I just finished Ted Kennedy's autobography, True Compass, the story of a man whose life was driven by wanting to be recognized and appreciated by his father. Thank goodness for John F. Kennedy, his older brother and godfather, who as a surrogate father, offered Ted the emotional security otherwise absent in this financially secure family. In reading these memoirs of an overlooked child, I embraced Edward Moore Kennedy with newfound compassion. He committed his professional life to the needs of people easily overlooked - the uninsured, immigrants, refugees.

All children seek a "special" connection with their parents. Having achieved this connection, children venture in to the world more secure with themselves and more likely to succeed. Without this connection, children can be driven to a lifetime of seeking it, often inappropriately, from others who serve as parent subsitutes. Kennedy found his healthy substitute at a young age in his older brother. It was this relationship that tempered more extreme negative repurcussions of having grown up feeling overlooked by his father and mother.

People want to feel special, and this feeling can evolve from being chosen. Kennedy begins his autobiography with memories describing his joy when, as a young child, he would go on early morning horseback rides alone with his father. The exuberance of Kennedy's language in writing about this experience led me to think, " Ah! He was chosen." I expected to read a story of a man who was adored by his father.

Rather, I read a story of a man whose choices were motivated by a life-long quest to be valued by his father. Ted believed that to do so required he meet his father's high standards as had his eight older siblings. Kennedy writes, "As I think back of my three brothers, and about what they had accomplished before I was even out of my childhood, it sometimes has occurred to me that my entire life has been a constant state of catching up....From the very beginning I started really behind the eight-ball. My brothers and sisters were already on the fast track. I was the ninth of nine." (p.22).

Kennedy valued the relationship he had with his father, especially the horse back rides together and his name "Edward Moore Kennedy." Edward Moore had been his father's life long confidant and personal secretary. Knowing that this relationship had been important to his father, Ted told himself that by association, he, too, was important.

Having grown up overlooked, Ted Kennedy did not experience parental pressure to excel that his older brothers did. He grew up in their shadow, as their students. He studied hard, wanting to keep up, to meet their standards of excellence.

The position of being overlooked permitted Kennedy safety not afforded his older brothers; he lacked their confidence so was less inclined to take on the risks - often life-threatening - that they did.

Overlooked children can benefit from not being subjected to their parents closer scrutiny. These children may be

  • freer than their favored siblings to live lives reflecting their wishes and not their parents;
  • less likely to take on ventures as risky as their favored siblings;
  • successsful, motivated by the hunger to be seen.

Children growing up in large families may feel overlooked and they may be driven to be seen by their parents. Children who are only children or those from small families can feel this way as well.

Please comment below on your thoughts about being an overlooked child. Personal experiences of having grown up feeling overlooked as well as responses to sibling whom you thought may have been overlooked enhance our understanding of this seldom talked about dynamic.

About the Author

Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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