Deliverance for the Lost Child

By Paul Dunion | September 27, 2021


Personal power, fulfillment and emotional maturation greatly depend upon being able to identify and bring care to the childhood roles we occupied in our families of origin. No family is without stress and when exasperated, easily becomes a source of complex trauma for the children. Conditions such as mental illness, physical illness, addiction, and parental unavailability can lead to traumatic incidents of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Each child in the family finds his or her way into a particular role designed to express love for the parents and a mooring for safety. The more a child feels the family being out of control, the more a child will rigidly cling to one role.

I have worked with numerous folks who took on the role of Lost Child. Each time, I felt challenged, intrigued, and privileged to be invited into a healing relationship with them. Unlike other clients whose work is to find their way back to their inner worlds, Lost Children are needing help to make their way out of their inner worlds. Their challenge will be to find their place in the outer world of relationship, education, and occupation.

The Lost Child mandate for loving and safety is to withdraw into their inner worlds. Their psychological imperative is to remain unobtrusive, committed to being compliant and non-disruptive. They maintain their cloaked family profile by remaining quiet and sequestered in their rooms and other private areas where there is minimum family traffic. The Lost Children with whom I’ve worked, have been introverted. The innate propensity for introversion is excellent compost for the construction of this family role. The child is already quite comfortable dwelling in the inner landscape. All that needs to happen is to upgrade time and energy spent in the interior world. Let’s look more closely at some of the strengths of this role.


*Comfort with solitude. Lost children know how to enjoy time alone. They easily learn how to entertain themselves, finding comfort in their own company.


*Inner resources. They often develop their imaginations, intellects and creative potentials as these endeavors don’t threaten the scaffolding of the role.


*Spiritual potential. Sharon Wegscheider Cruse points out, “The quiet and isolation, the active fantasy life, the very emptiness that offers no competing relationships or satisfactions to which he has become attached – these are all circumstances that have been recognized throughout human history as conducive to spiritual growth.” (Another Chance, p. 134)

Let’s look more closely at some of the liabilities of this role when lived rigidly.


*Excessive anonymity. Adults who took on this role in their families of origin run a risk of continuing to live from some degree of invisibility. They often don’t know what it means to feel heard, understood and accepted. Loneliness easily can feel like a normal way to live.


*A lost voice. Lost Children easily discover that speaking is the quickest way to violate their anonymity. As introverts, they already feel at home being frugal with the use of language. All that’s needed is speaking even less, with safety and loving not being challenged. As adulthood emerges, it can be easy to become self-righteous about the alleged proper way to speak. Their verbal inhibition can take on an alleged civility. They scrutinize those indulging in free expression as holding an inordinate amount of entitlement. While working with James, a 52-year-old producing custom-built furniture, I discovered how important it can be for a Lost Child to remain voiceless. In one of our sessions, I was having difficulty hearing him and made several pleas for him to speak up. His chin dropped toward his chest and with his tone remaining singular, he said, just above a whisper, “I can’t project. It will hurt my head and my eyes will feel strained.” I realized that James’ psyche had successfully recruited his body for some somatic assistance to secure a much-needed muted voice.


*Emotional estrangement. Emotional well-being depends upon being able to feel, identify and express emotions while being heard and accepted by a trusted listener. Lost Children deem being favorably heard as either impossible or dangerous. They employ two strategies to cope with their emotions. The first is repression where the emotions are relegated to the unconscious. The second is dissociation with emotions being translated into ideas and opinions, allowing for the vulnerability of their emotions to attain some measure of protection.


*Social awkwardness. When isolation is at the core of how we live, we’re not quite sure what will happen when we interact with others. Being puzzled about what to say and do, accompanied by self-doubt haunts social interaction. Lost Children often become caregivers in response to confusion about giving and receiving. They decide that they can’t go wrong by simply giving a lot. However, becoming a delivery system often leads to resentment and emptiness.


