, relying solely on depiction and not words. Then, each family member takes turns explaining their drawings and what it means to them.
The following step in the process then, is to initiate the creation of positive family roles. As families identify and begin to work through the roles of the Lost Child Syndrome, they need to make a concentrated effort to identify the unmet needs of each individual in the family and identify appropriate behavior. If your child doesn’t know how to act differently, sit down together and discuss alternative behaviors and the desired family role they should take on. You may begin with these 4 steps: (1) Identifying and rewarding good behavior, (2) Focusing on the positive rather hammering the negative, (3) Strengthening your child’s self-worth and esteem through accomplishments, (4) Empowering them through ownership and accountability.
Often the acting out child becomes the family’s target, sacrificial lamb or is solely blamed for the family’s dysfunction. Understanding this as a systemic family issue, all family members should honestly examine their own behavior and role while participating in a family council providing each child to share their feelings safely and openly.
Parents can model communication skills and healthy relationships by appropriately discussing and solving some of their own feelings and issues in the family. Children should see their parents unified and consistent in their approach. Too often children know that if they engage in “divide and conquer” tactics with their parents, they will be able to get their way and continue the inappropriate behavior and negative role playing.
Lastly, parents can also facilitate this process by spending individual, quality time with each of their children, asking them questions about their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weakness within the family, their actual and desired contributions to the family, their perceived family role, and finally, the struggles they experience with others. This technique is a powerful tool for parents if they will use it. Remember that sometimes being an effective parent is asking the right kinds of questions. For example, ask open-ended questions that require expounding and avoid yes/no questions. Our kids want to talk to us. They may simply need some prompting. If parent and family efforts do not appear to be resolving the problem, seek outside help from a competent therapist who can assist the family in the healing and bonding process.