When some people look back on their childhood they see happy times full of family memories, traditions, love, and encouragement. When I look back on my childhood I remember drug abuse, visiting my step father in jail, going without utilities, and playing the role of a mother at the age of eight. I knew I was different from other children. I knew that my parents depended on me to play the role of an adult. They depended on me to get up every morning and get my brother and sister on the school bus. I knew they depended on me to go straight home from school every day so I could babysit.
I would wake my mom up for work so she could work two jobs to support us and then I would cook dinner. Homework, friends, and things I wanted came last and I knew I didn’t have a choice. Indeed, my family was, and is, dysfunctional. What is dysfunction? Dictionary. com defines dysfunctional as any malfunctioning part or element. Dysfunction contains many aspects of unhealthy relating. Unhealthy relating can include such things as manipulation, using guilt or anger as motivation and at its most severe, abuse, including verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.
Dysfunction is something that is passed down from generation to generation until it is implemented into the family. From family to family there are different levels of dysfunction which span from mild dysfunction, to moderate dysfunction, and even severe dysfunction. A child growing up in a mildly dysfunctional environment tends to have an easier time fitting into society and functioning normally in life and their life may not be effected at all. One example of a mild dysfunction is a parent treating a child like an adult or making the child take care of the adult either emotionally or physically.
The adult treats the child as if they were an equal rather than a child. This results in the child having difficulties later in life in relationships getting their own needs met. This comes from having to give up a lot of these needs as a child to take care of the parent. An example of moderate dysfunction in a family is having a parent who is an alcoholic or drug addict. Because the child sees this on a regular basis, these behaviors are deemed to be “normal” or “accepted” behavior.
The parents’ drug and alcohol abuse increases the risk of a child abusing drugs or alcohol causing a strain in the child’s relationships later in life. Parents who use drugs tend to become emotionally absent and may, under the influence, scare the child, and may consistently disappoint the child. Severe dysfunction is the highest level of dysfunction. This occurs when a parent physically or sexually abuses the child on a regular basis, which severely damages the child on many levels. Children who grow up in these environments tend to need a lot of help and lengthy treatment to heal.
Some children are not able to heal at all and without help, the patterns of abuse are likely to be passed down to the next generation. Along with different levels of dysfunction there are specific roles each person in the family plays. There is the dependent, the enabler, the hero, the scapegoat, the lost child, and the mascot. The only exception is the only child. An only child tends to take on multiple roles, at the same time or alternating between roles. Because of this, the only child tends to have a great deal of confusion and overwhelming pain. The dependent is the spouse that causes the family problems.
The dependent, also known as the problem spouse, has a serious problem and it impacts every other member of the family and is taken care of by every member of the family. The enabler is the spouse that allows the dependent to continue his or her actions so that the dependent does not have to face consequences of his or her own actions. The enabler feels angry and resentful about having to pick up the slack of the dependent; they feel powerless to do anything to stop it. The enabler feels that they should act this way because without them holding everything together the family will fall apart.
Since the family’s survival is dependent on the enabler, they may pay the cost of stress-related illnesses, never having his or her own needs met, and be a sufferer for the cause of the family. Ironically, because the enabler permits the dependent’s behavior, they are also preventing the corrective experience that crisis brings, which may be the only thing that stops the dependents downward spiral. The hero is usually the oldest child. They are also named as “the good child” or “the caretaker”. The hero takes on the role of a parent and feels responsible for the emotional health of the family.
The hero is characteristically an over-achiever and over-responsible. The family looks at the hero’s as a source of humility and honor, and it makes the family feel as if they are doing well. The hero may do well in school and be good at sports and obtain good employment while inside the hero suffers from feelings of insufficiency, failure, or guiltiness. These feelings derive from thoughts that no matter how well the hero does, it will not heal the wounds of their family. The hero’s obsessive drive to accomplish something may lead to stress-related illness as well as compulsive over working.
Since the hero tries so hard to do well, he or she often obtains a great deal of positive attention. However, inwardly, the hero feels empty and unable to express their true feelings. The second born usually plays the role of the scapegoat and is also known as “the problem child”. The scapegoat is characteristically the trouble maker and is blamed for the majority of the family’s problems. He or she acts out in anger or defiance because of the built up feelings they harvest inside because all the families attention goes toward the dependent or the hero and they are being ignored.
The scapegoat often gets labeled as the family’s problem because of their experimentation with alcohol, drugs, promiscuous sexuality, involvement in adolescent gangs, or criminal activity. It is often the difficulty of the scapegoat that leads the family into treatment or counseling. Along with drug or alcohol abuse, the scapegoat’s acting out may bring with it early pregnancy when they are not prepared, or incarceration. The irresponsible attitude and hostility tends to lead them to acts of violence against themselves or others.
