Updated: Nov 23, 2021
What Is a Dysfunctional Family?
As children of dysfunctional families we thought our life was terrible and that we’d had the worst childhood ever and that everyone else had a much, much better time than us.
We get older and we look back. Often we can see that our childhood wasn’t dissimilar to lots of other people’s childhood.
There are some of us, however, who really did experience severe deprivation at the hands of our parents; parents who really did not stop to think how their actions prepared us for a lifetime of struggle.
The definition of a dysfunctional family?
The Free Dictionary defines ' dysfunctional family' as:
"A family with multiple 'internal' - e.g., sibling rivalries, parent-child - conflicts, domestic violence, mental illness, single parenthood, or 'external' - e.g., alcohol or drug abuse, extramarital affairs, gambling, unemployment - influences that affect the basic needs of the family unit."
But that’s the same as saying: Depression is just like “having a bad day.”
A dysfunctional family is a one that’s had the heart ripped out of it. The ‘ripping out’ includes rupturing the child’s soul and throwing it to the wolves.
Dysfunctional parents can’t be emotionally present for their children because they are too focused on their own problems, insecurities and traumas.
So the child is left alone.
Still, they learn to survive in a home where there are no consistencies, boundaries or freedom because they adapt to fit in with the dysfunction as best as they can in order to get their needs met.
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How Can A Dysfunctional Family Affect A Child? Here’s 3 Scientifically Backed Explanations.
There have been a number of recent studies highlighting the relationship between parent’s affection towards their children and children's happiness and success. The consequent link between affection in childhood and health and happiness as an adult is indisputable.
1. One study[i] details how higher self esteem, improved academic performance, better parent-child communication, and fewer psychological and behavior problems are linked to plenty of love and cuddles as children.
Conversely, children who are not given affection tend to have lower self esteem and to feel more alienated, hostile, aggressive and antisocial.
2. In another study[ii] in 2010, researchers at Duke University Medical School found that babies with very affectionate and attentive mothers grow up to be happier, more resilient and less anxious adults.
The babies were studied at 8 months old then again 30 years later.
During the early years it was established that 10% of the mothers showed low levels of affection, 85% demonstrated a normal amount of affection, and 6% showed high levels of affection.
30 years later, those same individuals were interviewed about their emotional health.
The adults whose mothers showed the high levels of affection were much less likely than the others to feel stressed and anxious. They were also less likely to report hostility, distressing social interactions, and psychosomatic symptoms.
3. A third study[iii] from UCLA found that unconditional love and affection from a parent makes children emotionally happier and less anxious. Interestingly, their brain actually changes as a result of the affection.
On the other hand, the negative impact of childhood abuse and lack of affection impacts children emotionally, mentally and physically. This can lead to all kinds of health and emotional problems throughout their lives.
Scientists now think parental affection can actually protect individuals against the harmful effects of childhood stress.
Those adults who reported receiving more affection in childhood displayed less depression and anxiety and were more compassionate overall.
Those who reported less affection struggled with mental health, tended to be more upset in social situations, and were less able to relate to other people's to other people's perspectives.
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What Does A Child Specifically Need To Grow Into A Loving, Fulfilled And Compassionate Adult?
The 13 Essentials:
To be fed (with nourishing food) and watered
To be safe, warm, sheltered and secure
To be touched, held and caressed
To be loved unconditionally
To be respected as a unique human being, regardless of behavior
To make mistakes
To ask for what they need
To say they don’t understand
To change their minds
To decline responsibility for another’s problems
To express their feelings
To be happy
To be given clear boundaries
Children are like saplings. When they are nourished, fed and watered, they flourish into tall, strong trees. When they are starved and ignored, they wither, wilt and, sometimes, die.
How Can A Dysfunctional Family Affect A Child And His/Her Emotional Landscape?
A child looks to their parental figures to help them work out what is valid and how to make good judgement calls in relating to others.
This foundation of support gives the child confidence to develop their own thinking and live effectively in the wider world.
The tragedy for those of us raised in dysfunctional families is we were robbed of a stable model for living and we did whatever we could to survive.
Abuse and neglect were the model for destruction and we, as children, learned to accept this way of living in others and us.
The Insanity Conundrum
Insanity began to seep into our psyche when we were compelled to deny the reality of the abuse we received and the consequential pain we felt.
We had no choice.
We became confused and vulnerable because we needed to be loved and protected. But instead we received violence and abandonment.
We learnt we couldn’t trust our parents. Then we had to deny our need for love.
In essence we had abandoned ourselves and this became a source of utter despair, rage and defeat.
We tried to ‘people please’ the adults but we were frightened children. This was a source of confusion and neither the ‘people pleaser’ nor the terrified part of us won.
We denied our true selves
We had to deny our despair and other feelings in order to survive.
Without our emotions to guide us we became the flotsam in rough sea. We were dependant on our dysfunctional parents to guide us.
We were caught in a trap of relying on the structure of the painful belief system that was also the source of our pain.
We felt inadequate, a sense of failure, a lack of worthiness and a feeling that something was very wrong with us but we didn’t know what.
We couldn’t easily stand up for ourselves because being disobedient would cause unprecedented chaos. So we developed a sense of control that helped us maintain our denial of there being anything wrong.
This control cost us the ability to love, give and receive. Instead we learnt to bury our pain and despair, which in turn, created a sense of internal chaos.
We numbed our emotions
We didn’t know how we felt because we were numb. As adults, many of us still don’t recognize our emotions.
A child can’t survive without the adults to take care of them. Yet, they knew they couldn’t trust the adults. Becoming numb was a protection.
Numbing involves shutting down the emotions. This disallows the child to process their feelings and that results in them becoming emotionally repressed. Unless there’s an intervention – such as therapy – the numbness continues into adulthood.
In a healthy family, the child would have a chance to talk about their feelings and things that troubled them; they would get some resolution and then heal.
This doesn’t exist in a dysfunctional family because it’s not safe.
How Can A Dysfunctional Family Affect A Child Who’s Now Grown Up?
Question: How do you feel?
Because people who suffered abuse at the hands of their parents when they were children numb out, this numbed-out-ness continues in adulthood. Consequently, we are unable to experience our emotions, maintain good relationships or enjoy real intimacy.
As adults we also tend to suffer from collective issues that begin with seeking approval in relationships and losing sight of who we are. We tend to be afraid of people in authority and fear their criticism.
Often we feel like the victim in relation to others and isolate ourselves as a result. We also need to feel over responsible for other people, and their feelings, and this helps take the spotlight off our own problems.
It’s common to feel guilty for standing up for ourselves and often resort to giving in to other people. We have a very low sense of worth and tend to be highly critical of others and ourselves.
Finally, we may have an extreme fear of being abandoned or rejected and this may cause us to do whatever it takes to hold onto a relationship so as to not be abandoned emotionally.
How To Recover From Being Raised In A Dysfunctional Family
Recovery is possible and thousands do recover. Many more will join us as more information on the dysfunctional family becomes more widely available.
Recovery is a process, however, and not an overnight event. It’s about embracing a new way of living that questions what went on before and encourages a new mental attitude.
With the undeniable desire to feel better comes the search for a solution.
It’s important to acknowledge that the source of the problem was growing up in a dysfunctional family. This is the missing piece of the jigsaw for those of us who go around thinking “What’s wrong with me?”
Through the recovery process, the fear will get less whilst the anger and hurt lose their power. It’s not an easy journey because the deep hurts must be released. However, with consistency, it’s possible for any of us to discover a true sense of joy and happiness.
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