*Impairment of genuine belonging. Nothing calls for transparency more than genuine belonging. Such relational deepening calls for clarity about feelings, emotional needs, and the expression of desire. Genuine belonging happens as Lost Children are seen, greeted, and welcomed, with their uniqueness being celebrated. The Lost Child will need to dismantle old ways of self-care and caring for others, learning viable replacements.


*Potential may remain hidden. Lost Children keep so much of themselves hidden, including their gifts and talents. They easily forget they possess them. Or they create beliefs that help keep their strengths sequestered. Recently, I mentioned to a very bright young woman, still held in the role of Lost Child, that I wanted to acknowledge the sharpness of her insight and perception. She quickly responded, “Thank you, but I simply don’t have the verbal skills to accurately reflect my ideas and intuitions”. My heart sank as I imagined her gifts remaining cloistered, blocked from being birthed in the world.


        A reparative path for the Lost Child


*Education. I have found it very beneficial for adult Lost Children to receive information about the impact their childhood role has had upon their lives. An important reminder is how anonymity supported the need for safety and how loving was designed to prevent the Lost Child from burdening others with their needs. It is also helpful to clarify the distinction between their role and their core identity, and how influential the role can be in adulthood, issuing a number of significant losses.


*Supporting Grief. Lost Children will need support to explore the losses, which excessive withdrawal generates regarding numerous aspects of their lives – including relationships, self-concept, personal empowerment, education, and occupation.


*Learning about boundaries. It can be extremely helpful for the adult Lost Child to understand that anonymity has been employed as a primitive boundary aimed at supplying safety. I typically suggest that anonymity can be saved and used with intention, rather than an automatic form of protection. Lost Children can have control over invisibility rather than invisibility having control over them. The key is to add to their repertoire of boundaries. The first addition is simply saying “no” and “yes” authentically. The second boundary is letting go of what is out of their control. The challenge here is to access enough discernment to determine what is actually out of their control. Remaining mindful that the ego enjoys imagining that its power is limitless. As they practice saying “yes” and “no honestly and letting go of what is out of their control, they’ll find that those folks being impacted by their boundaries will likely not be pleased by the boundaries. Their boundaries may frustrate others from meeting some need or desire. Their resiliency to hold the boundary in the face of another’s frustration or disapproval is another form of boundary. Boundary setting takes practice and remains a worthwhile life-long endeavor.


*Building self-trust. When a defense like anonymity is employed rigidly and unconsciously, it’s difficult for Lost Children to know whether they are acting in their best interest or being ruled by an attachment to invisibility. Getting clear about this distinction calls for the development of self-trust. Trust for themselves is building when they are committed to knowing their own truths. This happens as they increasingly let themselves be aware of how they feel emotionally, as well as their desires, beliefs, and values. A critical element of their truth will be their evaluation of how much anonymity they are currently employing, and how much they really need. Self-trust is also enhanced as they commit to treat themselves kindly, which happens as they increasingly interrupt disparaging judgments about how they behave. Kindness is also enacted as they eat, rest, play and work in ways that are fulfilling and sustainable.


*Building trust for others. Trusting others can be more challenging for the Lost Child because it can easily lead to being more visible. A key is to remember that as a child, visibility got magically loaded with some awful stuff. The alleged nefarious outcomes included excessive vulnerability, loss of safety, and a violation of loving others. It will be important to get help unpacking the disproportionate heavy weight distributed to being visible. As that process evolves, Lost Children need to develop the capacity to be discerning regarding who to trust. Trusting others also depends upon holding the belief that the other will tell them the truth and treat them kindly. There are two caveats, the first is that they do not offer trust because someone is cute or charismatic, they must earn the trust. Secondly, they must be willing to grow a capacity to receive the acts of kindness bestowed upon them.


*A safe emotional place. Lost Children need to take the delicate matter of emotional safety seriously. They have little or no experience being empathically and compassionately witnessed. Subsequently, they need to create a kind of covenant with a therapist, clergy person, coach, friend, or family member to show their emotions. It must be a place where they can trust that it’s safe to make themselves visible as emotional beings.


