Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional Families

How to Tell a Healthy Family from a Toxic Tribe

Families are dynamic and interdependent systems. How family systems operate deeply affects the developmental processes of children. In healthy family systems, family members are bonded with love, tempered by respect, and governed by rules that work to protect and enhance the welfare and development of each person. Communications between members are open, opinions and ideas are encouraged, and rules are flexible and enforced fairly and consistently. In healthy families, children build on the bedrock of a solid core group of values – they know the difference between right and wrong, establish personal boundaries, and emulate positive social roles and patterns of interaction. Children feel cared for, valued, and validated as they are encouraged to communicate their needs and wants, and feel they have the right to speak up in family matters. As a consequence, these children usually develop a positive and confident self-identity.

An unhealthy family system is spawned by one or more members, usually a parent, who has a serious problem, such as a mental illness or alcohol or drug addiction, that impact every other family member. In these families, communication is strained and distorted, opinions and ideas are ignored or discouraged, and rules are inflexible, unrealistic, and enforced unfairly and inconsistently. In an unhealthy family, children are confronted with a shifting sandbar of mixed messages and conflicting ideas. As a result, they often have a harder time distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, develop poor personal boundaries, and lack the knowledge and the skills of participating in loving, reciprocal relationships. Children in unhealthy families frequently feel unloved, abandoned, guilty, and shamed. Consequently, they suffer low self-esteem and depression and are more vulnerable themselves to addictions and destructive behavior patterns.

Close Encounters of the Dysfunctional Kind

Sooner or later, you likely will encounter a family in crisis. Precipitated by a loved one’s fall, onset of serious illness, death, or other emergency, family members are called together, often from far away, and in a restricted time frame try handle delicate and potentially volatile issues

Whether the family system is healthy or unhealthy can sometimes be difficult to discern during a time of crisis; even healthy family members become understandably upset by the circumstances and don’t always handles stressful situations well. Unless you have counseling credentials, you are cautioned not to get into the business of diagnosing or treating a family in conflict. However, it is useful to have at least a working knowledge of what constitutes an unhealthy or dysfunctional family.

Signs of an Unhealthy or Dysfunctional Family

  • Substance abuse
  • Perfectionism
  • Overprotection
  • Mental illness in one or both parents
  • Compulsive-obsessive behavior
  • Neglect
  • Emotional, physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
  • Religious or political fanaticism
  • Blurred boundaries and roles
  • Denial or trivialization and erratic behavior

Source: Compiled by Janice Blanchard, 2004

Healthy or Unhealthy: The Adams Family

The following is a fictitious meeting between attorney David Cohen and the Adams children – daughter Lisa, 54, daughter Jill, 52, and son Sam, 48, to discuss placement options for their mother, Ellen, 79, after a prolonged stay in a rehabilitation center for hip replacement surgery.

David: As you know, in two days your mother will be released from the rehabilitation center. She has limited mobility and must use a walker for the foreseeable future. Before talking to your mother about placement options, I thought it important to discuss the situation with you. Basically, Ellen has the following options: (a) she can continue to live at home with home health care or family assistance; (b) she can move in with one of you, either temporarily or permanently; or, (c) she can sell the house and move into an assisted living facility or other long-term care center.

Lisa: I always promised Mama that I would never make her sell Shady Grove and certainly that she would never have to go in one of those old folks’ homes! So that is just not an option.

Jill: Well, Lisa, this is not all about what you promised Mother – I never made that promise and as the only one still living here in town, it’s all going to fall back on me, as it always does. You want mom to stay at home – well then, you need to leave your fancy country club life and move back to little old Lakeland!

Sam: OK, you two, please don’t get started – this is about Mom and what is best for her. I think the best thing to do is sell the house and she can move in with me. You both are married with families and busy lives, and since I am not, I can devote more time to her.

Lisa: You mean you can devote more time to spending her money!

Jill: Yeah, Sam, who do you think you are talking to here? We know all about your little gambling problem, and there is no way we are going to let you spend all of her money at the track!

Sam: Now wait one minute! I haven’t been to the track in over a year – that’s behind me now. And, we are not talking about me, we are talking about Mom!

In less than five minutes, the Adams family meeting has devolved into innuendo, accusations, and hurt feelings. While hypothetical, this narrative illustrates the sibling friction that often emerges when families face a crisis. Unresolved tensions and old patterns surface as the adult children find themselves replaying their historical roles in the family. Poor communication skills, sibling rivalries, martyrdom, hostility, jealousy, and a gambling addiction suggest underlying family dynamics that are in conflict and dysfunctional.

Given the preceding scenario, what could David Cohen have done differently that may have given him more control from the beginning of the meeting, or would have helped him recapture control of the meeting and focus on the task at hand, placement for Mrs. Adams?

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us