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The Invisible Child (or Lost Child)

Joanna is an online writer who enjoys researching historical and scientific topics.

Read on to learn all about the invisible child role in dysfunctional families.

Read on to learn all about the invisible child role in dysfunctional families.

What Is the Invisible Child?

The lost child, also known as the invisible child, unseen child, or passive child, is one of the roles in a dysfunctional family (other roles include the scapegoat, hero, and clown.) Wegscheider-Cruse identified six core roles or behavioral patterns of children from a dysfunctional family system. (A dysfunctional family can be made as such by physical abuse, sexual abuse, addiction, divorce, or the death of a parent). Children raised in dysfunctional homes adopt coping skills or roles to shield themselves from fear and harm to adapt and survive. When promises are constantly broken and reality is frequently twisted, it is difficult to learn how to trust.

The lost child frequently turns to escape as a coping strategy. As a result, the lost child shields themselves from a deep sense of loneliness. The following are common attributes of this behavioral pattern:

  • They avoid personal interaction and repress emotions.
  • They spend their time mostly hiding in plain sight and avoiding being noticed by anyone, including their teachers, other children, and even their parents.
  • They are ignored and feel deeply unheard and obscure due to their shy and quiet behavior—and consequently become a loner.
  • They learn to repress their emotions by seeking comfort in animals, material possessions, or even crafts. The lost child surmised interpersonal relationships are scary and unpredictable. They feel it is safer to foster a sense of connection and relationship by focusing their attention on non-humans or objects.
  • Parents of the lost child often have a lack of attunement and interest in the child, believing they can take care of themselves. Unfortunately, this eventually causes the lost child to have difficulties connecting with others, self-advocating, and sharing opinions.

Avoiding personal interaction is a way for lost children to self-defend against traumatic events. After undergoing neglect and abuse, lost children felt trapped and unable to escape, thus remaining quiet and still is their way of protecting themselves. From early childhood, lost children hold the belief that they can bring forth unluckiness to their families; they demand too much and have no place in the world.

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Development of the Invisible Child

In early to late childhood, the lost child typically holds beliefs that make them a self-defeating person. The lost child believes they have the power to hurt people around them by simply existing. They also form a pang of omnipotence guilt, the guilt of having the power to do anything for their loved ones except achieving happiness for them.

The problem with lost children is they internalize a sense of having no impact on others, let alone the world. They never feel that they matter—not to their parents, friend, or the world at large. They feel inconsequential. Yet, it is not their fault. They never fully develop their identity due to being raised in a neglectful manner. They have no one to mirror their value and have never been told that they are special, so they feel a sense of void or of not knowing their identity or where they belong.

Lost children feel lonely and unimportant to everybody most of the time. Home, for some people, is a place to go, of where the heart is, but not for the lost children. When home should be a place for nurturing, comforting, loving, growing, and playing, the lost child views home as a place where no one sees or hears them. Home, for them, is a place they hate.

There is a possibility that the eldest child might develop multiple roles while growing up in a dysfunctional family. This child may become both the lost child and the hero. They choose not to place stress on the family by avoiding being a troublemaker and thus escape either by binge-watch television shows or movies, reading, or engaging in any activity that allows them not to be seen or heard.

They take refuge in developing imaginary, fantasy lives. They feel safe living in a fantasy life which offers more order than their reality. It helps them escape their reality. Since fantasy is in another world, and in that world they don’t exist, neither does their family or the real world. They enjoy solitude, which might develop into spirituality and creative pursuits—only if low self-esteem does not kill these efforts. Most of the lost children have few friends, have difficulty with romantic relationships, and find comfort in material things or pets.

The lost children may as also become the hero to avoid confining themselves at home by engaging in activities outside. They may become an outstanding performer, engage in drama clubs, act in plays, play in concerts, and so forth. They will become extremely responsible for themselves, scoring high grades in school and caring for their younger siblings. The hero is a self-appointed role in a dysfunctional family, especially when one of the parents suffers from a substance use disorder (SUD). Regrettably, the hero is an individual who is psychologically over-developed and over-stressed at a young age.

Problems in Adulthood

Children who grow up in dysfunctional family homes tend to have problems with basic trust, autonomy, and initiative in adulthood. They tend to show a pattern of difficulty in learning how to trust when promises are often broken and reality is distorted, which is known as reality shifting or gaslighting.

When someone is being gaslit, they are being subjected to a sort of manipulation in which the offender makes an effort to persuade them that their perceptions, ideas, or thoughts are incorrect. Reality-shifting experiences, in which what is said conflicts with what is happening, can be unconscious and hidden processes within the dysfunctional family system.

Children who grow up in dysfunctional families believe every family is like their own. Most dysfunctional parents imitate their dysfunctional parents since children imitate their parents to some degree. Some dysfunctional behavior might be a “family blueprint” of its way of being or its rules that have been handed down for generations.

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The Importance of Child-Parent Experiences

According to Erik Erikson (1968), the transition from adolescence to adulthood marks the end of the usefulness of identification as a means of adjustment and the start of identity formation as it is meant to be understood. If the teenager is unsuccessful in developing a strong identity based on their family, race, or philosophy, adulthood will be highly challenging, making authentic intimacy nearly impossible and stable and long-term relationships unlikely.

Based on the attachment theory of John Bowlby, children-parent experiences, from their early years, are needed to ensure core beliefs of an internal working model—self-worth, safety, security, and the trustworthiness of others. To ensure a child grows up having established a sense of safety and can maintain healthy relationships, they need to make sense of their world —of who they can trust and how they will survive—from early childhood. Only by meeting their adequate needs can they begin to develop trust that the world is an inherently kind place. The events of pervasive relational trauma in childhood, such as rejection, humiliation, or neglect, have been proven to cost great misery in adulthood.

Bowlby pinned the child’s preferred object or caregiver as an attachment figure. This attachment figure has a double role, enabling the child to feel free to explore by being a secure base and a source of comfort when needed. A secure attachment pattern is created by an optimum attachment figure described as reliable, dependable, and stable. On the other hand, an insecure attachment pattern forms when attachment figures are unstable, unpredictable, or unreliable.

What Is Moral Defense?

Many children will use moral defense as a coping mechanism, holding themselves accountable for their parents’ poor parenting. In his Moral Defense Against Bad Objects, William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn explained that children applied a defensive strategy to lessen their anxiety over being dependent on things that constantly disappoint their needs. Even though the study children came from a family who abused and neglected them, sadly, they vehemently defended their parents and eagerly blamed themselves for the neglect and abuse.

Fairbairn further explained that for us to survive the effects of bad object relations, we need to engage in the “moral defense” against that bad objects. As children, we cannot keep on experiencing bad object relations since it would be life-threatening as our lives depend on them; they cannot be bad. So, we choose to split the badness of the caregivers and become all bad by ourselves, thereby making them all good.

For us to have a notion of a safe environment, we preserve the idealized good object out there but with the price of bad self-feeling. Outer security is thus purchased at the price of inner security. The intensity of this defense mechanism depends on how severe they perceive the bad object to be, an unconscious and creative solution employed by the children who need to survive the chaos.

In some cases, some still employ the moral defense strategy described by Fairbairns in adulthood. While in childhood we don’t have any option but to employ the strategy, as adults, we have more choices (in most cases). From a psychoanalytic perspective, as an adult, we weaken ourselves when we split off the bad and become bad either by projecting it or introjecting it.

What Is Negative Bias?

Negative bias is an idea that states negative incidences are more noticeable, powerful, predominant in combinations, and generally effective than positive incidences. Humans are evolutionarily wired to have a negative bias. For instance, if a young girl is attending a fun birthday party and enjoys the show by a pair of clowns and, on her way home, sees the clowns kick and kill a kitten, that day will likely be preserved in the child’s memory.

To her, a birthday party may even become associated with violence and the feeling state of powerlessness, and she might avoid attending any in the future. Compared to connections made out of positive stimuli, associations made of negative stimuli are significantly more likely to be absorbed and remembered. The more prominent the unpleasant aspects of the memory were in our minds, the more we focused on them at the time and how intense they were.

What Is Conformation Bias?

Apart from negative bias, humans are also prone to confirmation bias, which is a theory that asserts that people tend to unconsciously seek out, favor, recall, and interpret information in a way that confirms their preexisting views and hypotheses while paying disproportionately little attention to other options. With confirmation bias, people are more likely to look at ideas from one perspective, ignoring others, which could ultimately result in a polarization of viewpoints.

As a result, not only are our negative beliefs more potent, but we also tend to anticipate the same results repeatedly. When a person experiences widespread relational trauma as a child, such as rejection, humiliation, or neglect, they may come to believe that they are unlovable and that everyone else is dishonest or abusive. In other words, humans are hardwired to expect the worst and for history to repeat itself.

What Is Avoidant Attachment?

The lost child will likely develop an avoidant attachment style, which inhibits the need to seek comfort and retain physical proximity if seeking attention results in rejection from the unresponsive parent. Since it helps the child to adjust during this critical period and ensure survival in an unpredictably hostile environment, insecure attachment can be considered an injury rather than a disorder.

How the Dysfunctional Family Kills a Child

Most maltreated children exhibit a disorganized attachment status—a clear indicator that parental abuse precedes disorganized attachment in children.

In addition to forming insecure attachment patterns, survivors of attachment trauma frequently adopt maladaptive behaviors and personality traits. A sensitivity to severe emotional dysregulation and deep feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, humiliation, and mistrust of others later in life is created by early exposure to trauma and/or mistreatment by attachment figures.

An example of emotional abuse a child might experience growing up is when a mother witnesses the father hurt the child, yet the mother minimizes the pain by offering the child candy instead of acknowledging the child’s pain, never intervening, and only ever accommodating the father’s abuse. That child will spend their childhood walking on eggshells. Moreover, that child will become profoundly silent, pathologically accommodating, and shame-filled. They learned that they could never set boundaries or advocate for themselves.

Someday, maybe, there will exist a well-informed, well-considered and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child’s spirit.

— Erik Erikson

An Example of the Dying Child

Another example can be seen in a child named Stephen. In Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol, there was a boy named Stephen. Stephen is an eight-year-old pupil in the Boston public school where Kozol taught for some time. He is a tiny, desperate, unwell, indescribably mild, and unmalicious child. He talks to himself or laughs out loud for no apparent reason, is poor in math and reading, and while he is in the fourth grade, his work is barely at the second-grade level. Above all his poor performance, Stephen can draw well. His drawings are random, casual, messy, unpredictable, and not neat, orderly, or organized. Despite how well they done, his drawings elicited a steady response of embarrassment from the art teacher.

Ironically, while she was an art teacher, she was blinded by how wonderful Stephen’s art was because he failed to follow her instructions. Little did she know—perhaps she refused to know—that her way of teaching could destroy a young human being. Stephen, in many ways, was already dying and died many times in the presence of her anger. Inwardly and outwardly, Stephen is battling to survive, yet it seems like he is losing.

Stephen has put up every defense mechanism he can come up with. He tried acting up at school or started making trouble. Hearing the sirens after he pulled a fire-alarm lever gave him a sense of control and that he had affected things outside himself. The whipping and tongue-lashing he received afterward were proof of his existence. Better pain than not having any use at all. His acting out showed him that his hands, his arms, and his mischievous imagination did count for something measurable in the world.

There was one time when Kozol saw Stephen curled up in the corner and tried to make Stephen look at him to talk to him. Stephen refused, and to it, Kozol said: “Stephen, if you curl up like that and will not even look up at me, it will just seem as if you want to make me think you are a little rat.” With a pitiful smile, Stephen responded: “I know I couldn’t be a rat, Mr. Kozol, because a rat has got to have a little tail.” Later, when Kozol shared the story with a child psychiatrist, he suggested that the absence of a tail was Stephen’s only conviction that he has not yet become a rat.

Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom…But the personality formed in the environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life. The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative…

(As an adult, the survivor is) burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships. (They remain) a prisoner of (their) childhood..

— Judith Herman MD (1992)

The majority of abused children have trouble trusting and seeking comfort in relationships, which is a direct cause of the development of disordered attachment in children. Their inability to trust and seek comfort was due to the fear of rejection, abandonment, or betrayal while living with their caregiver.

