Symmetry between Parents and Children

· April 27, 2019
When there is symmetry between parents and their children, children believe that they’re their parents' peers. The parents have no authority over their children, and the children have a hard time developing their own identity. Instead, they copy what they see in their parents, including trauma and anxiety.

We live in a world where children are acting more and more like adults, and adults are acting more and more like children. In a nutshell, that’s what Argentinian psychologist Claudia Messing discusses in her book Symmetry between Parents and Children. 

Messing’s clinical findings led her to develop this theory of symmetry, or mirroring, in children. She highlights the fact that children are becoming more and more difficult to manage, have more issues than they used to, and have fewer psychological resources to complete their individuation process. At the same time, they’re repeating dysfunctional patterns they see in their parents.

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots… the other, wings.”

-Hodding Carter-

Messing believes that this phenomenon of symmetry between parents and children is rooted in modern parenting styles. Parents who resort on these styles don’t exercise their authority in a coherent way. Also, the roles in the family (father, mother, child) aren’t well-defined. Instead, they have been replaced by a kind of disproportionate democracy that erases family hierarchies. In these family structures, everyone sees everyone else as a peer, but they aren’t nor should they be.

Symmetry between parents and children.

Characteristics of Symmetry between Parents and Children

When children mirror their parents, they become difficult to manage. They believe they’re right all the time, they feel very sure of what they want, and they hate when adults set limits.

A “symmetrical child” doesn’t give adults much credit because they don’t feel like they have anything to offer. They don’t see them as more knowledgeable or experienced. These children believe that adults are their equals, nothing more.

Children who have grown up with this symmetrical relationship with their parents actually have a lot of trouble separating from their parents when they reach adulthood. It’s not because they’re overly attached to their parents, but because they don’t know how to live independently. They aren’t very adaptable and they prefer to stick to what they know.

The Four Dimensions of the Symmetrical Parent-Child Relationship

Messing argues that there are four dimensions of this “symmetrical child” phenomenon: imitation, parity, fantasy of completeness, and lack of individuation. Let’s see take a closer look at each one.

Imitation refers to the mirror effect that these children experience with their parents. They copy absolutely everything they do. So why is that a problem? Well, children end up copying their parents’ traumas and problems as well.

The second dimension is parity. That means that the child sees the adult as their equal. Consequently, the adult has no authority over the child.

Until relatively recently, children maintained a certain distance from adults. They understood that they couldn’t do everything that the adults did because they were children. In many families these days, that distance doesn’t exist. Children feel like they completely identify with their parents.

An angry boy yelling.

The fantasy of completeness and lack of individuation

When a child feels equal to an adult, they also think they can do everything. They often try to take on the parental role, giving advice and even ordering people around at home.

A “symmetrical child” might try to take on the teacher’s role as well, telling them what to teach and how to teach it. Sooner or later, however, these children have to face the reality that they don’t have the tools or resources to act this way. This realization scares and confuses them.

This is the fantasy of completeness. The child feels self-sufficient, even though they obviously aren’t. They don’t believe they need to learn anything nor that they’re in a learning and growing process. These children don’t listen to their parents or teachers. As a result, they don’t complete their individuation process. Since these children only know how to imitate, they don’t fully develop their individual personalities.

According to Dr. Messing, families can only fix this problem if they reconstruct the parent-child roles. Parents have to clarify that they’re not their children’s equals and that they have the authority in the household. This isn’t synonymous with authoritarianism. Rather, it’s validation that they’re the guides and role models.

Levin, E. (2000). La Función del hijo: espejos y laberintos de la infancia. Nueva Visión.