Gay & Lesbian Services of Western New York

Dysfunctional Families, Part II

Coping in a Difficult or Dysfunctional Family

This is the second of a two part series on dysfunctional families. The previous edition distinguished between healthy and dysfunctional families. A primary distinction is that healthy families tend to have flexibility and can adapt to the changes that life inevitably presents whereas, more dysfunctional families tend to be rigid and inflexible, whatever the cause.

As noted in the previous edition, you are NOT the cause of the family’s problems, though sometimes you may be made to feel that you are, nor are you the solution to problems in your family’s life. This is true whether your family has a mom and dad, two moms or two dads or even a single parent.

There are socio-economic factors that can stress a family beyond its adaptive capabilities, but ordinarily, difficult families are populated with parents who themselves grew up in difficult families and/or who may be struggling with their own demons such as emotional problems, addictive issues, immaturity, impulsivity, rigidity. In thirty years of counseling families and individuals I have almost never seen parents who intentionally set out to hurt their children. I have, however, seen family functioning that was destructive to good adjustment and at times even toxic.

The goal of parenting is to provide the growing child with the skills to be independent and eventually leave home. The goal of youth and adolescence (that is, your job!) is to acquire the skills necessary to function independently in the world. Often, in difficult families, the burden of skill acquisition rests too much on the young person and the family has difficulty providing the appropriate models of say, conflict resolution, effective communication and the handling of feelings.

So are you always diminished if you happen to be growing up in a difficult family? The real answer is, it depends and it may depend a lot (certainly more than it should) on you! So what can you do for yourself? A number of things:

• Be involved as much as you can (and your parents can tolerate) in outside-the-home activities with friends, especially at school.

• Develop an interest in extra-curricular activities or an after school club.

• Do your best in school so that you graduate or acquire a trade so that you can support yourself so that you can get out on your own.

• When you are at home do your best to stay out of the line of fire. Do your homework in your room. Make your room a place you want to be or find another space in the house that is relatively safe. When I was growing up that was the basement; no one seemed to want to go to the basement. I made a section of it my hobby room and I spent a lot of time on my hobbies down there away from the arguing and bickering.

• If your family struggles with addictions then you are at greater risk of becoming addicted which will keep you in the family perhaps longer. While you may be looking to dull the pain of family life, altering your state will in the end make it worse and may bring the family’s negative energy down on you.

• On the days that are particularly hard remember that bedtime will bring an end to it and tomorrow is a new day.

• If you are, or think that your are gay, lesbian, bi or trans, anticipate how your family handles difference and listen to what they say about GLBT people on TV, in print and the movies. If your sense is that coming out to family members will be a significant problem or even dangerous then perhaps that is not the environment in which to announce.

• Find and cultivate a relationship with an adult(s) such as an adult relative, teacher or school counselor, or perhaps the parent(s) of a friend who can provide you with support and perhaps mentoring.

• Get an after school job or do volunteer work to get you out of the house in a constructive way.

• If you are GLBT and thinking about suicide contact The Trevor Project. (www.thetrevorproject.org / 866.488.7386) If you are heterosexual and thinking of suicide contact Crisis Services at 716.834.3131.

• Remember that while this period of your life may often be difficult in your family, it is temporary as you will grow up and move on with your own life.

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