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Understanding The Dynamics Of A Dysfunctional Family And 5 Ways To Recover From One

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When you come from a dysfunctional family and have a disturbed childhood, it can negatively impact your thinking in a million ways. Additionally, a dysfunctional upbringing can also affect your adulthood.

When we take off the rose-tinted glasses of childhood, many of us find ourselves looking into the abyss of a broken upbringing. Childhood trauma, the juvenile exploits of our parents, and even unaddressed mental illness can destroy the baselines we build as children. And they can go a long way to create negative patterns that undermine our happiness as adults.

Accepting the fact that you were raised in a dysfunctional family household is a painful process, but one that’s necessary in order for us to heal. The way we are treated as children, and the experiences we tie into our crucial developmental memory help us to determine how we define our self-worth, our relationship, and even the way we make decisions.

Overcoming all the traumas and tribulations of our childhood takes perseverance, however, and it takes committing to a journey that’s as uncomfortable as it is uncertain.

Related: The Narcissistic Family Tree: 12 Common Dynamics of a Dysfunctional Family

Waking Up As Dysfunctional Adults

It’s not always easy to admit that we grew up in broken or dysfunctional homes, but it’s a realization that many of us wake up to as broken and struggling adults.

The way we are raised has a drastic and (sometimes) permanent effect on the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. It’s a vital piece of who we are, and — unless we work hard to overcome and understand it fully — it can seriously undermine our lives.

Waking up, as an adult, to the truth of your upbringing is a painful and necessary process. More often than not, this occurs when we wake up to the negative spiral of patterns that are leading us to rock bottom again and again, and get real about healing and resolving them on some real and crucial levels.

We can heal the pain of our childhood, but it takes digging deep and it takes confronting from memories that aren’t always enjoyable. Overcoming the pain and uncertainty of a broken home-life takes time, and it takes getting comfortable with the uncomfortable parts of who our caretakers were and who we are today.

If you want to heal from your history of broken family debacles, you can forge a way forward. Knowledge is the only way to arm ourselves and access the healing ahead.

The Characteristics Of A Dysfunctional Upbringing

There are 6 characteristics to a dysfunctional upbringing, but each facet can look different in each situation. You do not have to experience every characteristic in order to have undergone a traumatic childhood, but even one similarity could be a good indication that there are some closets to cleanout.

Part of healing is accepting and recognizing the signs we’ve been ignoring.

1. Abuse

No matter what form of abuse takes place (physical or emotional) it’s always wrong, and it’s always an indication that something was broken in our childhoods. If a parent hit you, screamed at you, or otherwise used mental and emotional manipulation or intimidation to control you — it might have created feelings of insecurity and uncertainty that’s followed you into adulthood.

2. Control

Control always factors into the dysfunctional upbringing, and it is something that is almost always consolidated by one person. This might look like a “head of the family” who makes unilateral decisions for the family as a unit, or it might look like one person raging through the group with fear and intimidation to guide everyone in the direction that they want.

However it happens, those being controlled always feel powerless, inadequate, and resentful.

Related: 3 Ways To Handle Childhood Trauma

3. Unpredictability

Fear is one of the greatest tools in an abuser’s toolkit, and it’s one of the most common characteristics of growing up in a broken home. Whether you were raised with violent abusers or malicious manipulators, there is always an air of fear and unpredictability in the air that keeps victims off-balance and unable to gather themselves enough to fight back against their abuser.

4. Perfectionism

Though it may come from a good place, demanding perfection in your family or your children is toxic and undermining their long-term happiness. The perfectionist parent makes their child feel unseen and unworthy by determining their life’s path for them, but they also see the achievements and failures of their family members as somehow being tied into the entire family’s reputation or their personal definition of worth.

It’s warped and leads to seriously low self-esteem in the victims who suffer it.

5. Zero support

When we receive no physical or emotional support from our parents it completely breaks the way we see our adult relationships later on in life. Being unsupportive doesn’t just look like a parent who won’t bankroll a college trip to art school. It can also include role reversal that occurs when the child is forced to become the caretaker (and vice versa).

Dysfunctional family
Dysfunctional upbringing

6. No communication

Not all dysfunctional family households are full of vicious threats and sleepless, painful nights. Some families wear their dysfunction in the form of silence, or a refusal to communicate about anything of substance.