This defiance affects their opportunity to obtain adequate income leading them into outright criminality to earn a living. The scapegoat has lost touch with their morality, casting them in the role of a rebel. The characteristically shy, lonely, isolated child is dubbed as the lost child. The lost child feels like an outsider and feels like their parents and siblings ignore them. The lost child removes themselves from the chaos of their family, often engaging in their own fantasy world. The lost child has trouble identifying themselves and discovering who they are.
They are often confused about their sexual identity and have weak communication skills and difficulties with intimacy. The only way the lost child knows how to seek attention is by wetting the bed, and getting sick with asthma or allergies. They take care of themselves by easing their pain with overeating, or drowning their problems with alcohol or drug abuse. Low self-esteem usually ends all attempts of achievement. The lost child often has few friends and has trouble finding a marriage partner later in life. Instead, he or she tends to comfort their lack of intimate relationships with pets or other material possessions.
The lost child is often stuck in his or her own isolation preventing them from getting professional help. Clowning and hyperactivity are the main characteristics of the mascot who is often the youngest child. The mascot attempts to be the center of attention, or tries to make the family feel better through his or her comical relief. They use their comic efforts as a defense mechanism. Even though the mascot is protected from tribulations of life, they still feel intense anxiety and concern. Because the family tends to try to protect the mascot, he or she is often unprepared and immature when they grow into adulthood.
The only way they know how to deal with problems is to change the subject or by fooling around. Since the mascot uses comedy frequently, they are rarely taken seriously and are often a subject or subjected to criticism or rejection. The mascot may develop a learning disability because of struggling with concentration and focusing in school. They tend to be unaware of their feelings because they fear their own emotions. Since the mascot fears their own inner feelings, it prevents them from getting the help they need; often leading to intense depression and even suicide.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family changes a child’s outlook on life. It changes the way they grow up, the way they act, and the way they view normal behaviors. Children in a dysfunctional family miss necessary milestones in growing development to prepare them for adulthood. They, in other words, grow up too fast. Children of severely dysfunctional families are often subjected to sexual abuse becoming the substitute spouse for the parent of the opposite sex. Children of dysfunctional families have their boundaries violated by their parents.
Children either do not have any freedom or too much freedom. When a child grows up in a physical or sexual abusing family their physical boundaries are desecrated leading them to not being able to set boundaries in adult relationships. When a parent is intoxicated most of the time it creates confusion about which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. Children growing up seeing these kinds of behavior on a daily basis see these behaviors as normal. These children of dysfunctional families grow into teenagers with more emotional problems.
Many of them end up using drugs severely or turn to alcohol. Teenagers who were sexually abused, or molested, have a tendency to have many sexual partners because they were forced to have sex as a child, they have a conscience thought that they cannot say no. Many teenagers from a dysfunctional family try to escape the realities and runaway to try to find a better life. They in fact find prostitution, drug use, and some even find death. Females from a dysfunctional family triple the chance of having a baby before the age of twenty.
When children from a dysfunctional family grow up they become adults. These adults can lead their lives in one of two directions: either role with the dysfunction and not try to stop it and raising their children the same way, or they can fight it and try to change it to keep it from spreading to the next generation. When someone chooses to not fight it, they inflict the same pain on their children as they had experienced without truly realizing it. Since they saw dysfunction their whole lives they feel like it is normal and there is no problem with it.
When someone chooses to overcome it, they inflict a great deal of stress on themselves. Some participate in counseling, or therapy, and some try to fight it on their own. Some people may not be able to completely erase the dysfunction. It may take generation after generation to change. For example, someone from a severely dysfunctional family may try to change the dysfunction in their own family but, in fact, only change to a moderately dysfunctional family. Then someone from a moderately dysfunctional family may only be able to change it to a mild dysfunction in their own family.
It takes generations of work to change the ways of the family. There are many ways, many different routes people can take to try to overcome the dysfunction they have dealt with throughout their childhood. Many try counseling or therapy. Some just try to fight their way through it. Either way there are many ways to overcome it and change your life. It takes drive and fight to change patterns of dysfunction but with work and determination it is possible. I grew up in a family of severe dysfunction. I am twenty five years old and have seen more than anyone else I know my age.
I played the role of the hero, the lost child, and the replacement spouse. I have dealt with more than I should have at any age. But after all this, I know I can and will do better for my family. In my opinion, anything can be overcome, anything can be changed. There are so many ways for a family to be dysfunctional and so many different roles for a child who deals with that kind of pain. Everything can be overcome and changed for the better. Children from a dysfunctional family do endure a great deal of pain and it changes their lives forever.
Courtney from Study Moose
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