By: Marilyn L. Davis
Recovering from: Drugs, People, Situations
What do you think of when you hear the word – recovery? Most people think of substance abuse or recuperating from surgery. However, the word is multi-layered, multi-faceted and inclusive of other physical, mental and emotional issues. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a new working definition of recovery: A process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.
Where Was I Before I Got Here?
“Many of us live in denial of who we truly are because we fear losing someone or something-and there are times that if we don’t rock the boat, too often the one we lose is ourselves…It feels good to be accepted, loved, and approved of by others, but often the membership fee to belong to that club is far too high of a price to pay.” ― Dennis Merritt Jones
- How did I end up here?
- What happened to my dreams?
- Can I ever reclaim my lost childhood and thrive?
All of those questions focus on the regrets, resentments, and the disillusionment that many people feel when they are adults.
Not because they are a certain age, it’s that they’ve made decisions to be responsible – buying a home, finishing their education, paying their bills, or raising children, and something stood in their way.
I Don’t Feel Like an Adult
Many of them, however, don’t feel like adults. There are still troublesome behaviors that are a carry-over from childhood. And most don’t understand that they are still acting out family roles in their interactions with others.
It is often that discovery of the past that gives people the light bulb moment when they realize, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense; that happened to me; no wonder I ended up feeling like I do.”
Recovering through the Generations
In backtracking with many clients, I see the dysfunctional family, where conflict, misbehavior, and neglect were common.
Without blaming parents, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the dysfunctional family.
Outdated Rules in the Family
Multi-generational co-dependency and outdated or rigid rules on parenting, life beliefs, or negative messages contribute to the dysfunction. Many of the behaviors are simply mechanical or habituated; however, with mindfulness, you can drop the roles, when you become aware of them. Notice the triggers, and change behaviors.
For instance, a young woman was engaged and creating a wedding gift registry with her fiance. On her list, she had “2 ham pans.” Her intended asked her what that was and she told him that her family always used two pans for their hams. Since it was a trivial thing, her fiance just added it along with his toolbox.
At the wedding, he saw ham on the buffet line and decided to ask his new mother-in-law if she thought the caterers used two ham pans. She told him that she was not sure, but that was how they did it in her family. Even more curious, he approached his wife’s great-grandmother and asked about the two-ham pan rule. She started laughing and told him that as a young bride, she only received two loaf pans and so had to cut up a ham to bake it.
She said that she had not used two pans for more than 50 years, relying on a larger roaster for turkeys, chickens, ribs, and ham. Somehow, her daughter and granddaughter missed this update.
While this example is somewhat humorous, it demonstrates the tendency in families to pass on systems and sets of rules that might not have practical, helpful or healthy application today.
What Are The Characteristics Of A Dysfunctional Family?
Dysfunctional family members have common characteristics, traits and qualities that are the result of the behavior patterns established within the family. These are then reinforced by the reactions to the behaviors. What are some typical behavior patterns present in the dysfunctional family?
Certain Family Members Count More Than Others Do
- “Father knows best.”
- “Jimmy is awkward, so we have to overlook some things.”
- “We go to Susie’s weekly games, sorry, we cannot make your Yearly Boy Scout dinner.”
- “Your mother is easily upset, so we will not burden him with this news.”_
Attention And Concern Are Withheld From Certain Family Members
Conversely, one family member more seems more important, or the king or queen of the family, then there are certain family members who receive little attention, concern, or care.
- “Oh, John can handle that, he’s always been a trooper.”
- “Mary will always come through in a crisis.”
- “Timmy is such a good boy, he entertains himself in his room for hours.”
- “We hardly know that Susie lives with us, she’s so quiet.”
Denying Any Form Of Abuse Or Neglect
Families develop a blind eye about the elephant in the room, and pretend that something so obvious as the neglect, abuse, or dysfunction do not exist.
Some children grow up assuming that whatever went on in their household was normal, even when their feelings suggested otherwise.
A few types of abuse and neglect are seemingly benign, or caring, such as doing for children long after they need a particular type of attention. For instance, not letting children understand the natural consequences of their actions; blaming a teacher if a child is not doing well in school when the parent realizes that the child does not study for tests or complete homework assignments.
Or blaming a coach or other instructors for the shortcomings of a child who does not practice or complete assignments in Boy Scouts to receive a badge are further examples of this type of negligent behavior.
