Family systems: Children Acting Out Parental Power Struggles

Charlotte* was a energetic, exciting, dominant woman.  She chose Charlie,* her opposite. Charlie ate the same menu almost every day: 2 eggs, chicken salad for lunch, chicken or pasta for dinner.  This drove Charlotte wild, and she let Charlie know how boring she thought he was. She loved changes and adventures, gourmet food and fine wine.

Charlotte loved to travel. Even planning the trip was a thrill.  She skillfully arranged each leg of the journey to maximize the locale’s greatest hits, and, naturally, its best cuisine.  Charlie would have to negotiate hard and long for the occasional stay-in-the-hotel room service meal, which he ate in near exhaustion from the day’s excursion.

Two sons came along in due time, Corey* and Chris.* You don’t have to be a family system’s expert to predict that the parents had one of each–one adventure seeker, one avoider.   Now, you might think this paired set-up would be great: one kid for each parent.

But that’s not the way it rolled.  Instead, the dominant son Corey, with Charlotte as his second, became the domineering family activities director.  When Corey was old enough, he took over trip planning, mocking his younger brother’s lack of interest.  “What could possible be wrong with a trip to Morocco? What’s wrong with you? What else have you got to do?”

Dad was sympathetic with Chris but didn’t want to provoke Corey’s anger.  Dad and Chris just went along, although family vacations made everyone cranky.  As the boys get older, Chris offered to stay home alone.  Dad was more than happy to make that a two-some.  But the dominant forces insisted that “family” meant being together.

Chris saw his only option to silence himself more and more. The mocking of his small and quiet interests caused him to avoid those.  Dad had long since given up attempts to do his own thing.  Tagging along with his wife’s intense life–moving houses, changing cars, giving parties–drained his after-work energy.


Dad let Chris know that he was on his side but that it wasn’t worth angering Corey. “Just get along with him, that’s all I ask.”

I bet my readers think this family was a raw deal for Chris, whose self-esteem continued to drop.  In family systems nomenclature, Chris is the Identified Patient.  The IP unconsciously “agrees” to manifest the problem that in truth is the whole system’s imbalance.

The whole family suffers when unresolved issues govern the interactions.  Corey missed out on learning one of life’s most precious lessons: let’s make a deal.  If things didn’t go his way, he was more likely to end a relationship than to compromise.  That didn’t do much for his dating life, even though he was dynamic, energetic, and could find the coolest bar no matter where he landed.

Mom and Dad remained unfulfilled in important ways.  The stopped listening to each other and let Corey run important decisions for their household.  Dad had only the on and off buttons; he could go along with Mom’s plans or say no.  He couldn’t get through the hubbub to know what his own needs were.  He became anxious and a bit depressed.

Mom was the apex of two triangles: one between her two sons and the second between her husband and Corey.  She yearned for a joyful, close family but dominated a tense, irritable one.  Instead of letting any two family members work out their issues, Mom “fixed” it for them, keeping everyone stuck.

Working on her marriage would have been the right job for her–and for Charlie.  Instead, they let their two sons act out the parental struggles.  A family therapist could have asked the question: “Who owns the problem?”


**There are no Charlette, Charlie, Corey or Chris, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy. Rather these are teaching examples, composed of bits from real life combined with illustrative details added to make the stories more interesting and instructive.



I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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