Why Dysfunctional Families Stay That Way

by Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Iíve been asked time and again why dysfunctional families stay that way. Youíd think with all the talk shows, magazine and newspaper articles, and even what is now presented on prime time TV sitcoms, that people would know what normal is and would want to bring up their children normally. How is it that alcoholism, abuse and neglect can continue in the information age?

There are, of course, all manner of factors that keep dysfunction going: social, political, economic, etc. As a psychologist, what I know best is the piece that lies within the family. Bear with me while I use a story to take the long way around to explain why dysfunctional families find it so hard to give it up.

Do you remember the story of "The Emperorís New Clothes"? The emperor was persuaded by a couple of con-men tailors that they made magical clothes so fine and beautiful that only a truly honest man could see them. When they presented him with his new robes, the emperor saw nothing but, not wanting to be seen as a dishonest man, he commended them on their wonderful workmanship, paid them handsomely and made the motions of putting the clothes on.

The kingís courtiers, who were dishonest men, understood that they would not see anything, but not wanting to be found out, made the requisite fuss about the robes. Honest men, fearing the king and wanting to keep their positions, pretended that they could see magnificent colors and wonderful designs.

So it was that the king paraded in his underwear throughout the town, his courtiers following behind him. The populace, like the courtiers, also shouted complements to the king.

This foolishness would have continued indefinitely had it not been for a small boy in the crowd who, not yet sufficiently worried about what other people might think of him, called out, "But the emperor has no clothes." His shout broke the spell and everyone saw how it really was.

The people laughed, the king and his courtiers were embarrassed, and we are all supposed to be impressed with a moral about the importance of telling it how it is.

What the story doesnít tell you is that, in real life, no one likes that kid and that no one wants to pay attention to his message. You see, the king canít be embarrassed like that and still be a powerful king. The dishonest courtiers will need to reconstruct the charade to continue their mischief. The good people will still participate in the folly because they donít want to embarrass anyone or because they lack the courage or resources to get another job or perhaps because they donít want to show themselves as having made foolish choices.

The childís perception, though accurate, will be overwhelmed by the agendas of all the adults. Usually, the situation will be reconstructed and the folly will go on. To survive, the child will either have to find a way to become part of it or he will have to leaveĖand that isnít an easy thing for any child to do. Where can he go? Will there ever be a place for him at home if he continues to hold onto an idea that upsets and embarrasses all the adults around him?

Because they donít know what normal is, a dysfunctional family is participating in the pretense that they are a normal family bringing up children within the range of what is normal. Because we live in a culture that respects family privacy, someone usually has to get badly hurt before the illusion is questioned by anyone outside its ranks.

Usually it isnít until the teen years, when kids have spent a considerable amount of time with the families of friends, that they begin to understand that things can be different than what they have experienced in their own families. by that time, they have spent all of their formative years in an abnormal situation, developing abnormal ideas about love, loyalty, interdependence, functioning and roles. If they somehow have the courage to call it like it is, the family will do its best to bring them back into line.

All this is at least part of the reason that, in the face of so much information, dysfunction persists. To deal with a dysfunctional family is not only to deal with whatever they say the problem is (e.g., fatherís drinking, motherís temper, the childís truancy, etc.), but also to deal with an intricate system of illusions and myths that the family relies on to keep it whole.

It takes enormous motivation, courage, and perseverance for a family to work itself out of its unhealthy state and to take the leap of faith into something new that will work better for everyone. My job as a counselor (and the job of anyone who want to help rather than merely criticize) is to help these families fully appreciate what is required, to support them as best we can, and to direct them to the resources (internal and external) that will make change possible.

In summary, to start to move your family out of dysfunctional behavior:

  • Donít criticize. Analyze. If you think your family is dysfunctional, take a step back and try to identify the forces that keep it that way.
  • To make change, stop the old behaviors and find new ways to be together as a family that will support the change.
  • Know that it is difficult to change this kind of situation from the inside. You are probably too much a part of the system to really see it. Thereís lots of help out in the world. Be willing to take advantage of some of it.

-Adapted, with permission, from www.parentadvisor.net
This article, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in the Amherst Bulletin, January 28, 1994.

Date published: 1/27/00 12:17:55 PM




Last updated: 30 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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