The Family Projection Process
Over the last several days, we’ve discussed how a family employs four mechanisms to relieve stress. Today we’re going to begin zeroing in on one of those mechanisms, because it represents the primary way that unresolved conflict between parents gets inadvertently passed onto the next generation. Looking at this process in your own life will constitute Dating Wisely Concept #9: Study the Family Projection Process.
The family is an emotional unit, each person reacting to the emotions of every other person in the system. Like a swarm of bees or a flock of geese in flight, these patterns operate automatically, largely outside of our awareness, until we become enlightened to them.
In the family projection process, the pattern goes like so:
- The parents, afraid something is wrong with the child, focus on the child. (scan)
- The parents interpret the child’s behavior as proof that something is wrong with the child. (diagnose)
- The parents treat the child as a problem. (treat)
Parental Anxiety vs. Real Needs
Much of the time, the only thing “wrong” with the child is that the parents are worried about their own parenting, based on some unresolved attachments from their own families of origin. As the parents focus on the child, the child’s behavior, in self-fulfilling prophecy form, confirms the parents fears, even though they aren’t based on the child’s real needs.
This over-focus usually centers primarily on one child, with the other children being freer to develop with less pressure, allowing them to become less needy, less reactive, more goal-directed and more personally responsible. Consequently, these children tend to do better in life, as would the “problem child” (or the “star child”) if s/he weren’t so singled out.
Mom and dad play an equal role in this projection process, mothers tending to be more emotionally involved with the children and fathers tending to play a more supportive, outside role in this father-mother-child triangle.
How the Projection Process Plays Out
How this may play out in the child of parental focus includes:
- excessive approval and attention seeking
- difficulty with expectations
- tendency toward blaming (either self or others)
- feeling responsibility for the happiness of others; or expecting others to take responsibility for his/her own happiness
- emotional impulsivity, rather than thoughtfulness, in dealing with problems
The child’s sensitivity to the parents and his/her automatic reactivity to their over-focus increases the child’s vulnerability to physical, emotional and social symptoms, which then in turn, fosters behaviors that escalate chronic anxiety in the family relationship system.
Unconscious and Unintentional
All of this occurs outside of conscious awareness, so any effects on the child/ren are entirely unintentional. Most parents want their children to do well in life, even at great personal sacrifice to themselves. Projection and triangulation is simply how family systems operate because it’s the most natural thing in the world when they’re on auto-pilot. Fortunately, these processes can come into conscious awareness of parents, and when they do, they can learn more effective ways to manage stress and anxiety.
Keep in mind that parents learn these patterns in their own families of origin, who also learned them from the previous generation. Being curious about how that occurred in your own family system over the generations is a useful way to begin understanding it and seeing it in your own nuclear family, particularly in your own relationship patterns, so that you can become more thoughtful and skillful in all your relationships, including your dating relationships.
Tomorrow we’ll provide an example of how the family projection process impacts one’s love life, but I suspect you could come up with one already from your own experience.