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The 5 Don’ts of Dysfunctional Family Communication

SOURCE:  Eric Scalise, Ph.D.

Every family has its own unique set of rules.

They are typically established by parents and set the tone for communication, decision-making, and conflict resolution, as well as defining the parameters for how relationships are supposed to function within the home environment. Sometimes these rules are written, perhaps even posted; however, in most cases, they are of the unspoken variety, yet clearly understood as the “norms” of the household.

Here are five such rules I have seen over the course of working with hundreds of families—rules that often create chaos, hurt, and confusion—though you will never see them attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. Their impact often leaves family members, especially children, too afraid to try anything, too hurt to love anybody and too angry to obey.

Let’s unpack them one at a time:

Rule #1 – Don’t Talk

This rule implies that you are not really allowed to share your thoughts, concerns or ideas on almost any matter.

Conflicts, differences of opinion, problem behaviors, etc., are all either completely ignored or quickly silenced. There are no “family” conferences or pow-wows whenever a crisis occurs and avoidance is the name of the game. Take for example, a father who drinks too much. Everyone knows Dad is drinking. Everyone knows Dad comes home drunk sometimes, gets rough with Mom or the kids, but no one talks about what’s going on. It’s like having the proverbial elephant right in the living room. Everyone clearly sees it; everyone can smell it and everyone knows what it’s doing to the carpet. Yet, no one talks about the elephant. Instead, they tiptoe around it, pretending there are no obstacles in the way. Of course, the big “no-no” is that you are not permitted to talk with anyone outside the family circle. This is viewed as being disloyal, even treasonous. Maintaining the “secret” becomes the status quo. Kids who grow up with this rule often have difficulty being open and honest or are timid and unsure of themselves whenever a decision needs to be made.

Rule #2 – Don’t Feel

With this rule, family members are not permitted to express their true feelings and if they attempt to do so, their efforts are usually met with resistance and disdain.

Feelings are shut down, excused away, minimized, made fun of, misinterpreted, or simply discarded as illegitimate. After a while, family members just give up, concluding others don’t honestly care anyway, so why bother putting forth the necessary time and/or emotional labor. Their feelings don’t count in the long run and the thought of transparency becomes too large of a risk, especially when combined with Rule #1. This dynamic results in people who grow up more defensive, suspicious and guarded in their relationships. When asked how they are doing in life, the answer is almost always, “Fine… everything is fine,” even when the world is falling apart all around them. Suffering in silence feels less disappointing or traumatic than rejection by someone who once again may be saying all the right words and using socially acceptable protocols, but isn’t truly interested in having an authentic relationship.

Rule #3 – Don’t Touch

In some families, there is no healthy sense of touch, or the touch that is experienced is hurtful and abusive.

Statistics indicate one out of every 3-4 girls and one out of every 4-5 boys will suffer some form of abuse before they graduate from high school. However, this rule is not exclusively the domain of physical touch. Emotional and verbal forms of touch are just as critical. When I grew up, there was a saying that went like this, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never kill you.” Baloney! Long after the physical bruises are gone, the emotional devastation of hurtful words and emotional responses can linger well into adulthood. The research on this subject reveals that for every negative, critical or abusive message someone takes in on a personal level, he or she needs 17 positives before “balance” is perceived once again. Imagine how buried in negativity some people really are. Numerous clients have told me things like, “I can’t ever remember my Dad or my Mom hugging me or saying they loved me. We just didn’t do that in our home.”

Rule #4 – Don’t Resolve

This rule typically leaves individuals stuck in a crisis mode or with the hurtful aftermath of a confrontation that did not play out very well.

Over time, family members become convinced there are no helpful or significant resolutions for family “business.” Forgiveness over hurts, heartaches and misunderstandings, are nonexistent or fleeting at best. The issues keep getting dragged back into the forefront, often used to shore up an accusation, defend a point of view or bludgeon someone into silence or submission. In other words, problems are not only avoided and left unaddressed in most cases, they are rarely—if ever—solved. Like a scab that keeps getting picked, the desire for healing and restoration is shoved to the back burner. The wound bleeds once again and eventually, leaves a scar; only in this case, the consequences are potentially carried into the next generation. This difficulty in navigating the daily pressures of life using core problem solving skills, impacts a person’s emotional, psychological, relational and spiritual well-being.

Rule #5 – Don’t Trust

The last rule is based on the previous four.

If you are never allowed to talk about anything of substance; if you are never permitted to share or display your feelings, if there is no healthy sense of touch; and if problems and issues are never fully resolved…then the sad conclusion is that you cannot and must not trust anyone. No one is deemed to be safe or trustworthy, not even God. Trust, along with honesty, represents the glue that holds any relationship together. Without them, the trials and pressures of life, even everyday stress, may result in the relationship being torn asunder, leaving it ripped and shredded in small detached pieces. Ultimately, and when combined with the first four rules, a person’s journey through this kind of family system weakens and compromises the formation of a well-adjusted self-identity.

So what then is the antidote to these dysfunctional family rules?

The first step is to have an honest conversation with yourself—especially if you are a mom or dad—and determine if any of these describe the unwritten rules of your home. If so, here are a few brief thoughts worth considering:

Do Invite – Send the message to your children that they are welcome (and expected) to be fully engaged in the life of the family, encouraging them to take ownership and personal responsibility. Their opinions matter, their ideas will be given a fair hearing and they can do so in an atmosphere of safety, mutual love and respect. There is nothing they should ever be anxious, embarrassed or too afraid to talk with you about—“Come now and let us reason together” (Is. 1:18).

Do Express – Model your feelings with honesty, genuineness, transparency, and in such a manner that honors Christ. God gave us emotions, even the strong ones, and they are what make us human. Teach your children balance and decency when it comes to self-expression. If they are never allowed to show emotion, they will dry up. If they only show emotion, they will blow up. However, if there is a healthy balance between the two, they will grow up—“The Joy of the Lord is your strength” – (Neh. 8:10).

