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DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES: RECOGNIZING AND OVERCOMING THEIR EFFECTS

DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES: RECOGNIZING
AND OVERCOMING THEIR EFFECTS
HELP YOURSELF is created by Counseling Services
©1993,1997 by Kansas State University

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
WHAT IS A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY?
WHAT GOES WRONG IN DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES?
HOW MIGHT I BE AFFECTED?
HOW CAN SOMEONE OVERCOME THE EFFECTS...?
WHERE CAN I GET HELP?
REFERENCES

INTRODUCTION
"As a kid I was like a miniature adult. I cooked and cleaned and made sure my little brothers got off to school. My Mom was always depressed and stayed in bed -- she was in the hospital a lot. I guess I never really was a kid. Now, I work hard to get As, take on lots of responsibility, put on this competent front. Inside I still feel really empty."

"My dad's an alcoholic. I was always afraid to invite other kids over because I didn't want them to see what my family was like. I never really got close to people, now I don't seem to know how to let others get close. I really don't know how to have a good relationship. Most of the time I feel pretty alone."

"My parents have always had these big ambitions for me. They tell me what my career should be, who my friends should be, what kind of car I should drive, and who I should date. it's like they expect me to be perfect but don't really believe I can blow my own nose. I feel like I'm suffocating, but if I get the least bit independent they try to control me with money."

When problems and circumstances such as parental alcoholism, mental illness, child abuse, or extreme parental rigidity and control interfere with family functioning, the effects on children can sometimes linger long after these children have grown up and left their problem families. Adults raised in dysfunctional families frequently report difficulties forming and maintaining intimate relationships, maintaining positive self-esteem, and trusting others; they fear a loss of control, and deny their feelings and reality (Vannicelli, 1989).

This brochure will help you understand and recognize family dysfunction and its effects, provide some strategies to help overcome these effects, and list some resources for further help.

WHAT IS A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY?
Family dysfunction can be any condition that interferes with healthy family functioning. Most families have some periods of time where functioning is impaired by stressful circumstances (death in the family, a parent's serious illness, etc.). Healthy families tend to return to normal functioning after the crisis passes. In dysfunctional families, however, problems tend to be chronic and children do not consistently get their needs met. Negative patterns of parental behavior tend to be dominant in their children's lives.

How Do Healthy Families Work?
Healthy families are not perfect; they may have yelling, bickering, misunderstanding, tension, hurt, and anger - but not all the time. In healthy families emotional expression is allowed and accepted. Family members can freely ask for and give attention. Rules tend to be made explicit and remain consistent, but with some flexibility to adapt to individual needs and particular situations. Healthy families allow for individuality; each member is encouraged to pursue his or her own interests, and boundaries between individuals are honored.

Children are consistently treated with respect, and do not fear emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Parents can be counted on to provide care for their children. Children are given responsibilities appropriate to their age and are not expected to take on parental responsibilities. Finally, in healthy families everyone makes mistakes; mistakes are allowed. Perfection is unattainable, unrealistic, and potentially dull and sterile.

There are many types of dysfunction in families. Some parents under-function, leaving their children to fend for themselves. Other parents over-function, never allowing their children to grow up and be on their own. Others are inconsistent or violate basic boundaries of appropriate behavior. Below is a brief description of some types of parental dysfunction along with some common problems associated with each.

WHAT GOES WRONG IN DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES?
Deficient Parents
Deficient parents hurt their children more by omission than by commission. Frequently, chronic mental illness or a disabling physical illness contributes to parental inadequacy. Children tend to take on adult responsibilities from a young age in these families. Parental emotional needs tend to take precedence, and children are often asked to be their parents' caretakers. Children are robbed of their own childhood, and they learn to ignore their own needs and feelings. Because these children are simply unable to play an adult role and take care of their parents, they often feel inadequate and guilty. These feelings continue into adulthood.

Controlling Parents
Unlike the deficient parents described above, controlling parents fail to allow their children to assume responsibilities appropriate for their age. These parents continue dominating and making decisions for their children well beyond the age at which this is necessary. Controlling parents are often driven by a fear of becoming unnecessary to their children. This fear leaves them feeling betrayed and abandoned when their children become independent (Forward, 1989). On the other hand, these children frequently feel resentful, inadequate, and powerless. Transitions into adult roles are quite difficult, as these adults frequently have difficulties making decisions independent from their parents. When they act independently these adults feel very guilty, as if growing up were a serious act of disloyalty.

