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A Family Constellation
What's Yours?By Siggie Cohen
There are several theories regarding the child's place in the family. One is of the renown theoretician Erik Erickson; a student of Freud's theories thus later on one of his greater opponents, who recognized that a child's birth order determines much of his or her components of characteristics and individuality. As part of his theory Erickson determined that all first born share similar character and behaviors, as do all middle children, third born, only children and so on. This theory identifies first born as mature, responsible, independent, well behaved; the second or middle children as demanding, stubborn, threatening, loud, wild; third born as agreeable, pleasant, flawless, the forever baby. (I can see many of you people nodding your heads in agreement: 'yea, that's exactly the way it is...').
As Erickson, Alfred Adler was a great theoretician in the field of psychology, from the Freud's era as well, though his hypothesis differ somewhat and his greater contribution reflects families and children. Adler, in similarity to Erickson believed too that a child's place in the family can determine much of his or her characteristics. Alas, oppositional to Erickson he did not think that all families show uniformity and fall into a sameness but rather each tells a story of its own. Adler also stated that, outside of genes and innate characteristics, much of a child's behavior is acquired, and depends on environment and surroundings, which means that parents and caretakers have key influence on it. In addition, he believed that each family "holds" a "character market" in which all family members can purchase certain characteristics. Once, specific ones are gone, the other "buyers" have no choice but to shop for leftovers.
If you look closely at your family you'll recognize for certain how different your children are from one another, especially the first two, and if you examine each child closely, (Come on ... put on your glasses and focus real hard...) you'll surly notice the ‘label' that is attached to him or her. (yes, right there, under the chin, or pinned to the belly, perhaps on the forehead, keep looking - it's there!) Now, this label that each child carries and is so firmly affixed to him or her, becomes all that the child is about. A label might reflect the stronger characteristics about each child; a label is how we compare our children to one another (why aren't you more like your brother? why is your room so messy? can't you learn from him to sit nicer, eat better, do your homework...?) a label concludes that one child is "good ", the other "bad"...
Now, take a moment and gaze into the past; to the time right after your second child was born, in which you might recall how surprising it was when you first realized that the new baby is "nothing like his older brother..." and how astonished you felt. After all: same parents, same household, same genes - and yet, the child is showing definite signs of being nothing like his or her older sibling...How is this possible? You probably scratched your head in amazement. But the explanation is simple: if your first born is the responsible, mature, independent, the child that likes to please you... and most likely is since you have to admit that you spent a lot of time with that child, put much effort and attention into each activity and pursuit, your second child is everything but that. He or she are more like the terrors, the rebels, the rug shakers and since you can't understand how can this be possible, this child (the different one), is simply labeled the "bad fruit" - nothing else to it. (There! There's that label... told you it's there!) If we go back to Adler's theory we realize that if one of our children is "such the good one... always the good one", the other has no choice but to "shop" for the characteristics not taken yet, and thus become "the bad one".
Individuality is the way a child receives attention; the way a child survives.
We must never forget that children do not distinguish negative attention from positive attention; to them it's merely attention - the one thing they strive for the most!
The truest matter is that our children are different from one another, and for reasons we won't get into right here choose to push different buttons in us. You might recognize that one child is more like you and like it, or not. You might recognize that one child is the same gender as you and thus like it, or not. You might recognize that one child holds the same place in the family as you in your family of origin and thus like it, understand and sympathize with it, or not. The bottom line is that your child is an individual, most likely with a set of characteristics beyond the label he or she is living with, and our obligation and responsibility is in recognizing this for the sake of his or her emotional wellness.
I'm aware that it's not easy for us to search beyond labels; we all tend to live by them and recognize products this way. We do want to remember that our children are not products of ingredients well measured and blended together, but are complex human beings, multi-leveled, always elastic, changing and evolving, unpredictable and extremely challenging; mostly to us. And looking beyond the label calls for us to be resourceful and intuitive, and pause before we react. We all know how often we react automatically to anything our "bad" child does: Once more our child hits, breaks, drops, whines, demands, talks back, jumps on the table... Once more we are angered, disappointed, helpless, feel guilty, tired... We also react automatically to our "good" child - always expecting them to: do the right thing... you now better than that... why are you acting so foolish...? It's a cycle we're locked into with no exit sign in sight.
Unless, instead of your child challenging you over and over again, challenge yourself: How many times can you look the other way? How often can you change your reaction and surprise yourself and your child with a different one? What "bad" actions or behaviors can you minimize? And it doesn't mean you're denying your child is misbehaving or acting inappropriately. It does mean you learn to reduce the amount of time and energy you spend each time your child is misbehaving, with it perhaps the total of time outs, privileged taken, and other punishments he or she gets. As an alternative, you make the choice when to firmly respond, then quickly move on to something positive: "No! you can't push Danny! But look how strong you are, you can push this wagon..." to a young child. To an older one: "I see how you're trying (to hit, whine, demand, be stubborn, manipulate...) again, but I'm sorry, I can't let you do that. How about you take some time for yourself (one option), or we both do something together" (a different option). Learn to truly face your child's behaviors without it becoming a label for him or her, and without them always pushing your own buttons (I can't believe he's still doing that... how many times do I have to say that.... hasn't she learned already... etc.)
It is strongly recommended to stray from always automatically reacting. Our "good" child needs to attempt "bad" behavior, we want to not expect them to always be perfect. The "good" child fears that if they'll go astray even once, their parents are not going to love them anymore. We want to let them know that being perfect is not what's expected of them, but rather human. We too make mistakes, fail, and don't always feel successful, still we want to be loved, supported, accepted and even forgiven. And for our "bad" child - yes, that child might still make many wrong choices (misbehaving, angering us, getting out of control...), still our job is to show alternatives rather than jump into judging (anything that starts with us rolling our eyes and snorting through our nose) and conveying to him or her any sense of failure - the sense that once more our child failed us; the sense that once more we've failed as parents.
Watch for the different labels each of your child holds: too shy, too quiet, too busy, too weak, too strong, can't do this, not good at that, etc. And yes, each of these labels is factual. Children can be too shy, and too weak, too stubborn, or too loud, and so on - but that's not all they are, and when we fail to see beyond the characteristics they've acquired on the surface, we fail to recognize their true personality and thus not respect their individuality as a whole. Think of how many times when you were growing up you thought to yourself about your parents: "they don't know me at all... they know nothing about me..." That is a very alienating feeling for a child, a sense of not belonging to the people who are supposed to be the closest to you. Think of that then next time you approach your child's label, rather than your child, and I know you'd be amazed with your findings...
Keep up the good work!
– Siggie Cohen February 15, 2000
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