Working with the Enneagram Type Eight Child: Parenting the Type 8 Child and Boundaries

As a student and teacher of the Enneagram, and as an Enneagram Type Eight (8) myself, I am regularly asked how to work effectively with 8s, and in particular, 8 children. I am always touched when a non-8 parent makes the inquiry because the parent wishes to support their 8 child. I am equally touched when teachers and administrators hire me to work with children and teens that appear to be perplexing and difficult to manage.

I love teaching the Enneagram because it helps people depersonalize what appears to be so personal and gives meaning to the different ways people perceive and defend their realities. Some of the most meaningful moments in teaching have come when I have experienced the raw honesty and vulnerability of the self-aware 8. The experience is always the same whether it is in a boardroom, a classroom, or a county jail. In every case, I am always unprepared for the unguarded, truly vulnerable innocence behind the 8-stance of defiance. I always see an aspect of myself and I am always humbled. Over and over again, I walk away with newfound respect for their innate capacity to continue to grow and change in the human condition. When I experience this with a fellow 8, I am in awe. In psychological terms, I am certain the 8 child that resides within me feels a renewed sense of hope.... and, that the opportunity to help another 8, especially as a child, is an opportunity that will help me to continue to grow and change as well. I believe I feel this way even more due to the support and guidance I received from the right people, at the right time, and more specifically, from two truly benevolent teachers that forever changed the course of my life.

The questions I am always asked are: "Why don't the strategies that work with most children not work with an 8?," "As the parent, teacher or therapist of an 8 child, to what degree should I allow the 8 leeway with regards to what he/she wants, and how do I set limits that will work? Which limits teach the 8 child how to manage his/her dominating and/or intimidating energy and transform it into benevolent leadership? And, which limits are destructive to the young 8 and provoke his/her defiance and noncompliance?"

These are great questions for me as an 8, the daughter of an 8, the granddaughter of an 8, the niece of an 8 and the mother of an 8. ;) As a result, I can easily make a very biased but educated guess.

The thought that immediately comes to mind is to remember that our Enneagram Type is simply just our innate defense strategy doing what it is meant to do. We are born with it. We are hard-wired to see and respond to the world the way we do. By definition, a defense would indicate a reaction to protect from something that feels threatening. This, of course, would be true for all of the 9 Enneagram Types. I believe the key is to understand that our Enneagram Type defense strategy, if left unmanaged, will end up hurting others the very same way that we are trying "not" to be hurt "by" others.

8s are intense even as children. They have big everything — big energy, big tears, and big ideas, etc. 8s have big energy. So, they talk louder, laugh harder, and even as young children cry with greater intensity the other 8 types. So, 8s often report that their actions and intentions are often misinterpreted, misrepresented, and labeled negatively. This is very painful to the 8s, so they stop crying at a very young age for fear that their sadness will be used against them. They quickly learn to not give anyone the power to hurt them. Instead, they fight for their truth to be heard. This is very hard on the young 8, especially when their explanations go unheard and their intent and motivation are misunderstood.

How does the power struggle begin?
The reason that I begin here is that from the outside perspective the direct 8 style appears to be the initiating force. But, as with all of the defenses, from the inside, it feels like it is a necessary reaction to survive an incoming threat that feels overwhelming. The difference may simply be that the young 8s' defense style appears stronger than the other 8 styles because 8s take charge of any perceived injustice and retaliate to protect themselves from being unfairly dominated. The 8 seeks revenge to even the score, no more, no less, exactly the same. Rather than walking away or simply defending a position, the 8 approach is to turn the tables and seek the advantage to avoid being at the mercy of any further injustice. The other 8 types either become defensive, seek help from other adults or just ignore the threat by suppressing it. These also come with their own set of problems… ;). But they are just easier to understand from the outside looking at a child that is upset.

Even as an infant, I remember the feelings of frustration that I experienced when I could not impact my environment. I could walk and climb by the age of 12 months, and that included climbing in and out of my crib. I felt exhilarated when I could crawl, even more joyous when I could walk, and then truly liberated when I could run, skip, climb and jump. I was never cautious and explored life with a lust for life. I was constantly told I was like a force of nature. I remember being confused when my mother was initially proud of my agility but then became constantly angry and frustrated when I was always on the move, exploring and experiencing everything in my environment and beyond. As an adult, I understood why "the beyond part" was such a source of frustration to her. I was totally fearless and uninhibited. I learned how to move a chair and climb up on anything and reach cupboards and drawers so early that it made tracking me a full-time job.

