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Dysfunctional Families and How To Survive Them

No Family Is Perfect

‘The most difficult job we have in life is to raise children – and it’s a job for which there is no training.’ Dr James G Johnson

The only training we do get is the experience we gained from our own upbringing.  We learned from our parents; by how they raised us, and they, in turn, learned from their parents. AND, this learning is not a conscious process.

If we were raised in a dysfunctional family, then we will tend to raise our children the same way. The damage done to us will affect the way we treat our children. The dysfunctional behaviours will go down the generations.

However, if we can understand why our parents treated us the way they did, and if, because of this understanding, we can have some compassion for them, we can break the cycle, and avoid behaving the same way towards our children.

If we do this, we will stop the damage going down the generations. Our actions will have an effect like ripples on a pond – they will set a more positive example to more and more people and will affect many people’s lives. I can’t think of a more positive contribution to humanity.

So, why are some families dysfunctional?

The truth is that all families are dysfunctional to some degree. There are no perfect parents. The reason for this is that society is dysfunctional. Our society is a male-dominated one. It is emotionally dishonest, based on ‘Thou shalt not’, with a distorted and twisted concept of what it means to be male and female.

It’s not considered masculine to express emotions, to cry, to express or even feel fear, to be openly loving. It’s not considered feminine to show anger or aggression or even assertiveness. Such things are considered shameful, which produces feelings of guilt. Things are beginning to change, but only very, very slowly.

In short, our society requires us to be emotionally dishonest, which means that we have few, if any, ways to get our emotional needs met. This produces parents who are unrealistic role models for our children.

A bit of history:

We must also remember that up until just a few generations ago, the family’s main objective was just to survive. As little as 80 years ago there was no unemployment benefit, no free medical treatments, no social housing etc (UK). Also because of malnutrition and childhood diseases, infant mortality was very high, so families tended to be large to ensure the survival of at least some of the next generation, with all the pressures that put on the available resources.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that women were able to control their fertility, and many women were worn out by continual childbearing.

Children were not valued as individuals; not respected; given no privacy or space. The general rules were ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you’ and ‘Children should be seen and not heard’.

Things to consider:

In whatever way your parents treated you, they did their best, given their own circumstances and level of awareness.

In order to maintain their self-respect, they can always justify their actions. After all, even the Bible, the gospel of our male-dominated society, tells us: “He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes” (Proverbs 13:24) and “Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell.”(Proverbs 23:14)

For a more modern sentiment:

‘A good hiding never did me any harm’. (They don’t know that, of course)

‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’.

And for other forms of abuse:

‘He asked for it’.

‘She enjoyed it’.

‘He deserved it’.

Also many parents who have problems of self-esteem and self-worth will ‘put down’ their children to make themselves feel better. The problem is that it doesn’t make them feel better for long, so they have to keep doing it. This is the way psychological damage is passed on.

The child’s perspective:

As infants, we are totally reliant on our parents for our very survival. In order to get what we need, we adapt our behaviour to satisfy their needs. Generally there are five roles abused children may adopt, which I’ll go into in another blog.  We need food, shelter, warmth, physical contact and love. In order to get what we need, we adapt our behaviour – we become what they want us to be, instead of who we truly are – we become emotionally dishonest to ourselves.

If we were abused as children, we felt frightened, hurt, humiliated, powerless and angry, but the main emotions are the feelings of fear and the loss of power as a person.  As adults we will naturally try to regain our power and express our anger. Our children are sitting targets because they will adapt their behaviour to satisfy our needs, so that we will satisfy theirs.

The power of the unconscious mind:

The conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is the unconscious mind, a massive storehouse of feelings and emotions. It operates like a tape recorder, recording everything we have ever experienced. It just records. It doesn’t make judgements as to whether these experiences were good or bad.

Whenever we have a new experience, we check the ‘files’ stored in the unconscious to see how we reacted in the past to the same or even a similar experience, and we react to the new experience based on how we reacted in the past, even if it’s not appropriate. This is what happens when people ‘push our buttons’. It’s just like that. They are pressing the ‘Play’ button on the tape recorder. We react in the present circumstance based on the emotions we felt when a similar thing happened when we were children.

Most of our behaviour is governed by this process. Most of our responses to life’s situations are not decided consciously. We are driven by our unconscious minds. Everything we experienced as children is recorded in the unconscious, including the emotions that were associated with those experiences.

If, as an adult, we are made to feel powerless, we will automatically and instantly feel the emotions that we felt as a child under similar circumstances. We will feel fear and anger and will want to lash out, just as we wanted to do as a child but couldn’t. But as an adult, we have the power to lash out, and unless we make a conscious decision to behave in a more appropriate manner, that is exactly what we’ll do, and we’ll pick on the most vulnerable target.

What can we do?

The first thing we can do is to begin to understand why our parents behaved as they did. This can lead to forgiveness, which is essential if we are to avoid the same behaviour. In forgiving them, we’ll be forgiving ourselves for any similar feelings that we may have.

We’ll begin to understand that we have a choice – we don’t have to follow the path they laid out for us – we can choose a more positive role with our children.

Being honest with ourselves

To do this we must become aware of our deep feelings – however ‘dark’ they may be.

We must accept that they are a part of our shadow self, which we all have. By bringing these shadow feelings into our conscious awareness, we take away their power. If however we repress or suppress them, they don’t go away. They become like a pressure cooker – the pressure builds until someday it will erupt in inappropriate behaviour.

It’s scary to accept that we have these dark feelings and desires. It helps to understand that everybody has them, even though most people are unwilling or unable to accept that they exist. But by acknowledging that they exist, we will then have the power to choose how to behave. We may feel anger, but by accepting that we do, we will be able to choose not to express it in ways that are harmful to our children, or to anyone else.

We must be emotionally honest with ourselves – we must learn to feel what we’re feeling. By doing this we are able to choose appropriate means of obtaining the emotional satisfaction we need. We won’t need to satisfy these emotions at the expense of others. We will learn that the only antidote to our fears is love. By accepting who we are, and by making conscious choices as to how we behave, we begin to respect ourselves, and in doing this we will automatically respect others.

There is also another way we can look at this. Perhaps the abuse we suffered was really a gift in disguise.

Perhaps it was given to us so that we could grow, become a beacon for others and help stop the damage going down the generations. Perhaps we chose it as our role in this life. Perhaps we chose to be born into a dysfunctional family. If we can change our perspective, and begin to look at our background and upbringing from a more positive point of view, and perhaps even begin to feel grateful for the opportunities it provided, we can make a real difference in both our own and other people’s lives.

Even if none of that is true, can you think of a better way to live?

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