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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Treatment Tuesday - A "Dethroned" Firstborn

This week, Jenna wrote in about her character, Haley*, a 14-year-old girl in her fantasy novel who grows up the only child of a king and queen. She knows that before she was born, her mother had two other children who were kidnapped and likely murdered, but their status is unknown. Haley's mom spends an inordinate amount of time brooding over and searching for them, to the point Haley feels almost abandoned. But she does spend lots of time with her father who is prone to fits of rage.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Jenna wants to know: How will these family dynamics affect Haley's relationship with her brother and sister when they are found later?

You've got some built-in tension here, Jenna, which is great. Whatever reaction you plan Haley to have will no doubt be, at the impressionable age of 14, overblown. Teenagers can be sullen, giggly, moody, energetic, rebellious, oversocial, disrespectful or any combination of the above one day and another combination the next. The daughter of a king and queen is no exception. :)

For all practical purposes, Haley is a firstborn only child. (Experts say that any time there is a ten-year of greater gap between siblings, it's like starting over again in birth order.) Haley will have all the tendencies of a firstborn because she will think of herself as an only child.

Alfred Adler was a psychologist who did a lot of work with birth order. He believed that the position of a person's birth order in the family had a profound development on a child's personality. His theory isn't based on empirical research, but he believed that firstborn children are dethroned by the birth of other siblings, causing the firstborn to now share parental attention with a "rival." In order to cope with this traumatic betrayal, firstborns either become problem children or they strongly emulate their parents. Because of their identification with their parents and their perceived loss of status, power and authority become extremely important to firstborn children.

So this is something to think about with Haley, bearing in mind it's not validated research. But we probably all know someone who might fit this bill. (Stereotypes are based on reality, after all.) When her brother and sister are found, she'll feel like her position was "usurped," even though she is actually younger than they are. To add to her problems, she already felt betrayed by her mother's constant vigilance in looking for her lost children. So Haley probably would already have a heart dose of jealousy for these siblings she's never met.

This seems like a very likely course of action for her to take. She's a teen, and she's got highly volatile emotions at this age. Children feel things so strongly, but they don't yet possess the intellectual insight or personal control to process these feelings with words. Instead, they use behaviors (quite similar to toddlers and small children). Teens at least can verbalize things, but often they are too overwhelmed by their emotions to sit down and actually express it.

For my Christian readership, they will identify the scenario you have in your book as being similar to Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. When the younger son asked for his inheritance and took off to live the fast life, the oldest son stayed there at home with his father. The father kept vigil and prayed for the return of his youngest...all while the eldest son stayed and worked hard. When the youngest returned, the father was overjoyed and ran out to meet him, bestowing on him a ring and robe and sandals and killed the fatted calf to have a big party for him. It's usually a feel-good parable that ends there...but there are a few verses that follow describing the eldest son's reaction...and the guy is angry. (Luke 15:11-32)

But I'd say you're free to have her react in many ways. She might be relieved that her brother and sister are finally found, because maybe for her, she'll feel that she actually got her mother back. There's something unsettling about what a person doesn't know. It can consume us, wondering about what might have been. Now that they are found, her mother won't be absorbed with looking for them. So you could spin it more positively.

Let me know what you think and if you have any additional questions by leaving them in the comment section. All comments are welcome!

Once again....the queue is low right it's a good timeto get your questions in!

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Anonymous said...

So interesting! Love the way you explain through the scenario. :O)

Jennifer said...

Thanks, Jeannie! Extremely, extremely helpful. I definitely know where I'm going with this character now. :) Hope you have a good day.

Maureen said...

Hey there Jeannie!!! Hope your New Year is off to a great start!

Regarding the prodigal son's brother, don't you feel his anger is justified? And if the "good" son continues to get neglected, the father just might have another problem on his hands...interesting idea for angsty character but I'm fairly sure it's been done before, the Godfather saga for instance.

Thanks for sharing how important these family dynamics are for character development. You are sowing many good seeds! LOVE your blog and can't wait for Tuesdays and Thursdays! :D

Ellen Brickley said...

Very cool blog, Jeannie, I've added you to my follow list :D

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Ooh--I want to read this story! :0)

Anonymous said...

I like it Jeannie!

Karen Lange said...

Interesting! The story sounds like it will be a good one, too:)

Jemi Fraser said...

Very interesting - family dynamics are intriguing enough without even adding in kidnapping!

Jessica Nelson said...

Interesting! I'm a firstborn and have heard tons of stories about my bossy---eh, parental attitude. LOL!
Sounds like this story has some nice internal conflict.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i'm glad this was helpful, jenna. anytime.

maureen - i have always strugdled with the prodigal son parable for that very reason. i identify more with the elder son than the prodigal, and yes, the flesh part of me says his anger was justified. but i have to remember how God looks at things...and of course He would be overjoyed at someone coming to really *know* him. still, it's a struggle for me.

Nishant said...

Hey there Jeannie!!! Hope your New Year is off to a great start!

Work from home India

Julee J. Adams said...

Explains much, thanks. My brothers were 12 and 14 years older than me and Mom got really p*ssed when I said I felt I was an only child.

Appreciate the other postings and will follow.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.