Even with a nanny, I was many handfuls compared to my three brothers. I simply had a child-like call of the wild. I wanted the freedom to explore whatever captured my interest and wanted to do things other children never even thought of doing. So, I was constantly punished for disobeying, such as taking off my itchy clothes, climbing up my dresser to get the clothes I wanted, taking apart something that I found fascinating like my grandmother's mirror and lipstick, (wow that lipstick sure seemed like a special crayon with a shiny mirror and a lid). And as all parents of 8s know, once an 8 has set their heart on exploring something, they do not stop trying until they can get it. As a baby, I could not stop thinking about it. So my mom and grandmother felt that they had not been stern enough, so to punish me they put me in my crib and went outside to socialize. But, baby or no baby, I wanted that red crayon so I went and got it from my grandmother's handbag in the living room and climbed back into my crib to color. But as you can imagine, my mother and grandmother were NOT happy that I colored all over my blanket and walls, and were even angrier that I could climb out of my crib and open my bedroom door. At that moment they forgot that I was a baby. They just tried to curb my "bad" behavior (which was innocent curiosity at that age) with punishments.

The problem was that my behavior was age-appropriate but due to my agility, intelligence, curiosity and strong will, I seemed older than I was. So, it seemed like I was being defiant and was directly disobedient. This is because 8s are often very age progressed in terms of independence and physical agility. But emotionally, they are still young and vulnerable and very sensitive. The truth was that I was just too young to understand why my mother and grandmother were so upset with me. I was innocently having fun exploring my world. So, it was threatening to be punished over and over again before I could even talk. I was so confused and angry that I learned not to cry and gave up seeing my mother and grandmother as sources of comfort. I was just too young to understand the consequences they felt would guide me to develop more obedient and acceptable behaviors, but too young to see how exhausting it would be to have me as a child.

My mother and grandmother had no idea that they had set in motion the course for the ultimate power struggle, because 8s, even at ages 12-18 months, will not back down if something seems mean, confusing, physically hurts or feels unfair. I remember making a conscious decision to go it alone because they didn't make any sense to me and they never seemed to understand the joy I felt expanding my horizons. They couldn't know then what we all know now. They did not know that they could have sat with me and said, "Of course you want to play with the lipstick, it looks just like a fancy cool crayon that opens and closes. I know you are sad that I have to take it away. I know it must be so hard to understand. It must seem really unfair. Let me show you how to hold it so it doesn't break or stain the sofa or your blanket, and, I feel so sad that you want something that I can't give you. But I am your mommy and it is my job to keep you safe, and as the mommy I have to take the crayon away because it isn't really a crayon, it is a lipstick, and this is how a crayon and lipstick are different and that's why I can't let you play with it." Instead, I just wondered why they were being so mean and were not letting me play with the big red crayon with the mirror.

The 8 child's view
So very early on, my primal drive to explore and take charge combined with my parent's attempt to curb my behaviors with daily punishments, caused me to not trust them. I personally expected the world to be cold, indifferent to my needs, unfair and unjust. I expected NOT to be protected. Punishment "without representation" felt unjust and triggered my innate defense strategy of defiance and non-compliance. Further disciplines without fair representation further compounded this cycle creating a strong sense of distrust for adults that were perceived to be abusing power. And, in terms of consequences, this only served to reinforce my world view that there was no love in the world and that I was truly on my own. Therefore, the true life-altering experiences happened not when I was punished, but rather when I was afforded the opportunity to be taught the power of love, wisdom, and compassion by a truly benevolent teacher.

An 8 child's Story

In the 6th grade, during the Easter Break, I was at the school participating in outdoor supervised play with 2 friends; a whip-smart social 137, and a congenial self-preserving 935. At first, we were having fun but then we became bored. That was when our 9-friend told us that she had found a classroom open during the Christmas Holidays. It seemed unlikely that it would happen again, but it was an interesting idea for 3 bored 11-year olds. So, the three of us decided to check the doors and sure enough, we found a classroom that was unlocked, just as our 9 friend had predicted.

