Whose the Black Sheep of the Family?

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Some people call them the “black sheep” of the family and are content to let them stay that way. Others try to change them and take them to psychologists and doctors. A few give up on them all together. This child is the “identified problem child” and many homes spend a lot of time and energy dealing with the member of the family. This rebellious, acting out child is most often seen in dysfunctional homes, where substance or physical abuse is taking place. The identified problem child serves a very important role in this type of family by balancing out the imbalance and protecting the abusive parent from outside interventions. In a lesser degree, even nonabusive families have children who cause more stress and trouble than other children in the home. This child resists parent’s efforts at discipline, is constantly mischievous, and appears to enjoy the attention that getting into trouble provides.

Family therapists have determined that the symptoms of the “identified problem” child are often a reaction to the family’s state of imbalance.  This imbalance can be anything from severe abuse to a mild family stressor, such as the illness of a parent or the loss of fathers job. The negative behavior of the “identified problem-child” may be an effort, albeit unconsciously, to alleviate the families pain.  The child becomes a stabilizing force to reduce stress and thereby return the family to its previous state of balance, even if it is an imbalanced one. A teenagers acting out, a school-age child’s poor grades, a young child’s temper tantrums — all may be efforts to stabilize an unstable system.

Thomas was an “A” student up until his parents announcement of their divorce. Suddenly, he began getting failing grades on his school report card. Fortunately, his parents recognized this behavior as a reaction to their devastating news and brought him in for therapy. After some time, Thomas’ bad grades were more than his depression over mom and dad’s split. They were also a way for him to save his parent’s marriage by forcing them to focus on him and away from the pain of the divorce.  He overheard his parents saying that they would have to come to the school together to talk to his teacher. This was a glimmer of hope, however feeble and small, that he could influence his parent’s decision.

Many parents react to the behavior and not to the underlying family system issues that might be taking place.  This is because, for many parents, it is easier to use the child as a scapegoat then focus on their own issues and problems.

Susan was an overly aggressive child.  She was kicked out of several preschools and was finally referred to a therapist when she viciously bit another child, drawing blood. The doctor recommended medication, but at 4 years of age, the parents felt something else might work.  Over time, it was found that Susan hurt other children to express her own feelings of being hurt.  Due to her poor communication skills, she demonstrates her own internal state by aggressively acting out the role of “I hurt, therefore I will hurt others.”  Her biological father had abandoned Susan when she was just a baby and her mother had recently married another man that Susan didn’t like. Her mother never saw the rejection as a reason for her behavior because she was so young when the biological father left.

When children are misbehaving they are said to be “acting out.”  What is the child acting out, exactly?  According to family systems theory, they are acting out the family’s pain.  Stated another way, when the family experiences sudden change, for better or worse, and members undergo stress, the “problem child” pops up ready to stabilize the family system.  Parents who are able to read their child’s behavior in this way will be able to help them express it in a more positive manner and cope with their “big” feelings or anger, frustration, and loss.

In some cases the best way to deal with the “child’s problem” is to include the whole family. Obviously, the child is not the real problem anyway and the whole family is affected by, and affecting, the child’s behavior. The first task of the family is to unmask the real problem and relabel it as a family issue versus a child centered one. This can be difficult, as other members of the family may have to share some of the blame and resist stepping down from the ideal child or parent pedestal. The next task is to find family focused solutions to the problem. This might involve improving family communication, adjusting family boundaries and rules, and renegotiating family activities.

In the case of Thomas, the parents did not get back together but they did increase their involvement with him and reassure them of their love for him, regardless of the divorce. It took a while for his grades to improve but with patience and cooperation they were able to get them back to normal. With Susan, the family started more family oriented activities and had the new father pick her up from preschool a couple of times a week to spend some one on one time together. This helped her feel connected to the new dad, lessening the hurt she felt from her biological father. With time, she started calling this new person “dad” and her aggressiveness completely stopped.

Not all children act out because of internal struggles but it does occur frequently enough that parents need to look for this as a possible explanation for their child’s behavior. They will have to set aside their own issues and struggles to accomplish this and that could be a difficult thing for many. Family members may need to redraw family roles and responsibilities, and change, even in the best of circumstances, is a difficult experience. The intervention for identified problem children is to look at the entire family system. Sometimes, the problem is bigger than we think!

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