Dysfunction 102

Notes from here.

“In dysfunctional families members have lower self-esteem and tend to be codependent. Some of the symptoms are described below, but not all are necessary to create dysfunction.

1. Denial.

Denial is a way to ignore or pretend that a painful reality doesn’t exist. Parents try to act normal amidst family problems and crises – such as a parent’s absence, illness, or alcoholism. It never gets talked about, nor the problem solved. This makes children doubt their perceptions and sends a message that they can’t talk about something strange and frightening – even to each other.

2. A Closed System.

A closed family won’t allow differing… ideas to be discussed among members or with outsiders. Members aren’t allowed to talk about the family to others, and might not allow guests from another race or religion. Some families are isolated and don’t interact with the community. Others do, but appearances are everything, and the truth about the family isn’t shared. At bottom are fears of dissimilar ideas and shame.

3. Secrets.

Some secrets are kept for generations about a family shame – whether addiction, violence, criminal activity, sexual issues, or mental illness. The shame is felt by children – even when they don’t know the secret.

4. Dysfunctional Communication.

This can take many forms – from an absence of communication to verbal abuse. Talking is not the same as functional communication, which involves listening, respect, assertiveness, and understanding. In dysfunctional families, communication is neither assertive nor open. People don’t listen and verbal abuse predominates.  Children are afraid to express their thoughts and feelings, and are often blamed, shamed, or scolded for self-expression. They are told directly or indirectly not to feel what they feel and may be labeled a sissy, bad, dumb, lazy, or selfish. They learn not to question their parents and not to trust their perceptions and feelings.

5. Rigid Rules.

In some families where there is physical or mental illness, parents are too lax or irresponsible, children lack guidance and don’t feel safe and cared for. Generally, however, there are restrictive and sometimes arbitrary rules. Many are unspoken. There’s no room for mistakes. Some parents take over decisions that children should make and control their hobbies, school courses, friends, and dress. Natural independence is seen as disloyalty and abandonment. They prohibit talking about things deemed “inappropriate,” such as sex, death, the holocaust, grandpa’s limp, or that father was married before. Some families have rules restricting the expression of anger, exuberance, or crying. When feelings can’t be expressed, children learn self-control and become overly controlled or controlling adults, all contributing to low-self-esteem.

6. Arbitrariness and Inconsistency.

What are worse than rigid rules are arbitrary and inconsistent rules. Children never know when they’ll be punished. Rules that don’t make sense are unjust. This is cruel and breeds learned helplessness and rage that can never be expressed. Children are in constant fear, walk on eggshells, and feel hopeless and resentful because of the unpredictability and unfairness. Their sense of worth and dignity is violated. They lose respect and trust in their parents and authority in general. Because they’re forced to comply, some act-out with rebellious or delinquent behavior, by doing poorly in school, or by using drugs.

7. Role Confusion.

This happens when a parent is emotionally or physically absent or is irresponsible and a child takes on parental responsibilities or becomes a companion or confidante to the other parent. This is frequently the case after a divorce, but also happens in intact families where parents lack intimacy. This is age-inappropriate and damaging to the child psychologically, who must now act like a little adult, repress his or her needs and feelings, and may feel that he or she is betraying the other parent.

8. Unpredictability.

People feel safe when family life is predictable. If children never know what mood Mom or Dad will be in, they can’t be spontaneous and are always anxious. Even worse is chaos, where the family is in constant crisis, often due to addiction, mental illness, or sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Instead of a safe haven, the family becomes a war zone to escape. Children may take develop somatic complaints, like headaches and stomach aches.

9. Inability to Problem-Solve.

Resolving problems and conflicts is key to a smooth-running organization. But in dysfunctional families, children and parents are blamed repeatedly for the same thing and there are constant arguments or silent walls of resentment. Nothing gets resolved.