We saw it as an unexpected opportunity for an amazing adventure filled with possibilities. We moved things all around the room; I changed the names on the chalkboard and looked into the desks and found other names and put them up instead. I was sure they would laugh at the change of the names for the all-star students. I moved books from one desk to another. I thought it would be like an Easter scavenger hunt looking for whose book was where. My 137 friend was experienced with equipment, so she talked into the tape recorder. My 9 friend was going through the drawers and desks too, so I imagined that she was rearranging the books too. Later she told me she had helped herself to random lunch money as well. I told the 1 that I thought it was stupid for a straight-A student to leave her voice as evidence on the tape recorder, and I told my 9 friend that I thought it was uncool to take the kid's lunch money. They both shrugged their shoulders and I imagined that it was handled, and besides, we were 11 so we didn't say much more. We had had fun creating total havoc just anticipating how much the kids would enjoy not having to do school work and that it would be fun for the students to sort it all out when they returned to school from the holiday week. After all, they wouldn't have to work! Right?

Later, as we ate our ice cream cones both friends begged me to not tell anyone. I thought that we rearranged the room to boast about our adventure, like in the movie The Parent Trap, so I was confused but gave my word of honor and we all finished our cones and went home.

Anyhow, the friend that was the straight-A, Enneagram social 137, school president, became riddled with guilt and told her parents. I, of course, kept my bond of secrecy, as she had begged me to give my word that I would never tell anyone what she did. To an 8 their word is their bond. So, I did not reveal her name, even knowing, that she had told them mine. I took pride in keeping my word even if she couldn't. My mom, a self-preserving 469 felt very anxious and ashamed. She thought the social 137 was the good child and that I, as the sexual 874, was the problem child.

We all met at the school the following Monday morning. It was so quiet and strange to be there before the teachers or kids were there. Both of my friends were there with both of their parents. I was with just my mom. I later found out that my Dad, a social 874, did not think it was a huge deal and secretly respected me for keeping my word. My friends were both fearful and gently crying. It made me very sad for them. So, I knew right then and there that they weren't as tough as I was. So, since I was going to miss out and be in trouble anyway, I didn't tell on them and took the full blame, for everything. This is an example of the way that 8s protect their friends and the way the 8 will be self-sacrificing for intimates that are weaker than they are.

The Principal, the social 136, was very resolute in the belief that a strong hand and severe punishment was the way to teach a wayward, strong-willed child (sexual/intimate 874) the lessons of life. Especially one that had corrupted the school's ‘straight A' student body president (137), and that nice quiet girl 962, as he couldn't remember her name. He assumed it was my idea as an outspoken kid that in his eyes had just become the trouble maker and ring leader. ;) He was sure it was all my idea, and no one corrected him (typical 8 experience…) because actually, it was our quiet, self-preserving 935 friend's idea. ;) But, we all had agreed to check it out, so I felt it was on all of us. After all, what were the odds that we just happened to come across a door that was not locked?

His punishment was to have me spend all of lunch and recess in his office for the last 2 months of school, to publicly humiliate me, as well as deprive me of all graduating festivities and events. This, of course, is the kind of experience that 8s believe created their 8ness. After all, I had spent 7 years getting through the rigors of limitation that school rules presented to an 8, and graduation was a major element towards freedom from my perception of elementary school oppression. I could not see the fairness or justice in losing all privileges due to one misguided mistake. But I remained silent as I held steadfastly to my stance of having given my word.

A very fair-minded Vice-Principal (social 739) that had been our 5th-grade teacher knew that we were all good kids that just didn't understand the potential harm our fun could cause. He was also struck by the fact that I took total blame for the transgressions and never told on my friends. Later, I was to learn that this was my ‘straight As' 1 friend's cry for much-needed attention to not have to be the perfect person. At the time, of course, this was unknown to me. I was just having fun and did not experience guilt yet as I did not intend any harm. My cry turned out to be of another kind, far more hidden and silent.