Do Affirm – Love can be communicated in many ways and forms—physically, verbally, spiritually, etc., in word and in deed. Employ all of them—frequently, consistently and with a determined initiative. The blessing of affirmation has the power to touch deep into the soul and releases our children with confidence to a future that is more secure—“God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” – (2 Cor. 2:8-9).

Do Forgive – Closure is an important element in moving past relational pain and the hurts and disappointments that are normal within any family. The goal is not the avoidance of all conflict, but how to effectively resolve issues and restore relationships that is essential. Helping family members work through a problem, employing Christ-like forgiveness, is better in the long run than simply letting them work their way out of a problem—“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” – (2 Cor. 5:17).

Do Empower – When a home is filled with the invitation to be engaged, with consistent expressions of love and affirmation, and a strong belief problems can and will be successfully addressed and resolved, then an environment of trust is created, one that brings hope and empowers family members. Children understand and experience what it means to be given a blessing for a hopeful future, to step out in faith and embrace all that God has for them—“Those who know Your name will put their trust in You, for You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You” – (Ps. 9:10).

9 Tips For Helping Your Child Manage Anxiety

SOURCE:  Helena Negru/Lifehack

Parents want nothing more than to see childhood remain a time of carefree wonder and joy for their children, an age of innocence wherein the troubles of the wider world are kept at a safe distance by caring adult oversight.

As such, the parents who have anxious children are faced with a difficult dilemma: How do they protect their children from the multitude of relatively “normal” activities (e.g. going to school, socializing with friends) that provoke anxiety and fear while also ensuring that they experience life fully and develop properly? How do they help their child manage anxiety?

There are no easy answers to the above question. Psychologist Tali Shenfield, PhD suggests that parents first evaluate the level of child’s anxiety with a free child anxiety screening test and then, depending on test results, use the following anxiety management strategies:

1. An “empathy first” approach

When most parents hear their child expressing irrational fears, their first response is to assure their child that, logically, there is nothing to worry about. While this act is well-intentioned, it’s usually ineffective; the brain of any anxious individual – young or old – is too engaged in the “fight or flight” response (wherein activity in the prefrontal cortex, the “logical” part of the brain, is suppressed) to properly process new information.

What an anxious child therefore really needs is a parent who simply feels with him- one who pauses with him, joins him in taking a few deep breaths, and then validates his emotions as being acceptable.

Once you have empathized with your child and he has visibly calmed down, then and only then should you look for possible solutions. Do this while engaging your child: Ask him what he thinks would help him to feel better and overcome his fears.

2. Avoid making your child feel like a problem to be fixed

Children – even children without chronic anxiety – frequently struggle with fears of being “different” from their peers or unacceptable to their parents. If your child feels like his anxiety means something is “wrong” with him, his issues with worry will only increase as he will be plagued by constant self-doubt.

To prevent the above from happening, avoid labelling your child (i.e. don’t call him an “anxious person” or a “worrier”); instead, explain to him fear’s historically beneficial role in protecting us from harm (i.e. our instincts once helped us to avoid predators in the wild).

Ideally, you should teach your child to see worry like a tool: It’s useful in some situations, but in others, our brains are simply reacting to “false alarms” due to instinct. Tell your child that it’s possible to learn a few simple methods for recognizing these false alarms and for dealing with them effectively.

3. Consider using play to help your child understand his anxiety

Role playing exercises, such as having your child create a character which embodies his worry, can help your child learn how to dismantle his anxieties. Use a toy (such as a doll or stuffed animal) to represent the character your child creates, then you and your child can sit together and practice talking the character out of his misplaced fears. Make sure that every time the character succeeds in overcoming his anxiety during the stories created for him, he ends up with a “happy ending” as a result.

4. Teach your child how to centre himself in reality

Our fears have a way of distorting reality, making situations appear much scarier than they actually are. To help your child overcome the mind’s innate tendency to exaggerate objects of worry, teach him to:

  1. Recognize worried thoughts as they happen. Visualization is useful here: Tell your child to imagine thoughts floating above his head in “thought bubbles,” then ask him to practice catching the fearful thoughts as they pop up.
  1. Deconstruct the thoughts he catches using factual evidence. Emphasize to your child that feelings are not facts. When faced with a worry, tell your child that he should weigh up factual evidence for and against what his mind is telling him (for example, if he fears failing a test, he should review the many times he has passed tests over the years and remind himself that he has studied thoroughly, making failure unlikely).
  1. Debate with his thoughts (if necessary). Using the facts he has just gathered, you child can debate with the worried thoughts his mind is producing until he eventually wins and overcomes them.

5. Allow your child to worry

The more your child feels as though he should be able to simply shove his worries away, the more he will believe he is somehow failing when he cannot. You should therefore avoid saying things like, “There’s no reason to be afraid” and instead encourage your child to express his worries.

Creating a “worry diary” is an excellent strategy for getting your child to vent what’s bothering him; have him spend 15 minutes a day writing down any worry that is weighing on him – no matter how small – and allow him to share those worries with you if he wishes. At the end of the 15 minutes, have him literally close the book on his worries and set them aside.

6. Affirm the importance of remaining in the present moment

Like anxious adults, anxious children spend a lot of time preoccupied with “what ifs.” Instruct your child to try to catch his “what if” thoughts and replace them with “what is” thoughts. For example, if he’s thinking, “What if my new friend stops liking me?” he should pause, focus on nothing but his breath for a few moments, then look around and take in “what is”: The sun shining as he waits for the bus, the sound of the birds in the trees, the feeling of the warm air.

Intentionally returning one’s focus to the present in this way (by focusing on sensory perceptions) is a form of Mindfulness, a popular therapeutic practice which has been repeatedly shown to lessen anxiety.

7. Help your child take “baby steps” in order to overcome fearful situations

It is usually impossible – and always unhelpful – for an anxious individual to avoid everything that is causing him anxiety. Instead, your child should try the “ladder” approach: Overcoming fearful situations by working up to them in a succession of small steps.