In these types of families, emotions are never expressed and neither is any sort of communication that might lead to deeper revelations or connections. You can’t open up to one another, and no one tries.

Related: How Toxic Family Dynamics Can Cause C-PTSD In Emotionally Intense Children

The Factors That Contribute To Our Fractured Homes

Our caretakers don’t just wake up one day and decide to raise us in broken and fractured homes. Life is far more complex than that, and there are a number of underlying contributing factors that can lead to a family pushed to the brink.

1. Fundamentalism

Faith is an important part of life for many, but it can — at times — be a contributing factor to the trauma and unhappiness in our family.

Strong religious beliefs can provide important cornerstones of the family unit, but fundamentalist beliefs can often dictate rigid (and borderline abusive) behavior that prevents the children in the household from growing into self-aware and well-adjusted adults.

2. Authority addiction

Some people love having control, and that doesn’t stop at our caretakers. When one person in the family gets used to being in charge, that can become a role that they covet viciously.

Using their power to unleash tyranny, even their best intentions can go awry and cause members of the family to turn against one another and themselves.

3. Violence

Just as someone can get used to having a coffee each morning or a cigarette each day, they can become addicted to violence and the power and control it provides.

If your parents used violence to address issues in your household, it could have contributed to a number of other issues that escalated and further eroded the household in a number of subtle and insidious ways.

4. Finances

Finances play a crucial role in all family dynamics, and that becomes especially true when finances are tight. Parents who are struggling to provide might find themselves lashing out at one another or their children, leading to increased conflict and fractured relationships that lead to fractured adult children later on down the road.

5. Addiction

If one or more of your parents were addicted to substances or behaviors, it could have escalated an already tense home situation and led to serious dysfunction. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, or gambling addiction can turn caretakers into monsters and force them to forget about their responsibilities to their children altogether.

Related: What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences? How The Trauma From These Affects Adult Relationships

6. Mental health

Our parents and caretakers are people too, and they were also raised by people who experienced pain and trauma in their childhoods. More often than not, underlying mental illnesses and feelings of hopelessness can contribute to the brokenness in our homes.

If one or more of your parents is dealing with unaddressed mental illness, it can lead to fractures that run throughout the family (and our futures).

Common Side-Effects Of Being Raised In A Dysfunctional Household

There are a number of signs that you are an adult child of a broken or dysfunctional home. From low self-esteem to mental turmoil, the way we were raised has everything to do with who we are right now in this moment.

In order to understand and overcome the pain of a less-than-ideal childhood, we have to understand the effects of that upbringing on our lives and personality.

1. Low self-esteem

The biggest and most common side-effect of a dysfunctional upbringing is a broken or warped sense of self-esteem. Our childhoods form the baseline of our self-worth, and our caretakers play a critical role in helping us to define our personal confidence.

When our caretakers dismiss us, abuse us, or teach us that we don’t deserve their love, it leads to a critically broken perspective and the belief that you will forever be unworthy of good.

Related: 7 Common Traits Shared By People Who Grew Up In Dysfunctional Families

2. Inability to meet needs

If it wasn’t safe for you to express your needs, or they were frequently met with dismissal, it can make it hard for you to identify and meet those needs later on in life.

Whether your struggle saying them out loud to a partner or you struggle to take responsibility for your own needs and find yourself drowning in a codependent relationship — dysfunctional families often teach us that we are not capable or worthy of having our needs met.

3. Likely victims

Childhood forms the baseline for how we connect and adapt later on in life. What we see at home in our formative years is what we are likely to mimic or create as adults.

If you grew up in a home in which violence or emotional abuse was the norm, it can make you more likely to accept abuse as the normal way to live later on in life…making you an easier target for abusers and those who would take advantage.

4. Harsh inner critic

Struggle with a brutal or harsh inner critic? An inner critic that tells you that you aren’t good enough, or an inner voice that constantly puts you down and belittles your needs is often the result of a brutal upbringing.

Our caretakers form the first critical pieces of that inner voice, and if they shape it to become a negative one — that follows us for life.

