DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY: WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PREVENT AND HEAL THE DAMAGE
Understand the Mechanics of a Dysfunctional Family
A dysfunctional family is one in which family members fail to function together in a healthy way. A vicious cycle of negativity and suffering takes place in such families. For example, an alcoholic father might be coming home late drunk, not giving time to wife and child, and could be entrapped in his own sadness and conflicts, failing to fulfil his responsibilities. In reaction to this the wife may feel frustrated and sad and might become over controlling, violent or isolated, leading to huge discomfort and emotional disturbance for the child who witness the chaos every day. No family is perfect. Every family has some amount of misunderstanding, tension, anger, hurt etc, but not all the time. Most family may experience dysfunction during crisis period (like death in a family, illness of a family member etc) but the healthy families tend to return to normal functioning after the crisis is over. The dysfunction is temporary. In dysfunctional families, however, problems tend to be chronic and children do not consistently get their needs met. Negative patterns of parental behaviour tend to be dominant in their children’s lives.
It is commonly mistaken that alcoholic family is the only one that is dysfunctional. The fact is that parental dysfunction can come in several forms. Let’s have a look on some types-
A family where one or both of the parents may be suffering from chronic mental illness or a disabling physical illness results in dysfunction in family. In such families, children are not treated as children. Rather, they are expected to play an adult role, to take care of their parents and fulfil certain responsibilities. But being a child, they are simply unable to handle everything, and for that they might often be scolded too. These children often feel inadequate and guilty.
Overly Busy Parents
In the modern world, both parents are found working in most families, and work stress is also at peak. However, despite the busy schedule, in some families parents do try to give quality time to their children, but there are many such families, where parents have no time for their children. When they come back home tired, they expect them to be taken care of or get involved in arguments with each other, rather than asking their little ones, how their school was or offer any kind of emotional expression. They are often heard telling their children that they need to understand their parents are tired, and its for them they work so hard and that they are big enough to take care of themselves and even them. These children often feel lonely and unloved.
As the name suggests, controlling parents try to control every life aspect of their children, failing to allow their children to take on responsibilities appropriate for their age. These parents continue dominating and making decisions for their children well beyond the age at which this is necessary. Controlling parents are often driven by a fear of becoming unnecessary to their children, hence either through emotional blackmail, ordering or by giving warnings, they try to keep their children in their control. They don’t realize they are making their children feel powerless. Such children often feel resentful or/and inadequate. They fear making decisions independently. And if at all they act independently, these adults feel very guilty, as if they have committed a serious act of disloyalty. With some of them the word ‘control’ itself become a terror.
These parents tend to be chaotic and unpredictable. In these families, promises are not kept. In fact, parents may not even remember their promises. Rules keep on varying. Parents may be strict at times and indifferent at others. Positive emotional expression is frequently absent in these families, mostly only negative expressions like complaints and a fight on expectations is expressed, that too either by the alcoholic parent alone, or along with the non alcoholic parent. Children in these families may feel conflicted and lost, not knowing where and how to express their pain. Family members are usually expected to keep problems a secret, thus preventing anyone from seeking help. All of these factors leave children feeling insecure, frustrated, and angry. Some of these children often feel there must be something wrong with them which makes their parents behave this way. These children even when grown up as adults might have difficulty in trusting others. Emotional expression and commitment may be a problem for them. Children of alcoholics are at much higher risk for developing alcoholism than are children of non-alcoholics.
Abuse can be verbal, physical, or sexual. Verbal abuse can be present in family in form of belittling statements, criticisms, sarcastic comments or disguised humour. With physically abusive parents, the urge to strike the child is frequent and little effort is made to control this impulse. Striking can be in form of kicking, punching, biting, beating, knifing, strapping, paddling, etc. and it inflicts physical injuries on the child. Parents often justify their verbal and physical abuse in the name of discipline and betterment of the child. But the fact is, they only bring upon damage.
Sexual abuse is any physical contact between an adult and child where that contact must be kept secret. Sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls. It is perpetrated by both men and women. In most cases, sexual abuse is part of an overall family pattern of dysfunction, disorganization, and inappropriate role boundaries. Responsibility for sexual abuse in all cases rests entirely with the adult. No child is responsible for being abused.
Yet, where verbal and physical abuse can leave children feeling insecure, terrified, mistrusting and angry, sexually abused children often carry feelings of self-loathing, shame, and worthlessness. They tend to be self-punishing and often have difficulties with relationships and with sexuality. Remember, abuse in any form, only greatly damages the self esteem of children.
Become Aware of Damage of Dysfunction on Children
In a dysfunctional family where parents are themselves frustrated and emotionally stressed, and are unable to manage their lives, children learn to cope by playing specific roles in the family or “acting out” in damaging ways. Typically, the child will adopt one of four roles:
The Responsible Child
This child plays the role of a “hero” and thinks it is his or her responsibility to take care of things. Hence, tries to fix the family problems and help create a positive environment and family image through noteworthy achievement. This child receives positive attention but often develops perfectionistic, compulsive behaviours which in turn cause a lot of discomfort and guilt if their ideal goals are not met.