If your child is afraid of dogs, for instance, have him start by observing a familiar dog (one that belongs to a friend, for example) from a distance, then have him walk closer to the dog while it’s safely leashed, then have him try to pet the dog while another person is still holding the leash, and then finally, let him interact with the dog briefly while it’s off its leash. If this process is repeated a few times with a few different friendly dogs, your child will likely overcome his terror.

8. Have your child create a “calm down” checklist

Ask your child to write down a series of steps to take when he needs to calm down (e.g. pause, breathe deeply, count to ten, evaluate the facts of the situation, etc.), so that he has something clear to refer to when he begins to feel panicky and confused. Make sure that your child carries a copy of this checklist with him until he memorizes the steps.

9. Don’t blame yourself for your child’s anxiety

Many parents of anxious children wonder if they have somehow “caused” their child to become excessively fearful, but this is usually not the case: Genetics and environmental factors over which parents have limited control (bullying at school, for example, or a traumatic accident) often lie at the root of childhood anxiety – not “bad parenting.”

It’s important to avoid blaming yourself for your child’s anxiety; the more you do so, the more emotional you will become about the situation and the less able you will be to help your child stay calm (your own worry will eventually cause you to become reactive, which will affirm your child’s idea that there is something to be afraid of). Instead, see yourself as your child’s ally, a member of his team as he fights against anxiety.

Remember, being compassionate to yourself, as well as to your child, is essential when creating a calm, loving, and healthy home for your whole family. If you find yourself struggling to cope with your child’s anxiety, don’t go it alone – seek the aid of friends, family members, and if necessary, a mental health professional. With the right support, you and your child can triumph over irrational fears and live full, happy lives.

FAMILIES EXPERIENCING TROUBLE: Children and Spouses of Troubled Families

SOURCE: Adapted from Helping Troubled Families by Charles M. Sell

Helping Troubled Families: A Guide for Pastors, Counselors, and Supporters

*The Children — Many children of dysfunctional families (termed CODF’s) have to cope with baffling and painful situations.  Children who are subjected to abuse of different kinds may receive little or no help from others, mainly because their teachers, neighbors, and church leaders may not realize their plight.  Without assistance from others, children try to fix themselves.  Clumsily, with childish hands, they suture the wounds, often leaving ugly scars or unhealed lesions that split open in later life.  All of this is an attempt to protect themselves from the abuse.  The home has the power to produce angry, rebellious, or disheartened children.  Families can aggravate serious psychological disorders.  Kids under stress can develop an abundance of physical and emotional problems even while in the womb.  Many scientists how believe that stress can program a fetus to develop heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and other disorders in adulthood.  So sensitive is the brain to its environment that absence of emotional warmth can kill brain cells.  The loss of these cells is devastating during a child’s early years, when brain connections require learning skills for language, math, and getting along with others. As infants, if anything interferes with bonding with their mothers, they may have permanent emotional scars that will influence the outcome of the remainder of their development.  The extent of the damage done to CODF’s depends on lots of factors, for example, when in the life of the child the parent became addicted, how the family reacted to it, how long the addiction continued, and the severity of the abuse and neglect.

Thankfully, despite the severity of the situation, not all of these children will be severely wounded.  Psychologists call them resilient or stress-resistant children. Some CODF’s may have a strong orientation toward personal growth.  They are able to initiate and intentionally engage in the process of self-change.  Second, they may possess a trait termed hardiness.  Hardy people are actively involved in living, believing they can control their circumstances.  Some kids are less affected by their stressful family life because of the presence of another adult in their lives.

The children of troubled families may sometimes feel frustrated and unable to control their own lives. Their helplessness may be compounded by a feeling of failure.  This is due to their trying to solve the problem in their family.  Kids feel responsible for their parents’ problems partly because they are so egocentric, believing they are the cause of most everything that happens around them.  But they also may think they are to blame for the problem because the troubled parent tells them they are.  Taking such responsibility on themselves is usually destructive to children because they are doomed to failure.  Without someone explaining to them that they shouldn’t take the weight of the family on their shoulders, they may continue to do this into adulthood and even have trouble stopping then.  Their failure to solve the family’s problems may make them angry.  Thinking their good behavior will make their parents break free from their dependency or compulsion, they may be upset when they don’t get the hoped for results.  Their anger may take the form of resentment.

Expressing anger is complicated by the attachment the child has for the parents.  Besides needing the parents’ care, children are taught to love and respect them, making it very hard to accept the anger and hatred they feel.  Feelings are mixed – love and hate, pity and disgust, anger and sympathy.  The child plays the same Jeckyll-Hyde role the troubled parent is playing. Fear may also keep children from directing anger toward the parent.  And the “don’t feel, don’t talk” rules will make them keep their anger bottled up inside of them.  This may cause them to resort to sarcasm, forgetfulness, hostile jokes, and other passive-aggressive behaviors.  They may also overreact to normal events and become extremely angry with people who haven’t done anything to deserve such a reaction.

One way CODF’s express anger is by reverting back to an earlier stage of development.  Also, a child may make light of the stressful situation at home or resort to humor to handle it. Additionally, children may be deeply hurt by a parent’s abusive ranting and raving and lack what are known as “self-soothing” abilities.  They lack inner resources to calm themselves in the face of severe stress and intense emotions.  Finally, children in stressful situations may develop a false self.  Instead of the addicted parent’s encouraging the children to express themselves and commending them for it, the parent’s behavior demands that they become something else.  If the parent is also physically or sexually abusive, the squelching of the child’s personality can be extremely severe.

Shame is another emotion that inhibits children’s development of their true self.  Theirs is not a shame for what they have done, but for who they are—an absence of self-respect.  The time between eighteen months to three years is a time when a child gains a sense of autonomy.  Restricting the child, as dysfunctional families are prone to do, may make them doubt and dislike themselves.  Guilt feelings may also develop very early from ages three to six.  In an addictive family, the children may receive little affirmation for their ventures and be blamed for innocent mistakes, causing them to feel guilty for attempts to exert themselves.

They will also be shamed by the embarrassing activities of their parents.  Their shame may also be due to the fact that all children tend to identify with their parents.  Of course, constant parental criticism may result in children’s having little self-respect.  When little children are verbally harangued by their parents, told they are worthless or bad, they will believe these things.  They lack the maturity to realize these messages are lies of an evil, addicted, compulsive person.

Trust will almost always be a problem for the dysfunctional family’s children, too.  Consistent care teaches them that they can rely on others.  If their care is sporadic, harsh, or unkind, they learn to mistrust, making it difficult for them later to form close relationships.  Distracted and disturbed, a dysfunctional family may early breed mistrust in children.  The inconsistency of the wet-dry cycle probably is enough to instill distrust in a child.  Children in dysfunctional families are often compulsive and have a tendency to become addicted to something.  Or they may turn to an addiction as an escape from pain.  The enmeshed family system has taught them to depend on things outside themselves for happiness and satisfaction.  Additionally, children of dysfunctional families are often obsessed with pleasing others.

CODF’s cast themselves in various roles.  The child may choose the role as a survival tactic, or, because each role performs a function in the family system, the system itself will force the child into the part.  Sometimes a specific child will play more than one role or through time switch from one to another.  These roles help the family maintain its dysfunctional homeostasis and can eventually be harmful to the children.  The following are various roles:

Chief Enabler – shelters the addict from consequences of his or her behavior; cost to them is martyrdom;

Family Hero – keeps family’s self-worth, acts as family counselor; cost is a compulsive drive;

Family Scapegoat – diverts attention from the addict; cost is possible self-destructive behavior and often addiction;

Lost child – escapes family stress by emotional and physical separation; cost is social isolation;

Family Mascot – diverts attention from the addict by humor; cost is immaturity and/or emotional illness.

Family members learn “addictive logic” to deny the chaos.  They learn to lie and say the problem doesn’t exist so as not to betray the family.  To survive in an addictive system, children learn to deny healthy responses that tell them they are in danger; they have to keep increasing these dishonest coping skills as their situation worsens.  Also, a torrent of negative thoughts may be coursing through children’s innocent minds:  “I can’t do anything right; I am a failure; I’m not loved; I will be abandoned; I am ugly and bad…etc.”  They desperately need someone to tell them these are lies and help them see the truth about themselves and their families.

*The Spouses — Being married to an addict can be like a ride on a roller coaster – terrifying.  Life is chaotic and unpredictable, up one day, down the next, depending on how the spouse is behaving.  Emotions fluctuate and are mixed.  The dry period, when life is on the upside, inspires hope that it will last, along with nagging fear that it won’t.  In cases of spousal abuse, the cycle is well documented:  abuse followed by remorse followed by forgiveness followed by abuse followed by remorse, and so on.  The same happens in addictive marriages:  The husband manifests an addictive/compulsive behavior, and the wife gets angry.  The husband becomes sober and pleads for forgiveness.  The wife forgives, and the two are reconciled.  The husband manifests the addictive/compulsive behavior, and the wife gets angry.  The husband becomes sober, and on and on.  The spouse will probably be experiencing many of the same emotions as the children – fear, anger, helplessness, loneliness, and the like.  Some will hate their husband or wife, their bitterness created out of years of broken promises and neglect.  Spouses will also blame themselves for their partner’s problem.  Shame too can be intense.  And to cover his or her embarrassment, the husband or wife of the troubled person will strive hard to make a contribution outside the home.  He or she may be driven to succeed in the workplace.  Some will devote themselves to social work or church ministry.  The marriage relationship will deteriorate.  Feelings of love that were likely present in the beginning of the marriage will slowly die as the partner’s addiction progresses.

Three of the most important marital resources – respect, reciprocity, and reliability – will be challenged.  Respect involves conveying to another person (through words, deeds, or simply being present) that the other is of value.  By their irresponsible behavior and neglect of family duties, addicts and the like will not be likely to keep this resource in their relationship.  Reciprocity in relationships refers to the balance of giving and receiving care and consideration.  Not much fairness will be felt in a dysfunctional family where the weight of maintaining the family falls on the addict’s spouse and/or children.  Reliability refers to the expectation that the person will be there for us on an ongoing, fairly consistent basis.  Broken promises and no-shows will destroy this resource.  An addiction, like any other violation of the relationship bond, will chip away at trust.  People married to the addiction/compulsive behavior often convey to their partners that they are not important.  This deterioration of the marriage and emotional struggles of the spouse will sometimes diminish his or her capacity to parent.  Sometimes the spouse, wrestling with the partner’s addiction/behavior, will dump his or her responsibilities on the children.  Because of this neglect, some adult children are angry at the spouse of their addictive/compulsive parent more than they are the one with the addiction/compulsion.

*The Role of Codependency — Codependency is another form of enmeshment.  The spouse of the troubled individual is referred to as the “co-addict.”  This can be described as one person’s addictive patterns aligning themselves with another’s so that there is some degree of systemic collusion or addictive pattern.  Essentially, a codependent is related to another in an unhealthy way.  One person cares so completely for the other that he or she neglects himself or herself, living almost entirely for the other person.  Being an enabler is sometimes part of such a relationship.  Enablers don’t usually consciously do things to help their partner continue his or her destructive behavior.  In fact they will probably attack their partner’s problem with a vengeance, doing everything possible to get him or her to straighten out. Yet, at the same time, they will do things that facilitate their spouse’s behavior.  For example, they will protect their spouse from the consequences of his or her actions:  phoning his boss to report him sick when he can’t go to work because of the addictive behavior; giving money to a wife who has a money related addictive problem; making excuses to the kids for a parent’s absence, and so on.  Then, too, the partners contribute to the addicts’ problem by facilitating the reorganization of the family around them.  Children, too, can play the role of codependent.

Codependents sacrifice unnecessarily and to the detriment of others as well as themselves.  Following Jesus’ example, Christians are encouraged to make sacrifices, but they are not to make senseless ones.  Jesus’ sacrificial offering of himself benefited others.  But the codependent’s sacrifices are harmful to the one for whom they are made.  It is not really loving.  Love, as conceived in the New Testament, is concern and care for a person’s highest good.  Preventing an addicted/compulsive spouse from suffering their own consequences is not showing this type of concern and care.  This troubled spouse needs to see the results of his/her lifestyle and choices.  As Proverbs 19:19 says, “A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.”  Love is sometimes expressed by not doing something for someone.  Also, codependents need to understand that it is not wrong to care for themselves.  As indicated in Lev. 19:18 and Matt. 19:19, we are commanded to respect others as we respect ourselves.

Some write that codependency is defined as “a pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity.”  By this, they mean that people who live in enmeshed families develop a tendency to live this way in general, even with people outside the family.  Symptoms include the following:

* Thoughts and attitudes dominated by the other person: “I think more about your life than mine.”

* Self-esteem related to the other person: “I value your opinion more than my own; I need to help you in order to feel good about myself; I need to be needed.”

* Emotions are tied to the other person: “When you are hurting, I often react more deeply than you do.”

* Interests geared to the other person: “I know more clearly what you want than what I want.”

* Relationship to others is affected by the other person: “I neglect my friends to get overly involved in fixing you; I am compulsive about pleasing others, yet I get upset by their demands on me.”

In selecting a mate, some men and women seem to be attracted to a person who needs their care.  Besides the obvious shortcomings, one major problem of this type of relationship is the powerful dependence these partners have on each other.  They become so enmeshed that they seem unable to function as individuals.  They become so intertwined that it becomes difficult for the other to leave the relationship regardless of how dysfunctional it is.  Codependents will have considerable psychological distress.  They will suffer from poor self-esteem, since they may feel little worth apart from what is derived from rescuing others.  They will also suffer from an extreme need to be needed, making them depressed when they feel they are not.  Also they may have an unhealthy willingness to suffer, somehow believing that suffering for someone will make that person love them; being a martyr will make them feel rewarded.

Despite codependents’ sorry state of affairs, they will have a strong resistance to change.  Leaving the troubled spouse, even as a step toward healing, accountability, and re-creation of the marriage,  is not an option, because they fear feeling guilty, living alone, or not being able to make it financially.

In conclusion, when we or our families experience trouble, we must call upon the Divine weapons and resources that God has provided us.  We must remember that we cannot face the vast array of past and present problems on our own. Therefore, we must keep our focus on the Lord since we don’t know how to deal with these things (2 Chron 20:12b).  He has the willingness and power to do the impossible, demolish the past and present strongholds that have enslaved us, and make us to be who He created us to be (Phil 2:12; Luke 1:37; 2 Cor 10:3-5).

FAMILIES EXPERIENCING TROUBLE: Addictive/Compulsive Families

SOURCE:  Adapted from Helping Troubled Families by Charles M. Sell

Helping Troubled Families: A Guide for Pastors, Counselors, and Supporters

An addictive or compulsive family member troubles the whole family, just as an injured part of the body affects the whole person.  So too family members will compensate for an addicted/compulsive’s erratic and unreliable conduct by behaving in ways that might worsen the situation.  This may shock spouses and children who thought all their problems would go away once the alcoholic stopped drinking or the workaholic took more time off.  They were not aware that the whole family, not just the addict, would need to be fixed.

Dysfunctional Family Organization

Typically a troubled family organizes itself around the troubled person with the person becoming the center around which family members orbit.  Families need leadership, the kind that empowers its members to express themselves and mature.  The kind of control discussed here results in demoralizing family members and stifling their growth.  When family life is regulated by such persons, their chaotic, unpredictable, unmanaged life creates a chaotic, unpredictable, unmanaged household.  Individual family members’ behavior becomes tied to the troubled person.  The tension family members feel makes them describe living at home like “walking on eggshells.”  The family’s adjustment to the addiction or compulsive behavior of one of their members is similar to their accommodating themselves to a parent’s working schedule.  The effort to make these adjustments is what family systems experts call a process of homeostasis.  The family adjusts itself to keep things stable when circumstances disrupt family life.  When one person’s behavior changes drastically, the family will adjust to that.  They’ll do this for addicts because they care about them and because his or her welfare is tied to their own.

Because the family members are bound together with the abuser, they cannot simply ignore him or her.  The troubled person’s erratic, irresponsible behavior becomes unsettling, serious, even traumatic, and family members feel they must do something to get the person to gain control of himself or herself.  They will try any commonsense thing to get the person to stop – plead with or threaten him or her, cry, and tell the person how badly they feel.  And if those tactics don’t work, they pour the person’s liquor down the drain or send someone to the bar to tell the drinker to come home.  Some of these strategies may work, especially in the case of someone whose addiction problems are not terribly out of control.  But if these efforts don’t work and the problem persists, the family will make subtle, slow adjustments to accommodate the addict’s behavior, even though they don’t approve of it.

These families will alter their life in a number of areas including:

*Routines – through routines families maintain some stability and order.  A strong family is one where these routines are consistently carried out.  When families allow their routines to be determined by someone who is out of control, like an addict, the family behavior will become as inconsistent and chaotic as the addict’s life.

*Rituals — Rituals are routines with an added ingredient – significance.  Rituals govern the way the family carries out important activities, like praying together, celebrating special occasions, etc.  For an example, a mother with an anger problem, under stress of preparing a Thanksgiving Dinner, might lose control of her temper, dampening the family’s holiday mood.  If these become regular holiday occurrences, families will begin to expect them and do what they can to lessen the impact.  When rituals are modified, their significance may be greatly diminished.  Rituals are ruined when the emotions and meanings associated with them are supplanted by the anger and disappointment of having to deal with the problem behavior.  It should be noted that all of these alterations in the family are designed to deal with the troubled parent’s behavior not by ignoring it or continuing in spite of it but changing to accommodate it.  Families least likely to reproduce addicts were those who did not permit the troubled person’s presence to disrupt the family’s routines and rituals.  They distanced themselves instead of accommodated themselves.

