The Lost Child: Invisible and Unheard

The third of the four roles is the Lost Child.  Remember, in a family with an emotionally absent parent, the other parent is focused on the ‘missing’ one.  So no one is focused on the children.  As a result of their emotional absence, the children learn to cope by adopting certain behavior styles.  Unfortunately, these learned roles become their way of interacting with the world.  Although every one has a bit of every role, for these children, they become more comfortable with a specific one and as a result, live within its constraints for a life time.

The Lost Child understands or feels the strain the family is under.  As a result, they try to minimize their demands on their parents and siblings.  As a result, they are often overlooked but this leaves them feeling lonely, rejected and isolated.  The conundrum is they get what they want but that result leaves them feeling empty.

What does this look like?  This is the child who is never a problem.  They spend much time in these kinds of activities:

Daydreaming

Fantasizing

Reading

Watching TV

Playing video games

Studying lots

Playing in their room

Play ‘pretend’ behind the sofa or drapes

Building things with Lego or a similar toy

Hanging out at the library, playground or other place away from home

Every child does some of these, but for the lost Child, they excel at being ‘out of sight’ and end up being ‘out of mind’.  Their teachers try to get them to participate more in class. Their siblings and fmaily call them shy.  As adults they are called extreme introverts.

This child expects nothing and wouldn’t know  how to make his or her wants known if they could identify them. Ironically, their disconnection from their family and themselves leaves them without knowledge of what they want or what is reasonable to expect from life and relationships.

The purpose of this role is to hide from the chaos, condlict and stress of their family.  As a result they hide – often in plain sight, but hiding never the less.  In becoming invisible, they never have to take responsibility for others (because as children they know they can’t fix the family dynamic.)

This child can take one of two paths.  First is the super independent child, who can handle everything for themselves.  Leave me alone, I’ll do it for myself.  Remember the abiding belief for this child is that I must not burden anyone, ever.  So I’ll do it.

The other path is that this child becomes socially awkward and uncomfortable with others.  If the focus moves to them, they panic.  They are unable to express emotion, because they have learned it doesn’t pay.

These chidlren tend to become attached to pets and toys rather than people, although one super close friend is not uncommon.  Remember, they have learned that emotions are pointless in their family, because no one is paying any attention anyway.  So they shut down and hide, often in plain sight.

Because this child never learns how to forge normal, healthy relationships, seeming aloofness is their norm.  But people are not meant to live without social support and connection.

Sadly, this child may become depressed and suicidal, because of their isolation.  And yet if someone tries to befriend them, they withdraw, uncomfortable and afraid.  They don’t know how to accept the connections that humans need.  And in rejecting those overtures, they further confine themselves to a world of loneliness and isolation.

Remember, no fair to diagnose others.  If you feel a connection with this material, feel free to email me, leave a comment or contact a health professional.

The following websites provided information for this post:

http://acoarecovery.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/lost-child-family-role/

http://www.adultchildrenalcoholics.com/family-roles/lost-child/

http://adultchildrenaca.blogspot.com/2007/01/roles-in-dysfunctional-families.html

So how do you feel as you read this? Can you feel the loneliness and isolation of this child? Can you empathize? Or is confusing?  I’d love to see your comments.

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About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in adult children, Louise Behiel, recovery, self help and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to The Lost Child: Invisible and Unheard

  1. Coleen Patrick says:

    It seems sad and lonely and makes sense from the description of the parents, but then at the same time the activities from daydreaming and hanging out at the library were some of the things I found really fun as a kid!! I always think of introverted activities stemming from an innate personality–it is sad to think of it as a defense mechanism.
    Another interesting topic Louise!

    • For some children, these activities are fun – as always, it’s the driving force behind the decisions for those activities that matter. And yes, feeling forced to hang out at the library is sad.

  2. iamnotshe says:

    His is why I am still in therapy. I switch between between the two paths. It’s almost more difficult than taking one road, only. xxoo Melissa

    • iamnotshe says:

      This…geez I’m on my phone!

    • Interesting that you’ve taken two roads. How many children in your family, Melissa? more than one primary role is common in children from families with fewer than 4 children or with more, but the total is not an even multiplication of 4. More on that in a couple of weeks.

