Family Dysfunction
Anatomy of the Dysfunction

Dissecting Dysfunction

Family dysfunction is a learned process. It is built into children at a young age and as such is so completely internalized that often people are not even aware of it. And when they are aware of it they have such elaborate defense and justification methods that they defend the dysfunction rather than try to fix it. Family Dysfunction is passed from generation to generation through this process.

Of course the term Family Dysfunction covers a lot of territory and encompasses a lot of different people with differing personalities and circumstances. So I want to make it clear that this discussion of Family Dysfunction comes from my personal experience with my own family. However, the principles may be useful to anyone wanting to understand a similar dysfunction.

I think our Family Dysfunction had it's origin in two different concepts: (1) Lack of knowledge, understanding, and balance in parenting, and (2) Destructive disciplining methods unconsciously carried forward from past generations.

The general pattern for #1 above was that my parents were far too harsh with the oldest children and far too lenient with the youngest children. It appears to me that as the older children grew up my parents recognized the adverse effects their earlier harshness had on them. At the same time they began to realize that they had been excessively harsh and began to moderate the way they treated the children. This process accelerated as my parents grew older and, when the last child was born and they realized she was to be the last, the process got carried to the extreme. The result of this was "The Little Princess" who was simply spoiled rotten. No surprise then, that this "Little Princess" became a tyrant who expected to get everything she wanted, manipulated and controlled the family, and felt it was her right to take from the family.

And then, to compound this problem, my mother, who was overworked on the farm, getting older and more tired, delegated the job of defending the "Little Princess" to her next older sister. This became an unhealthy relationship because the little Tyrant was always to be given what she wanted, was always right, and was always to be given preference over the other children. And it was the next older sister's job to enforce this unhealthy program. The consequences of this relationship were that (a) The little Tyrant never grew up, (b) The Little Tyrant became a rapacious taker, both inside the family and outside the family, and (c) When both women were grown up the older sister continued to keep this protective shield around the younger despite the most outrageous behavior by the younger. In effect, she became a remote control "Attack Dog" whose role it was to make sure the younger sister didn't have to take responsibility for her actions.

So down through the years you have "The Little Princess" who is free to steal from the family, lie about the stealing, and abuse her parents, and no one in the family is allowed to question her or to say anything to her. This constitutes license of the meanest order and allows the Little Tyrant to go through life without growing up. The family should be able to confront her about her behavior and force her to realize what is wrong with it. But the family has failed her because she is controlling the family.

Given this license and atmosphere of ignoring the depredations of "The Little Princess" it is not surprising then that, if one family member breaks the taboo and speaks out against her behavior, that family member will be targeted for attack. But the Little Tyrant, having not grown up and having no character of her own, must orchestrate the attack through the older "Attack Dog" sister. So now you have a situation where the one family member who objects to dishonest behavior by the Little Princess is attacked for the simplest of misteps, like asking the Little Tyrant to pay a bill. And a systematic campaign is mounted to make this "Complainer/Taboo breaker" out to be a very bad person.

Here is where part (2) in the introduction above, the destructive parenting pattern, comes in. This family has built in to it a deep seated low esteem. The source of this low esteem is a destructive parenting pattern where a child is made to feel like a worthless person if they do anything the parent says is wrong. This is not an argument against discipline. This is an argument against discipline that makes a child feel worthless for having upset the parents. Guilt is the most heavy handed tool in this type of discipline. Children emerged from this environment with enormous loads of conflict, guilt, low self esteem, indecision, rebellion and inability to make healthy life choices. They get into abusive relationships. They are commonly paralyzed by anxiety and fear. They have great difficulty relating to authority figures in their lives. And their communication skills are almost completely undeveloped.

The effects of this destructive process are compounded when children in the family are not only made to feel worthless for displeasing a parent but are also made to feel worthless for displeasing "The Little Tyrant" in the family. And the "Attack Dog" sister becomes an agent in imposing this destructive kind of justice on the other children.

A layer of complexity is added by major divergences in parenting style. In the early years both parents are too harsh. In the later years the father mellows considerably and then conflicts with the mother who still favors more strictness except in the case of "The Little Princess" who is taught that her wishes are the law in the family. In addition, another parental conflict smolders always in the background. The father is easy going and loose with money. The mother is exremely tight and insecure about money. This creates a conflict between them that seeps out to all the children in one form or the other. But in general the children come out real tightwads who cannot spend their money for their own needs. The "Little Tyrant" comes out a tightwad and mooch who uses her tyranny over the family to steal and mooch from the family, marries a man who is just as much a mooch as she is, and the two of them perfect the art of mooching off others.

So where does all this leave an aging family? The oldest son married a woman who didn't treat him with respect until late in his life and they raised a oldest son who, treated too harshly, self destructed early in life. The three oldest daughters in the family married abusive men and accepted the abuse for many years. One finally got out of the abusive marriage, a second is trying to get out and the third will never get out. The two youngest sons have had great stuggles with insecurity, low self esteem, inability to communicate, inability to relate to authority figures, and lack of self confidence. Struggles that have taken a lifetime to overcome. The "Little Princess"continues to manipulate the family, deliberately splitting it into warring camps that jockey for allies, and pushing the "Attack Dog" sister to tear down the one brother who protests her stealing and lying. It's not a pretty picture and there is no relief in sight.

What Do We Look Like?