If you grew up in a family with a chemically dependent, mentally ill, or abusive parent, you know how hard it is — and you know that everyone in the family is affected. Over time, the family begins to revolve around maintaining the status quo – the dysfunction. Rigid family rules and roles develop in dysfunctional families that help maintain the dysfunctional family system and allow the addict to keep using or the abuser to keep abusing. Understanding some of the family rules that dominate dysfunctional families can help us to break free of these patterns and rebuild our self-esteem and form healthier relationships.
What is a dysfunctional family?
There are many types and degrees of dysfunction in families. For the purposes of this article, the defining feature of a dysfunctional family is that its members experience repetitive trauma.
The types of traumatic childhood experiences that I’m referring to are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and they include experiencing any of the following during your childhood:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Witnessing domestic violence
- A parent or close family member who is an alcoholic or addict
- A parent or close family member who is mentally ill
- Parents who are separated or divorced
- A parent or close family member being incarcerated
How dysfunctional families operate
In order to thrive, physically and emotionally, children need to feel safe — and they rely on a consistent, attuned caregiver for that sense of safety. But in dysfunctional families, caregivers are neither consistent nor attuned to their children.
Unpredictable, chaotic, and unsafe
Dysfunctional families tend to be unpredictable, chaotic, and sometimes frightening for children.
Children feel safe when they can count on their caregivers to consistently meet their physical needs (food, shelter, protecting them from physical abuse or harm) and emotional needs (noticing their feelings, comforting them when they’re distressed). Often, this doesn’t happen in dysfunctional families because parents don’t fulfill their basic responsibilities to provide for, protect, and nurture their children. Instead, one of the children has to take on these adult responsibilities at an early age.
Children also need structure and routine to feel safe; they need to know what to expect. But in dysfunctional families, children’s needs are often neglected or disregarded and there aren’t clear rules or realistic expectations. Sometimes there are overly harsh or arbitrary rules and other times there is little supervision and no rules or guidelines for the children.
In addition, children often experience their parents’ behavior as erratic or unpredictable. They feel like they have to walk on eggshells in their own home for fear of upsetting their parents or unleashing their parent’s’ rage and abuse. For example, children in dysfunctional families often describe feeling anxious about coming home from school because they don’t know what they will find.
In dysfunctional families, adults tend to be so preoccupied with their own problems and pain that they don’t give their children what they need and crave – consistency, safety, unconditional love. As a result, children feel highly stressed, anxious, and unlovable.
You feel unimportant and unworthy
Quite simply, dysfunctional families don’t know how to deal with feelings in healthy ways. Parents who are dealing with their own problems or are taking care of (often enabling) an addicted or dysfunctional partner, don’t have the time, energy, or emotional intelligence to pay attention to, value, and support their children’s feelings. The result is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Children experience this as my feelings don’t matter, so I don’t matter. This, of course, damages a child’s self-esteem and causes them to feel unimportant and unworthy of love and attention.
And children in dysfunctional families don’t learn how to notice, value, and attend to their own feelings. Instead, their focus is on noticing and managing other people’s feelings – their safety often depends on it. Some children become highly attuned to how their parents are behaving so they can try to avoid their wrath. For example, a young child might learn to hide under the bed whenever mom and dad start arguing or a child might learn that consoling mom after that argument earns her mom’s affection. So, children learn to tune into other people’s feelings and suppress their own.
In addition to ignoring a child’s emotional needs, parents can also damage a child’s self-esteem with derogatory names and harsh criticism. Young children believe what their parents tell them. So, if your father called you stupid, you believed it. As we get older and spend more time away from our parents, we begin to question some of the negative things we were told as children. However, it’s amazing how much of it sticks with us even as adults. The emotional sting of hurtful words and derogatory messages stays with us even when we logically know we aren’t stupid, for example.
