What is Family Dysfunction and How Can Change Occur

Families essentially operate as systems or organisms.

A system is a collection of items which are interdependent and organised for a common purpose. For example, in car production, the product moves from station to station along an assembly line, with different workers performing various production tasks along the way. If a particular station is defective or missing, then the production is impeded and cannot function.

Similarly, an organism is an entity which constitutes mutually interdependent parts that execute vital processes. If a part of the organism is missing or inadequate, it affects the entire functioning of the organism. For example, a cell is a type of organism. If the nucleus, which is the control centre of the cell is not functioning, then this inadvertently affects the overall functioning of the cell.

This same ideology applies in the context of families and how they function or operate. Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist developed the Bowen Family Systems Theory to describe the complex interactions in the family unit. According to Bowen, a family is a system in which each member has a part to play and rules to adhere to. Members of the system are expected to relate in a certain way according to their role, which is determined by unconscious relationship agreements.  A change in role of a family member may preserve the stability of the family, but it may have an effect on the equilibrium of the family unit which may lead to dysfunction.

Family dysfunction occurs when problems or circumstances such as alcoholism, harsh parenting, a death in the family or child abuse can impair the family functioning. Generally, in healthy families, the functioning can return to normal after the stressful period. However, in the case of dysfunctional families, problems tend to be persistent and unresolved and children grow up in an environment where their needs are curbed or in some cases, denied.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have devastating effects on the healthy development of the child and can carry through into adulthood. Children learn through mirroring and use parents as role models to ascertain boundaries, acquire social skills, learn how to deal with conflict, appropriate communication and manage stress to name but a few.

If parenting is absent, abusive or inappropriate in some way, children learn how to orient themselves in response to this. For example, in a family where there is physical abuse, the child will learn to deny their needs and hide in order to feel safe. If a parent is absent, in some cases, a child may fill the role of the “missing” parent in order to allow the family to function accordingly. It is important to note that in most cases, the assigning of roles is not explicit and as children are highly perceptive and act like “sponges”, they quickly learn how to adapt to the family system. This is usually a coping or survival mechanism.

Adults who come from dysfunctional families, may carry these patterns, roles and accompanying mechanisms into later life as they have been conformed to behave in a certain way. They may experience feelings of low self-esteem, difficulties in forming relationships, trusting others and poor boundaries. Some ways in which this may manifest is in terms of feeling the need to please others, having difficulty in identifying and asserting their needs and expressing themselves, experiencing feelings of loneliness, and perhaps find it difficult to relax and find enjoyment.

The question is firstly to recognise if this is applicable to you, and if so, what supports or strategies you can use in order to regain a sense of self and healthy functioning in yourself. Realise that you have come this far and survived, but perhaps some of the coping mechanisms may not be serving you anymore. Paradoxically, people who come from dysfunctional families have learned valuable skills such as high empathy for others, resilience and are high achievers so these are positive traits.

Here are some areas to look at in how change can occur:

Learning to identify and express emotions

In dysfunctional families, you may not have felt safe to be able to express your emotions whether positive or negative and feelings may have been supressed or denied. Learning to listen to and name your feelings can begin the process of connecting to your intuition and emotional being.

Acknowledging the anger and the loss

It is important to acknowledge the feelings of anger and loss which may arise and this is part of the grieving process and completely normal. Families should be a place of safety and refuge and somewhere where you can feel nurtured, grow and develop. When that isn’t the case and you don’t get the nurturing you needed, it can evoke painful feelings of a “lost childhood” and lost sense of self.

Establishing healthy boundaries

Beginning the process of setting new boundaries can take time and patience. If you start to change, it begins shift the dynamics of the system and this can have a ripple effect. Generally, human beings do not like change so there may be resistance to maintain the family functioning even though it is unhealthy.

Creating new relationships with family members

In the family system, it is important to identify family strengths and similarly, identify patterns that are problematic and may need to be challenged.

Regain a sense of self

Sometimes, people may be left with a feeling of being “lost” or “out of touch” with life. This is because you may have been in survival mode. These strategies may have been necessary in order to cope but now, they may be hindering your progress and affecting your quality of life. By becoming more aware of what your needs and desires are and taking action to meet those needs, you can become more satisfied in living a fulfilling life.

To conclude, change is possible and takes time and talking to a trusted therapist can be supportive in accompanying you on this journey.

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