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Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional Relationship Patterns in Your Family

Many people hope that once they leave home, they'll leave their childhood problems behind. Yet often, they find that they experience similar problems ~~ as well as simliar feelings and relationship patterns ~~ long after they've escaped their family environment.

Ideally, children grow up in families that enable them to feel worthwhile and valued. They learn that their feelings and needs are important and can be expressed. Children growing up in such a supportive environment are likely to form healthy, open relationships in adulthood.

In reality, many families don't adequately provide for all of their children's emotional and physical needs. Furthemore, their communication patterns may severely limit their children's willingness and ability to develop low self-esteem and to feel that their needs are not important or perhaps should not be taken seriously by others. As a result, they may form unsatisfying relationships as adults.

Types of Dysfunctional Families

Patterns that frequently occur in dysfunctional families include:

1. One or both parents have addictions or compulsions (i.e. drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling and/or overeating) that have a strong impact on family members.

2. One or both parents use the threat or application of physical violence as the primary means of control. Children may have to witness violence, may be forced to participate in punishing siblings, or may live in fear of explosive outbursts.

3. One or both parents exploit the children and treat them as possessions whose primary purpose is to respond to the physical and/or emotional needs of the adults (i.e. protecting the parent or cheering up the one who is depressed).

4. One or both of the parents are unable to provide, or threaten to withdraw, financial, or basic physical care for their children. Similarly, one or both parents fail to provide their children with adequate emotional support.

5 One or both parents exert strong authoritarian control over the children. Often these families rigidly adhere to a particular set of beliefs (religious, financial, and personal). Compliance with role expectations and with rules is expected without any flexibility.

There is a great deal of variability in how often dysfunctional interactions and behaviours occur within families, and in the kinds and the severity of their dysfunction. However, when patterns like those listed are the norm rather than the exception, they systematicaolly foster abuse and/or neglect.

Children may:

~ Be forced to take sides in conflicts between parents

~ Experience "reality shifting" in which what is said contradicts what is actually happening (i.e. a parent may deny something happened that the child actually observed, for example when a parent describes a disastrous holiday dinner as a "good time".

~ Be ignored, discounted, or criticized for their feelings and thoughts.

~ Have parents who are inappropriately intrusive or overly involved and protective.

~ Have parents who are inappropriately distant and uninvolved.

~ Have excessive structure and demands placed on their time, choice of friends, or behaviour, or conversely, receive no guidelines or structure.

~ Experience rejection or preferential treatment.

~ Be restricted from full and direct communication with other family members.

~ Be allowed or rencouraged to use drugs or alcohol.

~ Be slapped, hit, scratched, punched or kicked.

Resulting Problems.

A lack of nurturing, neglect or any type of abuse inhibits the development of a child's trust in the world, in others and in themselves. Later, as adults, they may find it difficult to trust the behaviours and words of others, their own judgments and actions, or their own sense of self-worth. Not surprisingly, they may experience problems in their academic work, their relationships and even their identities.

Like everyone else, abused and neglected family members often struggle to interpret their families as "normal". The more they have to accommodate to make the situation seem normal (i.e. "No, I wasn't beaten: I was just spanked" or "My father isn't violent: it's just his way"), the greater is their likelihood of misinterpreting themselves and developing negative self-concepts ("I had it coming: I'm a rotten kid.")

Effects on Children.

Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt one or more of the five basic roles:

1. "The Good Child." Often the family hero who assumes the parental role.

2. "The Problem child." The family scapegoat, who is blamed for most problems in spite of being the only emotionally honest one in the family.

3. "The Caretaker". The one who takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family.

4. "The Lost Child". The inconspicuous, quiet one, whose needs are often ignored or hidden.

5. "The mascot". Uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.

Children may also:

~~ Come to depend on external validation and affirmations despite their personal talents or achievements.

~~ Think only of themselves to make up for the neglect they experienced during childhood.

~~ Distrust others.

~~ Have difficulty expressing emotions.

~~ Have low self-esteem or a poor self-image.

~~ Have difficulty forming healthy relationships with others.

~~ Feel angry, anxious, depressed, isolated from others, or unlovable.

~~ Perpetuate dysfunctional behaviours in their other relationships (especially with their children).

~~ Lack the ability to be playful or childlike, having "grown up too fast."

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