On Silence Around The Trauma of the Replacement Child

“The replacement child condition is a collectively repressed topic in the history of psychoanalysis” (Raphael-Leff, 2007)

By Mary Adams, author of James Joyce and the Internal World of the Replacement Child

And Kristina Schellinski, author of Individuation for Adult Replacement Children

There is a silence in families and among professionals about the experience of surviving siblings and replacement children.

The death of a child is an impossible-to-cope-with reality for both parents and their children, creating feelings of grief, fear and guilt, and of not knowing who to blame.  We feel helpless and powerless. This can tear a family apart or reduce the members of a family to silence. But lost in the middle is the surviving child, or children, often feeling a sense of guilt, alone and with no right to complain or expect concern. And lost in the silence, grief and guilt may be a replacement child born to make up for the death of a child or other member of the family.

‘Replacement’, ‘usurper’, ‘fraudulent outsider’

In the analytic world, the concept of ‘the dead mother’, a term coined by French Psychanalyst André Green (1986), helps to evoke sympathy for an infant or child faced with a grieving mother who is emotionally unavailable after losing a child.  This concept can be extended to a father or grandparent who is ‘lost’ to the child/ren in their grief. Terms such as ‘replacement’ or ‘shadow’ child, and in some cases the term ‘subsequent child’, encapsulate the trauma of being born after a loss into a family and growing up under such circumstances. These terms are implying these children do not exist in their own right, some replacement children have even been told that they would not exist at all if the other had not disappeared.  

Other labels are actively hostile:  James Joyce’s father called him a ‘usurper’, “usurping the cot of his older brother”.  How does one emerge from a relationship fraught by such a label?  Joyce referred to himself as a “changeling, caught between the true Irish son and the fraudulent outsider”.  The child is ‘caught’ in an impossible place, without any of their doing they are left alone with fratricidal fantasies, wishing a rival sibling away, with ensuing feelings of guilt. However, in reality, the replacement child is not the cause of the sibling’s death which occurred in many cases before their conception or birth; but in the eyes of surviving siblings or parents this child is here and the other is not, and the blame may unconsciously be laid onto replacement child (see: Cain & Cain, 1964).

Sibling rivalry is a powerful reality which touches us all but which also surrounded by  silence and makes for difficult relations even later on in adult life

The child who loses a sibling is deprived of the chance to work through the rivalry and is compared instead with an idealised, a ‘perfect’ since absent child.  The surviving child may be forever haunted by the ghost of the ‘perfect’ brother or sister and feel never ‘good enough’. Internalising the shame and guilt of being the ‘bad’ one can lead the replacement child to exile him or herself.  At the other end of the spectrum, the new child may be burdened with the mission to make the parents forget their grief, to make them happy, to look after them. A parentified child (a child parenting their parents) or a replacement child receiving a projection of a golden, ideal child is also a burden, as non-ideal behaviour and emotions are neither received nor contained but repressed.

If a replacement child is led by their suffering to seek psychotherapy, this protected space may then be feared as a place where their ‘badness’, their shadow, will be revealed and condemned.  Psychotherapists may find it difficult to enter into a relationship trusting enough to address this trauma because the attachment pattern of the replacement child patient may repeat itself in the therapy or analysis—the secret, the silence, the fear can be unconsciously re-experienced in the transference and countertransference:

The therapist or analyst may experience the full onslaught of the earliest relationship, repeated in the analysis. It may mirror the “hostile-dependent tie of the mutually ambivalent mother and child” (Cain & Cain, p. 449)


Feelings of guilt can pervade a whole family following the loss of a child and this also leads to silence, blame and even abuse.  As with sexual abuse, the child is used without its consent, to satisfy adult needs, to carry grief and guilt and these can infiltrate and affect any system that is involved in its care, including psychotherapy, resulting in a system-wide wish ‘not to know’. It is a tragedy that Freud could not analyse his own experience as a replacement child but he was aware of lifelong self-reproach for having had murderous feelings towards his brother who died.  Writing near the end of his life, he described how much the infantile trauma was repressed:

Everything in the sphere of this first attachment to the mother seemed to me so difficult to grasp in analysis—so grey with age and shadowy and almost impossible to revivify—that it was as if it had succumbed to an especially inexorable repression. (Freud 1931, 226)

James Hamilton wrote:

In Freud’s case the failure to have worked through the loss of Julius, burdened him with intense survivor guilt and fear of retaliation which, in turn would account for his constant, almost daily, preoccupation with death. (1976, p. 150)  

Raphael-Leff argues that “repressed aspects of his earliest relationships affected Freud’s capacity to theorize the mother’s place in psychic life, resulting in lacunae in psychoanalysis itself”. (2007, p. 1346)

In many cases, a child may not have been explicitly told that it is replacing another child or family member. In order to not perpetuate the silence, psychotherapists are advised to routinely include the question whether siblings have been lost, in this or previous generations during the initial assessment, and to be on the alert for conscious or unconscious signs of the replacement child’s quest for identity, guilt and grief feelings.

Even biographies often leave out this crucial information about lost siblings, perpetuating the silence and leaving a blank space in the reader’s understanding of the person’s development.

The importance of identifying the trauma of being a replacement child

We are seeing in the growing body of research* how common the loss of a sibling in childhood is and how terrifying and crippling the long-term effects can be. It is time to recognize and overcome the resistance to diagnosing the replacement child condition, so that families can be understood and helped in their grieving process and that replacement children can start to realize what it is that affects them and take hopeful steps towards fully living their own life.

*Abramovitch, 2014; Adams 2023; Bowlby, 1960; Cain & Cain, 1964; Etchegoyen, 1997, Green 1983, 1986; Sabbadini 1988, 2014, 2018; Vollmann 2014; Raphael-Leff, 2007, Schellinski 2006, 2014, 2019;

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