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Dealing with a dysfunctional family

MANY PEOPLE, who have a difficult childhood, hope that once they leave home, they will leave their family and childhood problems behind.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2007 02:01 IST

MANY PEOPLE, who have a difficult childhood, hope that once they leave home, they will leave their family and childhood problems behind.

However, many find that they experience similar problems long after they have left the family environment. Ideally, children grow up in family environments, which help them feel worthwhile and valuable.

They learn that their feelings and needs are important and can be expressed. Children growing up in such supportive environments are likely to form healthy, open relationships in adulthood.

However, families may fail to provide for many of their children’s emotional and physical needs. In addition, the families’ communication patterns may severely limit the child’s expressions of feelings and needs.

Children growing up in such families are likely to develop low self esteem and feel that their needs are not important or perhaps should not be taken seriously by others. As a result, they may form unsatisfying relationships as adults.
Types of dysfunctional families

1 Where one or both parents have addictions or compulsions

2 One or both parents use the threat or application of physical violence as the primary means of control. Children may have to witness violence.

3 One or both parents exploit the children and treat them as possessions.

4 Where one or both parents fail to provide their children with adequate emotional support.

5 One or both parents exert a strong authoritarian control over the children.

What happens to children?
In such families children may….
1 Be forced to take sides in conflicts between parents.

2 Experience ‘reality shifting’ in which what is said contradicts what is actually happening (e.g., a parent may deny
something happened that the child actually observed)

3 Be ignored, or criticised for their feelings and thoughts.

4 Have parents that are inappropriately intrusive, overly involved and protective.

5 Have parents that are inappropriately distant and uninvolved with their children.

6 Experience rejection or preferential treatment.

7 Be restricted from full and direct communication with other family members.

8 Be allowed or encouraged to use drugs or alcohol.

9 Be locked out of the house.

10 Be physically abused
Making changes
Some specific things you can do include:
1 Identify painful or difficult experiences that happened during your childhood.

2 Make a list of your behaviours, beliefs, etc. that you would like to change.

3 Next to each item on the list, write down the behaviour, belief, etc. that you would like to do/have instead.

4 Pick one item on your list and begin practicing the alternate behaviour or belief. Choose the easiest item first.

5 Once you are able to do the alternate behaviour more often than the original, pick another item on the list and
practice changing it, too.

6 Stop trying to be perfect. In addition, don’t try to make your family perfect.

7 Realise that you are not in control of other people’s lives. You do not have the power to make others change.

8 Identify what you would like to have happen.

Recognise that when you stop behaving the way you used to, even for a short time, there may be adverse reactions from your family or friends. Anticipate what the reactions will be (e.g., tears, yelling, other intimidating responses) and decide how you will respond.
Don’t become discouraged if you find yourself slipping back into old patterns of behaviour. Changes may be slow and gradual, but as you continue to practice new and healthier behaviors, they will begin to become part of your day-to-day living.

(The author is a psychologist and heads the departments of Psychology and Social Work at BSSS. He can be contacted at

First Published: Jan 16, 2007 02:01 IST