Stephen van Beek MA (Tripos), Dip CTP, Member CAPT, Member TPS
The Burdened Child
There are some who skip true childhood and arrive precociously in the world of the adult without experiencing much of the innocence that childhood ignorance guarantees.
These are the kids who shoulder too much of the emotional and psychic burden of parents who find themselves unable to deal with the weight and responsibility of their own adult lives. Grief, loss, disappointment, worry, anxiety, anger, frustration and self-loathing descend from such parents into the very deepest recesses of the overburdened child.
What may such a child look like? Like a lonely, isolated adult, very much an imitator of its parents. Like one for whom who could actually say 'childhood is for other people". One around whom a subtle air of deprivation and grief clings, incongruously disconnected from the actual circumstances of the family itself. A young person with a soul too old and shoulders already weary.
Such a child is frequently, from the view of others, quite a success. Other adults, ignorant of the psychic dynamic, will praise the parents whose child seems so grown up for her age. See her deal successfully with the chaos around her, smiling cheerfully and ironing father's shirts, minding the baby, opening the bills for father to pay later, or willingly, so it seems, cooking dinner most nights because, as she claims. "I want to make Mother happy." And what a success she is destined to be, for she will repeat the burden in her own adult life…
Later when a friendly man, a confidant of these parents, molests her repeatedly she heeds his command not to say anything to the parents since it would just bother them. The majority of her adult years become a routine of falling in love and then shying away from men who genuinely care for her, lest she be a bother to them, so strong is the ingrained pattern of taking on all responsibility for things no child should bear alone. She clings to life tenaciously in a series of poorly paid occupations despite evident intellectual brilliance and a high level of integrity towards doing a good job because she says she cannot expect more from life.
So she does, for unless she does the family life is impossible.
Or see the harried boy at the end of the school-day after hauling hundreds of newspapers door to door, pretending he is too old for the games that occupy his luckier playmates His reward is to count up his small change so that his future education will not burden father, who mother regards as a waster because he buys paperback novels in which to hide. Such a boy mediates the anguish of the parents, who live in their heads and avoid all the painful feelings of their own unsuccessful relationship. When the parents are frustrated with each other and he cannot bring them peace, they beat him. Then further punish him by forcing him to apologize to them for being such a difficult child.
The same child studies hard, even in the early years of school, in order to meet the intellectual expectations of his parents, who tell him it will be very difficult for him to be admitted to a college, he lacks intelligence, and without such an education his life will be a misery. He does not know that what he is living is misery, so this motivates him through fear. He wants this praise, even if it is not forthcoming. Praise in such a household is in the form of telling him how he should improve, not of recognizing what was well done.
Later such a child arrives at university, sees that even the lazy are admitted, and is astonished that all his worrying and woe about whether he can make the grade has been in vain. It may take years for him to realize that his lowered self-esteem belonged to his parents, who were anxious about their own intellectual capacity. In the meantime he has diminished his capacity to be socially at ease with those his own age because his burden has been consuming him.
Many years of such a grown-up boy's life are spent overachieving in the hope of getting recognition, but always managing not to ask for adequate financial compensation or recognition, because the family injunction is that nobody deserves more than a little bit to live on.
It is a terrible irony that such children often devote their energies to causes that benefit others, are innovative, diligent, hyper-responsible, and the people to whom others gladly bring their problems for a resolution. Many family fortunes have been built on the backs of burdened children, for their desire to make things right for others, that at least somebody somewhere may be happy, is extremely high.
Solving the problems of others comes easily enough to such people as it soon becomes their main reason to exist. Real hope and courage is needed for the overburdened child to even consider entering therapy. To do so would require knowing they have failed. They see the failure as not saving the family, and as an admission that one really deserved the ill treatment they received by parents who left them in this plight.
The therapy of the overburdened child is often dramatic and painful for these reasons. Such people are loath to assign responsibility of their misery to their parents, since they possess a heightened awareness of the difficulties that their parents could not resolve. There is also an unfortunate self-preservative tendency to feel pride at having been useful that clouds clear recognition of how bad things really were at home. What compensates for a lost childhood, when all is said and done?
When enough trust is built within the therapy process, and some air and light has been let in on these dark humiliating secrets, the therapy is often marked by a large upturn in positive self-esteem, actual natural joy, and fresh energy. They begin to mention spontaneously that others actually seem to want to spend time with them without making demands or wanting a problem solved ('for no reason' as one client often put it). They tell me that people single them out in gatherings and want to know more about them, which is puzzling to them at first because their self-esteem is so low. Eventually I hear that their personal intimate lives are perking up, and that they have a different attitude toward earning respect and reward from those whom they work with and for.
The overburdened child is not a Peter Pan or Jungian 'puer'. The puer is an adult who refuses to grow up and adopt adult responsibilities towards others. The overburdened child is one who has not yet experienced that you really can live life backwards and recover through therapy the essence of their previously unlived childhood. The client who exclaimed 'So you really can live your life backwards!'was referring to his experience of recapturing the vitality and eagerness, the curiosity and wonder, of a lost childhood while in his fifties. The contemporary rash of narcissism is not an issue for such overburdened clients; they are extremely grateful to have discovered therapy.
Ultimately the burdened child has to face the challenge of individuation, and to accept that the family from which she or he came does not have all the answers for happiness. The conflict between loyalty to the others and the requirements of one's own psychic life is very challenging, since by definition the burdened child is the one who did not walk away from the crisis of the home. Juvenile delinquency is a way out for some in the teenage years, but in the end it is more of a trap than compliance, because the guilt it creates tends to tie the child even more to the demands of the family.
Depression, anxiety, guilt and a debilitating lack of energy are eventual and natural concomitants of the syndrome. They are frequently masked because of the constant need to respond to though the tremendous pressure of on-going responsibility for others. There is usually a great difficulty in enjoying achievements since these are not felt to belong to the one who made them happen.
A danger for the burdened child is that out of sheer frustration all is abandoned and even positive relationships are set aside. Businesses are dealt fatal blows through poor decisions or inattention, and relationships are chucked out the window in sheer despair at positive change. Learning to manage frustrations in a fresh and open way is part of a meaningful therapy and learning to say no when no is the right answer is often the corner stone of a better life for all concerned.
Given some time, and some friendly acceptance, trust can be acquired. The burdened child leaps to free the bonds of the past so long as personal freedom, free choice of destiny and friendship, and pleasure do not seem selfish, but natural human rights. Such people are wonderful to work with since their eventual transformations are so marked and creative.
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