The Cheated Child

by Kelin E. Gersick, Ph.D.

competitive kids

In a surprisingly high percentage of cases, the work of family business consulting requires a willingness to look deep into the family’s culture and history regarding parenting.  For example, the task of succession planning may require taking into account the parent-child relationships from the perspective of both generations:  the experience of offspring whose sense of competence has been either nurtured or undermined by powerful parents, as well as the aging parents’ mix of pride and caution when faced with a newly-empowered son or daughter.  Or, when we are helping a family create a viable sibling partnership, the design process may be more affected by the residuals of parental favoritism and the siblings’ competition for specialness in their parents’ eyes, than by the rational interplay of complimentary talents.  The complex cousin consortiums in large extended families are usually shaped in important ways by the jostling for status among family branches.  And the half-life of parent-child experiences is long.  The impact of parental welcoming (or rejection) of their offspring’s chosen careers, spouses, and lifestyles, even by generations of parents who may be long gone, lives on.

The consultant enters the family drama carrying the hopes and fantasies of both parents and their children, especially if there is obvious intergenerational conflict.  Very often, while working on the explicit tasks of continuity planning and governance design, the senior generation looks for validation that they did well as parents — or at least the best they could — and do not deserve blame for their children’s disappointments.  At the same time, the younger generation hopes for understanding and approval.  They may seek the advisor’s concurrence that they have not always been nurtured well or fairly, and that this time, finally, they will be impressive, or strong, or clever enough to be fully embraced by somebody smart, powerful, and older.

In the best of cases, this dynamic can be used by the consultant to motivate positive change.  The skilled consultant can help both generations re-interpret their parent-child history more realistically — even if these family process factors are primarily unconscious and are never discussed explicitly.  In particular, if the advisor can help the younger generation see their parents more clearly — respecting their accomplishments, wisdom, and authority, even while recognizing their shortcomings – then these offspring may be better able to channel their desire for approval into a commitment to collective success instead of a relentless sibling rivalry for recognition and power.  In the same way, if the consultant can tap into a basic nurturing impulse in parents, s/he can help the senior generation make generosity, confidence building, and ultimately letting go, possible.

But in some families, there is dysfunction that presents a difficult challenge for even the most psychologically-oriented consultant.  One version of these troubled families is the case of the “cheated child.”  Here one member of the younger generation feels strongly, beyond periodic resentment, that he or she did not get his/her fair share of any of the family’s critical resources. Sometimes the grievance is about material things, such as money or presents or ownership shares.  More often it is about not receiving a fair share of parental appreciation or affection or support.  Very often the complaint is about opportunity — the unequal offer of an invitation to enter the parent’s world, first as an observer, and then as a participant or designated successor.  This can be the daughter who was never taken seriously as a potential contributor to the business; the middle child who was always cast in the role of the loyal assistant to a first born; or the youngest child who never escaped being treated as the baby of the family.  Sometimes the feeling of having been “cheated” stays buried through childhood and into adulthood, and then erupts in surprising moments in a family meeting or retreat, much to the amazement of the parents.  More often, however, the individual gets labeled as resentful, or oppositional, or jealous, relatively early in childhood, and the role becomes self-reinforcing through adolescence and into adulthood.  The cheated child can dominate family interactions.  Sometimes the response is anger and rejection, by either a parent or a sibling.   Sometimes the complaint elicits a “roll-the-eyes” irritation from siblings, and sometimes a well-meaning but ultimately condescending response of “Oh honey” from one or more parent.  Either way, the family dynamic is chronically and negatively soured, and the self-identified victim is locked into a disgruntled outsider position, hijacking conversations by continuously repeating evidence of old and new insults.

For the family business advisor, these families are a real challenge. The family may have important continuity choices to make, but the argument over favoritism and equality takes center stage and postpones or derails all other issues.  In the most serious cases, no intervention seems to work.  The “cheated child” fills interview time with example after example of being disregarded, and asks the advisor to confirm what she/he has been saying all along:  that they were never given a chance, that their contributions are ignored or devalued, that their siblings don’t play fair, that they are justified in being angry.  The parents are tired of being accused.  They turn to the advisor and ask, “What should we do?  Give in, or argue?  Is attending so much to one child unfair to the others?”

These families activate the family therapist side of the advisor.  In order to make progress on the governance and continuity tasks, the old patterns of responding to the cheated child have to be broken.  Sometimes it helps for the advisor to offer an empathic, non-rejecting hearing of the grievances.  Initially, this is best done individually with the aggrieved child, with promised confidentiality.  In the one-to-one relationship, the advisor can sometimes refocus the agenda of the cheated child on future fair process, after hearing and acknowledging the recital of the past.

However, while the family may want the consultant to “fix” or at least placate and disarm the cheated child, in fact the most useful interventions may be with the rest of the family.  In private meetings with the other siblings, the consultant can explore their own grievances, reducing stereotyping.  The consultant may be able to help the sibs acknowledge the benefits they get from the “cheated child’s” complaints – they get to join with the parents in deploring the disruptive behavior and gaining favor as more reasonable children, while they also may benefit from the accommodations and power-sharing that the parents grudgingly agree to.  A strengthened sibling alliance may be possible – not at all what the parents had in mind, but valuable in the long run for the family.

In other cases the advisor needs to facilitate direct conversations between the cheated child and one or both parents.  This almost always benefits from some prior coaching with the parents, encouraging non-defensiveness and an effort to understand rather than to refute the accusations.

All of these solutions are made more difficult if the family actually is perpetuating the “cheated child” dynamic for its own, unconscious reasons.  If the parents are fearful of a sibling alliance that could take over authority in the family, they can justify perpetuating their own power as the “cheated child” keeps the waters churning.  If either parent actually does have a desire to punish the unhappy offspring, out of their own sense of being victims of the child’s demands or rejection, or out of over-identification with the truly favored sibling, they may subtly encourage the hostile reactions of the rest of the family, and the cheated child’s pain.  Or, more generally, if the parents are uneasy about governance and continuity planning, and ambivalent about letting go of control, this dynamic can support the “we tried, but what can we do?” abandonment of the needed work.  When these resistances are in play, they often spill over to a de-skilling of the advisor as well.  Her or his efforts to resolve the problem will be met with pessimism, delay, or sabotage.  As a result, the advising process may not succeed with some of these families; both the governance and the family process work will fail.  They may benefit from family therapy, or they may go down the path of separation, sometimes by dissolving the collective enterprise, and sometimes by excluding or buying out the cheated child and leaving the rest of the family to pursue continuity as a subgroup.

Even in those cases where the conditions are present to allow a more positive outcome, it is hard work for the consultant.  The best chance for success most likely requires a persistent focus on the future.  This means creating enough of an alliance with the outcast to hear and gradually de-emphasize past grievances, while centering the work on designing formal and informal “rules of engagement” for new decision-making on a level playing field.  The parents will have to give up their need to justify past behavior; the cheated child will have to abandon demands for apology and recompense.  Setting realistic goals is the key.  Even if the advisor is actually a family therapist, and the family contracts to pursue fundamental dynamic change, there is a limit on how much the family can expect the intervention to heal the family’s wounds, or prevent future flare-ups.  Nevertheless, making progress on a procedural common ground can spill over and enhance all family members’ sense that at least they are being heard — and if so, the lives of both cheated child and the rest of the family will be enhanced.