*Problem-Solving Procedures – Besides routines and rituals, the family also tries to regulate itself by modifying its problem-solving procedures.  These modifications involve doing things to bring a member back into line if that person threatens the family’s stability.  Troubled families may use two distinct problem-solving methods.  First, they vigilantly guard the status quo, because they tend to be unusually sensitive to any destabilization of the family.  Once the family has stabilized around the out-of-control person, they appear to be uncommonly threatened by any other change.  Dysfunctional families are generally rigid.  Strong families are flexible.  As children get older and conditions change in the family, the family needs to adjust.  Many of these changes are related to the family’s life phases.  All change (good and bad) is stressful, and it can be both good and bad at the same time – like the birth of a child, for example.  Arriving at a life stage may trigger a crisis in the family if it is too rigid to handle it properly.  The second distinct feature of the troubled family’s problem-solving procedure is using the problem person’s behavior to assist the family in dealing with problems.  If this happens, the addictive problem becomes a part of the family’s normal functioning.  This has major implications when, for example, an addict stops drinking.  The alcohol that has become necessary for the family to function is now gone.  Learning how to operate without it may become very difficult for all of them.

*Family Devastation – These changes are especially devastating because the family’s stability now depends on the continued behavior by the addict.  This insight helps us understand why it is crucial that the family system change when treating an addictive/compulsive behavior.  Otherwise, the system will continue to pressure the troubled persons to stay as they are.  Despite the conscious wish to see the troubled person change, family members may have an unconscious desire to have the person continue as he or she is.

FAMILIES EXPERIENCING TROUBLE: Characteristics of Dysfunctional Families

SOURCE:  Adapted from Helping Troubled Families by Charles M. Sell

Helping Troubled Families: A Guide for Pastors, Counselors, and Supporters

*Enmeshment – This means family members become too closely bonded with each other.  Strong families connect in a balanced way.  They have a strong sense of togetherness, but it’s tempered by allowing members to be independent.  They feel close and committed to each other, but their closeness empowers them as separate persons.  Enmeshed families, in contrast, allow their connectedness to stifle individuality.  They may also swing to the opposite extreme and be so independent that the members are disengaged.

Under the control of a parent, cohesiveness is often forced on the members.  In an effort to overcome family shame, efforts are made to keep the family together.  Members are expected to be loyal – being together is not necessarily desired; it is required.  Members of strong families may get together for Christmas because they want to, but dysfunctional family members do so because they have to.  Members of strong families enjoy each other; those of troubled families tend to endure each other.  Enmeshment is often referred to as co-dependence, and it manifests itself in number of harmful ways.  Family members sometimes feel too much, depend too much on, or do too much for each other.  While some sacrifice is o.k., sacrifice can be harmful, not just to the one who is sacrificing but also to the one for whom the sacrifice is made.  Jesus, by His crucifixion, is the greatest example of sacrifice, but His sacrifice was with purpose.

*Inadequate Communication – Dysfunctional families are notorious for their poor communication.  They have the now-famous rules:  “Don’t trust; don’t feel, and don’t talk.”  A functional family has no such rules.  The rules that keep dysfunctional families from talking come from the “elephant in the living room” phenomenon. The large beast represents the family’s problem.  Fear and shame keep family members from discussing it. Initially their feelings may be so overwhelming that they deal with them by trying not to feel.  Ignoring the most important family matter causes them to ignore other feelings and thoughts as well.  Communication is superficial because of the threat of talking about their shame, fear, and depression.  The family avoids healthy conflict and urges members not to rock the boat.  Their desire for peace at all costs inhibits any authenticity, vulnerability, or transparency.  Since they are unable to talk, family members struggle to adapt and survive, employing numerous defenses to ward off the pain.  One of those defenses is denial.

*Denial and Reality Shifting – People in dysfunctional families usually have a distorted view of reality.  They see the terrible things happening in their homes, yet they don’t recognize them for what they are.  This denial takes any number of forms.  They may minimize the problem.  They may consider themselves normal.  They may delay doing anything about it, thinking the problem will eventually solve itself.  Being in denial causes people to experience what is called “reality shifting.”  This is when there is a major discrepancy between what is said and what a child experiences.  Forcing children to disregard what they experience distorts their sense of what is true and normal, causing them to live in doubt and confusion.

*Wet – Dry Cycle – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde often come to mind when referring to addicts.  They have a sober personality and an addicted one – and their families do too.  This sobriety-intoxication cycle deprives them of one of the major traits of strong families – consistency.  What is so amazing about these cycles is that the family members tend to behave like the addict.  Families are not all alike when one of the members is an addict.  While some families may feel close to each other, others may feel isolated from one another. Some may be tranquil, others combative.  Yet they definitely exhibit two states.  During the sober period, the home atmosphere may be very tense with children fearing the addict may move to his/her addiction.  The contrast between the two states can be extreme:

Dry                                                     Wet_________________

Promises Made                              Promises Broken

Overpunitive                                  Overcaring

Rigid                                                  Adaptive

This unpredictability and inconsistency can exact a toll on family members.

*Role Reversals — When one family member becomes increasingly disabled, other family members will begin to carry an extra load to keep the family going. Unlike the teamwork that exists in a healthy family, these responsibilities are unfairly distributed.  As a result, the family members bearing the burden begin to feel resentful, angry, and frustrated.  But the “don’t talk rule” keeps them from confronting the troubled member about his or her irresponsibility.  They may also suffer their hard feelings to avoid arguments and uncomfortable scenes.

*Isolation – Troubled families often lack a key factor of healthy family life – contact with those outside the house.  They are cut off from the many benefits people receive by being linked to the wider community and their contact with growth-producing relationships is limited.  Because the family members are so enmeshed with one another, outsiders threaten the precarious “balance” of co-dependency.  Also, because of their rigidity, they reject others whose ideas and practices may challenge theirs. Keeping the family secret of addiction or abuse makes them shun outsiders.  Shame about that secret inhibits their getting close to others.  In some cases, this isolation is a contributing cause of the family’s problems as well as a result.  Physical and sexual abuse can more easily happen where it is unlikely to be detected by members of the community.