  3. It is a survival mechanism for those of us who lived through a time where it was easier to be gone than the alternative. However, what worked as a child is often a ball and chain as an adult. ACOA is an answer, although not a cure per se. Then again, as a hard of hearing person not raised in a signing environment introversion meant survival again as communication with others was difficult

    • It is absolutely a mechanism for the child to survive in these emotionally impoverished environments. And yes, because we become locked into these roles, they do become a ball and chain. The loneliness of not being in a signing environment would complicate these issues exponentially.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Although I am blessed to not have grown up with an emotionally absent parent, I can certainly relate to this type. Avoidance is my preferred way to deal with conflict, and one I’ve always had to work on. It’s easy to imagine how this could lead to an incredibly lonely existence.

    And you are giving me great ideas for my fictional characters! Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    • I hear you about using Avaoidance to deal with conflict. It’s very common. good for you for working on it – since it doesn’t solve much.

      So glad you’re getting good idea, Jennette. Goes to show that ideas and information for writers are found everywhere.

  5. Joan Leacott says:

    I loved reading as child. It’s still my place of comfort when things go awry in real life. Creating whole new worlds in my writing is even better. Fortunately, people I’ve encountered throughout my life set different paths with happier destinations for me.

  6. gingercalem says:

    Again, so interesting! Do you find that middle children often fall into this category, even in a healthy, emotionally present, household? Very often I see that the middle child has the older, ‘first-born’ sibling who gets to do everything first and are therefore creating new experiences for the parents and family. Then you have the ‘baby’ who plays his or her own role and somehow the middle child can get lost, well, in the middle. 😉

    Our middle child is very mellow and falls into many of the attributes you described. It goes along with her personality. We make it a very special point to keep him on the front line and not let him slip into the middle-lost, which is easy to do because he’s SO affable and such a pleaser by nature.

    I love this kind of analysis. Thanks!

    • Ginger, you’re absolutely correct – this role is usually filled by middle children. And yes it is a function of their personality as well. Good for you for keeping him on the front line, because it is easy for middle children to fall into invisibility. well done.

  7. Louise, you do such a great job of describing these personalities. I find it amazing how much these same traits can be attributed to children from “normal” families and yet I’m finally beginning to understand the difference between them and a child from an emotionally absent parental family. Thank you for these posts. They are marvelous!

    • Yes, these are very common in healthy families, Sheila. I’m glad you’re discovering that these roles become fixed and rigid in an emotionally absent parental family but in children from other families, they are simply a preference. These children adapt these as tools to live by and they harden like concrete.

      glad you’re enjoying.

  8. Consider enneagram type 6 and you’ve got the missing child. Consider enneagram type 3 and you’ve the hero. The difference is whether there is a certain level of pathology along with the type. I’m an enneagram 6 with a 7 wing (the buddy) and fairly well adjusted in many regards, but there is that lingering maladaptive behavior that sends me back to ACOA time and again.

    • Fascinating. I have a passing familiarity with the Enneagram. Now i’m going to have to look it up and study a bit, so I can combine it with what i’ve worked with all these years.

      I think most of us who learned these roles will fall back into them when we’re in difficult situations – it’s natural to us. But then we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and return to a way of being that works more efficiently and more effectively for us.

      thanks for the info.

  9. asraidevin says:

    This was me. Is me.

    I also worked very hard to smooth things over if I thought they were going awry.

    • Asrai, another name for this role is the placater, and it sounds like you took that on totally. Do you still shy away from conflict. or has that eased a bit?

      • asraidevin says:

        It’s eased some, except with my parents. I have a pretty calm husband and he and I have managed thorugh many major conflicts without screaming matches and a few minor ones.

        • Good for you – individually and as a couple. Changing behavior patterns with our parents are the hardest thing to do – I still have to be conscious with my mom, because I’ll jump into hero mode and do everything for her – which suits her just fine.

          How wise of you to find a calm man to share your life. well done.

  10. Indy Quillen says:

    I found this interesting. I buried myself in books and daydreaming as a child – was terrified of social settings – but excelled in school (because I wanted to “please” my teachers). But my parents never argued in front of us. My memory is of a peaceful childhood. But I wonder now if I sensed the discourse. I never thought of that! My parents later divorced (back when this was a “disgrace”). Fortunately a friend invited me to join Drama Club in High School (started out just working on the sets, of course). But it changed my life when I took the stage. I’ve learned to stand up for myself and defend my principles, when needed. Most think I’m an extrovert, but tests show that I still have mostly introvert tendencies, but have learned to cope with a social world. And we wonder how we end up being writers! ;0) Thanks for posting this!

    • Indy, thanks for stopping by. Sounds like you were a ‘lost child’ who healed and recovered as you grew up. that’s awesome. fairly unusual, in my experience but with the incentive of Drama, it makes sense. As the hero, I was an extrovert, but as I got older and did my own work, I have discovered I’m way more of an introvert than I ever knew. I still ‘fool’ people about that, but I know the truth

      glad you found this post of value.