Nonexistent or Inconsistent Boundaries
Tolerating inappropriate behaviors or treatment of certain family member, often excusing the actions if someone questions the actions.
- “Oh, he didn’t hit him that hard, he was just reacting to a work situation.”
- “It is natural to have this strong emotional connection, I did not have it as a child.”
- “They’re only our children for so long, and I’m keeping them, my babies.”
- “Your mother is just high-strung; she doesn’t mean what she says.”
Conflicting Methods for Expressing Anger
When there are extremes in ways that families deal with their anger, it creates tension even when the family is seemingly getting along.
People are apt to be waiting for “the other shoe to drop”; anticipating that harsh words and disagreements will shortly escalate into arguments with heated words, slammed doors, or physical abuse.
Some people take the opposite approach and retreat to the safety of their rooms or stuff their feelings. These types of conflicts can further marginalize or keep someone from the center of the conflict, however, it may set up guilty feelings when the person realizes they did not intercede or support their sibling or one parent over the other.
Other people find drugs and alcohol and use them as a painkiller to medicate the feelings and thoughts.
Some types of abuse and neglect have far-reaching consequences for a family member; often requiring years of therapy, counseling, or help to come to terms with the past family dynamics.
Too often, the following types of harm go unnoticed or concealed, and in some cases, the family acts to protect, not the victim, but the violator.
Other Factors Contributing To a Dysfunctional Family
- Broken promises
- Rape and Sexual Abuse
- Staying married for the “sake of the children”
- Value and status based on birth order, gender, or age
Family Perceptions Differ
People have selective memory sometimes. In other words, they choose either not to remember, or remember it in a way that will not reflect poorly on them. If questioned about this from someone struggling to make sense of their life and get things on track, often the rejoinder or comeback is an overemphasis on the few times that the family did have a vacation, a night out, or fun activity to excuse the lack of family togetherness. “Oh, it’s not that bad, you remember when we took you to Disneyland when you were five.”
This ‘child’ is a 37-year old addict trying desperately to make sense of his life.
I Can’t Talk About It
Children are discouraged and sometimes punished for revealing the dysfunction in the home. There are strictly enforced “No talk” rules about sharing family dynamics with outsiders, including those who might help the child such as a school counselor.
Therapists, clergy, extended family members like grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins not directly living in the home, are also limited in their understanding of what is happening at home.
Parents sometimes experiences jealousy towards their children for the advantages that they perceive their children have in comparison to their own childhood; reinforced in statements about how the parents had “to walk 6 miles in the snow to get to school.”
Children take on roles or wear masks within the family to survive in dysfunctional family systems.
Regardless of which mask or front is adopted in childhood, there’s always pain underneath it, but there is recovery from the pain.
If the parents have not done recovery work on their own roles that they adopted as children, there are often competing dual role players in the same family.
The six basic roles are:
Hero Child or the Good Child
This child makes good grades, participates in sports, gives the family a solid reputation within the community, receives praise for their performance, and is dedicated to making the family life function. They assume many of the responsibilities of the parents and often are the surrogate parent to their siblings.
This role is the release for the pressure cooker family system. They are articulate, funny, willing to play the court jester to diffuse the tensions within the family.
Scapegoat Child or the Problem Child
This role bears the brunt or blame for the problems within the family or the family’s poor standing in the community. Often times this child is an underachiever, prone to moodiness, angry outbursts, feelings of abandonment and low self-esteem.
Prompting some of their actions is often a feeling of less-than within the family and acted out as, “if you think I’m bad, I’ll show you bad.”
Often the Caretaker is in charge of the emotional well-being of the household. They comfort siblings and parents after arguments, soothing feelings between other family members, and becoming increasingly isolated in their own feelings of sadness that no one addresses.
This role schemes, makes note of the other family member’s weaknesses and faults and uses this information to get what they want. They have learned to manipulate situations to their advantage.
The Lost Child
This child has learned to steer clear by whatever means necessary. They stay quiet and out of the chaos, do not contribute to the tension, and inconsistencies within the family. Lost children learn not to “make waves”.
They’ve learned to take care of themselves from an early age. However, this self-sufficiency hides an often scared child with little if any resources within the family structure that feel safe.
They are often the most neglected family members.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart
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