When You Grow Up in a Dysfunctional Family
by George A. Boyd © 1992
When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you experience trauma and pain from your parents' actions, words, and attitudes. Because of this trauma you experienced, you grew up changed, different from other children, missing important parts of necessary parenting that prepare you for adulthood, missing parts of your childhood when you were forced into unnatural roles within your family. For some of you, it has led you to attempt to flee the pain of your past by alcohol or drug use. Others of you feel inexplicably compelled to repeat the abuses that were done to you on your own children or with your own spouse. Others of you have felt inner anxiety or rage, and don't know why you feel as you do.
You were innocent, and your life was changed dramatically by forces in your family you had no control over, and now you are an adult survivor of that trauma. This article will discuss what these families are like, what is the impact of growing up in these families, and what you can do to begin the process of healing.
Roles Within Dysfunctional Families
A dysfunctional family is one in which the relationships between the parents and children are strained and unnatural. This is usually because one of the family members has a serious problem that impacts every other member of the family, and each member of the family feels constrained to adapt atypical roles within the family to allow the family as a whole to survive.
The spouse in this family may enable the problem spouse to maintain employment by lying for him or her, for example. He or she may become obsessive about the problem spouse's abnormal behavior, such that he or she loses perspective in his or her own life, a pattern that is called codependency. Sharon Wegscheider referred to this family role in alcoholic families as that of the Enabler.1
The children also assume roles within the family to make up for the deficiencies of parenting. Sharon Wegscheider referred to these roles within the alcoholic family as the Hero, the Scapegoat, the Lost Child, and the Mascot.2
The Enabler protects and takes care of the problem spouse, whom Sharon Wegscheider refers to as the Dependent,3 so that the Dependent is never allowed to experience the negative consequences of his or her actions. While the Enabler feels angry and resentful about the extra burden that is placed upon him or her by the Dependent's unhealthy, irresponsible and antisocial behavior, he or she may feel powerless to do anything about it. The Enabler feels he or she must act this way, because otherwise, the family might not survive. While the family is afforded survival by the Enabler's responsibility, the Enabler may pay the cost of stress-related illness, and never have his or her own needs met, in effect, being a martyr for the family. The paradoxical thing about the Enabler's behavior is that by preventing the Dependent's crisis, he or she also prevents the painful, corrective experience that crisis brings, which may be the only thing that makes the Dependent stop the downward spiral of addiction.
The Hero, who is usually the oldest child, is characteristically over-responsible and an over-achiever. The Hero allows the family to be reassured it is doing well, as it can always look to the achievements of the oldest son or daughter as a source of pride and esteem. While the Hero may excel in school, be a leader on the football team or a cheerleader, or obtain well-paying employment, inwardly he or she is suffering from painful feelings of inadequacy and guilt, as nothing he or she does is good enough to heal his family's pain. The Hero's compulsive drive to succeed may in turn lead to stress-related illness, and compulsive over-working. The Hero's qualities of appeasement, helpfulness and nurturing of his or her parents may cause others outside the family to remark upon the child's good character, and obtains him or her much positive attention. But inwardly, the Hero feels isolated, unable to express his or her true feelings or to experience intimate relationship, and is often out of touch with his or her own sources of spirituality.
The Scapegoat, who is often the second born, characteristically acts out in anger and defiance, often behaving in delinquent ways, but inwardly he or she feels hurt in that the family's attention has gone to the Dependent or the Hero, and he or she has been ignored. The Scapegoat's poor performance in school, experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sexuality, flaunting of the conventions of society, or involvement in adolescent gangs or criminal activity may lead him or her to be labeled the family's problem, drawing attention away from the Dependent's addiction. This behavior can also be seen as a cry for help, and it is often the delinquency of the Scapegoat that leads the entire family into treatment. The acting out behavior of the Scapegoat may bring with it substance abuse or addiction to alcohol or drugs, early pregnancy for which he or she is not prepared, or incarceration. The hostile and irresponsible attitude of the Scapegoat may lead him or her into accidents, or acts of violence against others or self. The attitude of defiance may lead him or her to do poorly in school, effecting future employment and the opportunity to earn an adequate income. The Scapegoat's cleverness and manipulation may be used to engage in leadership of peer groups, or in the invention of schemes of dubious legality, or outright criminality, to earn a livelihood. Though the Scapegoat may develop social skills within his or her circle of peers, the relationships he or she experiences tend to be shallow and inauthentic. The Scapegoat, cast in the role of a rebel, may have lost touch with his spiritual potentials and morality, as well.
