We often times hear people say I came from a “dysfunctional family” when they are trying to understand or explain their challenges or difficult personalities. With so many people stating the same thing we should ask do we know what that means? Many times we blame our family’s dysfunction for our problems. But could that be our way of not taking responsibility for our issues? I mean all families encounter different difficulties, that may be overwhelming at times, but isn’t that normal? So I raise the question what makes a family system “dysfunctional”?
What is a “Dysfunctional Family”
As per definition, a dysfunctional family is one where there are multiple problems present that inhibit the family’s ability to have their basic needs met. Meaning that, the family is facing many different complex issues that do not allow the members of the family to gain access to the things they need for basic survival. This is what differentiate minor dysfunction or problems in a family system from major dysfunction; problems that impact our basic needs Remember, that when we grow up in dysfunction, that is our normal thus we do not know a life outside of that dysfunction. As just mentioned, a dysfunctional family has many issues, such as:
- Mental illness
- Substance and/or alcohol abuse
- Involvement in crime
- Domestic violence
- Child abuse
- Suicide in immediate family
- Incarceration of a family member
- Sexual Assault
- Inconsistent parent figures
- Extra marital affairs
- High conflict divorce
Facing one of these issues can be extremely challenging, imagine what it is like face more than one or many of these challenges at the same time. Many times, these challenges lead to each other thus there seems to be no break from problem. In the field of mental health and substance abuse we may see clients who have experienced various of the challenges listed above. Many times the clients that I have worked with who feel unable to t move forward with life or completely “lost” have experienced multiple issues at the same time. Also, sometimes one of these issues can lead to another. For example, if you were abused in your home by your parents, you are more at risk to be in an abusive relationship or use substances.
Common Characteristics in a Dysfunctional Family
It is cited that dysfunctional families often have poor communication skills. Communication is a building block of relationships, therefore poor communication will inadvertently lead to dysfunction. When a family has poor communication they do not listen to each other or respect what the other person is saying. This leads to individuals within the family to feel unheard or feel like what they say is not valuable. Which can lead to other issues related to self esteem and depression. For a family to be functional there should an emotionally safe environment where everyone feels safe to express and share their feelings.
Drug or Alcohol Abuse
Experts in family work say that when there is an issue of substance in the family, relationships within the family are established and created around the issue drugs or alchohol. This maintains the family homeostasis or balance. When there is substance abuse present family members tend to develop specific roles such as “the enablers” or “scapegoats” due to the substance abuse. Usually the scapegoat is someone who is blamed for the problem i.e. a child who is acting out.
Perfectionism or High Expectations
Many times when there is dysfunction there is an expectation for perfection. In addition to this, when the expectation is not reached there is a high level of criticism from the parents to the children. These expectations lead parents to not accept failure and criticize them when they do not achieve something. This can lead to verbal abuse where the parent is putting a child down based on their looks or intelligence. This could lead to constant negative thoughts about self. In addition, this could also cause extreme anxiety as the child may constantly worry if they are going to meet expectations or not.
When a child is abused it can lead to many negative consequences. Abuse can occur in many forms. Abuse can be physical, emotional, psychological and/or sexual. This includes abuse between two spouses that a child witnesses directly or indirectly. Meaning they watch it or they see the aftermath of it; a bruise on one parents, broken glass, physical injury, destroyed house, or an arrest as a result. Abuse often times occurs as a way to discipline negative behavior or control the child. It also leads to a family environment that is made up of unpredictability and fear. Which goes against what is known to be helpful for children; consistency, safety, and stability.
What is a Healthy Family?
It is important to note that healthy or unhealthy families are NOT free from dysfunction. They too may experience dysfunction or stressors such as a family member dealing with substances, or the onset of physical or mental illness. However, these issues are approached in a healthy manner with communication and team work. The family works to maintain stability and get back to a place when healthy functioning is present. In addition, if one family member is experiencing a hard time they feel safe enough to express that to their family members. In addition, healthy families allow each member to be themselves and does not put an extreme amount of pressure on them meet unrealistic expectations. It may be helpful to think of it like this, a healthy family will have the foundation to cope with the challenge in a healthy manner.
There are many things you can do if you think your child is being impacted by an unhealthy environment. Like all family work this should occur in a systemic way; all members of the family have to take place. If your child is exhibiting negative behaviors before anything rule out a delay or a challenge and ask yourself “where can I get a psychological evaluation near me?” or “where can I get a neurologist?” Once that is complete, family counseling could be helpful so that each member learns healthy patterns of communication and creates a system where there is consistency and stability. At RK Care Group we provide psychological testing as well as intensive family intervention services. For more information visit https://rkcaregroup.com/.