Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Household - Part 3

Long-term Psychological Effects

So far in this series, I’ve discussed some common traits of dysfunctional families and how children develop means of adapting to their environment. Now moving on to long-term psychological effects that follow as a result of the environment.

Our country seems to be in denial around dysfunctional households. These environments are traumatic, not only that but it is traumatic for years, the most critical years of a person’s development. The children (adult children of alcohol, addiction, mental illness) who survive these households are incredibly strong, clever, dynamic, and resourceful. I’m astounded by their resiliency. I hear about these stories and see the strengths in the office daily.

A theme amongst people, who grew up in a dysfunctional household, is they often don’t realize how traumatic the experience was. Commonly, these households are believed to be ‘normal’. The child often believes this is how all households operate, simply not knowing any different. It’s usually later in adulthood when they reflect back and see how abnormal their environment was. I think about client, Riley (name changed for confidentiality purposes) whom I was seeing on a weekly basis. Riley reported typical and common symptoms of growing up in a dysfunctional household. Upon asking Riley about drugs, alcohol, and mental illness within the household Riley declined any knowledge of anything that would fit into those categories. “Nothing out of the usual.” That is also known as dad doesn’t beat up mom or mom isn’t passed out on the living room floor and jobless. The following session Riley came back in stating, “I see it now! I thought it was odd at the time but didn’t think much of it. My parent’s house was under fire evacuation and they hauled out a big box of alcohol. They didn’t pack up family photos or any sort of memorabilia, just booze.” Riley started putting pieces together in the sessions following. Another connection Riley made: pain pills were not prescribed for any legitimate injury or pain and after mom popped some pills, she disappeared for hours.

Even though many who have experienced childhood trauma due to a dysfunctional family dynamic may not have thought that their experience was abnormal (rather, many come to see the dysfunction as ‘typical’ or ‘just how things are’), the long-term psychological effects can be severe.

Growing up in a dysfunctional household means forming one’s entire worldview from within a very restrictive environment. When there is a lack of healthy, normal means of resolving conflict during such a formative period, children end up relying on abusive, violent, angry or avoidant means of solving problems. In addition to this, personality traits can develop that would not otherwise exist without having experienced the trauma. This is illustrated in the following mock patient narrative:

“Growing up, I had a lot more responsibility than my peers. Because my mom was always depressed, I had to accommodate for my siblings. It was me who got them ready for school. It was me who made sure they took their showers at night. It felt like my mother was just there as a piece of furniture in the house, except of course when she had to go to the hospital. Because of this, I never really got to be a kid, and now I work ridiculously hard, take on tons of unnecessary responsibility, and it’s all a farce. Inside, I’m completely vacant and alone.”

Childhood trauma due to dysfunctional family upbringings can manifest in many different ways. In fact, two siblings can have near identical childhood traumas and one many end up emotionally developing in a completely different way compared with a sibling. Because so many factors affect this turnout, it can be difficult to pinpoint what’s really driving the internal conflict. Regardless of the frequency or severity of the trauma, long-term psychological effects can include:

-       Anxiety disorders

-       Depression

-       Attachment issues

-       Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

-       Addiction

-       Anger/rage issues

-       Self-harm

-       Eating disorders

-       Mood regulating disorders

Given enough time and effort, true healing from traumatic childhoods can be achieved. Even though the emotional ruts may run deep, we have it within all of us to acknowledge what helped to form our minds and work with what we have today, and change the negative behaviors that are no longer serving us. Next week, we’ll be focusing on just that: healing.