  11. Amazing post Louise. This is my brother to a tee! Sad that he’s never wanted to get any kind of assistance to move through his issues. Instead, he continues to play out his issues in his family which is sad for him…and them. GREAT post!

    • It is very sad to see an adult continue to live out this role. But when you don’t know it’s ok to have needs, it’s pretty hard to get help to change. very very sad.

      thx for stopping by

  12. Wow, another moving post Louise! You are receiving some really interesting comments today!
    Oh boy. But I do identify with Indy’s comment about no arguements in the house, but sensing underlying problems. Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that. And the thought about this personality trait influencing the middle child. That made a lot of sense. I am so glad you are writing this series. Like Coleen, I think beside being informative for personal use, this is great for creating our characters! Thanks so much Louise! 🙂

    • Karen, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. Yes, it’s valuable for writers, and for people. At least that was my plan . And as I mentioned, these roles only need emotionally absent parents – Children know when there are problems in the home and they react.

      Glad you’ve learned something from the comments because they have been fascinating.
      be well

  13. Louise, I agree these posts are fascinating. At some point, I’d be interested in knowing how these roles differ from “normal” childhood development, whatever that is. 🙂

    • In this model (and remember this is one of many, many models used in psychology) these roles differ from normal in one key way: the adopted role becomes the role used almost universally and all the time by the child. In a normal family, the oldest will often be a success story but they can cope with failure and they are willing to try a range of new things. Adults who live as heroes will not try things outside of their comfort zone because they can’t risk failure. In my case, I can give a talk to any number of people on a variety of topics. no big deal. Ask me/force me to do a trust fall/wall climbing etc and I’m frozen with fear. I have no expertise with physical activities so they terrorize me and I don’t do them unless I have no choice. (Until I had lots of therapy and was willing to spread my wings a bit.) But I’d still rather pursue something intellectual rather than physical.

      so the difference is that even when we intellectually know there’s another way, our early childhood experiences keep us locked into a particular mindset with all its challenges. and yes, these roles do tend to follow the child’s personality. A risk taking personality will not become the lost child. Doesn’t work that way. So we have a synergy of personality and environment or nature and nurture.

      hope that makes sense. if not give me a shout.

  14. Why am I not surprised to find that out of the three so far, this one describes who I used to be the best? I can see parts of me in the others, but this who I was as a child, teen and young adult. Except I’m the oldest sibling. And I didn’t get ‘help’ to get past it. I just got past it to a large degree. I still am more comfortable on my own a good deal of the time, but I’m nowhere near as shy as I used to be.

    Another great, insightful article. 🙂

    • it’s not impossible for the oldest to take on this role (as you know Kristy). if the first born senses some tension or problem or…in her parents, it is logical that she might try not to add to the stress and to be invisible. that is totally reasonable. Remember, while birth order can impact the role selected by a child, personality has a greater effect.

      How nice that you were able to get over it on your own. that’s awesome. and speaks to your resilience. well done.

  15. Oh my God. This is so sad.

    I always need to digest your posts. I see myself and my sisters and it breaks my heart.

    I did inner child work and reparenting work for years and it just never really ends, does it?

    You are doing something VERY important here. Thank you very much…

    XO Jen

    • I do think we continue to work on these issues, Jen, but for me, the work has diminished over time. But it flares up now and then but today I’m more likely to recognize when I’m going there.

      I’m sorry it makes you sad, but if it is helping, that is good. for you and your sisters.

  16. Fascinating Louise. I was a psych minor in college and was especially attracted to Child Psych so I just eat this stuff up. Thanks for sharing!

  17. To a small degree, this sounds like my mom. My grandpa, while a man with many good qualities, worked 10-12 hour days at the factory and would yell at my grandma if the house wasn’t the way he wanted it when he got home. My mom learned to keep her room perfect and fly under the radar because she didn’t want to cause anymore conflict in the house.

    • Your grandfather was a man of his time – working lots of hours to feed his family. and your grandmother was a product of her times as well – doing whatever it took to make his life easier.

      your mom’s reaction is a natural outcome for her in this environment. because there wasn’t a high degree of dysfunction in the home, your mom adopted this role to a small degree. It is easy to see how a sensitive child might choose this role to minimize the yelling. the child would see it as doing her part.

      My mom did the same thing – always trying to reduce the conflict.
      thanks for sharing Marcy

  18. Debra Kristi says:

    This was me growing up. It now fits my first born and that saddens me. I don’t know if his Aspergers is all of it, part of it, or none of it at all. His dad working till after they’re in bed and sister requiring a ton of attention (for other reasons) hasn’t helped. There isn’t enough of me to fit their needs.

