Healthy Relationships 1.4: Family Projection Process

Family Projection Process

Yesterday, we discussed the nuclear family emotional process, which refers to the patterns of emotional functioning within one generation—between partners via 1) emotional distance, 2) interpersonal conflict, 3) sickness or dysfunction in one partner, and/or 4) projecting their problems onto the children. Let’s look today at the fourth pattern—how the emotional process gets transferred from one generation to the next—from partners to their children: the family projection process.

The family projection process—the way parental undifferentiation impairs one or more children—is a result of the father-mother-child triangle, which is present to some degree in all families. Extreme examples are easier to identify, as are the impairments that result in the children.

Projection Patterns – Mom

There are patterns in the way parental undifferentiation is distributed to children. First, it focuses on one child, and then selects others for lesser degrees of involvement if one child is bearing too great a load. Some families operate with such disorder that most of the children become seriously impaired, leaving one or two relatively outside of the emotional process. Which child gets (unwittingly) selected and for what kind of projection is related to the level of undifferentiation of the parents, the amount of anxiety at the time of the child’s conception and birth, and the orientation of the parents toward marriage and children.

A female who grew up thinking primarily of the husband she’d marry tends to have a partnership in which she focuses her emotional energy on the husband, and the symptoms of their conflict tend to focus more on marital conflict and sickness in a partner. A female whose early thoughts and fantasies were more about having children than on the man she’d marry tend to become mothers of impaired children.

Children commonly selected for the family projection process are those conceived and born during stress in the mother’s life, the first child, the oldest or youngest child, an only child, a child who is emotionally special to the mother, or one the mother believes is special to the father. Specialness commonly includes only children, an oldest or youngest child, a single child of one gender among many of the opposite gender, or children who were colicky, fretful, rigid and unresponsive to the mother from birth. In addition, mothers tend to prefer a certain gender, based on their own orientation in their family of origin. It’s not possible for a mother to be equally emotionally invested in her children, no matter how much she tries to treat them equally.

Projection Patterns – Dad

The father usually contributes a supportive role to the projection process. While the mother transforms her anxiety into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, the father tries to help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering, which has little to do with the actual needs of the child, who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Children who are most triangled into this family projection process do less well in life and have lower levels of differentiation than their siblings. Almost every family has one child who was more triangled than the others and whose life adjustment is more impaired.

It’s important to remember that this process occurs in all families, but less so in families in which the parents are more differentiated—more emotionally mature or solid. Being aware of the process is the first step in managing it and diminishing its effects on the next generation.

Tomorrow, let’s look at what happens in the emotional process in the other direction—how the kids (unwittingly) deal with their parents’ projection process when the kids grow up into adulthood.


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