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What to Do If You Grew up in a Dysfunctional Family…

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No family is perfect! It’s far from it. All families experience some level of dysfunction. Most, however, manage pretty well despite it.

There are gradients of dysfunction. The family’s psychological and physical health sometimes determines where it registers on the dysfunctional seismograph.

Families like the Bradys on The Brady Bunch (1969 – 1974), a TV series about a blended family with six children who get along beautifully despite rough patches here and there, are pretty much non-existent.

In real life, a blended family like that would likely experience serious challenges and, more often than not, insurmountable ones. It’s common for families like that to end in divorce.

Examining Family Dynamics

To determine a family’s level of dysfunction, it’s important to examine its dynamics.

Is there crippling internal conflict, such as severe sibling rivalry, parental and/or child conflict? Is there domestic violence, mental illness, or sexual abuse? Perhaps the conflict is external, like drug and/or alcohol addiction, unemployment, gambling, or even extramarital affairs?

All of these conflicts, whether internal or external, affect the family unit dramatically and cause considerable life-long dysfunction for its members.

Dysfunctional Family Roles

In almost all dysfunctional families, there are various ROLES taken on by its members to help the family survive.

Let’s take a look at some of these roles.

The Enabler

The enabler takes on the protective role. They do whatever is necessary to take care of the family, no matter how bad the situation is.

For example, in a family with an alcoholic or drug addict, the enabler is the one who picks up the pieces after their father comes home drunk. They protect the troubled family member from suffering the consequences of their bad behavior; they always hope that they can say or do something that will make their addicted parent stop what they’re doing.

This is exceedingly stressful and obviously, a lose-lose situation. In actuality, by protecting their addictive parent, they are creating a comfortable atmosphere for that parent, making it even more difficult for the addict to want to quit anything.

The Hero

This family member, the hero, usually the firstborn, could be considered the Poster Child for the family. They make sure everything looks good to the outside world.

The hero tends to be an overachiever and is always on top of their game. This hero knows that if they look good, so will their family. Often, they deny that there’s even a problem.

As you can imagine, keeping a dysfunctional family together and looking good is a tough job, which causes a great deal of pressure and inner conflict.

The Troublemaker/Scapegoat

The scapegoat tends to be the family’s “black sheep”. They are typically the middle child. They are the ones who are constantly getting into trouble, and they sometimes get suspended from school, arrested, have angry outbursts, etc.

This family member takes the bullet for the team. The scapegoat, as the name implies, is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the family. Usually, they are the first to fly the coop.

In many cases, if the “troublemaker” straightens up their act or manages to escape, another member of the family will more than likely take over the role.

The Lost Child

The lost child, who is sometimes referred to as the “quiet one”, gets lost in the shuffle.

According to an article in Solutions Recovery

“The Lost Child will just go with the flow, don’t stand out, don’t make any trouble. With the antics and achievement of the other family members, the low-maintenance kid is what the addiction family needs. Unfortunately, the Lost child often stays lost long into adulthood and has a lot of trouble getting direction in their life, interacting socially, or standing up for themselves.”

The lost child is almost non-existent in the family. They insulate themselves, withdraw into their rooms to read, or watch TV. They avoid drama like the plague. They have no opinion, so they can never be counted upon to back anyone up.

The Mascot

The mascot, more often than not, is the baby of the family. They tend to be the funny and mischievous one in the family.

They will act goofy, make everyone laugh, and draw attention to themselves, all in an effort to bring peace to the household. You can count on them to intervene when a volatile situation arises. Their tool is their humor.

The mascot suffers just as much as the rest of the family members, but they hide that suffering behind their comedic acts.

An illustration of such a family with these marked roles is the Wilkersons, depicted in the show, Malcolm in the Middle.

There is Francis, the eldest son, who misbehaves so badly he is sent to military school. The next in line is Reese, a bully without any common sense, then Malcolm, a child genius who doesn’t want to be one, and the youngest, Dewey, the ongoing victim of all of his brother’s abuse.

The mom is an overbearing control freak. The dad is just there, a loving but immature presence without much authority.

This is a typical example of a dysfunctional family. And this is not even the worst of the lot.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family wreaks havoc on those who grow up with one.

Imagine being in prison—the only home you’ve ever known. In this prison, there’s verbal and/or physical abuse, lack of boundaries, no space, and no one to whom you can voice your feelings or concerns. You don’t feel safe, nor do you feel there’s anyone on whom you can depend.

There’s rarely a release from this prison system. You might get out, but psychologically you may be bound for life.

Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family

Above, I covered some of the roles played in dysfunctional families. Now, let’s take a look at some of the characteristics that make a family register high on their dysfunctional seismograph.

1. Abuse

Sexual assault, physical beatings, or verbal lashings are all active types of abuse. These are extremely serious.

These families typically get caught up in a loop that makes it seem as though the abuse is “normal”. It’s not uncommon for children who grow up in these environments to continue the abusive behavior into their adulthood.

2. Emotional Abuse

This type of abuse is considered inactive.

For example, a mother who ignores her child, who doesn’t hold it; a parent who shows absolutely no interest in their offspring, or withholds love when the child doesn’t do what they want.

Neglect leaves the child always begging for attention, always looking for ways to receive validation. Some severe forms of emotional abuse include constant criticism, shaming, guilt-tripping, bullying, threats, gaslighting, and controlling behavior, to name but a few.

