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Children always want to cooperate. Therefore, they take on certain roles in the family of origin to compensate for deficits in the family system. These roles stabilize the family and the child experiences recognition as a result. That is why it is often difficult to discard them. My new client always played the clown. You can find out how he came to do this and what was behind it in my new case report.
“Fifteen o’clock sharp … and it zoomed!” was my client’s first sentence in online coaching.
“Excuse me?” I asked, a bit irritated.
“Well, we meet here online – and it zoomed!” repeated Elias R., 56 years old, physiotherapist in private practice.
“Zoom made! Don’t you know the song? Touched a thousand times …” warbled the client.
Now I understood. He meant the hit “Thousand and One Nights” by Klaus Lage.
“Oh, I see, Klaus Lage. Now I understand,” I said a bit pained. “And now it’s gone Zoom on us. I see.”
“Then perhaps you also understand why I asked for this coaching,” said Elias R.
“No, not yet, best you tell me a little more directly,” I replied somewhat annoyed because the client was making it so exciting.
Then he reported somewhat awkwardly that he played the clown everywhere, both professionally and privately. This made him very popular, but also had great disadvantages.
I remembered the term “joke addiction”, which I had once read about. This is a conspicuous garrulity with a tendency to quip, verbalize and behave in a ludicrous manner. The cause is an organic damage in the frontal brain. But that could not be it here.
“When did this start, that you always play the clown?”, I wanted to know.
“My mother once told me that I was always clowning around when I was still in kindergarten. But I can’t remember that anymore. But I do remember that I parodied the class teacher in elementary school. Very aptly, judgingby the jeers of my classmates. Unfortunately, once this teacher burst in the middle and then my father had to go to the principal’s office.”
“And how did it go from there?”
“I was shy and unathletic as a boy. And on top of that, pretty small for my age. Here comes the whippersnapper, they used to say. That hit me pretty hard. And then when I realized that you can win others over with humor, I developed that further. I started a notebook in which I wrote down jokes and learned to tell them well. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the heroes of my childhood.”
“But you didn’t just create a good mood in class, you did it at home, too. You wrote that in the preparation sheet.”
“Yes, that’s true. Especially after my father died in a work accident, my mother was often very sad and sat apathetically on the sofa. Once she was totally out of it and didn’t respond to anything, and I got scared. That was at carnival time. Then I took out of a box with masks and carnival stuff a red nose, a big pair of glasses and a yellow perwig. I put it all on, went to my mother and made faces. At first she looked puzzled, but then she laughed and hugged me. I think that’s how it all started.”
“That you noticed that the clown got attention, but the regular kid didn’t.”
Roles children can take on in the family.
Social roles are created by society’s expectations of individuals. They regulate tasks and obligations. For example, the role of teacher, husband, mother, colleague. Incompatible expectations lead to role conflicts. The term is deliberately borrowed from play-acting. Every social system consists of many different actors playing different roles.
In the family, roles develop to support the principles and values that are important to the family. Through praise and sanctions, everyone is taught what everyone’s tasks and responsibilities are. This is done through direct announcements (“Do this!” and “Don’t do that!”) , but many roles are also taught through indirect communication.
Here are some examples of roles assumed by children in families. I follow Augustus Napier’s reasoning here.
The peacemaker’s role is to maintain family peace by playing the mediator to calm those who are irritated or angry in the family. Or to reconcile disputing parties (parents and/or siblings).
The parent child is an adult in miniature. Parent children are taught, for example, how to manage a household or farm. Or they assume responsibility for the upbringing of younger siblings and/or the welfare of poorly functioning parents. They quickly develop a keen perception of the needs of others, thereby neglecting their own.
The substitute partner fills the void left by a physically or emotionally absent parent. As such, the child attempts to meet a parent’s needs for contact and emotional support. In extreme cases, such a relationship can become sexualized.
The helper acts as an assistant to the parent who is physically or emotionally overwhelmed. However, because of the constant help he provides, he misses out on many playful aspects of childhood.
The dependent child is held in an overly childlike position and is made to feel helpless and weak by his parent.
The abandoned or invisible child is abandoned in real terms by one or both parents. Or the parent may be present but unable to connect with the child in a way that builds a trusting, secure bond.
The unwanted child may rightly believe that he or she is the result of an unwanted pregnancy and was not wanted. Or it may be the “wrong” gender.
The criticized child can’t seem to do anything right. Often one parent is angry at the other and this anger is taken out on the child.
Confidentiality may be violated in the deceived child if he or she has confided something personal to a parent, but it is then revealed. Or a parent prefers sibling all the time. The betrayed child often cannot trust others to be reliable later in life.