The Rebellious Child
This child plays a role of “scapegoat” and draws focus away from the family’s problems and onto himself or herself with rebellious, uncontrollable behaviour. This child consumes time and energy from the family members and often develops self-destructive life patterns.
The Reclusive Child
This child plays a role of “lost child”. A child that finds the pressure overbearing and hopes that by ignoring family problems, the difficulties will go away. This child avoids attention and is often lonely and withdrawn.
The Reveling Child
This child choose to act as a”clown” and thinks that through humor and use of antics the focus can be directed away from family problems. This child is often hyperactive and usually seeks to be the centre of attention.
A child may even display a combination of these traits or progress through different stages as they attempt to manage their emotional pain … in their pursuit to survive.
Typically children from dysfunctional families feel guilty. They assume, “I’m the reason that my parent gets so upset. It’s my fault that my parents are fighting. If only I could be a different kind of person. … If only … the family wouldn’t be such a mess.”
How Can You Help the Child
Foremost important thing is to allow child to express his/her pain, to share what and how the child feels with patience and in a safe environment. If any caring and responsible adult is available in family, he or she can do this. If not, a trained counsellor can help. Ensure you don’t cut the conversation with criticisms or advice. Encourage the child to talk openly.
A caring and responsible adult needs to sit with the child and tell him/her, help understand – (a) You didn’t cause it (b) You can’t cure it (c) You can cope with it … without carrying a heap of false guilt. It’s impossible to escape the stress within a dysfunctional family, but you can survive it.
Help the child know activities that that the child can enjoy that will divert their attention from the chaos. It can be any activity of their interest like playing a game, painting, riding a bike, doing a puzzle etc. This would help the child be in a “safety zone” where the child can cope with the stress in a positive way.
Help the child learn how to make healthy decisions that are not dependent on unhealthy parents. They can learn to do this by making a list of pros and cons and picking the best choice.
Seek professional help if you notice your child adapting any or mix of roles described above.
Reflect and Become Aware if You Are One of Them
Often, those who have grown up in a dysfunctional families don’t realize their conflict or pain due to the roles that they chose to play, the masks that they wear to survive. However, the acceptance and healing of that pain is important. This is how some of the survivors felt, perhaps, you too?
“As a kid I was like a miniature adult. I made sure my younger brother got off to school and doing right things. My father suffers from schizophrenia. My mother worked very hard to make ends meet. There was a lot of stress in the family. I took care of my dad and other house chores. I take on lots of responsibility. I put on a competent front and try to manage everything. But, inside, I still feel really empty.
“My dad’s an alcoholic. Every night there was chaos and arguments. Some nights were really scary. I felt so lonely, mom’s all attention was on dad and she was frustrated. Dad in anyways was in mess. I even avoided to invite my friends to my home because I didn’t want them to see what my family was like. I wanted to go out but again feared what if I’m asked about my family. I started staying in my own world. I never really got close to people, now I don’t seem to know how to let others get close. I started going to clubs and pubs, have fun but when it comes to commitment, I’m on my guard. I don’t know but it just scares me. I really don’t know how to have a good relationship. I never tell anyone but, I feel quitelonely.”
“My parents have always tried to control me. They want to make all my life decisions, without trusting my calibre or respecting my wishes. I remember them saying often, they know the best for me. Whether it be my career, relationship, investments or what kind of car I should drive, everything I’m told what to do. And if I try to do what I want, I’m emotionally blackmailed or tried to be controlled with money. I feel so suffocated.
Different individuals may get effected differently from the dysfunction, irrespective of the kind of abuse or dysfunction. Sometimes, support from other healthy adults, success in other areas, or positive changes in the environment can help prevent or minimize negative effects. But in most cases they continue to be affected, with awareness or without. Adults raised in dysfunctional families frequently report difficulties forming and maintaining intimate relationships, maintaining positive self-esteem, and trusting others; they fear a loss of control, and deny their feelings and reality (Vannicelli, 1989). To help you identify your suffering or to know if you continue to be affected, let’s do a small task. Given below are few questions, I want you to answer them in “Yes” or “No”. Take the first answer that comes to mind. Do not analyse it. Just write that answer. It’s for your good, do it sincerely.
- Do you find yourself needing approval from others to feel good about yourself?
- Do you agree to do more for others than you can comfortably accomplish?
- Are you perfectionistic?
- Or do you tend to avoid or ignore responsibilities?
- Do you find it difficult to identify what you’re feeling?
- Do you find it difficult to express feelings?
- Do you tend to think in all-or-nothing terms?
