The Lost Child: Finding The Way Back from Emptiness

A family where the parents are emotionally absent (whatever the reasons) leaves the children to fend for themselves emotionally.  In learning to cope in a difficult situation with a child’s maturity and knowledge, the siblings often adopt one of four roles to cope with the emotional emptiness of the home.

The Lost Child believes that there is no point in attracting attention to themselves – after all no one is aware they’re around.  As a result, they learn their own counsel, becoming totally self-reliant.

Image courtesy of Microsoft Images

In school, they usually sit in the back of the room, and because they’re so quiet, people forget they’re in the room.  They aren’t joiners, running out of class and away from school as soon as possible but their grades are usually decent – because anything less would result in attention. And studying allows them to be alone and away from the chaos of their home.

They’re considered to be shy and introverted; but are really disconnected from others and themselves.   Unfortunately this isolation dogs them through life – even when they’re in a relationship.  Having learned to be invisible, they are often soft spoken, lost in a book or visual media and will avoid conflict at any cost.

They may be artistic, musical and genuinely kind and helpful. But their goal is to avoid hurt and that usually means avoiding deep relationships with other adults.  When they do risk a relationship, they may seem to be dependent and needy. Burdened with low self esteem (because they didn’t get the emotional support needed in childhood), they aren’t willing to risk a deep commitment to another person or to a goal or plan.  For the Lost Child, life can slip into a series of gray days without the sunshine of hope of a better future.

And ironically, in maintaining this role through out life, the Lost Child often becomes the emotionally absent parent, who is unable to give to his/her children the emotional connection and contact they need to grow into fully functioning, fully connected adults.

Persons adopting this role easily become addicts: the substance or activity keeps them from feeling.  Emotional connections are limited and shallow when an addiction is the priority.

Courtesy of Microsoft Images

Obesity and anorexia are common in adults in these roles, along with drugs, work and the internet.

Alternately, the Lost child works well alone and is very self-reliant.  They often are well-read and are good listeners.  They may have a quirky sense of humor, are usually flexible and always resourceful.

In order to overcome this role and develop the ability to move into deeply emotional relationships, the Lost Child has to confront their rage and fear. Recognition of the pain of the past, as well as its emotional emptiness is critical for their healing.  And to take any of these steps, the Lost Child’s denial must be set aside so that reality of the emotional barrenness of their life can be face.

Once those steps are taken, the former Lost Child is able to face their pain and form deep relationship.  They give up the victim position and become a team player.  They learn to make decisions and set long term goals of a personal nature. And eventually, they can learn to assertive, caring and connected.

Ironically, one of the hardest lessons for the Lost Child to learn in healing is that they’re not different, weird or strange.  They are simply people caught in an unhealthy situation who coped as well as they could – in a way that is governed by their personality, birth order and siblings.

As always, please don’t spend time diagnosing those around you.  These descriptions are absolute to facilitate understanding but nothing is ever completely black and white.  I will get into some of the role combinations and their behaviors in a couple of weeks.

I enjoy hearing from you.  Your comments are always insightful, intelligent and interesting.

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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, child abuse, healing, Louise Behiel, recovery, self help and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Lost Child: Finding The Way Back from Emptiness

  1. I was immensely fortunate to have a grandmother I loved, cousins I played with, two aunts and an uncle I loved – although I lost them all when we moved to live with my Dad, an elder brother who was a surrogate father to me (whom I adore to this day) and a mother who was a very loving individual – although very controlled (distant) because she was constantly exhausted from running a business, managing a home, and being a farm wife.

    When I had a child I was almost smothering in my devotion. I poured everything into her I’d missed and found out that ain’t such a good thing, either. Both ends of the spectrum are a form of imblance. She’s since told me that she felt as if my attemtps to help her life be perfect meant she was incapable of doing anything herself (never my intent). It is a wonder any of us are sane, I suppose!

    Food became the drug of choice in my life to sooth the hurts. It didn’t happen overnight and I thought I was over that, but apparently food is not done with me yet, although I would love to be done with “it.” So back to step one I go! At least there are steps!

    It is an excellent description and, again, I think you’ll find variations on a theme with the E-6 – the poorly adjusted, moderately adjusted, and actualized.

    • yes, food was my drug of choice as well. and I agre, thank God for the steps. It’s funny how we either repeat what happened to us or do something totally different. Either end of the pendulum is not good for our children.

      thanks for sharing.

  2. Good Morning!
    I nominate you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award! That you are indeed!
    http://step-on-a-crack.com/2012/03/15/the-very-inspiring-blogger-award/
    Peace, Jen

  3. Patricia says:

    Another interesting post, Louise. Always insightful.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge on this subject. No wonder there are so many different kinds of people in the world. So many different stressors that affect behavior.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  4. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    This was truly interesting. I have become aware only recently of patterns in my life. My gosh, however do we fall into patterns – and worse, bad ones…

    • The explanations I’ve provided are at the very far end of the spectrum, to assist people in understanding their behavior. But yes, we all are a product, partially of our environment and it usually results in some behavior patterns.