The hero ensures good grades, shines in sports, is elected class president, and is obviously a credit to the family. However, this role can also bring feelings of loneliness, guilt, and insecurity. The heroine/heroine often feels that she/he can never do enough to be truly loved.
The rebel is a notorious rule breaker. He acts defiant and uncooperative. He will not clean his room or do his homework. He may skip school, get pregnant, do drugs and speed and is sometimes called the black sheep. He sacrifices his own happiness by causing excitement in the difficult relationship of his parents.
The clown’s role is to keep things light and fun at home by making jokes and distracting others (usually one or both parents) from sadness, depression, or bad moods.
These roles are strategies the child uses to cope with difficult family situations. Thus, they are needed skills, but they always come at a painful price. Usually that of the child not being allowed to be a child, having to “grow up” quickly, and being saddled with too much responsibility, or saddling himself with it.
Tragically, we often retain these roles in adult life, even though situations may have changed. But because we have internalized these roles so much, it often happens that we re-establish with other people those constellations in which the once-learned child role fits well.
Clarifying the issue.
This is what every coaching process is about. What does the client want to change – and why and why now? After all, the problem rarely arose the day before yesterday, but the client has been living with it for some time. So why does he want to change something right now? That’s what we had to find out in Elias R.’s case.
“What exactly do you want here now?” is my standard question about the request.
“I want to stop being the clown all the time.“
“What’s so difficult about that? Just make fewer jokes,” I said somewhat provocatively.
“If it were that easy,” groaned Elias R.
“When you’re alone, do you actually play the clown?”, I asked.
“No, never!” was the answer.
“Why not, actually?”
“I don’t know … although it would often be quite good if I could get myself out of gloomy moods. With other people it works. But I can’t cheer myself up.”
“Well, maybe when you’re alone you miss the audience?”, I said.
I brightened at the term “bleak mood,” because clients sometimes use euphemistic terms like “lack of motivation,” “melancholy type,” when they are actually struggling with depression. So I asked about the leading symptoms of a depressive episode: sleep disturbances in the morning hours, lack of drive in the morning, concentration problems. Elias R. answered all three symptom questions in the affirmative.
“Is there depression in your family, do you know?”, I inquired further.
“Yes, ma mother, of course. She never really got over my father’s death, although she found a new partner. She was also in medical treatment, got antidepressants. But despite everything, towards the end of her life she lost the meaning in life and killed herself.”
“Hmm, have you ever thought that you might also have depression?”
“Yes, I have. I also took a test on the Internet once, and it came up that I tend to get depressed.”
“Uh-huh, and have you ever talked to your family doctor about it, or anyone else?”
“No, not really. Do you think I should?”
“I think so. Depression is the most common mental disorder and has a hereditary component.”
Elias R. looked at me with some concern. I didn’t want to worry him, but still asked a very important question.
“Have you ever had suicidal thoughts in your life?”
“Yes, once or twice. Whenever everything gets too much for me, I think that I …”
Questions about suicidal thoughts are also important in coaching, in my opinion, when it comes to the topic of depression. Many coaches don’t ask them because they shy away from the topic. Mostly because they are not psychologists and have no psychotherapeutic training and believe they have no authorization to do so.
But I think that these questions should be asked in a coaching session. You don’t need a degree to do that. Because even as a psychologist, you have to refer the client to his or her family doctor in an emergency. But the client is sitting in front of you, has gained trust and opened up. And now it is important to assess how serious the situation is. To do this, it is important to distinguish between suicidal thoughts and suicidal impulses.
Many people have suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives. Usually in severe crises, after a great loss, or under extreme stress. But they are just thoughts.
With suicidal impulses, the person already has a plan for how he or she will do it. Has already hoarded enough sleeping pills or chosen the appropriate bridge. Then you have to act and make the client promise to talk to a doctor or psychiatrist in a timely manner. Here’s good advice on how to inquire about that.
When I inquired, it came out with Elias R. that he did not have suicidal impulses, but had suicidal thoughts more often.
“So when do these suicidal thoughts come to you?”, I asked him.
“It’s hard to say. I think when I’m in over my head.”
“And when is that?”
“Well, as a physical therapist, I treat my patients for half an hour at a time. That’s already very tightly scheduled. Especially since I also have to work with the prescriptions. I often run from cubicle to cubicle treating the patients. After the treatment, there’s rarely a moment to catch my breath and get ready for the next patient. It’s actually work on an assembly line,” reported Elias M.
“You’re quite frustrated,” I noted.
“Yes, it’s quite exhausting. But that’s how I reach my limits when patients don’t even think of me as a physical therapist. Often they just want to be massaged and already don’t want to hear advice or do the exercises that iI suggest to them to cure their ailments. The most annoying thing for me is when a patient comes late but demands that I cover the missed time….
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