The Lost Child role is characterized by shyness, solitariness, and isolation. Inwardly, he or she feels like an outsider in the family, ignored by parents and siblings, and feels lonely. The Lost Child seeks the privacy of his or her own company to be away from the family chaos, and may have a rich fantasy life, into which he or she withdraws. The Lost Child often has poor communication skills, difficulties with intimacy and in forming relationships, and may have confusion or conflicts about his or her sexual identity and functioning. These children may be seen to seek attention by getting sick, asthma, allergies, or by bed-wetting. Lost Children may attempt to self-nurture by overeating, leading to problems with obesity, or to drown their sorrows in alcohol or drug use. The solitude of a Lost Child may be conducive to the development of his or her spirituality and creative mental pursuits, if the low self-esteem and low does not shut down all efforts at achievement. The Lost Child often has few friendships, and commonly has difficulty finding a marriage partner. Instead, he or she may attempt to find comfort in his or her material possessions, or a pet. This pattern of escape may also lead him or her to avoid seeking professional help, and so may remain stuck in his or her social isolation.
The Mascot role is manifested by clowning and hyperactivity. The Mascot, often the youngest child, seeks to be the center of attention in the family, often entertaining the family and making everyone feel better through his or her comedy and zaniness. The Mascot, in turn, may be overprotected and shielded from the problems of life. Inwardly, the Mascot experiences intense anxiety and fear, and may persist in immature patterns of behavior well into adulthood. Instead of dealing with problems, the Mascot may run away from them by changing the subject or clowning. The Mascot uses fun to evoke laughter in his or her circle of friends, but is often not taken seriously or is subjected to rejection and criticism. The Mascot commonly has difficulty concentrating and focusing in a sustained way on learning, and may develop learning deficits as a result. The Mascot also may fear turning within or looking honestly at his or her feelings or behavior, so he or she may be out of touch with his or her inner feelings, and his or her spirituality. The frenetic social activity that the Mascot expresses is in fact often a defense against his or her intense inner anxiety and tension. The inability to cope with the inner fear and tension leads many Mascots to believe they are going crazy. If this inner anxiety and desperation not addressed, it is not uncommon that a Mascot may slip deeper into mental illness, become chemically dependent, or even commit suicide.
A special case is the only child. An only child in an alcoholic family may take on parts of all of these roles, playing them simultaneously or alternately, experiencing overwhelming pain and confusion as a result.
Sharon Wegscheider notes that the longer a person plays a role, the more rigidly fixed he or she becomes in it. Eventually, family members "become addicted to their roles, seeing them as essential to their survival and playing them with the same compulsion, delusion and denial as the Dependent plays his [or her] role as drinker." 4
Types of Dysfunctional Families
Dr. Janet Kizziar characterizes four types of "troubled family systems", which are "breeding grounds for codependency:" 5
(1) The Alcoholic or Chemically Dependent Family System
(2) The Emotionally or Psychologically Disturbed Family System
(3) The Physically or Sexually Abusing Family System
(4) The Religious Fundamentalist or Rigidly Dogmatic Family System
Codependency expresses in these dysfunctional families through the typical strategies of minimizing, projection, intellectualizing and denial. Minimizing acknowledges there may be a problem, but makes light of it. Projection blames the problem on others, and may appoint a scapegoat to bear the family's shame. Intellectualizing tries to explain the problem away, believing that by offering a convenient excuse or explanation, the problem will be resolved. Denial demands that other people and self believe there is no problem.
