Growing up in a dysfunctional household - Part 1

What makes for a dysfunctional family?

Family dynamics are complex and involve many factors contributing to how the family unit operates. Identifying and defining all of the various ways in which a family can become or sustain a dysfunctional state requires much, much more effort and time than would be deserving of a blog post. So, we’re kicking off a four-part series dealing directly with dysfunctional families, their geneses, hallmarks and other identifying characteristics. Our intention is to shed light on the questions of why and how dysfunctional families exist, how family members can cope and recover within and from them, and what we can learn about ourselves in the process of understanding the dysfunctional home in which we grew up.

What is Dysfunctional?

As people talk about what dysfunctional actually means, definitions vary. For the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to use the term ‘dysfunctional’ to refer to families in which one or both parents more frequently than not, drank alcohol, participated in legal, illegal, and/or over-the-counter drugs, addiction whether that be food, porn, shopping, substance use, and/or mental illness diagnosed or undiagnosed were present. According to the NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), 2017, “More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking.” That seems like a lot of homes with dysfunction and this isn’t including drugs or mental illness existing within the family. That being said, we either relate strongly with these posts or know someone close to us who does.

Here are a few examples of common characteristics found within families with dysfunction:

·      Denial - Denial runs rampant throughout the household and plays a dynamic role supporting the cycle. Acknowledging the reality of the mental illness, alcoholism, or addiction would be too painful or consequential for the rest of the family. Denial becomes the de-facto position for everyone.

o   “Mom isn’t feeling well and is sleeping.” Also known as passed out, hung over, detoxing, depressed, etc.

o   The morning after an evening of chaos, drama, and fighting everyone seems to go about business as usual and if anyone asks, “How are you doing?” the answer consistently is, “Oh great, everyone is doing so great.” 

·      Subjective love and affection - Seen through the parent giving privileged treatment, demonstrations of love and affection to one family member over another or based on one’s performance, has to be earned, or other commonly unpredictable conditions. Some reasons for preferential treatment from the parent is often related to their mood, intoxication level, their personal agenda, the child’s birth order, ability level, or physical appearance.

o   “If you play quietly in your room while we have our friends over, Daddy might read you a book before going to bed.” Or…”I’m not going to tuck you in tonight if you come out of your room before I say you can, and stop that pouting.”  “Look how sweet and beautiful your big sister is.” 

·      Unhealthy boundaries – Boundaries support our individualism, the minimum and maximum of what we want and keep us safe emotionally and physically. Growing up in a dysfunctional household one might learn very loose or ridged boundaries, maybe even no boundaries. Without clear boundaries it is nearly impossible to determine what emotions are a parents and what is the child’s or what one’s limits are. That old saying, What is mine is yours” is detrimental when it comes to emotional space and boundaries. Children must learn Mom’s emotions are hers and she is responsible for feeling them. Children need space to play and have fun rather than being the witness and/or sounding board for a depressed parent; children need kid conversations rather than adult conversations.

o   When a kid starts their morning by punching their little sibling in the arm, it may just seem like a ritual they go through every day before going to school. Another example is a parent sobbing at the kitchen counter and sharing with the child how horrible their life is and they want to die.

o   Perhaps your parent treated you as their best friend rather than a parent.

o   Maybe you can relate to an overly or uninvolved parent; going through your personal items or missing every sports game you played in.

o   There’s also the example of witnessing your parent(s) getting high or drunk resulting in you having free reign to do whatever and go wherever you want because they don’t want to be disturbed or are too out of it to pay any attention.

Keep in mind this isn’t a comprehensive list of dysfunctional family characteristics. We’re just getting started, and in the next few installments of this series, we’ll be discussing adaptive behaviors, long-term psychological effects and how to begin the healing process. For more information you can go to: 

Stay tuned!