Suzanne Pilch, ICF Certified Coach
Nothing is wrong with you. I swear. Nothing is wrong with YOU. You are not the problem and – in spite of all you may have thought or felt all your life – you are not alone. If the title of this article seems like a fair description of a part of your personality, the rest of this text has a potential to change your life.
Before we get into more details, please bear in mind that we are coaches, not MDs and that you should not use this text as a diagnose or a substitute of therapy. All we want is to give you some psycho-educational context in which we hope you may find solace and comfort.
Here is the fist thing we’d like you to do.
Go through the list of 13 self-evaluation points. Each point contains two statements. As you go through the list, give yourself 1 point for every statement that you feel applies to you.
How can you be sure that the statement applies to you? Read each sentence and ask yourself: Do I recognise this state, feeling or thought as familiar or well-known to me? If the answer is yes, give yourself 1 point and keep reading.
If at the end your score is 13 or more, you may want to take a deep breath before going on. This score may indicate that you were brought up in a so-called dysfunctional family. And before you think: ‘Well, but there was no physical / sexual / emotional violence in my childhood’, take another deep breath and read the quote in the picture here.
Our benchmark for what constitutes a dysfunctional family has been much too high for many years. The generation of baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) were brought up by war-traumatised parents. This has risen the threshold of what level of violence, lack of communication or safety is acceptable in a household, marking as ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ many violent, unsafe and emotionally emaciated families. The same broad sweep applies to the parameters applied socially to define a parent who is an alcoholic or an addict in many Western cultures. Both the Baby boomers and the Generation X (1965 -1981) were marked so profoundly by the tragedy of WWII that their list of what makes a family toxic, unhealthy or dysfunctional tends to be limited to the most acute pathologies (active alcohol or drug abuse, criminal activity and violence).
However, most recent studies claim that much less is needed for children to develop the ACOA Syndrome (initially reserved for Adult Children Of Alcoholics later expanded to Adult Children of Dysfunctional Parents) and / or CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Dysfunctional Family – The Correct Definition:
A dysfunctional family is a family unit where members experience ongoing conflicts, negative emotions, and unhealthy behaviors that disrupt their ability to function effectively as a family. Dysfunctional families can manifest in various forms and may involve various types of abuse, neglect, or dysfunction, such as substance abuse, mental illness, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, codependency, enmeshment, or other types of dysfunction.
In a dysfunctional family, relationships among family members may be characterised by frequent arguments, criticism, blame, and hostility.
Communication may be ineffective, leading to misunderstandings and further conflicts. Family members may be distant or disconnected from each other, or they may be overly involved in each other’s lives, leading to boundary issues and difficulties in asserting one’s individuality.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have negative effects on children, including emotional and behavioural problems, low self-esteem, difficulties forming healthy relationships, and a higher risk of developing mental health problems or substance abuse issues later in life.
It’s important to note that every family has its struggles and imperfections, and not all imperfect families are considered dysfunctional.
However, when a family’s dysfunction becomes chronic, pervasive, and negatively impacts the family members’ functioning and well-being, it may be considered dysfunctional.
People who grow up in dysfunctional families can exhibit a range of characteristics and behaviours as a result of their experiences. Here are some common characteristics that may be observed:
13 Traits of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Parents:
- Low self-esteem: People who grow up in dysfunctional families may struggle with feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy due to the criticism or neglect they experienced as children.
- Perfectionism: Due to the pressure to maintain an appearance of normalcy, children from dysfunctional families may develop an intense need to be perfect and avoid mistakes.
- Difficulty with trust: Trust may be an issue for people who grew up in dysfunctional families, as they may have experienced broken promises or emotional manipulation.
- Need for control: As children, they may have felt helpless in their family environment, leading to a desire for control in their adult lives.
- Struggle with boundaries: Enmeshment and boundary issues may result from a lack of healthy boundaries in the family dynamic.
- Fear of conflict: Conflict may have been frequent and intense in their family, leading to an aversion to conflict and difficulty asserting themselves.
- People-pleasing behavior: Children from dysfunctional families may have felt the need to please others to avoid negative consequences or criticism.
- Difficulty with intimacy: Difficulty forming intimate relationships due to a fear of vulnerability or abandonment.
- Codependency: Overreliance on others and difficulty functioning independently may result from a lack of self-sufficiency in childhood.
- Impulsivity: Difficulty with impulse control may result from the chaotic nature of the family environment.
- Hypervigilance: Children from dysfunctional families may have developed a heightened awareness of potential threats, leading to hypervigilance and anxiety.
- Negative self-talk: Internalizing negative messages from their family environment may result in negative self-talk and self-criticism.
- Difficulty expressing emotions: Difficulty expressing and identifying emotions may result from a lack of emotional expression and communication in the family dynamic.
If you recognise the headings from the initial self evaluation we invited you to complete, you are absolutely right. You will also find that many of these traits are common with the ACOA Syndrome. This is because the two are in a way overlapping. ACOA was analysed, mapped and described earlier and the common traits for ACOAs and Adult Children of Dysfunctional / Emotionally Immature Parents were analysed later.
While there may be some overlap in the experiences and challenges faced by individuals who grew up in dysfunctional families and those with ACOA syndrome, there are also some key differences. Here are a few distinctions to consider:
- Presence of addiction: One of the defining characteristics of ACOA syndrome is the presence of an alcoholic parent. While dysfunction can certainly exist in families without addiction, the presence of substance abuse can have a unique impact on family dynamics and the experiences of children growing up in that environment.
- Specific behaviors and coping mechanisms: Individuals with ACOA syndrome may exhibit specific behaviors and coping mechanisms that are related to growing up in an alcoholic household, such as a tendency to be hyper-vigilant, a fear of abandonment, and difficulty with trust and intimacy. While these behaviors and coping mechanisms may be present in individuals from other dysfunctional families, they may not be as specific or pronounced.
- Cultural recognition: ACOA syndrome is a recognized phenomenon within the addiction and mental health communities, and there are support groups and resources specifically geared toward individuals with this experience. While individuals from dysfunctional families may also seek out support and resources, they may not have the same level of cultural recognition or specific programming available to them.
Overall, while there may be some similarities between individuals from dysfunctional families and those with ACOA syndrome, the presence of addiction and specific behaviours and coping mechanisms related to growing up in an alcoholic household distinguish the two experiences.
OK, So my family was dysfunctional. Now what?
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have a significant impact on an individual’s life, leading to negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. Children who grow up in these environments often blame themselves for the problems they face, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy. However, by identifying themselves as part of a larger group and understanding that they are not the problem, individuals can find solace and a path to healing.
This coaching article aims to help individuals who come from dysfunctional families understand the concept of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) and the Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) and how these terms can help them find a way to heal. By exploring the common personality traits and behaviours that often develop as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family, we hope to provide practical tips and techniques for overcoming the negative impact of a dysfunctional upbringing.
Ultimately, the goal is to empower individuals to break the cycle of dysfunction in their lives and those of future generations. By providing a roadmap for understanding and addressing the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family, we hope to help individuals find a healthier, more fulfilling life.
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