    • Debra, I’m sure part of your son’s behavior is his Aspergers. And don’t forget no one can take on a role that is contrary to their personality, so this might be an extension of his natural way. Having his dad more present might help a bit, but there’s no way of knowing. and given today’s economy, I can’t judge anyone’s decisions. Remember for this to become a frozen role for your son, both parents have to be absent – and you’re most definitely a presence for this child.

      I hear and feel your sadness, dear friend. take care of yourself in the midst of this situation.

  19. Selene says:

    Hi Loiuse,
    Thank you for the description of “the lost” child. I never thought of myself this way until my older sister bluntly pointed out that I was “invisible” as a teenager. Our family was very dysfunctional with multiple mental illness issues. What are some ways to stop behaving in this role as an adult? I don’t want my issues to hurt my young children and husband who are normal, loving, kind, and sensitive individuals. I’d like to not be so introverted and closed off for my own sake as well.

    • Selene, I think you’ve taken the first step in solving the problem by recognizing it. In jargon, the solution has three steps: Awareness, Acceptance and action. You’re aware and you sound like you have acceptance so now you’re looking for the action piece. Well done. The hard work is over.

      I would suggest you read as much as you can to begin with. find out about this role and all of its manifestations. and then the challenge is to start speaking up. Once you understand the role better, you’ll see where that works. The 12 step fellowship, ‘adult children of alcoholics’ focuses on the issues of children who live in these roles. While many of their members are children of alcoholism, many are children of dysfunctional families, like you. (By the way, the hardest place to change these roles is in our families.)

      Often this work takes the help of a trained therapist but you can start working on it by yourself. I posted information on how to find a good therapist on this blog a few weeks ago. good luck and keep in touch – I’d love to know how you’re doing.

  20. working on it says:

    Hi. Sorry, came lately to this post. I’ve always wanted to be invisible..this post is me. Recovering from eating disorder and alcoholism. So late in life that I think it is probably too late. I can’t feel or trust.. trying to reach out. On the face we had a perfect family (myself excluded)…but appearances are deceiving…is iit too late for someone who is 42 but is finally recognizing it?

    • It’s never too late. I came to this work at 38 and started a long process of determination and healing. took me about 10 years to do the work, but it was worth it. start by reading lots. and finding yourself. hang around here – I’ll have more information as we go along. and you’ll start to figure it out. therapy is a wonderful help – if you get the right therapist.

    • What Louise said. And you have another home. Adult Children of Alcoholics (and dysfunctional families). We are the adult children Louise talks about. http://adultchildren.org – there is an international listing of meeings for ACOA. Also, check out http://stepchat.com room 7 is ACOA – meetings twice a day, 7 days a week. Good first step if dealing with issues in a Face 2 Face (F2F) group might be overwhelming at first. Lot of good people on stepchat – also AA and I think there are OA meetings too. Never too late. I’ll be 63 in a few days. Your fellow ACA’s have been where you are at, done what you have done, and we help people recover – and even share the names of therapists who are good to work with (from our own trial and error).

  21. Selene says:

    Louise,
    Thank you for your valuable advice and support!

  22. Mike says:

    I first learned of the lost child role while attending rehab for a massive cocaine addiction. As I researched it further I realized how powerfully I took on this role and how much it enveloped my life. I spoke less than a hundred words throughout high school, with no friends. This set a pattern of low self esteem because “no one likes me” “I must be ugly and boring”, which continued well into my adult life. To this day i am still afraid of intimacy, both on a physical and emotional level, although after a couple years of therapy, it’s getting better. Learning how to adapt in a social world at thirty is terrifying and to be frank, quite embarrassing at times. I spent my whole life being invisible, it wasn’t much fun, I can only hope these growing pains that I’m going through now will pay off in the end. Thanks for the article, an interesting read.

    • Mike, thanks for stopping by. the lost child is a hard role to recover from, because we’ve made ourselves invisible for so long, that being seen (and heard) is a big risk. huge. don’t underestimate the courage it takes to ‘come out’ of the silence. congrats on getting clean.

  23. susielindau says:

    I had not heard this of the third child. I have two and grew up with a brother and sister. My brother was 9 years younger so he was really like an only child!

    • your brother was in all likelihood an only child. and the other two of you would have either taken all 4 roles between you, with your youngest sib off on his own. Or you would have taken one role each and one of you doubled up. At least that’s what the model says.

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