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