  5. Still loving this series! I’m pretty sure my husband is a lost child, but somehow we’ve managed to form a deep bond, probably because I never gave up on him (and he me). Anyway, always great information for our characters. This post in particular will help me with my protagonist in my fiction piece. Can’t wait for more.

  6. How wonderful that you’ve been able to deal with your pasts and come together and bring out the best in each other. that’s so exciting. and I’m doubly glad you can use this for writing. bonus.

  7. Subhan Zein says:

    There are many of them, unfortunately! And it’s not exclusive to a partilcaur country or culture, I suppose. It’s a kind of gloomy picture because I have seen many of my students from South Korea, China, and Saudi Arabia who fit your criteria..

    Subhan Zein

  8. Guest says:

    I can attest to the difficulties of being the lost child:

    I have 3 siblings, and as the 3rd child I was largely ignored growing up, and even now as an adult. I don’t remember ever having a meaningful conversation with either parent, was not encouraged to have hobbies or spend time was friends, and was not allowed to play sports or even an learn a musical instrument. The abuse, neglect, and lack of interest/support was bad enough, but to follow that up with relentless criticisms, personal attacks, and rage for not being perfect, or for things that were the alcoholic’s fault, or for just being a child is what sent things into an alternate reality.

    I think it is important to emphasize how much a struggle it is, as someone from an alcoholic system, to decipher reality – when you are used to being lied to from a very young age, used to being told that you caused the problem, you made the problem worse, or you are the problem (which somehow justifies the poor treatment from others) – being told these things just didn’t feel right, but as a child I couldn’t explain why. As I got older, it became harder and harder to see clearly for myself – the relentless criticism and attacks eroded any self esteem, self worth, and any boundaries that may have existed. As a child, I found myself taking on parental responsibilities for things which impacted me that had been neglected for far too long, to only then be criticized relentlessly by every member of my family for not doing a good enough job at whatever I was doing. And when you experience this as a very young child, this becomes ‘normal’ even though it just doesn’t feel right.

    As an adult, I still struggle with many issues. Employment – in many jobs, I somehow attract people who remind me of my father and am guaranteed to have problems with that person. I am used to people talking down to me or disrespecting me, in fact, I often don’t even notice it until someone else points it out. I have periods where I am super-responsible and get little credit/attention, followed by periods where I completely fall off and just can’t function normally, and all of a sudden have everyone’s attention. I struggle with relationships/isolation – while I’m not as afraid of other people and actively try to counter things I may have unknowingly generalized in the past (like people ‘can’t be trusted’), I find that now I just don’t know how to relate to others, how to communicate with others, or how to just form healthy relationships or friendships (I really do feel ‘lost’, and its actually quite painful).

    Complicating this is how difficult this is to talk about with others. Many people may just not know how to respond if you were to tell them this. And to an outside observer, I think I look quite normal actually – I learned from a young age to hide my feelings and not talk about things like this, for criticism that I would just be blaming others for my problems or making an excuse. When I have disclosed my struggles with others, it either scares them off or they seem so confused that they proceed to question me to the point where it feels like I have to justify myself and ‘prove my version of reality’ (much like I fought so hard to do in my family and failed every time at). Or they may minimize it by saying ‘thats normal’, ‘no one comes from a perfect family’, ‘just suck it up’.

    I’ve been to psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and al-anon groups, ranging from just a few sessions to over a year at a time, but I’m still plagued by having no sense of direction, extreme difficulty making decisions in life, never feeling like I fit in or belong, and an almost complete social isolation and inability to connect to others. I’ve repeated certain patterns in my life enough times to know things are far from normal, and am at a loss for how to proceed.

    The article above says the lost child must ‘confront rage and fear’ and recognize the past – can anyone share how one does that or what exactly that means? Anyone have examples exemplifying the healing process, things they did or challenges they had, particularly for the lost child? Or ways to reach out to empathetic others that may be in a position to help?

    Thanks for the blog, and the wonderful work you do!

    • Thank you for the detailed, personal comment. As you know, I specifically didn’t direct these posts only to adult children of alcoholics for many of the reasons you mention. When we grow up in environments that tell us we’re crazy because we see the drinking as the problem, we begin to doubt ourselves and our view of the world. We question everything about ourselves and our wishes, desires and drives, because we’re repeatedly told that we’re crazy, lying or just a total screw up. For the lost child, criticism is relentless. It’s part of what drives the child and later the adult into their hidey hole. So many, as you mentioned, come out of the cave and try really, really hard, but many of lack the social interaction skills and personal skills to successfully function over the long haul. We can do it for awhile but then life beats us down again.

      I have a client in this position right now. After many years of work, she decided to leave her physical job (waitressing) and go to school and become a a bookkkeeper. But she’s in a hurry to get a job, so she chose a school that doesn’t have the best results and has finished (with honors) but now can’t find a job in that field. So she’s waitressing and struggling with depression and the almost overwhelming desire to give up and stay in her cocoon of waitressing. Which is really ironic, since she doesn’t like people.