Whose Dream is it Anyway: Damaging Parenting Styles

Source:  Tim Elmore/Growing Leaders

My son loves participating in a community theatre program here in Atlanta. He is a true thespian. He loves the drama of a Broadway show. He loves the drama of television or movies. He loves the drama of musical theatre. Unfortunately, he’s seen a little too much drama from the adults in his life. If a parent in this community theatre program feels their child wasn’t’ cast appropriately, or if someone doesn’t affirm their child’s talent when her self-esteem is low, or if they don’t spotlight their son’s abilities when the talent scouts are present, these parents can turn into terrorists. There’s nothing more intimidating than a mom or dad who’s determined to fight for their kid’s rights. I cannot tell you how many times the parents in this community theatre program have embarrassed me by their immature behavior. They fail to lead themselves well, much less their kids. I find myself thinking: “Please…let’s keep the drama on the stage.”

And it’s not just the parents. It’s the teachers and staff as well. There is a general lack of healthy leadership and maturity among the adults, period. There are actually times when I’ve felt the kids are more mature than their adult teachers or parents. I consistently watch parents who behave like spoiled children, yet when they’re confronted by a leader for their behavior, they cry foul, or act hurt, like they’re the victim. It’s a sad commentary on the most educated generation of parents in U.S. history.

But the real issue is not the education of these parents or teachers. They have sound minds. Our problems are issues of the heart. In my last “Leadership Link”, I shared four damaging parenting styles. The truth is-these damaging styles can also be found among teachers in our schools today. Highly educated faculty can have emotional issues that prevent them from leading well in their classrooms. For that matter, these issues can surface in a corporate executive or a youth pastor. Let’s examine these damaging styles and explore what we can do to correct them.

WHAT TO DO WITH HELICOPTERS, DRY CLEANERS AND MONSTERS…

The Helicopter Parent or Teacher
These parents hover over their kids, working to make sure they get every imaginable advantage. This parenting style has been written up most widely in journals. They are the parents who want to ensure that doors open for their children and no negative incident affects their self-esteem or diminishes their chances of being accepted at an Ivy League school. Helicopter parents are committed to helping their children make the grade, make the team and make the money. When teachers become helicopters, they hover over students and create unfair environments and unrealistic scenarios that students must recover from when they enter the real world as adults.

The Problem: They don’t allow their kids the privilege of learning to fail and persevere.

The Issue: It is very possible parents and teachers can be “helicopters” because they possess a controlling spirit. Adults who struggle with being “out of control” or who find it difficult to trust others to deal with items they hold precious tend to be “hovering” and micromanaging in style. They mean well-but they feel it is up to them to make sure life turns out well for the kids. These adults, quite frankly, must learn to trust the process. I must face this issue from time to time myself. I must realize I am not in control and one day my children will enter a world where they cannot ask me for advice. Control is a myth-and the sooner we acknowledge that fact the better we’ll act as parents.

The Karaoke Parent or Teacher
Like the karaoke bar, where you can grab a microphone and sing like Barry Manilow did in the 1970s, these parents or teachers want to look and sound like their students. They want to dress like their child, talk like their child, even be cool like their child. They hunger to be a “buddy” to their kids and emulate this younger generation. They somehow hope to stay “cool” and “hip” so they can relate to their children all through their young adult years. They don’t like the thought of being out of style-and work to maintain an image. Sadly, these karaoke parents and teachers don’t offer their kids the boundaries and authority they desperately need. Last month, I read about a mother who allowed her daughter to have a house full of friends over-all minors-then allowed them to drink alcohol and even bought it for the kids. Several got completely inebriated; damaged the house and neighborhood; the police were called and a mess had to be cleaned up. The reason? Mom reported she wanted her daughter to feel like she trusted her. Mom didn’t want to be disliked by her daughter and was willing to take big risks to accomplish that goal. The children of these adults often grow up needing a therapist at 28, angry at their impotent parent.

The Problem: They don’t provide their kids the clear parameters that build security and esteem.

The issue: Frequently, parents and teachers become karaoke in their style because of their own emotional insecurities. Adults may have an extremely high I.Q., but if their E.Q. (Emotional Quotient) is low, smart people begin to do dumb things. These adults will rationalize why they do what they do, but in the end, the only remedy is for them to embrace their own age and stage, and relate to the students in an appropriate manner. I remember when I began to teach students in 1979, I related to them like an older brother. Within a few years, I realized I needed to change the way I was relating to them if I was to stay “real.” I moved to the role of an uncle. Some years later, I remember moving to the role of a dad. I could be a father to the students I teach today. I must embrace this and give them what they need, not necessarily what they want.

3. The Dry Cleaner Parent or Teacher
We take our wrinkled or soiled clothes to the dry cleaners to have them cleaned and pressed by professionals. It’s so handy to drop them off and have them handed back to us looking like new. These “dry cleaner” parents don’t feel equipped to raise their kids so they drop them off for experts to fix them. Although the home environment has spoiled or damaged their child’s character, they hope a school, or counselor or soccer team or church youth group can fix them. Sadly, these parents forget that none of us are “pros” at raising kids. It is a learning experience for all of us, but we must recognize it is our most important task. Yesterday, I met with a teacher who reported the mothers of her young students are nearly all stay-at-home moms but drop their kids off (with a tennis racket in their hand) because they aren’t ready for the responsibility of caring for their child. They leave them at the school for ten hours each day.

The Problem: Dry Cleaner parents don’t furnish their kids the mentoring and authentic face to face time they require.

The issue: For some of these teachers or parents-connecting with kids is just not their specialty. There may be an inadequacy and identity issue. They don’t feel adequate for the task, or they just don’t believe it is part of their identity. Sadly, this parent or teacher has kids staring them in the face. It’s time to be what they need. Sadly, it is too much work for them to connect with the student. Consequently, they hide behind the fact that they are busy with so many other priorities-even work-which enables them to pay for their child’s interests. These teachers or parents need to run toward the very challenge in which they feel they’re weak.  Relationships make it all happen. Parents and teachers must build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth.

