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Repercussions of the 'Replacement Child' Role

Three experts weigh in.

Key points

  • A child born after the death of a sibling may be referred to as a subsequent or “replacement” child.
  • Grieving parents may believe that a new family member will lessen their grief, but this can cause a range of possible repercussions.
  • Possible repercussions may include low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.
Multimedia collage, Sarah Vollmann
Source: Multimedia collage, Sarah Vollmann

Individuals who were born after the death of a sibling are often referred to as subsequent children or "replacement children." Grieving parents sometimes have another child with a hope, which may or may not be conscious, that adding a new member to the family will lessen their grief. Replacement dynamics of varied intensity take place when the subsequent child experiences expectations, that might be unspoken, to replace the lost sibling, heal the family, and fill the void of loss. Researchers have observed that subsequent children face a range of possible repercussions in their role, but most people are unaware of the potential significance of being born after loss.

I reached out to the three founding members of the Replacement Child Forum, an organization whose mission is to increase awareness of the replacement child condition, and they shared their thoughts about the potential dynamics and aftermath encountered by subsequent children.

Kristina Schellinski, who is the author of Individuation for Adult Replacement Children: Ways of Coming into Being, explained “The repercussions are multiple. Replacement children are often not seen for who they are, because there is an underlying hope or wish that they will replace another human being. In many cases, the bonding process with their parents is affected, and the formation of identity is impacted. Low self-esteem as well as difficult relationships may ensue. Replacement children frequently experience existential insecurity, survivor’s guilt, and lingering grief.”

Rita Battat, co-author of Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script, added “What happens when a child equates being good, successful, and accepted with having to be someone else? This causes a disconnect with who they really are.”

Kristina agreed, stating “Replacement children often struggle with the question: who am I? Am I me, myself? Or am I the other, the one I am supposed to replace?” She added a poignant thought, musing that “The replacement child is a wanted child, yet it is not the wanted child, if parents or even grandparents wish for a return of the lost child."

Judy Mandel, author of Replacement Child: A Memoir, shared about her own experience of being in the replacement child role. She said, “I would say in my case it was identity issues that left me feeling like I was an imposter in many situations, especially in my career choice. Right now I am an imposter writer!” Feeling like an imposter, or struggling with identity or self-esteem, are common outcomes for subsequent children. Judy’s example is striking, as her memoir is a New York Times bestseller. Her sense of being an imposter clearly does not align with her talent and success.

Rita reflected that the effects of the replacement child role can be lifelong or long-standing, and said “A replacement child’s life is redirected. They may grow up striving to live up to others’ expectations, to fill in the empty place in the family, or to satisfy someone else's unfulfilled ambitions. The majority of adult replacement children go through life unaware of the effects and consequences of keeping their true self beneath the surface, ignoring their own goals, priorities and dreams. When we disconnect with who we really are we turn off our own needs.”

There are, of course, many paths for growth and healing. Kristina explained that when subsequent children recognize the impact of their role they can begin to heal, and to make meaning. “A search for one’s real self will hopefully follow, once low self-esteem, depression or anxiety are recognized as resulting from the replacement child condition. It is a challenge and also a great opportunity to become the individual that one truly is. Many replacement children will be nudged by their suffering to look deeper, and to examine their existence in earnest.”

As her final words of advice for all subsequent children, Kristina said, “Reconnect with your unique being, discover the person you really are! No human being can replace another. We are unique as human beings, and that individual can be explored, rediscovered and welcomed.”


Schellinski, K. (2019). Individuation for Adult Replacement Children: Ways of Coming into Being. London, UK: Routledge.

Battat, R.J. & Brenner, A. (2015). Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script. Insight - Out Press

Mandel, J. (2013). Replacement Child: A Memoir. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Vollmann, S. (2014). A Legacy of Loss: Stories of Replacement Dynamics and the Subsequent Child. The Omega Journal of Death and Dying, 69 (3).