      The lost child is one of the most difficult roles to heal for all of the reasons you stated. In my experience (and only my experience) a year of anything will not be enough to get a lost child over the hump. this client came weekly for a year or 2 then bi weekly and now monthly, just to keep in touch and on track. we’ve been doing the monthly thing for 4 years, at least. it’s been 7 years we’ve worked together. She’s gone to AA steadily all that time, but hasn’t found much value at Al-Anon.

      Have you tried adult children of alcoholics? it’s a separate fellowship from al-anon (not just alanon meetings) and is very good. I had some great healing there. But as with anything, it’s important to find the group that works for you and that won’t likely be the one that works for me.

      thanks again for stopping by. I’m not sure i’ve answered your question, but feel free to add more if you’re of a mind to do so. Hugs

  9. Guest says:

    Thank you for the response, and for sharing that story of the waitress. I can relate. From my own experience, I found that I spend so much of my time just overwhelmed by life, and feeling so taxed by all the conflict, drama, abuse, and lies that I didn’t have energy for anything else other than fighting the daily battle which was a struggle to determine what was true and what was not (for example – my version of reality that I’m being mistreated by others, or the alcoholics version of reality that I have mistreated and abused them).

    So I never gave much though to what to do in life, what career to pursue, and am so distanced from myself and my feelings that I don’t even know how to approach that now. Simply getting out of bed and doing something constructive made any day a successful day, but very little time was devoted to goals, or a vision for what I wanted to do in life. I sometimes put together a plan, get excited and follow it for a while, and then fall off again as I don’t feel it is realistically going anywhere.

    It has taken me a while to distance myself from my family, though unfortunately I’m not fully separated from the negative effects of being around them – but when I was closer to them, I was constantly pulled into arguments, then blamed for arguments from all sides, and put in a position where I felt I needed to bend to their will and accept their criticisms, or face the consequences of being ridiculed and abandoned.

    I don’t have an ACA group within 25 miles, so haven’t been motivated to go. But one thing I find to be difficult is the need to mourn for the childhood I never had, while also acknowledging that I can’t go back and fix things. I sometimes feel inside of me that if I could be ‘adopted’ into a loving family and just be a welcome member of that group, that I could possibly get something from them that I never got before and haven’t got through meetings and psychologists – but based on my very nature, I have difficulty of forming a close relationship with anyone.

    In working with lost (adult) children who never had the opportunity to be a kid when they were a kid, are there things you tell them to do now – not to ‘get back their childhood’ – but help them developmentally, get in touch with themselves, and learn new healthy ways of behaving/relating to the world around them?

    • You ask a very difficult question, because everything I do is directed to the person I’m working with. Think about this…you were born and your life was on a straight line path. Then the abuse happened and your life veered off to the side. In your case, that was probably a 90 degree turn. and then you’ve walked along that path. Time is passing but you’re not moving your life forward because you’re going perpendicular to the original life trajectory.

      that is the trauma of child abuse. BUT you can change the trajectory and head straight up again. As I mentioned it’s lots of work, but it is possible. I don’t know you so I can only speak in generaliites. But we all have to change our thoughts from ‘they abused me’ to “i’ll show them’. We have to keep our distance from the abusers. We have to always remember that our thoughts control our emotions. Do you know that? What you think about creates how you feel. So it’s imperative that everytime you start thinking about the past, you look forward to the life you want. I wrote about the 4 stages of recovery from abuse. take a look at that. you’re in stage 1 and 2. back and forth, again from these few comments – I can’t say definitievely. So your choice is to allow the abuse to continue or to stop abusing you now, by allowing all that stuff to darken your future. Does that make sense? no new family will do it. we have to do it for ourselves. we have to re-parent ourselves. think about a kid at the age you were abused. read about childhood stages and ages. and then begin where your emotional growth was first thwarted and be as loving to you as you want someone else to be.

      it alll sounds hokey, I’m sure, but that’s the basics of how I work with people in my practice. this is hard, since I can’t see you and our responding is slow, but it does work. i did it for myself, with a therapist, and I have helped many others overcome some ugly ugly stuff. good luck

  10. Wow! This is exactly what I needed to read. I am the classic middle child and one of my biggest worries is that I’m going to end up not being emotionally available for my own child, who has special needs and is a source of worry and anxiety for me. I am so grateful that you are up front that that is one of the dangers for us. So much of what I am doing, self-improvement wise, is to benefit my daughter, but there is a fine line between bettering oneself and becoming self-absorbed. This is giving me so much to think about. I wish there was a handbook on how to not screw up your child. Would you please write that??

    • oh don’t I wish I could write that. The important thing to remember is not to do the opposite of what was done to you – because the extremes are never good. and love them. I’m so glad you stopped by and that you found information that was valuable for you

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