Margaret has had extensive therapy over twenty years because she fulfilled the diagnosis for borderline personality disorder. Now in her mid-forties, she no longer fulfills the criteria fully, but still has a few symptoms. She still needs therapy once in a while. In her own words, she says she is unable to enjoy the good life she now has: she is married to a wonderful man and has a fulfilling career as an expert in alternative medicine.
Margaret says she feels like she is carrying her family along even into her new life. They still fill her mind and emotions everyday, more than her marriage does. In her family, she felt like she never belonged. She was born at the end of her parent’s marriage, after the miscarriage of a child who did not belong to her father.
Margaret says this conflict of wanting to be loved but being rejected and displaced is tearing her apart till today.
During our last meeting, she was torn between giving up her family altogether and living with the pain of knowing she is unloved, or keeping up the contact, and enduring the pain of continual rejection.
Soraya is a beautiful young lady. She suffers from an eating disorder, bouts of anxiety and feelings of emptiness. Soraya says she never felt that she had a place in the family. She was five years old, from a previous relationship, when her mother re-married. Her younger brother, the son of her step-father, got away with everything. She, in contrast, was always punished for everything that went wrong, and had to do all the chores.
She practically brought herself up, because her mother was too busy trying to keep the marriage to notice when she reached puberty or when she had problems at school. Her stepfather was often abusive, but her mother seemed unable to protect her.
At our last meeting, we worked on how to deal with pathological guilt, anger and fear.
Both Margaret and Soraya are examples of displaced children.
Internally displaced people are people who are forced to migrate from their homes because of some threat such are war, natural catastrophes or health threats. This concept is also relevant within the family, when a child is forced out of its comfort zone because of some threat. This displacement is often on the emotional level, although this manifests itself also in practical ways within the family.
The displaced child has no secure and sure physical and emotional place within the family, and therefore, no rights. If living space is insufficient, the displaced child is the first to be forced to move, or change or reduce. The child’s financial and emotional needs are addressed last, and in case of insufficiency, the displaced child’s needs are the first to be compromised.
The displaced child is often also the scapegoat for the failures and mistakes of others in the family and carries the burden of unpleasant chores and duties.
How does a child end up in this situation?
The patch-work family is becoming more and more common. When two people with previous attachments come together, one or more of the children from the previous attachments may be displaced. Often, one parent is so eager to maintain the new relationship that they are willing to sacrifice their child from the previous relationship. They fear that making a firm stand for the rights of this child will compromise the new relationship.
For example, if there is not enough living space, the mother may allow her child to be shifted around because standing up for her child may alienate the new man. Or, she may invest all her emotional resources in the new relationship and in caring for the man’s children or the children they have together that she has nothing left to give the displaced child.
And of course, the child is to blame for anything that goes wrong, including duties left undone. In the worst cases, the parent stands on the sidelines while the partner punishes or abuses the child.
It is not just the mother whose child is often displaced: whoever is the weaker partner in the relationship runs the risk of having his or her child displaced. Whoever needs the relationship more is the weaker partner. Sometimes it is the man who is desperate to hang onto the woman.
A child can also be displaced within a normal family. For example, a child who is born during a marital or family crisis may be emotionally displaced. Often, the parents are so pre-occupied with the crisis that they have no emotions left for the new-born.
Similarly, a child born soon after a miscarriage or an abortion may be displaced. Or a child born too soon after the last child.
Displaced children are plagued by feelings of being unloved and unwanted, as well as feelings of depression and sometimes suicidal thought. Because they are the scapegoats for everything, they often carry a heavy burden of guilt. They often have severe problems in their adult relationships because they believe they are unlovable.
They are also emotionally unused to a positive, calm and happy home environment, where there is no abuse, no threat and no substance abuse. It may take therapy before they can learn to enjoy a new life and be convinced that they deserve it.
How can you prevent your child from being emotionally displaced within the family?
If you are starting a patch-work family or relationship, ensure that your own child or children will have their own secure place within the arrangement. They should have their own inviolable living space, and duties that are no less but also no more than the others. They should have the same inviolable access to family resources such as money, time and family possessions as the others.
The child should be accountable for their own actions and failures, but not for those of anyone else. And if abuse occurs from other members of the new family, the natural parent should intervene immediately. In contrast to compromising the new relationship, this firmness may win respect for both the parent and the child, as well as protecting the child. If it does not, it is not a relationship worth being in.
Parents in a normal family should get help if they feel emotionally incapacitated to care for a new child.
Children are a very precious resource; a resource that will remain yours all your life, while relationships may come and go. Don’t allow your child to be displaced without a fight.