*Apprenticing to love. The Lost Child is asked to take on a task that is fitting for all of us – being an apprentice to love. Reorganizing love cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally for the Lost Child means significantly downsizing the mandate, “I will love you by not burdening you with my presence. Before addressing how love will live when offered to lovers, self-love must be prioritized. The starting place for this love of self is simply committing to acknowledge and meet personal needs for food, rest, play, comfort, and support from others. Then, slowly focusing addressing loving others. The initial shift sounds like, “I will do my best to be present,” “I will be authentic,” “ I will be accountable for my behavior,” “I will ask for what I need,” “I will listen,” and I will encourage you suspending any need to influence.” Stepping into the above directions can be an immense shift for Lost Children and advance them further into the mystery of love.


*A healing welcome. It is extremely beneficial for Lost Children to understand what their psychological wounding is asking for: first and foremost, not to store it in some forgotten closet in the psyche. It’s just too easy for Lost Children to view their wounds as extremely burdensome to others and serving no meaningful relational agenda. Gradually, they can learn to welcome their injury as simply an expression of their humanity and not some unfortunate aberration. When that happens, there can be a deep understanding that the power of the wound or lack of, does not lie with what was inflicted. Rather, their relationship with the wound determines how mitigated its potency will be. A compassionate welcome accompanied by curiosity regarding what the wound is asking for, remains a robust source of healing. This is best accomplished by working with practitioners who offer this kind of welcome to their own wounds. Healing receives significant inspiration as Lost Children accept their wounds and are willing to learn from them. Then, while being compassionately witnessed by another, come to know what it means to be found.

Although Lost Child was not my primary role in my family of origin, I did attach to it with some tenacity. I look at my professional life, working alone for 35 years in a basement office, and being very comfortable with the withdrawal. I personally know the work of learning to feel hurt without pulling in and away for a substantial amount of time. I know the pull toward the worlds of imagination and intuition, as these worlds have brought substance to my writing. However, I also know the urge driving me to sanitize reality, clinging to some purified and idyllic version. I am deeply grateful for the mentors who affirmed my dream while calling me back to the messiness of my corporeal experience. Because of their help, my dreams are less of a substitute for reality as they offer more meaning and fervor to my lived experience.



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  1. April on April 19, 2022 at 6:38 pm

    Only a few days ago did I come across the term “Lost Child Syndrome” in a book I was reading. I googled the phrase and it is my life story. I am 55 yrs old. I come from a dysfunctional family were I am the oldest, but all three of us children were forced to be as invisible as possible. My mother is (even at 75) emotionally a child. My father (deceased from suicide) was emotionally cruel. Almost all of my intimate relationships with men have been abusive. I have repeatedly taken on the role or caretaker throughout my life. I was “parenting” my younger siblings when I was 4 because my mother just couldn’t handle it. In desperation of being seen and loved, I was an easy target for my grandfather who told me I was his “special little girlfriend”. Trying to fix myself has been exhausting, but I continue to try. I feel so much more at ease, like I can be myself, when I am alone. My safe place is in nature and my closest relationships have been with my animals. Finding out what a Lost Child is, has explained a lot to me. Thank you for your article.

    • Paul Dunion on March 11, 2023 at 8:55 am

      I’m glad it served you and wish you all the healing.

  2. Guus van der Geest on September 2, 2022 at 5:55 pm

    This article is mind-blowing to me. I am 24 years old and i have never been able to understand myself until now. Thanks you so much! I would love to read more about this.

