There are no Dysfunctional Families

I recall when I wrote the book The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking in 1996 several journalists interviewed me and, subsequently wrote articles on the theme of the book and my own personal experiences as a child, teenager and adult. Following such publications a number of individuals whom I vaguely knew approached me and exclaimed: ‘I never knew you came from a dysfunctional family’.  Regrettably, at the time I was not quick enough to do two things: one, to assert that in my view there is no such phenomenon as a dysfunctional family and, two, to return the statement to the person who said it: ‘how is it that you need to make such a comment?’

With regard to the first omission, the term ‘family’ refers to a collective of individuals – parent(s) plus children and the term ‘extended family’ refers to the collective of grandparents of both parents, plus aunts, uncles and relations through marriage. The notion that a family is dysfunctional is inaccurate because a family is a social system and a system has no head and no heart, no hands, no feet, no body, cannot feel and think and cannot engage in neglectful actions. To call a family dysfunctional is an unconsciously devised clever way of masking the deeper reality that it is individuals who perpetrate neglect, not a system. A family cannot change, only an individual can.

I believe that the decision to bring a child into the world or, even more so, to adopt a child is one of the most unselfish actions that a couple or lone parent can decide upon. However, such a decision cannot be taken lightly because parenting a child is ‘rocket science’. A parent is not only responsible in a ‘good-enough’ way, to provide unconditional love for the person of his or her child, but they also need to create the opportunities for the physical, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, sexual, social, creative and spiritual mature development of the child. However, parents, though well-intentioned, cannot do that unless they have examined and resolved or are on the path to resolving their own inner insecurities. There is nobody that I know who does not carry doubts and fears about their worth, value, individuality, physicality, sexuality, emotionality, creativity, spirituality, intellectual ability, sociability and ability to confidently manage all the challenges that come their way. These insecurities are, largely, masked and manifest themselves in unconsciously formed defensive behaviours such as passivity, aggression, anxiety, dependence, manipulation, competitiveness, impatience, depression, perfectionism, illness, work addiction and substance addictions. These defensive responses become threats to the wellbeing of children and so it is the case that it is the individual parent and/or significant other (grandparent, teacher, neighbour, family relative) who perpetrates the threatening action or is absent or passive in their parenting or relating, not the family.

Of course, no parent ever deliberately wants to be a source of threat to his or her child’s wellbeing, but the reality is that the interiority of the parent determines the kind of parenting practiced. Unless parents have some degree of emotional and social safety in their relationships with other adults, it is unlikely that they will be in a solid enough place to notice and to examine how they interact with their children, with each other (in a two-parent family) and, indeed, with members of their family of origin and other important adults in their lives. Basically, their defensive behaviours were developed when they were children in response to their own parents’ defensive behaviours, and it is in this sense that when a parent is defensive that in turn, a child creatively and intelligently forms his or her own defences. What is sad is that the child’s defensive responses become the troubled and troubling behaviours that threaten the wellbeing of parents and teachers. Nevertheless, it would be dangerous for a child to engage in a behaviour that would challenge the defensive behaviour of a parent or teacher and so the child cleverly learns governorship of the tongue. For any change to occur, the parent always needs more help than the child who is manifesting defensive behaviours such as temper tantrums, hyperactivity, rebelliousness, shyness, poor emotional expression or receptivity, school phobia, lack of motivation for learning, illness. What typically happens is the child – albeit, unconsciously – becomes a scapegoat for the inner turmoil of the parent so that the parent is protected from having to face his or her own unresolved inner pain. Depending on the healthcare professional from whom parents seek help to cope with the ‘difficult’ child, they may encounter professionals who label the child, using a battery (what an unfortunate word!) of tests or label the family as ‘dysfunctional’ and recommend family therapy or, in some cases, label the parent as inadequate. None of these responses will resolve the sad family context because it is what happens within each individual in the family that leads to conflict between family members. It follows that it is the conflicts within the adults responsible for the children that need to be the focus of compassionate understanding. It is often the case that each parent may have to rear their own inner child before her or she is ready to effectively parent their own offspring. This is not an easy process, particularly for those parents who have become protectively addicted to what others think. However, it is harder when parents don’t find the support to look inwards and realise their own sacred, unique and powerful self.

With regard to the second omission, being separate from what another person says makes it possible to calmly and politely return what he or she said, because what was said belongs to the person who said it, not the person to whom the comment was addressed. In returning to sender, an opportunity is provided for that person to go within and source what gave rise to the sarcastic comment. All sorts of possibilities may explain what led to the comment – only the person himself can provide the answer, but only when he has the consciousness to examine what happened within. When a person stays separate from the words and actions of another they walk away from the situation with their dignity intact and carry no bitterness towards the perpetrator. If they walk away with revengeful thoughts or their ‘tail between their legs’, they are back on the defensive trail.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker.  His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship: The Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s topic.