Dysfunctional family rules
As Claudia Black said in her book It Will Never Happen to Me, alcoholic (and dysfunctional) families follow three unspoken rules:
1) Don’t talk. We don’t talk about our family problems – to each other or to outsiders. This rule is the foundation for the family’s denial of the abuse, addiction, illness, etc. The message is: Act like everything is fine and make sure everyone else thinks we’re a perfectly normal family. This is extremely confusing for children who sense that something is wrong, but no one acknowledges what it is. So, children often conclude that they are the problem. Sometimes they are blamed outright and other times they internalize a sense that something must be wrong with them. Because no one is allowed to talk about the dysfunction, the family is plagued with secrets and shame. Children, in particular, feel alone, hopeless, and imagine no one else is going through what they’re experiencing.
The don’t talk rule ensures that no one acknowledges the real family problem. And when the root of the family’s problems is denied, it can never be solved; health and healing aren’t possible with this mindset.
2) Don’t trust. Children depend on their parents or caregivers to keep them safe, but when you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you don’t experience your parents (and the world) as safe and nurturing. And without a basic sense of safety, children feel anxious and have difficulty trusting.
Children don’t develop a sense of trust and security in dysfunctional families because their caregivers are inconsistent and undependable. They are neglectful, emotionally absent, break promises, and don’t fulfill their responsibilities. In addition, some dysfunctional parents expose their children to dangerous people and situations and fail to protect them from abuse. As a result, children learn that they can’t trust others – even their parents – to meet their needs and keep them safe (the most fundamental form of trust for a child).
Difficulty trusting others extends outside the family as well. In addition to the don’t talk mandate, the don’t trust rule keeps the family isolated and perpetuates the fear that if you ask for help, something bad will happen (mom and dad will get a divorce, dad will go to jail, you’ll end up in foster care). Despite how scary and painful home life is, it’s the devil you know; you’ve learned how to survive there – and disrupting the family by talking to a teacher or counselor might make things worse. So, don’t trust anyone.
3) Don’t feel. Repressing painful or confusing emotions is a coping strategy used by everyone in a dysfunctional family. Children in dysfunctional families witness their parents numbing their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, pornography, and technology. Rarely are feelings expressed and dealt with in a healthy way. Children may also witness scary episodes of rage. Sometimes anger is the only emotion they see their parents express. Children quickly learn that trying to express their feelings will at best lead to being ignored and at worst lead to violence, blame, and shame. So, children also learn to repress their feelings, numb themselves, and try to distract themselves from the pain.
Shame is pervasive in dysfunctional families. It’s the feeling you have when you think there’s something wrong with you, that you’re inferior or unworthy. Shame is the result of family secrets and denial and being told you’re bad and deserve to be hurt or neglected. Children in dysfunctional families often blame themselves for their parents’ inadequacies or for being mistreated or ignored. “It’s my fault” is the easiest way for their young brains can make sense of a confusing and scary situation.
As adults, part of healing from a dysfunctional family is unwinding the feeling of shame and recognizing that our parents’ shortcomings were not our fault and don’t mean we’re inadequate or unworthy.
Healing also means moving beyond the rules that govern dysfunctional family dynamics. You can replace don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel with a new set of guidelines in your adult relationships:
- Talk about your feelings and experiences. You can break down shame, isolation, and loneliness, and build more connected relationships when you share your thoughts and feelings with trustworthy people. Acknowledging and talking about your problems is the opposite of staying in denial. It opens the door to solutions and healing.
- Trust others and set appropriate boundaries. Trust can be a scary thing, especially when people have let you down in the past. It takes time to learn to trust yourself and who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Trust is an important component of healthy relationships, along with healthy boundaries that ensure that you’re being treated with respect and your needs are met.
- Feel all your feelings. You are allowed to have all of your feelings. It will take practice to get back in touch with your feelings and realize their value. But you can start by asking yourself how you feel and telling yourself that your feelings matter. You no longer have to be limited to feeling shame, fear, and sadness. You also don’t need anyone else to validate your feelings; there are no right or wrong feelings or good or bad feelings. For now, just let your feelings exist.
Other helpful resources: