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von Broembsen, F. (1988). The Instrumental and the Focal Child: Two Patterns of Parent-Child Dynamics in Separation-Impeding Families. Am. J. Psychoanal., 48(3):271-279.

(1988). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 48(3):271-279

The Instrumental and the Focal Child: Two Patterns of Parent-Child Dynamics in Separation-Impeding Families

F. von Broembsen, Ph.D., PSYD

Two distinct patterns in parent-child dynamics, the instrumental child and the focal child, are typical of the way separation-impeding parents relate to their children. The impact of these parents' style of relating is usually seen in some kind of moderate to severe personality disturbance in the child.

Both the instrumental and the focal child patterns have corresponding patterns in functional families. In fact, both patterns are deeply rooted in the cultural tradition of family roles and have, for centuries, represented the socially acceptable norm in the regulation of the transfer, from one generation to the next, of the family's wealth and social position, as well as of its ambitions, disappointments, and reparations.

The instrumentality of the child in the psychic economy of the parents is endemic to the human condition. Unamuno remarked that, in the Hebraic tradition, the parent's “immortality” is guaranteed in the succession of generations, rather than in the salvation of his or her individual soul, as in Christianity (1960). At this level, the instrumentality of the child is thus an existential necessity of the parent.

In the Christian tradition, this spiritual burden has been lifted from the parent-child relationship, only to be replaced by the responsibility of perpetuating the family's secular fortunes. This imperative was explicit in the right of primogeniture, and in the practice of marrying off daughters, and dictating the occupation of younger sons, in a way designed to strengthen the family's social position. More recently, it was expressed in the expectation that the son would take over the family business, and in the education of daughters to become wives and mothers.

The focal child's function is to fulfil the parent's intimate ambitions by becoming the parent's ideal self.

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