Dysfunctional upbringing
Dysfunctional upbringing

5. Empty or isolated

Those who were victims of extreme dysfunction, trauma, or abuse in childhood might find that they struggle with feelings of emptiness. Over time, these feelings can compound and lead to toxic isolation that prevents us from establishing relationships or tapping into the opportunities that might otherwise provide us fulfillment and joy.

6. Responsible for others

Children who are forced into the reversed role of caretaker over their parents or siblings will often find that they feel a burden of responsibility for everyone around them later on in life. This can lead to burnout and overcommitting, as you see to the needs of everyone but yourself.

It’s one of the more toxic side-effects of being raised dysfunctional and one of the hardest to beat.

Related: The Lifelong Effects of Childhood Neglect By Parents

7. Poor communication skills

If you were raised in a home in which it was not safe to express yourself or your desires, it can lead to poor communication skills later in life. This poor ability to say what you need to say permeates every aspect of our lives and can stunt our growth both personally and professionally.

8. Mental turmoil

Perhaps the most common side-effect of being raised in a broken home is mental and emotional turmoil.

When we are raised in environments that leave us scared and uncertain, it can break who we are and break the way we see the world. Feelings of hopelessness and anger become the norm, and — if not managed carefully — come to be cornerstones of who we are.

Related: The 5 Child Roles In Dysfunctional Families

Recovering (As An Adult) From A Dysfunctional Upbringing

As adult children of dysfunctional families, it is up to us to resolve our pain and our trauma and find our way back to happiness and healing. We can let go of the darkness that was instilled in us, but it takes commitment and it takes facing up to the facts and the needs that we’ve been hiding from everyone (including ourselves).

1. Find professional help

More often than not, it’s necessary to consult a mental health professional when it comes to resolving the pain of a dysfunctional upbringing. Some hurts run too deep, and some traumas can only be uncovered safely by someone who has experience dealing in long-buried mental and emotional anguish. When we consult a mental health pro, they can often help us to make revelations that open the door on transformation in our lives.

Find professional help and look for someone who specializes in the level of trauma or pain you’re experiencing. For instance, if you grew up in a home in which extreme physical, mental, or sexual abuse was the norm — look for someone who specializes in family trauma or even PTSD.

If the dysfunction you experienced at home was more subtle, you can lean in for help with someone that can gently help you dig deeper into your emotions and the issues that you need to address.

However you go about it, there’s no shame in reaching out to get the help of someone who has experience dealing with the type of pain and mental anguish you’re experiencing. When we open ourselves up to new avenues of healing, we speed up our healing opportunities and processes.

2. Re-parent yourself

When we are hurt by our parents, we often go out looking for healing in all the wrong places. We turn to other people, to drugs, to alcohol — all in the search of the love we were denied when we needed it most. Not being taught how to properly manage our emotions (the good and the bad) can result in associating happiness with the feeling of pleasure when that’s not necessarily true.

There is no salvation in pleasure alone. The problem with that is that no one else can save us. Only we can save ourselves.

Sometimes, you have to step up and be the parent you always deserved for yourself. This means treating yourself well, checking in on how you’re feeling and how you’re doing. Be a mentor for yourself; an advocate for yourself. Do all the things a caring mother or father would do and do it with complete radical abandon. Find activities that bring you peace and joy and be kind and gentle with yourself and the way you see the world.

Work hard to build up that confidence that was wrecked by a dismissive or emotionally distant parent and celebrate your strengths and victories every single day. Write notes to yourself and start a mindful journaling practice that lets you get back in touch with that scared, broken little child that’s hiding deep inside.

Learn how to love yourself and the rest of the world will follow. Give yourself a gift that never quits giving and be the parent you always needed.

3. Be a more compassionate you

The act of applied self-compassion is a powerful tool in recovering from the pain caused by emotionally neglectful parents. Self-compassion is not self-kindness and it’s not self-pity either. It’s taking an active role in your own healing, and it involves embracing your faults, mistakes, and suffering as equally as you celebrate your joys, successes, and triumphs.

Self-compassion is a powerful tool when we know how to wield it, but it takes a big commitment and it takes a lot of work each day to build. Adding it to our lives means finding happiness, however, and discovering that true beauty and joy is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves.

