A few years ago, I was volunteering as a coach to young kids from dysfunctional families and troubled childhoods. Being a highly sensitive person, working with children in such complicated situations was heart-wrenching (sometimes) and at the same time, an experience that changed how I view all relationships as a whole. That entire experience not only broadened my understanding around the scope of family dysfunction (it’s more like a scale with some dysfunction to extreme disfunction) in different family units, but it also deepened my passion around this subject.
I always knew there was something in this topic of study that spoke directly to my heart. But pursuing that knowing took sometime. In this blog post, we're going to cover what family dysfunction is, some of its characteristics and explore whether it's possible to break free from the legacy of dysfunction some families might exhibit.
What is family dysfunction?
The term 'family dysfunction' is the imbalance in the dynamics within a family unit, whereby the way members relate to each other is unfavourable to emotional, metal and physical health. In the medical system, an individual's symptoms are seen in context of a family setting, a whole unit, and how he or she functions in all her relationships.
Personally, I've seen the usage of the term gain more popularity over the last few years, especially as more people started opening up and sharing their experiences instead of hiding the dysfunction in their family. I believe a lot of it has to do with the growing awareness around mental health and abuse in general.
It’s important to note that just like no two families or individuals are the same, no two dysfunctional families are the same either. In fact, since the term ‘family dysfunction’ isn’t understood very well by most people, it’s also very challenging for most individuals to tell for sure if they grew up in a dysfunctional environment.
The myth around blood and love
Most of us grow up being told (thus, believing) that our family is the epitome of love, support and protection. Society tells us that our family is everything. It’s almost always assumed that our family can never do or cause us any harm, and that blood relations are always meant to provide a sense of security and safety, and, an environment conducive to our well-being. While those were my beliefs as a child too, my personal and professional journey so far has opened my eyes to one profound truth — just because family is blood, doesn’t mean they are intrinsically capable of providing love, support and protection. The main problem with some of these beliefs around family is that they don't hold true for everyone and force individuals to accept the harm and suffering as their own (even if it feels off) under one statement: "Every family has issues. Big deal!"
Ultimately, we are all individual human beings, living our own experiences as well as participating in shared ones that could precipitate a lot of unpleasant actions, unhealthy behaviours as well as toxic dynamics. Sometimes we are born in such a dynamic and almost accept that as our story for the rest of our lives. We see our childhood taken away from us and begin to form extremely harmful beliefs around ourselves and others. Often, these dynamics are passed down from generation to generation and turn into a legacy, which, if at someone point isn’t disrupted, continues to affect more generations to come.
Disrupting or disengaging from an unhealthy dynamic takes awareness and work.That includes the ability to be open-minded, willingness to learn (and unlearn) as well as have the courage to work through healing. It requires someone in the family unit to realise they’ve had enough and do something to disturb the on-going, mostly subconscious pattern, for the better. This often results in some form of turbulence, shifting the norms of the family and can take a while to settle.
Here are some characteristics of a dysfunctional family:
1. Emotional neglect — lack of love, empathy, understanding, support and protection
2. Physical neglect and abandonment — isolating, refusing to touch, ignoring, denial of medical or healthcare
3. Emotional abuse — unreasonable criticism, belittling remarks, name-calling, emotional black-mailing, humiliation, yelling and screaming, terrorising
4. Psychological abuse — manipulation, gaslighting, scapegoating
5. Emotional enmeshment — where parents believe that kids are their sole purpose in life and want an unhealthy level of emotional closeness between them
6. Constant “heaviness” in the air due to unresolved conflicts between family members — lack of initiative to mend relationships, involvement of ego and control, and hence lack of apologies where needed (highly sensitive children are more likely to pick up on unspoken words and emotions)
7. Excessive control and pressure for things to be a certain way without the freedom to question — “Just do it because WE said so!”
8. Lack of privacy — lack of respect towards kids and their personal space or distance
9. Lack of or weak boundaries between family members
10. Unreasonable expectations and levels of perfectionism put on development and growth of children
11. Secret keeping — often, kids aren’t allowed to find support outside of the family because it would cause the dysfunction to leak outside of the four walls. Secret keeping can be exceptionally burdensome on the kids and can sometimes leave them feeling helpless and suffocated
12. Charade — where members are forced to act “normal” for the rest of the world as well as for each other, despite clear understanding that things are not okay
13. Physical violence
14. Sexual Abuse
15. Substance abuse
16. Illnesses (mental, physical) within family — it can often create an imbalance in terms of dependency, roles and power-play. This has a lot to do with which member is unwell and their role in maintaining the balance in the family unit.
17.Identified patient — this is where one of the family members is unconsciously (or sometimes consciously) “picked out” by the family unit to lay blame upon in order to cover up for, or draw attention away from the family’s pre-existing dysfunction
18. Sibling rivalry — sometimes created on purpose through manipulation, directly or indirectly affecting the harmony between siblings.
It's quite normal for some families to exhibit more than one of these so-called symptoms. While it's common for most families have some level of disharmony from time to time, the kind of situations, circumstances and dynamics I am referring to are of a different severity and intensity — they result in trauma, and cause devastating and long-lasting effects.
I’ve also come across people who grow up around dysfunction seeming rather normal to the outside world (and to themselves) until a serious situation demands their attention. It's not a big deal at all until it is.
For example, childhood experiences can easily translate into their adulthood and keep them from engaging in fulfilling relationships. Some might experience a sudden, illogical wave of fear or anxiety, or even experience physical ailments unexpectedly. Some may start seeing its effect in a more professional setting, affecting their productivity and their professional relationships. Whatever the situation, when it hits them that they're still bleeding from past wounds, there is no more running away from it — and they know it.
Is it possible to put an end a dysfunctional legacy?
YES. It certainly is. Sometimes it's not possible (or realistic) to put a complete end to the dysfunction in the family, simply because of the number of people involved and each of their awareness level. It's even harder to completely end a legacy that has been passed down many generations. However, it is definitely possible to learn to disengage and break away from it by working on self-awareness, healing your personal wounds, taking accountability, and learning healthier ways of relating with ourselves and those around us. It may be uncomfortable and might even take time, but it is absolutely possible to bloom all over again!I recommend doing this work with a therapist and/or a coach who specialises in dealing with family dynamics.
If you're ready to deep dive into self-work of healing and recovery from your past wounds, you can always contact me by filling up the 'Get In Touch' form on the bottom of my homepage.
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