Gay & Lesbian Services of Western New York

Dysfunctional Families, Part I

A reader asks, It is hard for me to be home…everybody is yelling all the time. It makes me sad a lot. Is there anything I can do?

Your question is very personal to me both from growing up in a dysfunctional family myself and working so many years now counseling families or individuals who grew up in difficult families. There are many youth like yourself (gay, lesbian, bi, trans and straight) living and growing up in difficult family situations. Because this is such a large and complex issue, I want to talk about it over two editions of the Info Page. In this edition I will distinguish between healthy and dysfunctional families. In the next edition I will focus on strategies for coping and growing up in difficult families. But before I begin, I want to be very clear: You are not the cause and you are not the solution or problem solver for your family’s problems. (If you identify as gay, lesbian, bi or trans, your sexual orientation or gender identity is not the cause of your family’s problems either even if you are told that this is the cause.) Your job and your focus as a teen is to move through your adolescence learning the skills that you will need in your adult life to form and maintain healthy relationships with yourself, a partner, perhaps your own children and an employer. Much of this learning can and does occur outside the home at school, in extracurricular activities, with friends, dating and by striving to make good and healthy choices for yourself along the way.

Healthy families have conflict, but not all the time! Feelings are allowed and accepted. Attention can be asked for and gotten. Rules tend to be clear, explicit and consistent with enough flexibility to adapt to individual needs and particular circumstances. Individuality is allowed and encouraged as are individual interests. Boundaries and privacy between individuals are clear, understood and honored. Mistakes are accepted as part of life and learning and perfection is seen as unattainable and unrealistic.

Dysfunctional families lack flexibility and so do not adapt or change with changing circumstances. Problems tend to be chronic and children do not consistently get their needs met. Negative patterns of parental behavior tend to be dominant. Crisis and disruption become the norm for many of these families while for some an emotional stillness or deadness sets the tone.

Frequently occurring patterns in dysfunctional families:

• One or both parents have addictions/compulsions (e.g., drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, overworking, overeating, etc.) or chronic emotional problems that have strong influences on family life and family members.

• One or both parents use the threat or application of physical violence as the primary means of control. Children may witness violence or live in fear of explosive outbursts.

• One or both parents exploit the children and treat them as possessions whose primary purpose is to respond to the physical and/or emotional needs of the adults.

• One or both parents are unable to provide or threaten to withdraw financial or basic physical care from the children. Similarly, there is failure to consistently provide adequate emotional support

• One or both parents exert strong authoritarian control over the children. Often these families rigidly adhere to a particular belief system (religious, political, personal, etc.) and compliance with role expectations and with rules is expected without any flexibility. (These families have particular trouble dealing with GLBTQ teens due to their rigidity)

While it is obviously difficult to grow up in such families and come into adulthood unaffected, it is possible, even necessary, to recognize the problem(s) and develop coping skills to deal with it. In the next edition I will describe some common experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional family and provide some strategies for coping.


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