Washington, DC is full of oldest children. This is no surprise, as “oldests” usually value power and responsibility. They are also more independent. In therapy, they tell me stories about younger siblings who just can’t get it together. They resent the time, money, and attention a brother or sister has leeched from their parents. They get tired of playing mediator during family squabbles, or solo caretaker when parents grow old.
You don’t have to be an oldest child to wonder how people who grew up in the same family can be so different from each other. But siblings aren’t born into the same families, nor do they grow up in the same family. You may have lived in the same house for many years, but each of you experienced a very different family.
One of the major concepts of Bowen theory is called the Family Projection Process. When Dr. Bowen wondered how siblings could have varying levels of maturity, he theorized that some siblings get more of the parents’ focus. All this focus can make it hard for them to think and act for themselves. It doesn’t really matter whether the focus is positive or negative, because anxiety gets transmitted either way. Think about it. It’s hard to be an individual when your mom worships you for straight A’s or worries that you’ll flunk Spanish.
So what determines which lucky sibling gets more anxiety? It’s not a roll of the dice. Stressful events and family history usually play a role. Here are some common variables that increase a sibling’s chances of getting the anxious attention of one or both parents:
- Being the only boy or girl
- Being the oldest or youngest
- Being born after miscarriage(s)
- Being born after a family death
- Mother had pregnancy or birth complications
- Child experiences illness at a young age
- Child has trouble in school or excels in school
- Child reminds parent of another family member
There are many strategies that families use to manage anxiety. Being laser-focused on a kid is one of them. And a parent is going to focus more of their anxiety on a kid who’s born after four miscarriages, or one who reminds them of incarcerated Uncle Billy. This kid isn’t “doomed,” but they may have a harder time regulating their own emotions and becoming an independent adult.
If you want to be a more mature person in your family, it can be helpful to sit down and imagine the family that each of your siblings has experienced. Draw a family diagram, or make a timeline of all the stressful events that happened in your family. If you’re an only child like me, think about the events that shaped your parents in their families. Did the atmosphere allow them to blossom and pave their own way in the world? Or did all of the worries or hopes of the family make it difficult for them to grow?
When you see it on paper, it makes perfect sense that one kid might have a harder time and another might escape relatively unscathed. With clients, I often use Pride and Prejudice as an example. It’s easy for most readers to like protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, who though flawed, seems to have achieved a higher level of maturity than both her parents. And it’s easy to be annoyed by the spoiled and reckless behavior of youngest sister Lydia. But how would the story be different if told from Lydia’s perspective? Imagine that when you are born, your father is disappointed yet again to have no son as an heir. He takes no interest in you whatsoever, leaving your anxious mother to dote on her baby. What are the odds that you’ll become the most mature person in your family? Pretty low.
Who are you in your family? Were you free of the anxious focus? Do you resent that a sibling got most of the attention? Or perhaps you’ve been the golden child, the slacker, or the one who always seemed to have a harder time. Thinking more about the projection process can help you be more objective about your parents, your siblings, and yourself. You’ll be less likely to blame others. You’ll see fewer character flaws and more evidence of the family’s emotional process shaping individual people. And if you have children, a greater awareness of your own anxious focus on a kid can help weaken the power of projection.
And here’s the best part. If one person in a family can get a clearer understanding of how each person experiences the family, they will usually calm down a little. And when one person is calmer, the whole family calms down a little. So this week, I’d like you to do a little point of view hopping in your family. How has a sibling experienced a different family than you? What events drew your parents’ anxieties toward a single sibling? The more objective you can become, the better resource you can be for the people you love. Even that sibling who annoys the crap out of you.
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