A man I once treated presented with a constant need for attention from men and women alike. If he didn’t receive it, he would get very depressed and think something was wrong with him.

He constantly berated himself for not being good enough. Some probing into his family background revealed what I already suspected – the man’s father had been absent from his son’s life. And when he was around, he ignored his son, paying more attention to his friends and activities.

Without realizing it, as an adult, my client was on a continual quest to get the approval and attention from strangers that he never received from his father.

3. Conditional Love

In families where love is conditional, there is always an extreme disappointment.

A member of this family is constantly striving to be perfect. They know that if they’re not – that if they don’t do what is expected of them – the “love” will be withdrawn. These members feel like they’re walking on a tightrope. One slip and it’s all over.

In these families, there’s no safety net. Children often grow up to become people-pleasers who do whatever it takes to get the love they so desperately want and need.

4. No Boundaries

A typical scenario in this type of family is a parent who is controlling, invades your privacy, and has no consideration for your opinion or desires. Maybe they open your mail or throw it away if they don’t want you to see it. You may want to express yourself but are discouraged if you do.

Without boundaries, family roles are fuzzy. As an older child, you might become parentified, obliged to act as parent to your younger siblings or your parents.

Living with no boundaries is like throwing five different types of food into a blender. Once they are blended, it’s impossible to separate any of the ingredients.

A home with no boundaries is like that. You don’t have your own space or your own identity. There’s an overall lack of respect for individual rights and privacy.

5. No Intimacy

In this household, there is no closeness between the family members. Signs of love are non-existent.

The kids in this home don’t feel supported in any way. Emotionally, the parents are unavailable. It is likely that a grown adult from this type of family is cut off from their emotions or will choose someone who is unavailable themselves, replicating their family of origin.

6. Triangulation

In this type of dysfunction, the family members can’t or won’t confide in each other. “Communication” happens by “triangulating” another family member into their drama.

Let’s say, for instance, that Mom is angry at Dad. Instead of talking to Dad about the situation, she calls Timmy over and starts complaining to him about Dad, “Can you believe what he did? He’s a mess. I can’t even stand him. You can tell him I said so.”

Imagine how Timmy feels stuck between both parents. In this household, a third person is always drawn in and made the substitute for direct communication.

7. Addiction

Any family who has one or more members addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., is gravely dysfunctional. Any kind of addict is not – cannot – be a good, responsible parent. They may be physically present, but not emotionally.

Addicts are unpredictable. The members of this family grow up being hypervigilant – always looking for clues as to what’s going to happen next.

In families with addictions, there may be a lot of yelling, violence, or the reverse, non-involvement. All of these features cause acute pain.

Some Causes of Dysfunction in a Family

Now that you have a picture of the pieces that go into the dysfunctional family construct, you may want to know the causes.

Many things can be at play. For instance, there could be a history of mental illness, health issues, or physical or verbal abuse. Maybe the parent grew up in a violent home, and now they’ve created one themselves.

Sometimes, however, the dysfunction is created by unpredictable life challenges. Maybe high stress due to the loss of a job, which leads to frustration, depression, and maybe even domestic abuse.

While I was working with Worker’s Compensation patients, the stress caused by their detrimental injuries and subsequent job loss was unbearable for some of my clients. Often they became depressed, abusive, suicidal, and sometimes even homicidal.

The loss of identity changes the family dynamics, and a situation that didn’t previously exist becomes prevalent. Roles change, thereby creating a great deal of havoc within the family.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave many scars. Those scars may appear as:

  • Behavioral disorders
  • Difficulty starting and maintaining relationships
  • Difficulty communicating feelings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of self-worth
  • Chronic anxiety or depression
  • Constant self-criticism

11 Ways You Can Heal From a Dysfunctional Family

If you grew up in a dysfunctional household, you may feel a sense of hopelessness. But all is not lost. There are many things you can do to heal and live a balanced and productive life.

Here are some suggestions to get you on your way:

  1. Get some therapy. A good therapist can help you look at those old, internal wounds, and work with you to help heal them.
  2. Understand that as a child, you didn’t have a voice, but as an adult, you do.
  3. Realize that no matter what you were told, you are worthy of love. You matter!
  4. Learn to express your feelings. They’re in there.
  5. Stay away from the toxic environment as much as possible.
  6. Stop repeating the cycle you lived in. It is necessary to find a new normal.
  7. Understand that your past does not define you. As an adult, you can make different choices.
  8. Stop blaming your past. Do things differently; that’s the best way to move forward.
  9. Give up any unbecoming role/s you played. What role did you play? Is it something that works for you? Or something you need to discard?
  10. You are not a victim anymore unless you allow yourself to be.
  11. Know that you can’t change people. You can only change yourself. By virtue of that, you change the behavior of others.

Final Thoughts

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can be brutal. It’s an ongoing war that leaves multiple battle scars.

As an adult, you don’t have to keep fighting the war. You can end it. And while you might always have flashbacks, don’t let them dictate your present life.

You can make different choices. Initially, you may have to do things that go against the grain of who you believe you are. But by doing these things over and over again, things can change.

The cycle of dysfunction can be broken. A new and improved cycle can be built, and you can be the one to do it!

Featured photo credit: Simon Rae via unsplash.com



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