4.  The Monster Parent or Teacher
These parents can transform into a rage, like the Incredible Hulk if they are backed into a corner. They often will write papers for their children, do homework, apply for jobs or colleges just like the helicopter parent-but for a different reason. They do the work of their kids attempting to live out their unlived life through their child. When their child receives a poor grade on a paper, they have been known to storm into a principal’s office and argue over the grade. Why? They actually wrote the paper. It has been a bad reflection on them! They want so much for their child to make it because their child is their last hope of leaving some sort of name or legacy themselves. They have unrealized dreams or baggage inside they never dealt with in a healthy way. Sadly, they don’t provide the model or the healthy environment young people long for.

The Problem: These parents still have some unrealized dreams from their past-sometimes an unhealthy past.

The issue: The child represents the best way for the adult parent or teacher to accomplish the dream they gave up on years earlier, even if it is vicariously done. Their behavior is often the result of baggage from their past. The best step this adult can take is self-care. They must address their own emotional health; deal with their own issues, so they don’t further damage a child in their wake. Children have a much better chance of growing up if their parents (or teachers) have done so first. The best way we can help kids become healthy leaders is to model it for them.

I should be clear on the fact that I believe there are millions of healthy parents and teachers around the U.S. and across the globe. Yet, each of us lean toward one of these styles above to some degree. I simply wish to address the issues preventing us from authentic leadership and mentoring in the life of our children. I believe healthy leadership from healthy parents and teachers produces healthy students who become healthy leaders themselves. I am haunted by the truth that James Baldwin once penned: “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Adult Children Dealing With Toxic Parents

SOURCE:  Based on an article at Psychology Today/Karyl McBride, Ph.D

Recognizing, understanding and overcoming the debilitating impact of maternal narcissism.

The most frequently asked question from adult children of narcissistic parents is whether or not to remain in contact with that parent and/or the rest of the dysfunctional family nest.

It goes deep and is difficult to know what’s best.

Your family roots, your very beginnings, and subsequent history are all a significant part of you. We are who we are based on where we’ve been. Juggling decisions for sound mental health can be packed with arduous cognitive and emotional machinations that create distress. Sometimes these imminent decisions become paramount to every day life. Our hearts can be wrapped with it. The question and the struggle are not to be underestimated.

In loving recovery with self, decisions can be made that feel right to the heart. Without recovery work, however, those decisions may steer in wrong directions. If you simply detach and remove yourself from your narcissistic parent without doing your own work, you will not diminish your pain and your true self cannot emerge to the peacefulness that you desire. As Dr. Murray Bowen reminds us in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, “Less-differentiated people are moved about like pawns by emotional tensions. Better-differentiated people are less vulnerable to tension.” If you take yourself out of the situation without completing your internal growth, you have accomplished less and can remain troubled.

It is important for adult children of narcissistic parents to know that there are truly some parents who are too toxic and are what I call the “untreatables.” If someone is abusive and cruel and continues to be without remorse or empathy, it cannot be healthy for anyone to be around that person. That’s ok and important to know. Full-blown narcissists do not change, do not realize the need to change, are not accountable or receptive to input from their children.

Because narcissism is a spectrum disorder on a continuum, there are many people who have narcissistic traits but are not full blown narcissists. Many of these people can move in therapeutic directions if they choose. Your decision regarding contact with the toxic untreatable or the highly-traited narcissist can best be made by working your own recovery and taking adequate time to allow the healing to happen. When developing my five-step recovery model, I found that the decisions about contact should not be made until step four. That means you are working acceptance, grief, separation, and building a stronger sense of self before deciding what kind of contact you will continue to have with your narcissistic parent. The five-step model can be found in Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers and is too complicated to fully explain in a blog post.

In short, however, I usually recommend taking a temporary separation to work your own recovery first. This means you simply explain a need for some space from the parent so you can sort out the issues and keep the clear focus on self. When you get to step four, you will know if it is best to make a decision of Therapeutic Resolution, No Contact, or Civil Connection with that parent.

Let’s take a look at each possible decision.

Therapeutic Resolution:
Some parents with less narcissistic traits are open to family therapy and this can be very effective with the right therapist. It can only be done if the parent is accountable and wants to work through family issues and childhood pain. For those who are lucky to have parents like this, a seasoned family therapist can provide wonderful healing for the entire family.

No Contact:
The decision to go “No Contact” is a big one but is made when the parent is too toxic and never accountable and continues to be abusive to the adult child. It’s a sad but necessary solution in many cases. This decision can only be made in sound mind when the adult child has really worked the internal recovery model. Without this internal healing, guilt may be over-burdensome to the adult child and pain not diminished. Sometimes, with recovery, the decision becomes a desire for a civil connect instead.

Civil Connection:
A decision to have a civil connection is really the most common. This is an educated place where the adult child knows and accepts that the connection with the narcissistic parent will not be an emotional bond or relationship. It will be civil, polite, light, and not emotionally close. Because of the internal work done by the adult child, this place of understanding allows the superficial relationship to be ok without expectations. Because the adult child has completed separation, acceptance and grief, and has developed sound boundaries, it is possible then to be “apart of and apart from” at the same time. It is possible to keep your solid sense of self and not get sucked into the family dysfunction that has not changed.

If you are struggling with contact decisions regarding your narcissistic parent or family, please know that recovery does work and makes it all so much easier.  We are accountable for our own growth and it takes time and effort to accomplish. As the late child psychiatrist, Margaret Mahler points out, “Insofar as the infant’s development of the sense of self takes place in the context of the dependency on the mother, the sense of self that results will bear the imprint of her caregiving.” That imprint of maternal or paternal narcissism can be re-drawn when the authentic self is brought to the surface and given proper nourishment for re-parenting and growth.

What could be more important? This newfound self is what we joyfully give back in the form of true love. The legacy of distorted love is then uprooted and authentic unconditional compassion takes its place. I remain a “hopeaholic” for the sisterhood and brotherhood out there.

Love restored that begins within is worth the journey.

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