Years later, my mom told me that he had said she did not need to worry about me because I was a true leader with a big heart, an original mind, and an innate sense of justice. He told her that I would make a great adult but that some teachers and adults would not appreciate how outspoken I was until then. He told her that one day she would recognize that I had shown true courage in the face of adversity by taking the full blame. She told me he said that if they just help me get there, I would one day be in a position of power and that he felt certain that I had the capacity to wield truly benevolent power. But she never mentioned it to me, until 40 years later. She was a self-preserving 469 after all, so she doubted it. :)

From the limited perspective of an 11-year old, this experience with the principal not asking me anything and jumping to conclusions, served to reinforce the theory that life is not fair so why respect unjust authority? Why care? Most of all it confirmed the notion that I needed to be even tougher because I truly was on my own. I would also suggest that this further proves to the 8-stance that the 8 is correct in their world view and that due to experiences such as these, the 8 begins to stop sorting for data to the contrary. I would also suggest that there is a trap for all of the types. There are always situations and experiences to support whatever our Enneagram Type defense strategy would have us believe to be true.

Seat of Shame

For 2 months I did sit in the principal's office right where all of the kids came and went. I was humiliated and was imploding inside of course, but I never shed a tear and came across as self-possessed, nonchalant and unaffected. I even made jokes. This was far from the truth. 8s protect themselves from painful emotions that feel debilitating. 8s deny their vulnerability so that they can prevail in the face of adversity. I endured this extreme punishment without complaining because such extreme injustice and mistreatment fueled my passion to seek the advantage and take the lead one way or another. I would stand against the unjust punishment. This is because 8s are natural-born leaders that naturally know how to power through obstacles and have the ability to use mind over matter. They have the strength to stand alone for their truth, stand up for the underdog, disadvantaged and under-represented and at great personal cost. And, the 8 is the Enneagram Type that has the defense strategy designed to challenge oppression and fight against tyranny and injustice, the very qualities of a true leader. The problem is that the 8 child needs to learn to work with their tendency to be assertive and overpowering, just as the timid 6 or 9 child needs to learn how to speak up for themselves rather than being passive-aggressive.

The vice-principal (739) was a good guy. I really liked him, so I hated to disappoint him. He kept talking about the fact that I was a leader and an original thinker. At 11, it didn't make much sense to me. He didn't seem to be mad at all. He said that I was a good kid and would make a great adult. He reminded me that in 5th grade I didn't read the stories in order and color that I was supposed to and that I was the only kid that didn't, but that I did read them all, and that I just saw a better way that made more sense to me. I thought they should be read in order of interest, just like at the library. He agreed. I didn't always follow assignments the way they were intended but did what I had to. So, he said that he was looking forward to what I was going to contribute to the world.

He passed his punishment on to the Teacher of the classroom we had rearranged. So, his punishment was far more painful than that of the principal. It was instructive rather than punitive. In contrast, the vice-principal's punishment was to assign me to meet after school each day with the teacher (social 269) whose room I had vandalized. This was horrifying to me. It was easy to endure sitting in the principal's office for all to see, as I believed it made me tougher. I was, after all, being unfairly treated and a survivor. However, to have to face my unknown victim was unnerving. I had visions of slave labor to further define the unjust world of the adults. Internally I just said to myself, "They can tell me what to do but they can't tell me how to think or feel."

Ouch, not so. This teacher ( social 269) was very nice and never made me 'do' anything. Every day she just talked with me. Every day, I had to feel more and more feelings and it was agonizing. When was she going to be mean and unjust? Why didn't she make me a slave so I could rile against her tyranny? Why didn't she treat me with disdain so that I could raise my jaw and glare at her with defiance? Why was she so understanding? I had no defenses for such unexpected acts of kindness. I felt bereft of resources to deal with this kind of power.

She did not lecture, she did not chastise, in fact, she told me nothing, she only inquired. She continued her onslaught of gentle benevolence by asking me questions about what mattered to me. She asked me what I had hoped for by rearranging the room. When I told her, she laughed and then explained how some of the children laughed and had a wonderful time but that many of the children were frightened and others thought that their things might be gone never to be found and cried. This of course, had never occurred to me. I had to let in that my actions had left little 3rd graders feeling afraid and unprotected, my very own core wounding. I was crushed! I wasn't a Santa Claus as I has imagined; I was the Grinch to these little vulnerable 8-year-olds. I found it unforgivable. My self-vengeance was far crueler and greater than anything the principal had denied me.