Survivors of complex relational trauma were gripped with shame, were distrustful, and were actively wounded years or even decades after they assumed they had escaped to freedom. It was not an easy cage to escape since many victims of childhood abuse recall times when family members disregarded, dismissed, or even blamed them for their earlier disclosures of abuse.

It is hard to accept love when we don’t feel worthy of it.

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How to Cope With Being the Invisible Child

A grown-up lost child is akin to jumping to stage 10 in gameplay. They feel like they’re on a battlefield where everyone knows what to do, and they don’t. They are equipped with bodies and weapons, yet they have no idea how to fight. It seems like they skipped every stage, not knowing the importance of each skill required in each stage—yet this was not their fault. It takes a village to raise a child, and lost children have been living as feral children.

As a grown-up who has passed the stage of development, they have to learn what they’ve missed growing up. They need to learn how to claim their place on this earth by learning their right to exist, breathe, make mistakes, have an opinion, want, need, demand, etc. They also need to develop a sense of anger towards the injustice others have thrown at them so they can live past their resentment and move forward.

It is not an easy task to remind ourselves of all the injustice—relationship traumas, emotional neglect, abandonment, etc.—done to us and try to make amends for it by letting it pass us. There were no scars or open wounds, yet the injury to the heart is intense and consistently underestimated. Cleaning up others’ messes seems unfair to lost children. Yet, they need to do it since they are their only salvation. Others can guide them, but they must go down their road themselves.

Complex trauma is sneaky and ubiquitous in our culture; it alters how people see themselves and other people and negatively affects how safe and comfortable they feel navigating their surroundings. The stigma and secrecy that surround complicated trauma are particularly thick.

Even after undergoing psychotherapy to resolve the issues regarding shame-based cognition, trust, and vulnerability, the survivors of childhood complex trauma may as well notice the return of symptoms during major life events such as adapting to marriage, parenthood, or caring for their child, especially when their child reaches the age when they were abused.

Despite being sufficiently resolved at one stage of recovery in the life cycle, the effects of prior relational trauma may resurface at certain times. Instability and strife in partnerships can result from insecure attachment habits. Therefore, survivors are more likely to experience issues with their emotional health, ability to function in social situations, and overall quality of life.

The term “repetition compulsion” was coined to describe a psychological phenomenon that explains our tendency to feel comfortable in the familiar and our desire to return to an earlier state of being—all for the desire to rewrite the past.

Freud’s repetition compulsion concept can be explained with the following scenario: Imagine you are in a circle with others, and everyone throws their problems in the middle. You are all told to take any one set of problems you wish. Freud says we will end up choosing our own issues since our problems are familiar and we know how they go.

Problems are something that we wish to triumph over and solve even when we know the problems have no material basis. Nonetheless, we keep on chasing an imagined triumph over a nonexistent problem, or as Freud said, we repeat rather than remember.

Let’s now take a look at some ways to cope with being an invisible child.

1. Resilience

Resilience causes some people to accept, deal with, and even recover from the severe trauma inflicted upon them.

Humans may develop from even the most unpleasant experiences in life by using their ability to adapt. This is known as resilience. Resilience is the ability to respond successfully to disturbances that endanger ongoing operations, long-term viability, and future growth. Resilience is not the absence of suffering but rather the ability to adapt and live through difficult or unpredictably occurring situations. Research has even suggested that overcoming adversity and surviving difficulty might increase one’s attention and feelings, increasing one’s potential for compassion, spirituality, and creativity.

The Latin word for a rebound is where the word “resilience” originates. According to systems theory, a system can take in the shock and reorganize while changing to maintain continuity in function, structure, and identity. Resilience is defined as the ability to navigate and bargain for the resources we require to survive in the face of considerable hardship.

Resilience is the development of a necessary collection of inner resources, social skills, and cultural tactics that enable people to not only endure stressful experiences but also to recover or even thrive in them. But innovation does indeed come from necessity. It is a quality that is viciously and forcibly placed onto a person; no one chooses to become strong or resilient.

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), 67% of people have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, and 12.6% have had four or more. While the larger number of children experiencing significant adversity is upsetting, child development researchers have found that some at-risk children and youth somehow have defied the odds and thrived.

