The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

Getting Trapped in the Words of the Past - Part II

The Burden of the Pseudo-Adult Child

“I used to think,” a friend once said, “that I was so mature. Until I realized that I was only serious.” Children who are given adult responsibilities prematurely often fall into this trap. They are usually in situations where the adults are unable and/or unwilling to appropriately handle responsibilities and require the child to become, what I call, a “pseudo-adult child.” These are children who assume adult responsibilities when too young --- and still thinking in the concrete and egocentric ways of a child ⎯ get caught in distorted beliefs of what it means to assume adult responsibilities.

 

As I wrote in Part One, a child’s general understanding of how the world operates and what to expect from others is rooted in that child’s experiences growing up. Since we use words to define our experiences, each environment offers different definitions and meanings of the same word. Adults, who were “pseudo-adults” as children, are often those who get caught in the distorted definition of the word responsibility. This blog introduces you to two of them: Sandra who didn’t know the difference between responsibilities and burdens and Ricki who didn’t know what responsibilities were hers to assume.

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Sandra:

Sandra had originally sought therapy hoping to relieve the increasing stress she had been experiencing at work. It was obvious that her job was demanding but as our sessions continued it became increasingly clear that her job was only part of her stress. We began to focus our attention on her life away from work. Sandra was married and had two grown children. Her marriage seemed stable and neither her husband nor two grown sons appeared to be demanding. She was solicitous of her elderly parents and had a strong bond to her two younger siblings.

A key moment in her therapy was the day she came to see me following a two-week vacation. The animated woman who laughed as she shared amusing stories of her recent vacation was not the same person I had been seeing for the last eight months. “She’s had a personality transplant,” I thought to myself, as Sandra walked out of my office that morning. This “Vacation” Sandra exuded a sense of energy, light-heartedness and enjoyment of life. The Sandra I had worked with for all those months was somber, serious and trapped in responsibilities. And it was this serious Sandra who appeared at the next session.

As we continued to explore the environment of her childhood for an understanding of why there was such a dramatic difference in how Sandra existed, a theme of playing the role of the eldest child began to emerge from her memories. “Did I ever tell you,” Sandra said one day, “that my mother left me to take care of my younger brother when I was four years old and he was a year old?”  I was skeptical about the accuracy of her recollection but a family member was able to confirm it.  From that memory, as well as others, the emerging picture of her mother was that of an extremely immature woman who had little knowledge or awareness of what it meant to be an adult, let alone a responsible parent. Each story of how Sandra had become responsible for more and more of the family’s functioning was further proof of how she had gotten caught in an environment of responsibilities. We began to label this Sandra the “Eldest Child” as opposed to the “Vacation” Sandra.

It was time to ask her if she knew the difference between responsibility and being burdened. The dictionary supplied the difference. Responsibility is defined as the quality of being responsible, and responsible implies the satisfactory performance of duties – answerable or accountable as for something within one’s power. Burden is that which is borne with difficulty -- synonyms are affliction and cross-to-bear.

“Eldest-Child” Sandra was caught in the “cross-of-duties” – duties that were not within any child’s power to perform – and therefore offered no freedom of enjoyment, only a state of being burdened. “Vacation” Sandra was free of “the affliction of duties” and was therefore free to enjoy her more of her life. It was this Sandra that slowly and steadily emerged.

Ricki:

Sandra’s pseudo-adult child got caught in not knowing the difference between responsibilities and being burdened. Ricki’s background led her to assume a responsibility that negatively affected her own child.

Ricki’s parents each had their own history of a childhood caught in negative competition, centering on who was the one with the “true expertise.” Her mother played it out overtly by being the expert in all matters; her father, covertly, by raising some question that would effectively undermine the mother. Ricki, responding to this negative competition, and thinking in the egocentric ways of a child -- that she was causing much of the friction between her parents -- became a very responsible child so as to not be the cause of even more tension between her parents.

Fast-forward to today, where Ricki is now an adult, married, with an eight-year-old daughter. The child had begun to be seen as being difficult because of her refusal to accept any responsibility when there was a problem involving her and another child.

Ricki sought professional help in order to learn how to help her child and discovers that she herself was the primary source of the problem. Neither of her parents could tolerate being the one who was responsible for any negative consequence to their “expert” standing. Ricki, being the “responsible child,” filled the void caused by her parent’s inability to assume negative responsibility by becoming the one member of the family who immediately assumed all responsibility for anything that went wrong or wasn’t right.

She unknowingly carried that reaction into adulthood and had been assuming the responsibility for any and all of her daughter’s negative behavior. It was her fault that her child did this or that—if she were a better mother, her daughter would not have done the wrong thing. In other words, she continued to relate to her child the way she had related to, and gotten caught in, her parents’ dysfunction. As she realized this and began to teach her daughter how to assume responsibilities appropriately, her child ceased being seen as difficult.

Take another look at the meaning of responsibilities and burdened. Do you know the difference?

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope the words you’ve brought from childhood are free of confusion.

 

Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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