Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Household - Part 2

Learned Coping Behaviors and Methods of Survival


Families at all stages of development are prone to influences coming from within and outside the family unit and are down right challenging. This meaning that external factors such as jobs, friendships, community, proximity to natural green space, socio-economic status, religion, crime/violence, media, and political policies influence how families function. Right alongside, you’ll see the internal factors such as communication (between siblings, arguments between parents, or up the command chain – child to adult), nutrition, exercise, empathy, core values, knowledge, self-efficacy, honesty, addiction, alcoholism, and mental/emotional states, play integral roles in family development. Acknowledging where influences come from can help in better understanding the complicated dynamics, which are constantly at play. As we explore the dysfunctional characteristics more in depth, you’ll notice coping behaviors taken on by anyone as a way to adapt or survive the negative internal influences. These are often unconscious behaviors, become standard protocol or code of conduct and go unnoticed for quite some time. These behaviors are seen as and often are, normal within the family unit; however, become maladaptive later in life.

So what are these coping behaviors anyway? Avoidance, silence, denial, enabling (mistaken for altruism), passive aggression, spiritual bypassing, compartmentalizing, dissociation, self-harm, repression, suppression, trivializing, lying, humor, substance use, porn addiction, and food consumption are common.   

Let’s examine a hypothetical dysfunctional family situation. In the Robertson family, child, Sam (gender neutral) learns to cope with an alcoholic parent by avoiding their father when he comes home after a night of drinking, which happens frequently. In addition to avoidance, the child learns to not invite friends over or, for that matter, get close to anyone in fear of allowing them to experience the unpredictable, loud, intoxicated father. Sam avoids dad by staying in their bedroom (leads to isolation), is disconnected from parental support, connection, positive attention, and from friend support and engagement. Sam has learned to stick to one’s self and keep silent as to their experience(s) of dad. Sam also learns to occupy time through gaming or subscribing to porn over the Internet all while suppressing emotions related to this situation. When a parent asks Sam what they are working on, Sam answers with, “Working on my homework” (lying). These methods of keeping others at a distance continue after the child leaves home.

Children similar to Sam growing up in dysfunctional families often grow into adults who end up struggling with some of these traits: trusting others, sustaining intimate relationships, telling the truth, posses a tremendous fear of abandonment, over or under responsible, lack of boundaries, minimal or poor follow through, issues with addiction, constantly seek approval, and are extremely loyal even when in terrible situations/relationships. Unlearning and revamping someone’s methods of interacting with society, the self, and others within the family can sometimes take years to accomplish, depending on the severity of childhood experiences, traumas, resources, and one’s willingness to change. There are healthy ways to heal. This begins with identifying and naming what happened and didn’t happen in one’s household, making connections with what were dysfunctional behaviors, and coping strategies.

Thankfully there are resources available specifically tailored to assisting individuals dealing with trust, love, loss or even basic, day-to-day social interaction. You can find this support at Evolve In Nature whether that is through individual, couple’s, and/or group therapy. Additionally, there are effective therapy groups including Survivors of Incest or Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACODF), and organizations like Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), Alanon, or Codependents Anonymous (CODA), which focus on equipping group members with self-help tools they can use to overcome their obstacles.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll be discussing specific steps that can be taken to begin the healing process. Stay tuned!