- Do you often feel lonely even in the presence of others?
- Is it difficult for you to ask for what you need from others?
- Is it difficult for you to maintain intimate relationships?
- Do you find it difficult to trust others?
- Do you tend to hang on to hurtful or destructive relationships?
- Are you more aware of others’ needs and feelings than your own?
- Do you find it particularly difficult to deal with anger or criticism?
- Is it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself?
- Do you find yourself feeling like a “fake” in your academic or professional life?
- Do you find yourself waiting for disaster to strike even when things are going well in your life?
- Do you find yourself having difficulty with authority figures?
Answering “Yes” to these may indicate some effects from family dysfunction. Most people could likely identify with some of them. If you find yourself answering “Yes” to over half of them, you likely have some long-term effects of living in a dysfunctional family. I would suggest you to consider seeking professional help. Remember, you deserve a happy life.
How to Heal Yourself
Feel Proud of Your Good Qualities
Remind yourself that regardless of the source of dysfunction, you have survived. Appreciate yourself. You have likely developed a number of valuable skills like finely tuned empathy for others, ability to succeed, adaptivity to change etc to get you through tough circumstances. Value them.
Learn to Identify and Express Emotions
Growing up in a dysfunctional family often generates very good sensitivity to others, which is commendable but the sad part is you may happen to neglect your own self, sometimes to the extent of denying your own feelings and experiences. There is need to be sensitive to your own self as well. Every day, spend a moment to identify emotions you are or have been experiencing. Notice what triggered them? How might you affirm or respond to them? Try keeping a daily feelings journal. Express what you feel but be selective in sharing your feelings with others. You may not find it helpful to share all of your feelings. In sharing your feelings with others take small risks first, then wait for a reaction. If the responses seem supportive and affirming try taking some larger risks.
Allow Yourself to Feel Angry About What Happened
Forgiveness is a very reasonable last step in recovery, but it is a horrible first step.
Do not suppress your anger. With caring and responsible adults, allowyourself to feel less guilt and shame and more nurturance and acceptance toward yourself.It is usually helpful to find productive ways to vent your anger. This can be done in support groups or with good friends. Try writing a letter to one or both of your parents and then burning the letter. You may want to talk with your parents directly about what happened or how it makes you feel. If you decide to do this, remember, your goal is to encourage positive change and work for a better relationship, not to hurt them back as that might result in more guilt and shame in the long run.
Begin the Work of Learning to Trust Others
Take small risks at first in letting others know you. Slowly build up to taking bigger risks. Learning who to trust and how much to trust is a lengthy process. Adult children from dysfunctional families tend to approach relationships in an all-or-nothing manner. Either they become very intimate and dependent in a relationship, or they insist on nearly complete self-sufficiency, taking few interpersonal risks. Both of these patterns tend to be self-defeating.
Begin to Voice Your Need
Frequently, children of dysfunctional families continue to seek approval and acceptance from their parents and families. You have to understand if these people could not meet your needs when you were a child, they are unlikely to meet your needs now. Recognize your parents’ limitations while still accepting whatever support they can offer. Seek your support from other adults. Practice saying how you feel and asking for what you need. Don’t expect people to guess — tell them. It may require much effort from your end but it is worth it.
Practice Taking Good Care of Yourself
Frequently, survivors of dysfunctional families have an exaggerated sense of responsibility. They tend to overwork and forget to take care of themselves. Try identifying the things you really enjoy doing, then give yourself permission to do at least one of these per day. Work on balancing the things you should do with the things you want to do.Identify areas you tend to approach compulsively: Drinking? Eating? Shopping? Working? Exercising? How might you approach this in a more balanced fashion? One of the best things you can do for your mental and emotional well being is to take good physical care of yourself. Try eating a good healthy balanced diet and get regular exercise.
Begin to Change Your Relationships with Your Family.
Keep the focus on yourself and your behavior and reactions. Remember, you cannot change others, but you can change yourself. Work on avoiding entanglements in your family’s problems.It is also important to be patient with your family. They may find it difficult to understand and accept the changes they see in your behavior. While most families can be workable, undoubtedly there are some rare families who are far too dangerous or abusive to risk further contact.
Take a Step Towards Professional Help
You can’t change the past but you can make peace with your past. Recognize any dysfunctional family roles you’ve played and decide to heal it.Frequently, most children from dysfunctional families tend to learn to doubt their own intuition and emotional reactions, and this tendency may continue in adulthood.Private sessions with a trained psychotherapist or/and therapeutic workshopscan provide an objective perspective and much-needed affirmation which will help you learn to trust your own reactions and be healed deeply.
One word of caution, While reading this article, do not judge the dysfunctional parents, as most of them themselves may be carrying a baggage of pain and suffering, and may be in need of healing.
There is an old adage that says, “You can’t prevent birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from making nests in your hair.”