Susan Rako M.D.

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A Sticky Bond That Does Not Readily Yield Over Time

When an older child "parents" a younger—can they later relate as equals?

Posted Apr 27, 2019

An often hidden, confounding dynamic in family relationships develops when an older child assumes a significantly parental role with a younger. As they grow into adulthood, when the older child expects to be seen and related to as an equal, this natural wish is very often thwarted. Not only siblings, but any such older child/younger child connection may be challenged in this way.

I discovered this dynamic late in my own life, where it impacted the relationship between me and my 13-year-older cousin, Noah.  

When I was three years old in 1942, my parents and I moved from Springfield to Worcester, Massachusetts, where we moved in for several months with my maternal grandmother and my mother's older sister and her family—which included my older first cousins: Mally (Malcolm), age 14 or so; Son (Noah), age 16; and Duchess (Dorothy), who was about 20.

The members of this clan all seemed pretty much like grownups to me—except maybe for the times when Son and Mally got into rough-housing, when my Auntie Rosie would chase after them with Uncle Bob's belt, flailing ineffectually and yelling at them to "Cut it out!"

One of the most vivid memories of my early childhood happened early that spring, when the copse of lilac trees in the yard went into bloom. Noah, whose imagination in his adult life has served to provide the stuff of which very successful novels have been made, suggested that he and I tiptoe carefully and quietly through the lilacs to visit the Gremlins. I knew what the little folk must look like—something like the Seven Dwarfs in my Disney book about Snow White. The gnarled roots of the lilacs, the shiny heart-shaped leaves, and the fragrant purple clusters are strong in my memory.

The special pleasure of this adventure with my older cousin became for me an imprint that has never faded.   

Nothing even closely equivalent came to pass subsequently between Noah and me. For decades, Noah's life and mine naturally diverged. He passed the brink of adulthood and launched into his life. I went to kindergarten, grew up, and launched into mine.  

Several years ago, Noah and his wife happened to relocate to live close to the town where I have lived for the past 50 years. He in his mid-80s and I in my early 70s made a few attempts at connection, but they were not satisfying experiences. Whatever other dynamics may have been in play, finally I realized that I had been wanting him to play his long-ago role as my nurturing older cousin. I recognized that I had not been engaging in a peer relationship, attentive to his experience as well as my own.

Armed with this insight, I've given thought to trying anew. But our shared family history is burdened with obsolete but enduring generational family dynamics. All things considered, I've chosen to let it go. I am sad that I wasn't on to myself much earlier. I might have tried differently with Noah. Or I might not have tried at all.

By this age, I know myself pretty well. I believe that my late discovery of what I had been wanting and expecting from my older cousin is rooted in something which many of us go a lifetime without realizing. 

One of my middle-aged patients has recently taught me the quality of the potential pain of being the grown older child of this dynamic. Her parents had been present, but she was in many ways a caretaker and protector of her younger siblings. She gained some relief from her own longings for adequate parenting by providing some of it for them. Once she and they reached adulthood, the younger ones continued to look to her for help and support. She has been burdened and is lonely and resentful. Her readiness to let go of this deeply entrenched pattern has been a long, long time coming. The importance of letting go, feeling and bearing the inevitable sadness as well as the relief that goes with it, will be the possibility to free herself to find and connect with something else—something that has a chance to be life-affirming and, at last, for her, nourishing.

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