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Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family
"As a kid I was like a miniature adult. I cooked and cleaned and made sure my little brothers got off to school. My Mom was always depressed and stayed in bed -- she was in the hospital a lot. I guess I never really was a kid. Now, I work hard to get As, take on lots of responsibility, put on this competent front. Inside I still feel really empty."
"My dad's an alcoholic. I was always afraid to invite other kids over because I didn't want them to see what my family was like. I never really got close to people, now I don't seem to know how to let others get close. I really don't know how to have a good relationship. Most of the time I feel pretty alone."
"My parents have always had these big ambitions for me. They tell me what my career should be, who my friends should be, what kind of car I should drive, and who I should date. it's like they expect me to be perfect but don't really believe I can blow my own nose. I feel like I'm suffocating, but if I get the least bit independent they try to control me with money."
When problems and circumstances such as parental alcoholism, mental illness, child abuse, or extreme parental rigidity and control interfere with family functioning, the effects on children can sometimes linger long after these children have grown up and left their problem families. 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).
What is a Dysfunctional Family?
How Do Healthy Families Work?
Children are consistently treated with respect, and do not fear emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Parents can be counted on to provide care for their children. Children are given responsibilities appropriate to their age and are not expected to take on parental responsibilities. Finally, in healthy families everyone makes mistakes; mistakes are allowed. Perfection is unattainable, unrealistic, and potentially dull and sterile.
There are many types of dysfunction in families. Some parents under-function, leaving their children to fend for themselves. Other parents over-function, never allowing their children to grow up and be on their own. Others are inconsistent or violate basic boundaries of appropriate behavior. Below is a brief description of some types of parental dysfunction along with some common problems associated with each.
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines physical abuse as "the infliction of physical injuries such as bruises, burns, welts, cuts, bone or skull fractures; these are caused by kicking, punching, biting, beating, knifing, strapping, paddling, etc." Striking a child has much to do with meeting the parent's emotional needs and nothing to do with concern for the child; parents often erroneously justify the abuse as "discipline" intended to "help" the child. Physically abusive parents can create an environment of terror for the child, particularly since violence is often random and unpredictable. Abused children often feel anger. Children of abusive parents have tremendous difficulties developing feelings of trust and safety even in their adult lives. While parents may justify or rationalize verbal or physical abuse as discipline aimed at somehow helping the child, there is no rationalization for sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse is the most blatant example of an adult abusing a child purely for that adult's own gratification. Sexual abuse can be any physical contact between an adult and child where that contact must be kept secret. Demonstrations of affection -- such as hugging, kissing, or stroking a child's hair -- that can be done openly are quite acceptable and even beneficial. When physical contact is shrouded in secrecy then it is most likely inappropriate. Sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls. It is perpetrated by both men and women. It cuts across lines of race, socioeconomic level, education level, and religious affiliation. 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. Most sexually abused children are too frightened of the consequences for themselves and their families to risk telling another adult what is happening. As a result they grow into adulthood carrying feelings of self-loathing, shame, and worthlessness. They tend to be self-punishing and have considerable difficulties with relationships and with sexuality.
Regardless of the kind of dysfunction or abuse, effects vary widely across individuals. Support from other healthy adults, success in other areas, or positive changes in the family can help prevent or minimize negative effects. The following questions may help you identify how you may have been or continue to be affected.
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. If you find yourself answering "Yes" to the majority of them you might consider seeking some additional help.
HOW TO HEAL
Many of the survival behaviors you developed are your best assets. For example, people who grow up in dysfunctional families often have finely tuned empathy for others; they are often very achievement-oriented and highly successful in some areas of their lives; they are often resilient to stress and adaptive to change. In examining changes you may want to make in yourself, it is important not to lose sight of your good qualities.
Patience is necessary! Negative effects from growing up in dysfunctional families often stem from survival behaviors that were very helpful when you were growing up, but may become problematic in your adult life. Remember that you spent years learning and practicing your old survival skills, so it may take awhile to learn and practice new behaviors.
1. Get Help.
2. Learn to Identify and Express Emotions.
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.
3. Allow Yourself to Feel Angry About What Happened.
Placing the responsibility for what happened during your childhood where it belongs, i.e., with the responsible adults, allows you 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.
If you decide to do this it is important to keep your goal clear. Do you want to encourage change and work for a better relationship, or are you trying to get even or hurt them back? Pursuing revenge frequently results in more guilt and shame in the long run. Holding on to anger and resentment indefinitely is also problematic and self-defeating. Focusing on old resentments can prevent growth and change.
4. Begin the Work of Learning to Trust Others.
Frequently, children of dysfunctional families continue to seek approval and acceptance from their parents and families. 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. This step will likely require much effort.
5. Practice Taking Good Care of Yourself.
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. Do you eat a good healthy balanced diet? Do you get regular exercise?
6. Begin to Change Your Relationships with Your Family.
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.
Forward, S. (1989). Toxic parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life. New York: Bantam Books.
Gravitz, H.L. and Bowden, J.L. (1985). Guide to recovery: A book for adult children of alcoholics. Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publications.
Beattie, M. (1987). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. New York: Harper and Row.
Gil, E. (1983) Outgrowing the pain: A book for and about adults abused as children. San Francisco: Launch Press.
Bass, E. and Davis, L. (1988). The courage to heal: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. New York: Harper & Row.
SOURCE: Created by Kansas State University Counseling Services ©1993,1997 by Kansas State University