“The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works is the family.“
– Lee Iacocca, Engineer & CEO
There’s no such thing as a dysfunctional family. Every family functions; the question is how healthily they function. I believe that we don’t want to ever de-value the complex, rich family relationships that we form by labeling them simply “functional or dysfunctional.” I do exert care in how I share the idea because family dysfunction does very much exist, but since “…there can be such broad definitions of the term normal” (AAP, 2014) that dysfunction is tied to and clustered within some highly adaptive, positive family qualities. Most importantly, I’ve learned that calling families dysfunctional can become dismissive of their greatest strength; every family loves in their way and strives for health, just like individuals.
As defined simply by Kansas State University (Benton, 2014), dysfunction occurs “when problems and circumstances such as parental alcoholism, mental illness, child abuse, or extreme parental rigidity and control interfere with family functioning” that would foster “support; love and caring for other family members; providing security and a sense of belonging…” (AAP, 2014). But reality is never that simple. Except in cases of obvious physical or sexual abuse or extreme neglect, dysfunction is highly difficult to identify from the outside of the family unit. Even further, as part of the family—even in the extreme cases above—that behavior doesn’t stop the child from loving the mom, the dad from fulfilling his role and the whole family adapting to achieve as much stability and normalcy as they can.
Dysfunction does not destroy a family, and in seeking to stay together, strive for health and in those moments of family normalcy, the family is a family. Therefore, going forward, I will be striving to use great care in always treating dysfunction as serious, but with the heartfelt understanding that I find is often lacking; context from inside the family. An abusive parent is still loved by the family, along with the negative emotional consequences. A disruptive, angry child still yearns to be embraced, though they fight it. The most sexually abused kids and battered spouses—though struggling with those hard memories—carry within them many moments when the abuser was “just a mom” or “just a husband” and life was normal.
Which is why, though I’ve wrestled with this discussion for years, I choose to write this at the onset of the Holiday Season. Holiday stress often increases the chances for dysfunction in a time when the family is seeking normalcy all the more. Even the most “functional” family brings out their unhealthy patterns along with the other holiday stuff that can be safely boxed up during the rest of the year.
They Are Us
“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.“
– Desmond Tutu, Activist Bishop
There are varying degrees “…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,” (Benton, 2014). Part of the difficulty with changing these patterns is that we look first to the opposite sides of the spectrum, when we live in the middle. On one side of the spectrum is the desensitization that Married with Children, The Simpsons and Family Guy have fostered by putting the “fun” in dysfunctional. On the other side are the highly abusive or chronically ill family systems which tear at hearts and turn heads. The families in the middle, with their common dysfunction, are the ones who laugh at the sitcoms and cry at the abuses. They are us. We get the jokes because we understand them, we cry because we have felt it too, at times.
Benton (2014) noted the “chaotic and unpredictable” daily life in the family of an alcoholic or the degradations of an abuser from sexual and physical to “frequent belittling criticism…from those entrusted with the child’s care…” that can either be “very direct” or “subtle put-downs disguised as humor.” But the alcoholic parent still may have some degree of facility in eliminating perfectionism or employing humor found in healthy families or the abusive parent may hold the children to a set of standards, routine or structure that the AAP recommends (2014).
A Deficient Parent may treat each child as an individual or empower and praise them, as a “chronic mental illness or a disabling physical illness” forces the “children to take on adult responsibilities from a young age.” The detriment is that “children are robbed of their own childhood, and they learn to ignore their own needs and feelings,” which is unacceptable, but if the parent is not abusively ill, they are often quick to share love and praise (Benton, 2014). Healthy? No. But a life that many kids would not seek to be rescued from, especially if they were born into it.
Potentially more disabling are Controlling Parents who don’t let their children fulfill responsibilities appropriate for their age, “dominating and making decisions for their children well beyond the age at which this is necessary,” (Benton, 2014). But these parents may have clear rules and expectations, even with the erosion of self-esteem, or many other clusters of healthy behaviors noted by the AAP.
Power to the Parents
“To understand your parents’ love, you must raise children yourself.”
– Chinese proverb
By now you may be noting two themes. First, that some of this is striking a little close to home. We all have moments in our histories that fit into these categories of dysfunction, and that is key: Moments of dysfunction. “Most families have some periods of time where functioning is impaired” according to Brenton, but in truly dysfunctional families “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. Healthy families tend to return to normal functioning after the crisis passes,” (2014). We all struggle, we all become overwhelmed. How well and how soon we bounce back is perhaps the only true difference between “health” and “dysfunction.”
The second theme is where we find the power to move a family toward healthy. The parents. “You are the most important role model for your child,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2014). We have the power to fix this. Accessing that power may require facing some serious guilt, fear or a hard history of our own since abuse is a pattern and “adults raised in dysfunctional families frequently report” raising dysfunctional families, due to their own resulting flaws (Brenton, 2014).
Parents have the power, but often feel powerless in the face of their own history, addictions, and flaws or out of control children. This is why it is essential to focus on the function of the family, not the dysfunction, and the level of health attained. Function-focus acknowledges the power of the parent, the present—if ill-expressed—familial bond and the desire for normalcy. It builds an environment based around those healthy functions from an environment ruled by the dysfunction. It creates a tone where it is safe to express a desire for felt affection, praise, structure and mutual respect from a position of collaborative strength. It takes the focus from how to live with or around the disruptive kid or abusive mom and requires them to bring assets to the family in reaching the mutual goal of health, rather than disconnected, individual survival under the same roof.
Happy, Healthy Holidays
“Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life!“
– Albert Einstein, That Guy Again
The exciting part is that if you desire to build healthier family function you can start at this very moment. First, add Brenton’s advice that “in healthy families everyone makes mistakes; mistakes are allowed,” to the AAP’s encouragement to “take moral and social responsibility for your own life and demonstrate your value system through actions as well as words,” (2014). Go to your kids, your spouse, your mom, dad or siblings and just raise their awareness of the problem without blame. If you feel you may be the active abuser start with an apology. If you are unsure of your family’s health, click on the links below. The Kansas State University article has a quiz and the AAP offers many questions to answer.
Second, keep the focus on the functional. “Regardless of the source of dysfunction, you have survived,” Brenton (2014) said. “You have likely developed a number of valuable skills…it is important to first stop and take stock…In examining changes you may want to make in yourself, it is important not to lose sight of your good qualities.” I would go one step further and encourage us to build our changes on our good qualities.
Third, focus on enjoying your family, this holiday season and beyond. The AAP, and I, recommend that parents take care of their own needs for a healthy, enjoyable personal life while still caring for your kids. “Your children will thrive when your own emotional needs are being met.” They offer other radical interventions like spending time with each other and having fun “despite the very real demands of daily life,” (2014).
Finally, Brenton encourages us to “Remember that you spent years learning and practicing your old survival skills, so it may take a while to learn and practice new behaviors…” she also says to be patient and that if we find the task to large or difficult “counseling or support is usually crucial when trying to change family relationships,” and of course, I whole-heartedly agree (2014).
It is my hope that we pick this holiday season to begin to unpack those hard family patterns for good, and not just pack them up again. I wish you and your family a happier, healthier holiday season and I hope for one myself. Because every family hopes for one, every family loves as they are able and every family functions.
American Academy of Pediatrics (2014) HealthyChildren.org. Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12. Retrieved from http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/pages/Normal-Family-Functioning.aspx
Benton, S. (2014) Dysfunctional Families: Recognizing and Overcoming Their Effects. Kansas State University Counseling Services. Retrieved from http://www.k-state.edu/counseling/topics/relationships/dysfunc.html