Do you remember being caught on the high end of a seesaw with your brother at the other end giggling while threatening to scoot off his end which, of course, would mean that you would come crashing …
Do you remember being caught on the high end of a seesaw with your brother at the other end giggling while threatening to scoot off his end which, of course, would mean that you would come crashing to the ground?
Your screaming about the possibility of a broken arm only seemed to encourage him. You even reminded him that what he was about to do was clearly a violation of playground rules and if he dared let you drop, you promised swift punishment from the playground authorities, teachers, parents or anyone else who might listen.
The smirk on his face revealed the delight in his absolute control and revealed that he fully intended to follow through with this cruel plan. As he ever so slowly inched nearer and nearer to your demise, you remember and retell a tragic story of another little girl who actually did get her leg broken in exactly the same identical situation.
Your pleas go unheeded. In one last motion, he jumped, rolled and sprung to his feet, running away as fast as he could. You come crashing down and although your butt really does hurt, you are more angry than anything else that your brother abused his position of power on the seesaw.
The seesaw often mirrors the real life relationship of siblings. Sometimes knowingly — but usually unknowingly — siblings try to control each other in order to help maintain the delicate balance of power in the family system. When the family is functioning well, it’s like both siblings balancing each other equally on the seesaw. The board is level, power is equally distributed, and neither child feels threatened by the other.
Often this isn’t the case. The board is unbalanced, placing one sibling in greater power over the other sibling. What children do in this situation to maintain balance is most interesting. Balance may come at the price of keeping one child in control and the other child vulnerable, sort of like having one child next to the ground on the seesaw and other child strained at the highest point.
Several examples come to mind. When one sibling becomes more irresponsible in school, his sister may become more responsible. Because parents often see the responsible child as acting appropriately, they tend to affirm this behavior and punish the irresponsible behavior of the other child. Unintentionally, this reinforces the acting out of both siblings.
One child becomes increasingly responsible while the other child continues to become increasingly irresponsible.
Another example. One child is very neat around the house while her brother is as messy as she is neat. The neater she becomes, the messier he becomes and the seesaw remains balanced in the extreme position.
One more example. One sibling is as mean as a snake while the other is as kind as a saint. The meaner one becomes, the more saintlike the other becomes.
Obviously, extreme positions on the seesaw are not healthy for either child. Staying in this position can become habitual and may eventually lead both children to relate to significant others in the same manner. This is why healthy, strong, responsible adults will seek out sick, weak, irresponsible partners.
Although, both may resent, complain, and scream about either the up or down position they find themselves, they continue this extreme way of balancing each other because this is what they know.
Obviously, keeping the seesaw balanced creates the healthiest, happiest and, most secure relationships. This certainly beats living at the extreme where vulnerability and control often result in a bruised butt.
Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.
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