  3. Rachael on October 2, 2022 at 4:06 am

    The paragraph about a healing welcome really hit deep. “ Gradually, they can learn to welcome their injury as simply an expression of their humanity and not some unfortunate aberration.” I will be rereading this a few more times. Thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom on this topic

  4. Shelley Wiggins on December 19, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    I came across the term “Lost Child” a few days ago and I grew into an adult lost child. I’m 64 years old. I’m the third child; 4.5 years between each of us. My mother was demanding, controlling, verbally abusive. My dad died when I was eleven. My punishment I remember once was being put in a closet. I played with my dolls and was perfectly happy. I was a rebellious teen. My sister and mother were always at odds and there was always drama. I’m a caregiver now to my 93 year-old mother. I was very shy throughout school but My occupation helped bring me out of my shell however when I began working in my 20’s because of it being partly customer service oriented. I’m an introvert and love my alone time far too much.
    I’m leaving a marriage now after 42 years. It was a wonderful life with two great adult kids and grandkids. It has become very toxic the last 20. I have always had pets. My last cat offered so much emotional care that I grieved when he died. I have friends through work and church but not close,

    i always felt “alone” until I got married.

    We’ll see what life holds now.

  5. Hallie on March 10, 2023 at 10:55 pm

    I am the oldest of 4 and only have come across the term “loss child syndrome”. I was also blamed for every little thing that went wrong, Was consistently told from a very young age that I was not nearly as important as my younger siblings, because there is 3 of them and only 1 of you, so whatever they want is much more important. My patents supported my younger siblings in sports and extra-curricular activities, and told me that if I wanted to do any activities, that it would be a burden on them, so I’d have to be on my own in being able to make practice etc. In addition to that I had a seizure disorder as a child and my father participatory used to remind me all of the time about the ways that I was messed up, and told me I was a failure, unlike my younger sisters and brother who were all brilliant. With each of my siblings other family members have even noted that the younger they were the more doting my parents seemed. Several relatives and family friends have even noted that they could tell that I was just always putting so much retort on trying to stay quiet and not bother anyone, but my other siblings would pick and pick and pick until I finally just made a quick demand to stop, and all chaos would break out revolving in my punishment, and they felt so bad, as my parents seemed oblivious of my snarky siblings laughing in the background about me being punished.
    As a result I rember always being the loner in my family spending all day in the woods by myself or in my room, while my other siblings all watched TV together or were being escorted to their extra-curricular activities.
    I always felt so lonely and trapped. I remember crying myself to sleep so many nights from as young as 7 years old. When I was the only 1 in high-school my parents took the whole rest of the family on vacation and left me home, because my sliding’s spring break wasn’t the same time as mine and they outnumbered me. My family didn’t take a vacation again until I was in college, nearby, and they did the same thing 3 more times while I was in college, always adapting to my other siblings schedule and not mine. One time when their vacation did for my schedule, they told me only 2 days prior to leaving that I could no longer come, because they needed the extra bed for my brother’s girlfriend.
    My patents also paid for an extended weekend a away touring wineries for each of my siblings 21st birthday, when they hardly even acknowledged mine.
    While my mom has come around some and apologized for excluding me from the 21st birthday tradition, and not supporting my ambitions for any extra-curricular activities, my parents both still seem seem mostly oblivious to the difference in treatment I received. As for the few things my Mom has admitted to realizing, she said it was all because I was the oldest, and they were just learning with me and desperately trying to get by, while when my other siblings came to age they realized they only had limited chances left to do certain things.

    As an adult, I am sadly not close to my parents or any of my siblings; my sisters are best friends though. I’ve moved across country and when I do talk with my father he just always has to immediately find something to prove to me that where I live is not as great of a place as I think and that I’m a failure for moving. He also always has to bring up how well my sister is doing and how much money her fiance is making. My mom has gotten mad when I post pictures of a beautiful day, starting that I am inconsiderate to them, because the weather was awful where they still live. I just wish I could hear my parents tell me that they’re happy that I’m living somewhere I enjoy, or that they’re proud of me for being a self-sufficient homeowner. I’ve given up hope on ever hearing that from them.

    I’ve never gotten married or engaged, but have found myself to be a magnet for narcissists, as I’ve had 3 signification relationships, that lasted over 1 year, where the guy turns very emotionally, and 1 time even physicality, abusive. In all 3 sceneries I came to realize afterwards that once we hit it off, I was doing 90% of the work on the relationship, and giving way too much of myself. I also tolerate the abuse in these relationships way longer than most, and has friends telling me to leave months before I did. I’ve even had at least 2 very Narcissistic friends that took advantage of me for years, and have been the target a few times by narcissists in the workplace.

