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Dysfunctional Families Essay

The term “Dysfunctional Family” to me means (very basically) a family that is impaired in its functioning, but still operates as a family, with the inherent love underneath all the neuroses and abnormalities.

Dysfunctional families seem to have become the norm I believe. Part of the reason for this seems to be that many adult children are educators or counselors (adult children is the term for adults who are still functioning based on some of their childhood traumatic events). These adult children have evolved at a very high level intellectually but emotionally still carry unhealed wounds from their own childhood traumas.

We should understand that dysfunctional families occur for many reasons. A family can become dysfunctional if any compulsive behavior is present, mental illness, rigid rules, religiosity and any situation where the outer circumstances seek control rather than facilitate the emergence of a strong inner sense of self, personal power, and life skill development. Emotional and verbal abuse are extremely destructive to one’s sense of self. The wounds for both are difficult to “make real.” Emotional abuse is less recognized, less understood, and more difficult to overcome.

Dysfunctional families are universal. Addiction treatment professionals suggest 80-95 percent of families are dysfunctional to some degree. If the norm is dysfunctional, then what attributes describe a functional family? A functional family provides children with a safe and nurturing environment, supports learning during the different developmental stages, affirms the child’s worth and nurtures a sense of self confidence and autonomy.

Those of us who grew up in a dysfunctional family or who were neglected or abused in different ways are disenfranchised in our grief. Our losses in childhood have not been honored; they have been disregarded. As children from dysfunctional families, we have disowned our true self; we did so to survive.

I think that some children may even have a defunct family (one that was completely non-existing and dead). I wonder if “defunctional family” is a term ever used…if not, it should be.

Rules of the dysfunctional family:

While all families have rules, dysfunctional families have rigid rules which are often unspoken and unhealthy. These often include:

Don’t talk (about what is really going on).

Don’t trust anyone (but yourself).

Don’t feel or have needs (because there is no one available to validate or respond to you).

Deny there is a problem.

Roles of a dysfunctional family:

Family roles create special strengths in children from dysfunctional families but also “hide the scars” these children develop. These roles lead to patterns of behavior which can be problematic and difficult to let go in adulthood. These roles include:

The responsible child or caretaker – attempts to maintain peace by assuming responsibility for the needs of their siblings and their parents.

The family hero – is helpful within the family and successful outside of the family.

The enabler – enables the alcoholic to continue drinking by covering up her or his deterioration.

The scapegoat – diverts attention from the real family problems by acting out and engaging in self-destructive behavior. They often act out the tension in the family.

The clown – reduces the family’s tension with humor.

The lost child – the child who copes by making as few waves as possible, their goal is to draw as little attention as possible.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have a significant impact on adult functioning. Adults struggle with the following issues:

Difficulty knowing what is “normal”, in part due to the absence of adequate adult role models.

A tendency to be extremely self-critical as a result of having internalized frequent parental criticisms.

In response to living with unpredictability, a strong need for control.

Difficulty with intimate relationships due in part to inconsistent parental affection.

Problems recognizing and expressing feelings.

May confuse feelings or allow only certain feelings (sadness but not anger; anger, but not sadness).

Difficulty expressing needs because they have lost touch with their own needs or are fearful of “burdening” others.

An exaggerated sense of responsibility.

Counter-productive perfectionism.

A tendency to engage in “all or nothing” thinking and feeling.

Having become accustomed in childhood to crises, feeling anxious when life seems like it is going okay.

A tendency to be hyper-vigilant (keep their eye on everything, always worried).

Fear of anger (their own and others).

In response to parental abandonment or neglect, they develop the belief that they are not good enough, significant or lovable, and in the absence of a “good enough” sense of self are prone to feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Difficulty being spontaneous and having fun.

Those who did grow up in a dysfunctional family can also develop some unique strengths. These include:

Increased ability to be empathic – to understand and care about others

Heightened sensitivity & awareness.

Tendency to take less for granted.

Maturity, competence and the ability to solve problems and take charge.

Greater commitment to having a healthy family and raising children with caring and compassion.

Is my family dysfunctional?

My family may not be dysfunctional, but I think the lifestyle and personality of my immediate family are responsible in many ways for my shyness. To put it simply, my parents are very quiet people. They don’t have, and never have had, a wide circle of friends, and they virtually never go out (apart from the obvious, like shopping, eating, going to church and that). Because they were my role models during the early part of my life, I think I probably had trouble mixing with the other kids, (simply because I never saw them mix with other people) and this has kind of stuck with me throughout life. Not that I would say this sort of stuff to their face, because they are my folks and I love them dearly. I can only say that I’m glad I had the opportunity to move away from home, as I think it’s improved my life beyond all recognition.


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