NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, February 23, 2018

How Psychotherapy Can Help Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: The Golden Child

In my prior article, The Roles of Children in Dysfunctional Families, I discussed the various roles that parents with narcissistic traits assign, consciously or unconsciously, to the children in the family (see my article: Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families).

How Psychotherapy Can Help Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: The Golden Child

As I mentioned in my prior article, the most common roles for children of dysfunctional families are the following:
The Golden Child
In this article, I'm focusing on one of the roles, the golden child, with a fictional clinical vignette with a typical scenario to show how psychotherapy can help an adult who was traumatized by being forced into this role as a child.

As mentioned in the prior article, the golden child is usually the parents' favorite child because this child is seen by them as an extension of one or both parents.

He or she is seen as the "perfect" child.  As a result, the parents live vicariously through this child.  Rather than being seen and valued for his or her inner qualities, the golden child is usually valued for physical attractiveness.

As in the other roles, the child's emotional needs are subordinated to the parents' needs.  As a result, one or both parents often establish an enmeshed relationship with this child (see my article: Overcoming Shame: Enmeshed Families).

Fictional Clinical Vignette: How Psychotherapy Can Help Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families - The Golden Child:

Jane, who was in her late 20s, told her new psychotherapist that she wanted to start psychotherapy because, a few years after she had jaw surgery, she developed sagging skin around her jaw line.

Jane explained to her therapist that she was so upset because, before she had surgery, she had an attractive, youthful appearance.  But shortly after the surgery, she noticed that the skin around her jaw was noticeably sagging and it made her look older and less attractive.

She had a consultation with a plastic surgeon who told her that she could have surgery to lift the sagging skin, but Jane wasn't sure if she wanted to go through another surgery.

Jane told her psychotherapist that she grew up always being praised for her attractiveness by both parents, especially her mother.  Her mother, who seemed to be very conscious of her own looks, often confided in Jane that of her five siblings, she considered Jane to be the most attractive and the most like her.

How Psychotherapy Can Help Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: The Golden Child

As a child, Jane was aware that she was her parents' favorite child based primarily on her looks.  She felt fortunate to be attractive and to be her parents' favorite, especially when she considered how her other siblings were treated by her parents.  Her mother used to call Jane "my perfect child."

Prior to the surgery, Jane did everything she could to remain young looking and attractive, and she continued to get her mother's praise and attention.  Her mother was extra generous with Jane, as compared to Jane's siblings, and often treated Jane to expensive clothes and spa treatments.

Throughout high school and college, Jane was conscious that she could use her attractiveness and charm to get what she wanted from young men, friends and even college professors.  She felt she also used her attractiveness to excel in her career.

But after the surgery, when Jane and her mother began to notice the change in her appearance, her mother had a strong negative reaction to Jane's sagging skin, which hurt Jane a lot.  Her mother physically recoiled when she noticed the change in Jane's appearance, and she told Jane that she no longer looked as attractive.

This precipitated a change in her mother's attitude towards Jane.  She no longer invited Jane out to go shopping for clothes or for spa treatments.  Instead, her mother invited Jane's younger sister, Beth, and praised Beth for being the most attractive child and the most like her mother.

Whereas Jane and her mother used to spend a lot of time together, now her mother made up excuses for not wanting to spend time with Jane.  This was devastating to Jane, who used to relish the attention she got from her mother.

Her mother's change in attitude as well as Jane's own new self doubts about her appearance caused Jane to lose confidence in herself.  She no longer felt confident talking to men at parties or going out on sales calls for her job the way she used to do.

This resulted in social isolation and problems with regard to her job performance.  After her manager  admonished Jane for not bringing in enough business, Jane knew she had to get help in therapy.

Jane told her psychotherapist that, unlike when she was a child, she felt mature enough now to understand that focusing only on her looks was shallow.  She wanted to feel good about herself regardless of her looks.  But what bothered her the most was realizing that her parents, especially her mother, valued her most for her looks and now that her looks had changed, she felt emotionally abandoned by her parents.

After Jane's psychotherapist listened to Jane describe her presenting problems, she discussed the role of the golden child and how Jane's childhood history reflected that Jane was placed in that particular role in her family.

Looking at pictures that Jane brought in of her appearance before and after the surgery, the psychotherapist also recognized that, although Jane's looks changed somewhat after the surgery, Jane's view of herself was distorted.  Jane's appearance was nowhere near as changed as she believed it to be.

As they continued to work together in therapy, Jane's psychotherapist helped Jane to see how she was affected by the rigid role that she was placed in as a child primarily by her mother.

She also helped Jane to see that, although her mother's extra attention prior to the surgery was gratifying to Jane, it was also very damaging because her mother valued Jane for her outer appearance rather than who Jane was as a person.  Although Jane's view of herself was distorted, it did not meet the criteria for body dysmorphic disorder.

In addition, her psychotherapist helped Jane develop insight into how the focus on her looks kept Jane from developing her inner world.

When Jane's psychotherapist assessed that Jane was ready to work on the affect of her traumatic experiences related to her family, she recommended that they use EMDR therapy to work on the trauma (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

The work in therapy was neither fast nor easy because Jane was attempting to see herself in a new way and to overcome long ingrained patterns.  But, gradually over time, Jane developed a stronger sense of self as she worked through her traumatic experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional family.

She also realized that the change in her appearance wasn't nearly as big as she originally thought.  In addition, she learned to value herself for her inner qualities rather than focusing on her external appearance.  This gave her the self confidence that she needed in her interpersonal relationships and in her career.

Adult children of dysfunctional families often carry the emotional burden of their childhood trauma into adulthood where it has a negative impact on their sense of self, their personal relationships and, possibly, their career.

The impact of growing up in a dysfunctional family can take many different forms that might not become apparent until adulthood.

Getting Help in Therapy
A skilled psychotherapist can help you to overcome traumatic experiences so that you can live free of the impact of your traumatic family history (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Rather than struggling on your own, you could get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Unburdened by a dysfunctional family history, you can live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I am a trauma-informed psychotherapist, and one of my specialties is helping clients to overcome traumatic experiences.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.