    While I’ve learned a lot about myself in just recent years, I do blame the roots for these abusive relationships in adulthood back to very much being the lost child. I’ve talked a lot with relatives over the years, and have come to believe too that the lost child is a repeated family pattern. My Dad was the oldest of 7 and it sounds like his upbringing may have been much like mine. He was treated very critically, and the younger each sibling was, the more doting my grandparents were, up until my dad’s youngest brother; who can never do anything wrong. The younger my Dad’s siblings were too, the more successful their careers seemed to be.
    I vow to try my best not to repeat the pattern of I ever have children.

    • Rich Ringer on March 12, 2023 at 8:05 am

      I can relate so closely to the events of your childhood. I too kept trying throughout my life to gain acceptance from my parents. I suffered the same verbal as you but had the physical abuse as well. My Dad is gone and my Mom is 92 and she still has no clue of her actions or her favoritism with 3 of 5 of my siblings. I came to the conclusion 12 years ago that acceptance and love is never coming from them. I cutoff all communications with the 3 siblings who had connections with my parents ( They looked at me like “whats your problem” ) but still talk to my brother who had the same experience I had. That was the best decision of my life for it allowed me to heal instead of constantly being hurt from the same treatment from childhood. I focus on relationships that are safe and supportive only! When your around your family you will always emotionally and mentally place yourself in that role from childhood and that is very unproductive for healing. What power I felt that I have a choice who to let in my life and to mentally give the middle finger to everyone else.

      Only you have the keys to your life, you obtained them when you left home as an adult.. enjoy the power!!!

  6. Becky Lopez on October 5, 2023 at 4:00 am

    I am a soon to be a 64 year old single woman with no attachments to anyone in my family. Although I long to be with my 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren my narcissistic mother has made sure to see to it that I never get to be a part of their lives. I’ve been known to beg borrow and steal any moments possible. It has become exhausting! She is the most evil lying woman I’ve ever known. I am severely withdrawn with no real friends and have had nothing but abusive relationships. I am in desperate need of some help but don’t know how or where to ask for it. I am a great writer. But don’t know how to go about going professional. I feel like a small wounded animal totally lost in a world that doesn’t accept me. I always say that I am going to stand up to her but forget what I have rehearsed when the opportunity arises. She continues to humiliate me and treats me like a child who cannot survive without her. There is so much more to my story that I’m already feeling the fatigue that it brings and must apologize that this is all I can do for now.

  7. Eve on October 9, 2023 at 5:58 am

    I grew up in a narcissistic family and married a diagnosed sociopath, and did not understand personality disorders until I was divorced and estranged from my family. My sons, however, were still exposed to the abuse and without me with them for protection. I did my best to give them the love they needed and to minimize the damage when they were with me, and trying to get them to adulthood where they were free to get away, end the abuse, and treat their trauma. Unfortunately, my eldest son who took my role as the primary target of abuse and the scapegoat started self medicating as a teenager and died at 20 from an accidental overdose. My concern now is that his little brother has very much developed the problems of the lost or invisible child. He is 26, but hasn’t progressed in life since his brother died 3 weeks after his high school graduation. He is depressed, overweight, withdrawn, and loyal to dysfunctional relationships with friends and girlfriends who don’t treat him well. I remember the person he used to be and I feel sad for him. He clearly has symptoms of Complex PTSD, but I feel like nothing but some kind of miracle is going to set him free from his false beliefs, his fear, and his lack of trust in himself and the world. He has joined me and his stepfather in Mexico to take part in something we are doing, but I feel it is more because he didn’t have anything else he was excited about, and I am just so scared that he will end up sabotaging himself until he has a life shaped by his trauma, and I don’t know how to help him.

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