In every family with an emotionally absent parent, the children learn and adopt one of four roles to deal with the stress and tension in the family. These roles are the hero, rebel or scapegoat, mascot and lost child.
The previous two posts talked about the Hero – the child who learned to handle the stress in their home by shutting off any knowledge of their wants and needs and becoming a ‘human doing’ – a person who judges themselves on their accomplishments alone.
The opposite of this role is the rebel or scapegoat. This is the child who gives in to the tension in the home and acts it out. This is the kid that the neighbors ask “How did such a nice family get a child like that?” Or “How could two kids be so different?”
It is as if this child feels the tension and the anger so deeply, they have to act it out. They scream to the world “look at me I’m hurting.” And people do look, because this child becomes the visible problem in the family. Common wisdom says “if we can fix this child, the family will be okay”. Ironically that’s often true, for it is in pursuing help for this child that the deeper problems of the family are exposed.
Rebel behavior can show up very early in life. And it changes and evolves with age. But these behaviors are considered common for rebels:
- Poor performance at school
- Challenging authority at every turn
- Alcohol and drug use/abuse
- Early pregnancy
- Gang membership
- Illegal activities perhaps leading to incarceration
- Angry and may be easily incited to rage
- Cutting behavior
- Running away
At some level, rebels look at their family and ‘know’ there is a problem, whether they can vocalize it or not. They usually have an older sibling who is wildly successful and decide they can’t or won’t compete. Then they take, what is to them the only road available – one in the opposite direction of the Hero. And that roads leads to many, many problems.
Some therapists feel that this child is the most emotionally honest child in the family. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that the earlier these children are reached, and treated, the greater the likelihood of success.
It is also suggested that this child feels the hurt of the emotional abandonment deeper than any other. As a result of that pain, they lash out to hurt and shame the family.
The acting out of the rebel is interesting to study, for it can vary in its intensity and outcomes. For example a daughter who’s emotionally absent parent is a minister, may act out by becoming sexually promiscuous. The child of wealthy parents may become involved in illegal scams and activities. These children will usually find a way to act out that will bring the greatest reaction from their parents and family. That’s what makes this role so difficult to identify and treat – rebels are behaving in ways they learned in a situation over which they had no control and no real understanding.
Please don’t think for a minute that I’m a bleeding heart liberal who wants to give these folks a pass. I don’t. Regardless of our roots, we are individually responsible for our actions. But I believe it’s important for each of us to understand that ‘bad kids’ don’t usually spring from the gene pool. There’s a reason for their behavior. And if all medical problems have been ruled out (including mental illness) then I think the family and its dynamics are the next place to look. That investigation may uncover some nasty stuff, or not. But it’s an important first step in identifying the source of the issue so that it can be resolved.
Again, please don’t try to identify or diagnose your family and/or friends. And if you have a child who is behaving in these ways, don’t start beating yourself up. Personality development is complicated and complex and no one situation or issue is the only contributor to our adult outcomes.
On Thursday, I’ll take a look at some of the emotions of this child and treatment strategies.