Dysfunctional Families

 Many, perhaps most of us grew up in a dysfunctional home. The situation often continues in schools, businesses, government, any situation where people interact. As we explore dysfunctional families try to think of where these attributes play out for you and others in all manner of situations. Feel free to stop and consider any thoughts or emotions that come up. Dysfunctional families (and organizations) are known for regular conflict, bad behavior, abuse, and neglect among parents and family members. Alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness may affect members and problems can become so common they seem normal.

One parent is often abusive with the other enabling or ignoring their actions, so leaving the child to assume blame. This dynamic may be holding the family together but is sometimes unstable and the family may crumble due to loss of a job, home, physical or mental illness. Dysfunctional families pervade all classes regardless of status. Historically family problems were ignored or kept secret until just a few decades ago as children were forced to cope alone. Experiences with dysfunction cause family members to acquire common features and behaviors that enable and reinforce the situation.

Some features of the dysfunction are nearly universal such as: denying neglectful or abusive behavior, poor boundaries, extreme conflicts, unfair treatment, and lack of empathy towards some family members. Other common but less universal aspects are jealousy and controlling behaviors, lack of family time, disowning or avoiding family members, adultery, promiscuity, or incest. Other examples are family members holding grudges, lack of contact with extended family, parents not speaking up or helping to resolve conflicts, and immigrants having difficulty with changing cultures and times. Also many children are afraid of their parents or talking about family problems, especially outside the home.

The Adult Children of Alcoholics and dysfunctional families program (ACA) lists common traits such as: becoming approval seekers and losing our identity, being frightened by angry people and personal criticism, becoming alcoholics, marrying them or both, or finding other compulsive personalities, living as a victim, having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, getting guilt feelings for standing up for themselves, confusing love and pity, stuffing feelings from traumatic childhoods, losing the ability to feel or express feelings, judging themselves harshly, very low self-esteem, becoming dependent personalities terrified of abandonment, becoming para-alcoholics who take on the characteristics of the disease, and being reactors rather than actors.

There are many signs of dysfunctional families and unhealthy parenting such as: unrealistic expectations, ridicule, conditional love, disrespect, intolerance for emotions, isolation, stifling speech, being under or overprotective, apathy, belittling, shame, bitterness, hypocrisy, lack of forgiveness, judgment, criticism, double standards, mixed messages, absentee parents, broken promises, gender prejudice, under or over exposure to sexuality, faulty discipline, unpredictable emotions, blaming, and excessive or unfair arguing.

Beyond these features, traits, and signs of family dysfunction are parenting styles and dynamics such as: manipulating kids as messengers, pawns, and spies between warring parents (triangulation), ruling by fear and conditional love, using children to get their own needs met, abusing verbally, physically, mentally, and sexually, insisting on perfectionism, forcing harsh and inflexible discipline and values, favoritism, and withholding love, support, necessities, sympathy, praise, attention, and supervision.

This continues with abuse between siblings, extended family and others, abandonment, micro-managing, secretive and false fronting (highly regarded and functional in community but dysfunctional at home), paranoia (irrational and persistent fears, anger, accusations), isolating (can't go out and others can't come over), expecting children to take care of themselves, siblings and parents attacking others, babying older children, ignoring sexuality (puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, curiosity, anatomy, romance, etc), and Munchausen syndrome.

The effects on children are many, but we feel listing them may help you to learn when, where, why, how, and by who you were affected. Children may grow up too slowly or too quickly ("little adults" or "big kids"), suffer from mental illness (depression, anxiety, rage, etc.), become addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, gambling, spending, food, entertainment, pornography, etc, become a bully, victim, or sex offender, deny their situation, have difficulty forming and keeping healthy relationships, become overly shy, introverted, and isolated, develop speech, sleep, and eating disorders, become a criminal, and have low self esteem and self image.

These children also may have trouble in school, lack good self care and hygiene, self harm or attempt suicide, be disorganized, rebel against parents and other authority figures, abuse their parents (particularly when older), be selfish, uncaring, and reckless, run away from home, partner, marry, or have children too young and with other abusive, neglectful, dysfunctional persons, become homeless, poverty stricken, uneducated, join cults, gangs, and fundamentalists, move far from family or cut off contact, and perpetuate these behaviors in marriages, work situations, friendships, and especially with their own children.

Truly not a pretty picture, yet there is hope, help, healing, and happiness on the other side. The first step is awareness, as we must face it and feel it to heal it, so this is a necessary step on the road to recovery and resolution. We must honestly and deeply acknowledge what has happened and how it has affected us. However, it is imperative this is done in a safe situation, with safe people, and in a proper way. For instance, it is said we must have an inner loving parent ready to take the inner child into our arms as it may have been carrying intense pain, confusion, and sorrow for years or decades and lash out when tending festering mental, emotional, sexual, and spiritual wounds.

As hard as it may have for you to read and imagine this inventory it may have been nothing compared to the pain and suffering you have lived with for years or decades with these issues. We at Cowboy Dharma applaud you for making it this far, yet this is only be the beginning. Read on and see if you can find the people, tools, and environments to realize the hope, help, healing, and happiness that we and countless others have. We are sure you will be amazed at what is possible. To continue on, simply click the back arrow to take you back to where you were in the Inner Child Sanity File or click here to return to the beginning of that post.