Are You a Replacement Child?

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of several books including Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script.

In a previous blog I wrote about the replacement child. Many of you responded, telling your personal stories and asking for more information and resources.

The replacement child is defined as one who is born to take the place of a deceased child. Over time, the definition has been expanded to include an older child whose role within the family may be shifted in order to “take over” for a deceased sibling (because of parental pressure and/or survivor guilt), a child who is made to feel responsible for a sibling who is handicapped, challenged, or incapacitated from birth or becomes so during the course of their life, and finally, a child who is adopted to take the place of a biological child the parents were unable to have.

The co-author of our upcoming book, The Replacement Child, Rita Battat Silverman knows first hand what it means to be a replacement child. She describes her own moment of recognition.

“A chance conversation over a long ago lunch turned out to be a life-changing moment. Eileen was telling me how her eldest child had not been her firstborn — that her first daughter, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, had died quite young. Her next child, Suzy, had been born soon after. Eileen confessed that as much as she loved and wanted Suzy, she had not been able to process the grief of her devastating loss and felt unequipped to deal with her new infant. She felt guilty that she was unable to have the same connection as she had with her firstborn, as well as with her other son and daughter who were born later. Many of us had noticed that she criticized Suzy often and she seemed to be treated differently than her siblings.

This story resonated with me on a deeper level, as I began to realize that Suzy’s story was quite similar to mine. I had been born 18 months after the loss of a 14-year-old brother. I recognized Eileen’s treatment of Suzy as similar to what I had experienced.

Since I was very young I always felt that in my mother’s eyes I was supposed to be someone I was not. But, it wasn’t until much later, when examining my life through this newly acquired knowledge that the pieces of the puzzle began to come together. I began to understand that reason behind my mother’s behavior stemmed from her unresolved grief for my brother. There had been no such thing as grief counseling to help process the loss. It was the first time I thought about what it meant to be born in the shadow of another — what was the significance in terms of my own life as well as for others.

I was hungry to find out more and did discover that there was an actual psychological syndrome called “replacement child syndrome”. However, there were no books on the subject and I could find only a handful of old clinical studies. Yet, history is filled with high-profile replacement children such as Salvador Dali, Carl Jung, Vincent van Gogh, Peter Sellers, and Elizabeth Montgomery — to name just a few.

Parents who have lost a child are survivors just trying to do the best they can. But, surviving without the benefit of being able to process the grief may inadvertently place a burden on another child in the family. That child becomes a person with an unconscious (and impossible) mission — to fill the hole left by another and to heal the family. It is a no win situation since no one can ever replace another.

Many people may not be consciously aware of being replacement children but may have struggled with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, perfectionism, or survivor guilt and may not understand the reasons behind it. Once they become aware of the replacement child syndrome they may be able to reframe what they have been feeling about themselves in an entirely new way. Many replacement children end up being very resourceful and super achievers, as they have learned to draw strength from within themselves.

Although this phenomenon literally touches millions of families worldwide, it is not mainstream and many therapists have never even heard of the term, much less understand the unique circumstances, conflicts, and issues, as well as the importance of working with adult replacement child on this level, which is at the root of the matter.

As one adult replacement child has said… Even though she had been working with a very good therapist, not once have they talked about the sister who died a few years before she was born and to whom she was compared constantly. They talked about her fear and obsession with death, but in the context of being afraid of failure. They also talked about how she was never listened to as a child, but not because she was always being looked at and compared to someone else. How her parents were well meaning but unable to help her because they were dealing with their own grief with the loss of their child, but not how the loss of their child kept her from finding her own identity.

Since the term “replacement child” is not mainstream, many people are not conscious of their place in this category, yet they struggle with complex issues stemming directly from their replacement child status. Upon becoming aware they can reframe what they have been feeling in an entirely new way. This may mean—not changing who you are but letting go of who you are not!”

If this description has a familiar ring but you’ve not identified yourself as a replacement child as yet, you may want to spend some time with these questions.

1. Were you aware from an early age of feeling as if you were living in the shadow of someone else?

2. Were you aware while growing up that there had been a deceased child born before you were? Was this child openly spoken about?

3. Or, did you learn later in life about this deceased sibling? Had it been kept a secret? Did you sense without knowing about this other child that something felt “wrong” or was missing in the way people in the family related to you?

4. Did this recognition about yourself as a replacement child slowly unfold as you became an adult?

5. Were you often compared to a child who had died? Was this child idealized?

6. Did you feel as if you could never measure up to this deceased sibling?

7. Were you recognized in your family for the unique person you are? Or, did you feel that you were not seen or heard as yourself?

8. Do you suffer from the need to please? Are you a perfectionist? Do you suffer from identity confusion and/or survivor guilt?

9. If the death or incapacitation of a sibling occurred when you were an older child, what were the consequences for your life? Did you feel the need to “take over” for the deceased or incapacitated child? Did parents and other adults pressure you into assuming a role in the family in order to make up for the death or the incapacitation/loss of a sibling?

I would appreciate to hear any ideas and/or opinions you may have based on your own experience as a replacement child as well as any suggestions and/or advice that may be helpful to other replacement children, their families, and those who treat them. Please feel free to share your ideas, opinions, and/or questions to the forum.

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