Alcoholic Parents
Alcoholic families tend to be chaotic and unpredictable. Rules that apply one day don't apply the next. Promises are neither kept nor remembered. Expectations vary from one day to the next. Parents may be strict at times and indifferent at others. In addition, emotional expression is frequently forbidden and discussion about the alcohol use or related family problems is usually nonexistent. Family members are usually expected to keep problems a secret, thus preventing anyone from seeking help. All of these factors leave children feeling insecure, frustrated, and angry.

Children often feel there must be something wrong with them which makes their parents behave this way. Mistrust of others, difficulty with emotional expression, and difficulties with intimate relationships carry over into adulthood. Children of alcoholics are at much higher risk for developing alcoholism than are children of non-alcoholics.

Abusive Parents
Abuse can be verbal, physical, or sexual. Verbal abuse - such as frequent belittling criticism - can have lasting effects, particularly when it comes from those entrusted with the child's care. Criticism can be aimed at the child's looks, intelligence, capabilities, or basic value. Some verbal abusers are very direct, while others use subtle put-downs disguised as humor. Both types are just as damaging.

Definitions of physical abuse vary widely. Many parents, at one time or another, have felt the urge to strike their child. With physically abusive parents, however, the urge is frequent and little effort is made to control this impulse. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines physical abuse as "the infliction of physical injuries such as bruises, burns, welts, cuts, bone or skull fractures; these are caused by kicking, punching, biting, beating, knifing, strapping, paddling, etc."

Striking a child has much to do with meeting the parent's emotional needs and nothing to do with concern for the child; parents often erroneously justify the abuse as "discipline" intended to "help" the child. Physically abusive parents can create an environment of terror for the child, particularly since violence is often random and unpredictable. Abused children often feel anger. Children of abusive parents have tremendous difficulties developing feelings of trust and safety even in their adult lives.

While parents may justify or rationalize verbal or physical abuse as discipline aimed at somehow helping the child, there is no rationalization for sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is the most blatant example of an adult abusing a child purely for that adult's own gratification.

Sexual abuse can be any physical contact between an adult and child where that contact must be kept secret. Demonstrations of affection -- such as hugging, kissing, or stroking a child's hair -- that can be done openly are quite acceptable and even beneficial. When physical contact is shrouded in secrecy then it is most likely inappropriate.

Sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls. It is perpetrated by both men and women. It cuts across lines of race, socioeconomic level, education level, and religious affiliation. In most cases, sexual abuse is part of an overall family pattern of dysfunction, disorganization, and inappropriate role boundaries.

Responsibility for sexual abuse in all cases rests entirely with the adult. No child is responsible for being abused. Most sexually abused children are too frightened of the consequences for themselves and their families to risk telling another adult what is happening. As a result they grow into adulthood carrying feelings of self-loathing, shame, and worthlessness. They tend to be self-punishing and have considerable difficulties with relationships and with sexuality.

Regardless of the kind of dysfunction or abuse, effects vary widely across individuals. Support from other healthy adults, success in other areas, or positive changes in the family can help prevent or minimize negative effects. The following questions may help you identify how you may have been or continue to be affected.

HOW MIGHT I BE AFFECTED?
Adults raised with family dysfunction report a variety of long-term effects. The following questions may help you assess your own situation. Answering "Yes" to these may indicate some effects from family dysfunction. Most people could likely identify with some of them. If you find yourself answering "Yes" to over half of them, you likely have some long-term effects of living in a dysfunctional family. If you find yourself answering "Yes" to the majority of them you might consider seeking some additional help.

1.Do you find yourself needing approval from others to feel good about yourself? Yes_____ No_____
2.Do you agree to do more for others than you can comfortably accomplish? Yes_____ No_____
3.Are you perfectionistic? Yes_____ No_____
4.Or do you tend to avoid or ignore responsibilities? Yes_____ No_____
5.Do you find it difficult to identify what you're feeling? Yes_____ No_____
6.Do you find it difficult to express feelings? Yes_____ No_____
7.Do you tend to think in all-or-nothing terms? Yes_____ No_____
8.Do you often feel lonely even in the presence of others? Yes_____ No_____
9.Is it difficult for you to ask for what you need from others? Yes_____ No_____
10.Is it difficult for you to maintain intimate relationships? Yes_____ No_____
11.Do you find it difficult to trust others? Yes_____ No_____
12.Do you tend to hang on to hurtful or destructive relationships? Yes_____ No_____
13.Are you more aware of others' needs and feelings than your own? Yes_____ No_____
14.Do you find it particularly difficult to deal with anger or criticism? Yes_____ No_____
15.Is it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself? Yes_____ No_____
16.Do you find yourself feeling like a "fake" in your academic or professional life? Yes_____ No_____
17.Do you find yourself waiting for disaster to strike even when things are going well in your life?
Yes_____ No_____
18.Do you find yourself having difficulty with authority figures? Yes_____ No_____