How Children Cope – 4 Learned Roles for Stress Management
Many decades ago, counselors saw an interesting outcome from treatment of alcoholics (most of whom were male): their clients seemed to do better when the spouse attended a week of treatment geared specifically for them. Proven repeatedly, the conclusion was clear: when the spouse of the alcoholic worked on herself, he recovered more quickly and more strongly.
For a number of years, this model was followed to a variety of results. But therapists started noticing another trend. A large number of their clients were adult children of alcoholics. And over a decade of work, many therapists (particularly Claudia Black, Sharon Weigscheider-Cruse, and Charles Whitfield among others) realized there was a consistent pattern to the outcomes of the children raised in an alcoholic home.
Eventually therapists concluded that the adult children of any emotionally absent parent, where the spouse/other parent focused their attention on that partner resulted in these same outcomes. So a family with a mentally ill mother, work addicted father, sex addicted parent, etc. etc. all resulted in children learning to cope in similar patterns.
Research was clear: no role is exclusive. So every child has some of every role in them, but usually one role predominates in each child. This is the children’s learned method to manage the stress of their familial environment. The roles do not rely on birth order.
Every role is present in every family:
- In two child families they adopt two roles to cope.
- If the family has 3 siblings, one child will double up their coping roles.
- If there are more than four children, more than one child will have a role, but these coping strategies are usually determined in some context of birth order, because the first four children will learn and adapt and the fifth child will pick up and repeat a role.
- In a family with multiple births, particularly triplets, which tend to be a unit unto themselves, the roles will be complete in their birth unit. The rest of the children will have another set of the same roles. For example, a client of mine was one of 6 children, including triplets. The non-triplets adopted roles as expected and so did the triplets! So one child from each ‘group’ of siblings doubled up on a role.
- Only children are almost always Heroes, or the Responsible Child.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll examine each of these roles in detail. Please don’t try to psychoanalyze your family. No simple blog can give you enough information to do that, but I hope to provide enough information for you to gain some insight into family dynamics and family roles.
Here’s a simple chart to show you the roles. Again, don’t confuse placement of these roles with birth order. It’s a simple mechanism to put a difficult topic on paper.