It is our genetic nature as a species to believe as young children that our parents and elders are right. We watch them to see what's what. Later on we can judge for ourselves and rebel if need be, but when we're just months old, or a year or two, and a parent looks at us with impatience, or disgust, or disdain, or just leaves us there to cry and doesn't answer us even though we're longing to be embraced and nurtured, we assume that something must be wrong with us. Unfortunately, at that age it's impossible to think there might be something wrong with them.
Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept
The topic of family issues is vast. My focus will be on children/teens—or you, in your past—being mistreated by parents and other caregivers (which many of us remember even decades later) and on being bullied by siblings.
If your family didn't provide you with a sense of belonging and equality; respect for your privacy and rights; a feeling of safety and support; openness to your opinions; access to extended family; fair house rules; and/or the freedom to be yourself—then it's likely you come from a dysfunctional family.
Before I continue, I want to clarify two things:
If a family occasionally does not adhere to a child's privacy, appear open to opinions, etc., as mentioned above, remember there are exceptions. For example, young people sometimes don't understand the implications of their own behaviour, and in those cases, an adult would need to step in. Imagine if a parent discovered that one of their children was taking drugs, and didn't try to stop it: that young person could end up seriously ill. So yes, families need to step in sometimes.
In the mainstream, "dysfunctional" has become a cliché. Technically, no family unit can be perfect, because we're human and all of us have bad days. When I use the word, I mean long-term negative behaviour that affects others, or as the dictionary tells us: "characterized by abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction."
So if you were being bullied at home in some way, this would cause you much unhappiness and fear. This is the kind of problem I am discussing here. A dysfunctional parent or other family member can cause emotional or physical damage and you need to get support from someone else.
You're not alone. There are many of us.
We cannot choose which family we're born or adopted into. Many of us suffer the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Our anger, guilt and grief can be far-reaching, causing us to take our frustration out on others or to berate ourselves, even years after moving away from the source of the mental or physical harm. (See The Daily Mail article on the Further Reading page.)
Before we can move on from our trauma, we need to realize that half the battle is in being aware of the damage. This is a first step towards exorcising negativity and regaining peace and contentment.
Are these some of the problems that were extreme in your family?
domineering parent (verbal or physical)
There are many more, and I'm open to receiving notes from those of you with experiences to share. If you had an issue that you were able to fix, others reading this site may benefit from your know-how. I could post your story on my blog.
Two examples of family issues and consequences
Example 1: A couple I knew had two sons. I began to babysit for them. The woman really seemed to dislike her 9-year-old, Paul. She adored her younger child, 6-year-old Steve. She made Paul sweep the floors and clean the dishes after every meal. If he played with toys that Steve wanted, he was made to hand them over. Any time she talked about her kids, Steve was spoken of highly, lovingly, whilst Paul was complained about. She did this within their earshot. I tried to praise Paul, help her see what a good kid he was, but nothing changed.
I have heard through old friends that all these years later, Paul works halfway around the world from home. He never returns for Christmas or other holidays, and did not attended his brother’s wedding. When he himself married, he eloped, and I wonder if this was to avoid the issue of inviting his family.
I believe the woman’s actions drove Paul away. She lost a son, and Steve lost a brother.
Long-term effects of abuse reverberate down through the years. In this case, the favouritism meted out means the children of Paul and Steve won’t know each other. They are cousins who likely will never meet.
Example 2: My mother could be wonderful. When she was in a good mood, she was funny and fun-loving. Half the time, however, she was not easy to be around and took out a lot of her frustrations on me, verbally, either directly or indirectly.
So, I was aged 19 and sitting in the town’s community hall. Some people played pool, some were throwing darts, and others were having a drink. I sat with a few people from work that I don’t know very well (it was a new job). My mother came in with a friend and joined us. She seemed happy enough and began to chat to us all. I can’t recall the conversation, but I do remember I asked for clarification on something she said. In front of everyone, she rolled her eyes, shook her head in my direction and said, loudly: “Honestly, Sheila, you ask the stupidest questions. You really don’t know much, do you!”
Everyone at the table looked at me, quietly and pityingly. I just froze, feeling my face redden. I can tell you that I still remember the humiliation, and also the knowledge that if I’d retaliated or defended myself, she’d have begun hurling further insults at me. So I said nothing and left after I’d finished my drink. And the following day I had to work with the people who’d witnessed this. I felt pathetic.
Yes, one of the verbal abuses I suffered via my mother was public embarrassment. I also sat through many screaming fits, accusations and belittling comments. My mother always had to be right. Any time I asserted opposing opinions, I was shot down. The hurt I suffered as a teen in her house drove me to leave.
Years later, having reflected on these episodes, I believe those situations would have been better if I'd defended myself during these public outbursts.
If I'd simply said, "Gosh, I seem to have upset you again. I'm so sorry for whatever I said that offended you" then observers would have perceived me to be calm and mature in the face of a storm. They would also have understood that I wasn't going to allow my mother's insults to intimidate me, even though I might have looked upset (who wouldn't?).
So, think about holding your own, practice appearing calm and unfazed, respond as if humouring the angry person without direct attack. A dignified peacemaker often wins the day (and the approval of witnesses). One page that has helpful tips is here:
The SAVIS organization is in Ontario, Canada; however, the resources on their site are useful wherever you are, and for any kind of abuse and bullying. Check out their whole website.
what can change?
For a child mistreated at home, I think help from other sources is the only way to survive. A dependant of abusive parents is too young to know how to defend themselves and in the meantime, there is harm to the psyche. Children usually believe they’re to blame for the abuse—that they’re not good enough or important enough to care about.
Action by extended family, a neighbour, teachers or other such adults can help. Thinking it’s none of your business to interfere in other people’s lives is incorrect. Without help, that child will grow up with serious emotional or mental problems.
I know. I was one of them.
And if you are another of them, here’s a piece of advice. Do what I did, and don’t leave it as late in life to help yourself. Now that you’re an adult, get help with those horrible memories.
I’ll tell you more about how I saved myself in blog posts, but for now, I suggest looking into counselling (and ensure you find the right one for you; there are different specialists with different approaches) or, if you don’t have insurance coverage for this, find group counselling. There are also very good books, but you’ll need to spend the time actually practicing what they suggest. I’m reading various books in order to make recommendations, and I can mention one right now for adults who had dysfunctional parents. See my comments for Healing from Childhood Abuse by John J. Lemoncelli on my Further Reading tab.
Why it’s important to move on from your memories
In order to have contentment and peace, it’s essential to remove shame, guilt and anger. You don’t deserve to suffer this kind of fallout from your childhood. And although you may never get rid of all your negative feelings, if you can reduce them considerably, it will make all the difference. Believe me, I know.
The reward for the hard work of doing this is a fulfilling life, an embracing of new friends, and inner love and confidence.
And, if you are a parent, ridding yourself of your past will mean you don’t repeat unconscious patterns in the future. Imagine yourself as the parent you always wanted. See the trust and adoration in your child’s eyes. It is possible!