One way in which couples sometimes deal with their own chronic anxiety is by focusing on one of their children. The great psychologist Murray Bowen called this “the family projection process.”
This process evolves unintentionally. A couple focuses on a child with a learning disability, asthma, or any disability—real or perceived. By concentrating their attention on the child they neglect their marriage. Over time the child senses the imperative to handle this concerned attention to avoid the alternative—the underlying tension of an increasingly-afflicted marriage.
Unfortunately, this kind of mutual projection of the parents’ fears onto the child reinforces the disability in the child. When parents focus their own anxiety on the child, the child becomes more anxiety-ridden and less able to function. What may have been a mild or non-existent problem can grow into a real and significant problem.
The family projection process not only amplifies any small existing problem the child may start out with, but it also prevents the parents from nurturing their marital relationship. By sharing the projection that the problem is “out there in our child, not in us,” the parents alleviate their own anxieties about the marriage. They continue to look away from their own frightening shadow a little longer, until it looms over them so ominously that they can no longer escape from it. This will often occur after the children have left the nest.
Of course we DO need to deal with our children’s real problems. However, it’s important to refrain from focusing excessive and needless anxiety at our children. Ideally, trying to deal with a child’s illness or disability with matter-of-fact kindness and appropriate action will encourage maximum ability to function.
The psychological development and the health of a child are better served when parents focus on their own individual functioning first. A well-functioning household is the best environment for an emotionally-healthy child, as the child will be less likely to function purely in reaction to the parents’ anxieties.
by Alison Poulsen PhD
Recommended: Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.