Look at things from the perspective of your inner child. Are you finally standing up for the little boy or little girl and protecting them, the way they should have been protected all those years ago?

Be mindful of yourself, and be mindful of your needs (both emotional and physical). Let go of your need to be perfect for anyone, and instead on becoming the best version of yourself, for yourself. If you have an inner critic that’s out of control, work them into submission and reach out to your professional if needed.

Want to know more about how you can recover from a dysfunctional family? Check this video out below!

Recovering From A Dysfunctional Family

4. Lean into positive relationships

Substituting our unhealthy family relationships for the ones that better suit our lifestyles and emotional needs is a good way to cut ties and find your way back to healing. It can be helpful to allow your attention to center on the healthy relationships that bring joy into your life, rather than the ones that attract nothing but negativity.

There is no law that says the family is blood and blood alone. You can choose your family, and you can choose people who provide emotional fulfillment.

Get comfortable talking about how you feel, and find a friend you can trust that is willing to listen to you vent. Let them know exactly how your childhood or upbringing is still causing you to struggle and let them know you need a willing shoulder (and a willing ear) to listen to you work things out on a regular basis. Always make sure, however, that you have their consent before unloading.

Not everyone has the ability to process our emotions and experiences in the same way. Even if we can trust them not to spread our business.

The family and chosen family we surround ourselves with is important and can be especially important when it comes to creating the lives we want. If you’re struggling to let go of a toxic or emotionally damaging family member, re-establishing abandoned ties with your own outside support networks can be a great way to get back in contact with who you are.

This is because our relationships allow us to get a better grip on our perspective. And that makes all the difference when it comes to fulfillment and joy.

Related: How To Deal With A Dysfunctional Family and Find Your Happiness

5. Commit to the journey

No matter what challenges we face in this life, one of the greatest lessons we can ever learn is that of committing to the journey. Recovering from a painful childhood or a dysfunctional upbringing is never a straight line. We fall back into old patterns of thinking, and we often find the fear stoking up again no matter how far away we move from the past that was.

In order to get to the healing we’re so desperately seeking, we have to know that setbacks don’t define us and they’re a part of the process.

No matter what happened in your past, or what is happening in this current moment, it’s all moot if you can’t love yourself for who and what you are. In order to find happiness, you have to find a way to love yourself — the good and the bad — and you have to find a way to forgive yourself for the missteps and mistakes that led you to where you are today.

Don’t let mental and emotional setbacks draw you away from the course you are setting now. Don’t let negative and destructive caretakers set you back or delay you any longer from being the person you want to be. You’ve waited long enough to lead the life you’ve been dreaming of, and now the only person hold you back is you.

Break free of the toxic patterns that defined your childhood and become the sensational and transformative pattern that was created to move the world around them.

Putting it all together…

When we are raised in broken or dysfunctional homes, it can seriously warp the person we become and the way we see the world around us. Finding our way back to the person we were always meant to be means releasing the trauma and cultivating the knowledge that enables us to let go of the rage and the pain.

Our families don’t have to define us. Break free of the negative patterns and rediscover your joy be rediscovering yourself.

Find professional help, and look for someone who has experience in family issues or trauma specifically. There is no shame in talking to a mental health professional. They can unlock new avenues of perspective for us and make it easier for us to get to the healing we’re so desperately seeking.

Once you’ve addressed your issues medically and mentally, you can get to do your own work — diving deep to get back to the heart of who you were always meant to be. Become the parent you always deserved, and rescue your own inner child by learning how to master the negative inner narrative that’s holding you back.

We do not have to be the victims of our upbringing forever. When we cultivate understanding, we can empower ourselves to heal; but that takes looking deep into the places we’ve kept dark for so long. Lean into the positive relationships you’ve built and commit to the journey. You can find your way back to happiness again, but you’ve got to be willing to go the distance.

Check out E.B. Johnson’s Medium profile for more such articles.

Written By E.B. Johnson
Originally Appeared In Medium
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E.B. Johnson

E.B. Johnson is a certified Life Coach, NLP-MP practitioner, and entrepreneur who writes about psychology, relationships, and the growth mindset. Through self-esteem sessions and a focus on the internal relationship with self, she helps others thrive.View Author posts

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