The patterns of codependency can emerge from any family system where the overt and covert rules close its members off from the outside world. These family systems discourage healthy communication of issues and feelings between themselves, destroy the family members' ability to trust themselves and to trust another in an intimate relationship, and freeze family members into unnatural roles, making constructive change difficult. Rules that encourage the unnatural patterns of relating in these codependent family systems include:
• Don't talk about problems
• Don't express feelings openly or honestly
• Communicate indirectly, through acting out or sulking, or via another family member
• Have unrealistic expectations about what the Dependent will do for you
• Don't be selfish, think of the other person first
• Don't take your parents as an example, "do as I say, not as I do"
• Don't have fun
• Don't rock the boat, keep the status quo
• Don't talk about sex
• Don't challenge your parent's religious beliefs or these family rules
The dysfunctional family dynamics engendered by these unrealistic and restrictive rules leads to unfulfilling relationships as adults. This leads, Dr. Kizziar believes, to the symptomatic characteristics of codependency in adult relationship styles, marked by
difficulty in accurately identifying and expressing feelings
problems in forming and maintaining close, intimate relationships
higher than normal prevalence of marrying a person from another dysfunctional family or a person with active alcoholism or addiction
perfectionism, having unrealistic expectation of self and others, and being too hard on oneself
rigidity in behavior and attitudes, having an unwillingness to change
having a resistance to adapting to change, and fearful of taking risks
feeling over-identified or responsible for others' feelings or behavior
having a constant need for approval or attention from others to feel good about themselves
awkwardness in making decisions, feel terrified of making mistakes, and may defer decision-making to others
feeling powerless and ineffective, like whatever they do does not make a difference
exaggerated feelings of shame and worthlessness, and low self-esteem
avoiding conflict at any price, and will often repress their own feelings and opinions to keep the peace
apprehension over abandonment by others
acting belligerently and aggressively to keep others at a distance
tendencies to be impatient and over-controlling
failure to properly take care of themselves because of their absorption in the needs and concerns of other people, and acting like martyrs, living for others instead of for oneself
dread of the expression of their own anger, and will do anything to avoid provoking another person. The particular expression of these codependent traits by each individual is often a function of the type of family in which a child grows up.
For example, Dr. Janet G. Woititz6 recognizes the following 13 traits that are characteristic of adults who grew up in a family where alcoholism was present.
Adult children of alcoholics
guess at what normal behavior is
have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end
lie, when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
judge themselves without mercy
have difficulty having fun
take themselves very seriously
have difficulty with intimate relationships
overreact to changes over which they have no control
constantly seek approval and affirmation
usually feel they are different than other people
are super responsible or super irresponsible
are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence the loyalty is undeserved
are impulsive, and tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences.
In Authoritarian families, whose members may be subjected to inflexible religious values or a black-and-white, one-dimensional view of the universe by a dominant parent, Dr. Janet Kizziar7 believes may be subject to the following problems.
They suffer from a frozen identity state, dominated by oppressively strict moral values.
Their feelings become cut off from beliefs, and they no longer are certain what they really feel.
The members experience great difficulty in thinking and deciding for themselves, as dogma or parental authority overshadows free choice and independent thinking.
They have discomfort sharing honestly about their past, as they believe they must continually pretend they are living up to the ideal held up to them by their authoritarian parents.
Children who grew up in families where they were victims of incest show a variety of psychological, behavioral and interpersonal issues. Psychologically, they suffer from sleep and eating disorders, fears and phobias, recurring nightmares, dissociative reactions, depression, anxiety and hysterical reactions, have low self esteem, believe they are polluted or inferior, and feel intense guilt, fear, shame, and anger. Behavioral consequences include school problems, truancy, delinquency, running away from their families, prostitution, promiscuity, and higher rates of suicide attempts and completed suicides. Interpersonally, they have difficulty trusting others, and they are more likely to physically and sexually abuse their own children, and are more likely to be sexually victimized.8 Some adults experience difficulties with adult sexual adjustment, and nearly half show decreased sexual drive after childhood sexual abuse.9
So intense are some of the reactions to growing up in these families, that Dr. Timmen L. Cermak believes they are similar to "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" experienced by survivors of disasters or wars, such as VietNam Veterans. These happen to people who chronically live through or with events "outside of range of what is considered normal human experience." War veterans and adults growing up in dysfunctional families may, without warning, re-experience feelings, thoughts and behaviors that were present during the original traumatic event. These re-immerging painful feelings are newly triggered by environmental stimuli.10 Dr. Cermak notes, "for children from chemically dependent families, the trigger can be almost anything...the sound of ice clinking in a glass, an expression of anger or criticism, arguing, the sensation of losing control.11
Another symptom of stress disorder is psychic numbing, which Dr. Cermak describes as suspending feelings in favor of taking steps to ensure personal safety, or splitting between one's self and experience—disconnecting from feelings in order to survive.12
Survivors of trauma also experience hyper-vigilance, an inability to feel comfortable unless they are continually monitoring their environment. Cermak relates they "remained on edge, always expecting the worst, unable to trust or feel safe again."13
Finally, survivors of trauma, veterans of a war or children from chemically dependent families, feel survivor guilt. 14 "Whenever they experience the fullness that life has to offer, they immediately feel as if they are betraying those who never had the chance. It seems somehow wrong to go away and be healthy when those that are left behind are still suffering."15