In addition, to further make me squirm in my own feelings, she asked me what I wanted out of life. She asked what my dreams were, and since I was naturally protective, what I wanted to do as an adult to protect others. She asked me if I would want to have me for a friend and why? I had never thought of these things. They were life-altering questions. She said that she would have been happy to be my friend in school because I was so protective and willing to take the full blame to protect my friends. I agreed, but then I immediately told her that on second thought, there were things I wouldn't like about having me as a friend. I found a longer list, and the beginning of the journey towards becoming my own trusted friend. For the first time, I knew who I didn't want to be and slowly began to imagine who I might be, or could become.

It was there in the room of my disgrace that I found the divine embrace of a strong, flexible boundary that introduced a mirror to my innermost self and a window to my soul. I no longer felt like a gorilla in a small zoo cage unable to be, but rather a gorilla high in the jungle with a family troop to protect. It was there in that classroom of my misadventure that I learned the true meaning of teaching consequences with 'benevolent' tough love. I learned about life in a new way, and how to have true power, the power of benevolence. I was not crushed, rejected, demeaned or humiliated as I had been so many times before when my intentions were misunderstood. Rather, I was like a crumpled piece of paper retrieved from the trash bin to be gently unfolded, read and accepted so that I might know that like the paper I had once been a part of a majestic tree - worthy of being cherished and kept, rather than discarded.

Rarely does a year go by that I do not remember my misadventure in the 6th grade, the moment of my disgrace, or most importantly, the benevolent mirrors that allowed me to see myself clearly for the first time. I will always remember the experience of the adults that supported me by affording me the opportunity to glimpse my potential adulthood, open my defended heart and discover the power of my impact. From then on, I chose to try and have a positive impact on others and show the same power of compassion and understanding that I had received. I actively sought out examples in my world to draw upon to shape a new view of true power. As a result, I try to show kindness in the face of disempowerment, but I can assure you that I can still fail at times, in spite of my efforts. The difference is that due to the benevolence that I was shown as a child, I want to be benevolent with others. Because it came as such a surprise, without judgment, and with such kindness, it created a lasting imprint on my character. I am truly more because of them.

Empowering the 8 child

So, back to the question I am always asked : "Why do strategies that work with most children NOT work with an 8?," "As the parent, teacher or therapist of an 8 child, to what degree should I allow the 8 leeway with regards to what he/she wants, and how do I set limits that will work?" "Which limits teach the 8 child how to manage his/her dominating and/or intimidating energy and, which limits are destructive to the young 8 and provoke their defiance and noncompliance?"

In answer to the inquirers' initial questions, I can say that promoting "consciousness" is far more important than handing our "consequences," and it is the best place to begin.

For the 8, to learn from traditional consequences, the 8 must first have a great deal of trust and respect. If the 8 trusts you and respects you, they will want to please you. This counter-intuitive approach removes the power struggle. Once engaged in a power struggle, the 8 will never back down and the message you wish to teach will be lost. The journey is to assist the 8 by listening to the 8s explanations of what happened, and by validating their experience -- as they see it. When this is in place, you can slowly help the 8 learn to manage the pain that is underneath the flippant remarks and "big" behaviors.

Involve them in the solution, ask them what they would do and why? They will be flippant at first but don't get hooked, they are just unconsciously testing you. They are asking "Are you real? "Are you strong enough to be there for me? "All of me?" So just smile when they are flippant and then nonchalantly keep going. Ask the 8 what he or she thinks is important in this type of situation and they will innocently reveal their inexperienced viewpoints, and you will have a more meaningful way to approach the problem. Ask what he or she thinks would make a difference and what he or she thinks would be fair to all involved.

When you disagree, make deals. I know that this is also counter-intuitive, but this is what feels fair to an 8. When the 8 is adamant about his or her truth about what is or isn't fair, don't back away, don't back down and don't assert dominance. It will only trigger a huge power struggle that you can never win. Instead, make a deal. Say something like: "Ok, you win this time, next time it is my turn." Ask him or her to give his or her word. Then whatever you do keep your word. The 8 will then feel compelled to keep his or her word and will reluctantly comply when you remind him or her of the deal the two of you made. And never back away from this, ever.