Resilience is a highly involved process based on the interplay between personal traits and a person’s connection to their environment, according to research from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015). Individual children were more likely to be resilient if they had access to internal and external protective factors to mitigate the consequences of adversity, according to research that focused on well-adapted children from poor circumstances (i.e., those who performed better than others).

A person’s ability to govern their own lives and futures, their skill development, intelligence, problem-solving skills, and ability to think strategically were all protective aspects. However, their ability to weigh the pros and cons of their actions was most crucial. Access to support networks and interpersonal connections were examples of external protective factors.

It is important to note that some personal characteristics can also influence whether or not a child develops positive interactions with others: empathy, expression, warmth, and sociability are necessary traits for these types of partnerships. As a result, the ability to access trustworthy relationships and seek assistance when needed might have an impact on one’s ability to be resilient.

These defensive mechanisms, both internal and external, lessen the impact of difficulty. Without protective variables, people are more prone to adopt or experience unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance misuse, self-worth minimization, or an increase in dangerous behaviors.

Given that people are a part of families, communities, civilizations, and cultures, as well as organizations, it is crucial to have a systems view when trying to foster an individual’s resilience. Therefore, any of these levels will be impacted by actions that are directed at one of them. The system affects overall resiliency, regardless of whether it relates to good meaningful change or disequilibrium.

Individuals develop self-belief and trust in their abilities with each obstacle they overcome, which can foster a sense of mastery. Triumph over adversity is the experience of successfully overcoming a stressful situation, which can help people develop coping mechanisms and methods they can use in the future.

This phenomenon, referred to as the “steeling effect,” occurs when some mild stressors improve coping mechanisms and promote resilience. The person now has an internal guiding voice that says, “If you got through this, you can get through anything,” or “I know I have it in me to go through this,” after accepting the setback and making adjustments to survive.

A person’s ability to reflectively use an event to improve later functioning is another indicator of how resilient they are. Adversity passes, and a new equilibrium forms. At this point, the person can move on confidently in their connection to their inner voice of guidance.

2. Breaking Repetition Compulsion

The compulsion to repeat past patterns of relational trauma reenactment is known as “the bite that fits the wound.” It explained how early exposure to attachment-based relational trauma makes people vulnerable to severe emotional dysregulation and long-lasting feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, guilt, and mistrust of others. When we consider the abuse cycle, this is evident. Those who experienced maltreatment as children become captives in unhappy or toxic relationships as adults.

An indication that someone is recuperating from traumatic experiences is when they trust a psychologist with their suffering. It is a sign of healing when a trauma survivor consistently attends, showing courage, being open, and being willing. It is also a sign of healing when a person who has experienced complicated childhood trauma speaks up about feeling uncomfortable or untrusting in the healing process.

Learning to make choices is an ongoing process of healing. The most crucial choice to make is to choose self-care over self-destruction. Unburdening, becoming more of who you are, and becoming more than you could have imagined at your darkest and most ominous moments are all parts of the healing process.

Sources and Further Reading

Davis, S. J. (2020, May 27). Lost child syndrome. Medium. Retrieved September 11, 2022, from https://shirleydavis-23968.medium.com/lost-child-syndrome-dbfe6e74f191.

Hurst, D. (2021, May 18). Scapegoat, lost child, clown... the dysfunctional family roles. Tikvah Lake Florida. Retrieved September 11, 2022, from https://www.tikvahlake.com/blog/scapegoat-lost-child-clown-the-dysfunctional-family-roles/.

Kozol, Jonathan. Death at an early age. The Atlantic. (June 24, 2020). Retrieved 11 September 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1967/09/death-at-an-early-age/305261/.

O’Shea Brown, G. (2021). Healing complex posttraumatic stress disorder : a clinician’s guide. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61416-4.

Rosenthal, Doreen A., Gurney, Ross M., & Moore, Susan M. (1981). From trust on intimacy: A new inventory for examining Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Journal of youth and adolescence. 10. 525-37. 10.1007/BF02087944.

When you grow up as the invisible child (the impact of being raised by a narcissist). Psych Central. (2022). Retrieved 11 September 2022, from https://psychcentral.com/pro/recovery-expert/2018/06/when-you-grow-up-as-the-invisible-child#How-do-you-heal-from-being-invisible?.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Joanna Maxine Jack