Begin with little deals, then the bigger deals as the 8 grows up. Teach that a true leader has power because they keep their word. The key is to let the 8 have small victories so you have the important victories. Remember that prior to the stance of defiance that makes you want to use traditional methods, this will only serve to reinforce the 8 feelings of disempowerment. Remind yourself that the 8 is in a great deal of pain. Anger acts as an immediate anesthetic protecting the 8's more tender emotions. When you have validated the 8s experience, no matter how far-fetched it sounds, they will feel heard and become more receptive and less defiant. Wow, it sounds like you really felt ______. Mirror what they have said in a nonchalant manner, so they don't feel manipulated or patronized. Repeat what they have said verbatim, don't use your words or overview, use the 8's words only. Only ask him or her to tell you more about the way they were wronged. Underneath is a very real wound.

I can promise you that prior to any act of defiance, the 8 felt caught off guard and wounded by a sense of rejection for just being an 8. It is their innocence they are protecting, and that's why the reaction is so fierce. The pain caused by the misinterpretation of the 8s motivation is at the heart of the matter, therefore, discovering the pain the 8 feels and has rejected will explain the pain they inadvertently cause. The 8's innocence is at the core of this cycle. Every 8 might benefit from learning what they are really feeling in order to understand their need to defend their heart so strongly. What is unknown and usually unseen is how empathetic the 8 is. Empathy that is so great, it has to be limited or denied in order for the 8 to survive. But eventually, it must be nurtured to be integrated. This is the most difficult thing you can ask an 8 to do. The 8 fears that if they feel their full capacity for empathy it will crush them and that they will be betrayed and become pathetically weak and undesirable.

Inquiring as to what happened is the beginning. 8s deny they were feeling anything because it is out of their consciousness. If the 8 is too defended and doesn't know, or can't retrieve the event or feeling, a gentle inquiry as to how others are not as tough as the 8 might feel in the same circumstances, may prove helpful. Analogies using those the 8 loves and sees as vulnerable, such as in younger siblings, cousins, friends or pets, often breaks the direct stance of 'being against'. Love and protection will rise for those the 8s deem in their circle of care. This is where one may find the clues to the deeper, more painful and hidden issues behind the 8 bravado and rash acts.

One can be assured that prior to the negative behavior or outburst the 8 felt a deep sense of betrayal, humiliation, and injustice where the 8 experienced themselves as unable to affect the outcome, rendering them powerless and without mercy. The unbearably painful experience may have occurred a moment earlier or days earlier. This is also true for adult 8s, the wound could have happened years earlier, but it did occur and the 8s internal victim was sent to the dungeon of their heart to be silenced.

Exploring what the 8 might have been feeling just prior to the action is a large part of the discovery process. This can take what feels like an eternity to non-8s. So, hang in there. Think of it as investment spending. It takes forever for the 8 to get to their feelings because their defense strategy is in place to give them the power to act, even when they hurt and to have courage in the face of adversity. Think of it as a biological imperative. If they talk, listen. Don't try to make them feel better or interrupt their feelings by reassuring them. It is not their defense strategy and they will immediately opt-out of feelings and feel like they need to take care of you.

So, keep your hand in your lap after a few wounds, tell him or her that he or she matters to you, that you care about his or her feelings, and that you love him or her no matter what. That this is just life, but that you will get through this together, side by side, back to back, looking out for one another.

But, by talking about the hurt feelings they buried and denied, they are able to answer their own questions. Once the 8 is in the feeling state, it may be imperative to listen to every slight that the 8 may have felt he/she has endured, especially those by you. Like a chest retrieved from the attic after years of storage, opening it may create a flurry of wounds that fly out in need of immediate attention. The scabs feel ripped open and the scar tissue feels rigid and painfully twisted. The bigger question the 8 is asking is "Can you take it, can you take all of me and my hurt at one time?" The 8 belief is that no one could, therefore no one can.

So hang in there. This is a wonderful opportunity to prove the 8 wrong. After the deeper emotions have surfaced and are fully spent is a window of opportunity to be inside the full and open embrace of the 8 heart. This is the rare moment between defensive posturing when one can benevolently teach the 8 how comforting it feels to be treated with loving boundaries that stretch and grow with the 8. This is when one can teach the 8 the power of setting their own boundaries to self-limit; that anger is a signal of pain and betrayal, that it can be healed yielding powerful insights. Most of all, this is the time when one can deeply touch an 8 by demonstrating the power that comes from treating others with benevolence.

©1995-2019 Katherine Chernick Fauvre