Is My Relationship Reflection of My Family
Stepping into the adulthood many of us thought we could not only leave our family but also our childhood problems behind. However, many of us have found ourselves experiencing similar problems, feelings and relationship patterns, long after we left our family environment. In family environment, growing up children learn their worth and to value their needs and feelings. In many families the communication patterns are such that they limit a child’s expression of feelings and needs thus breeding low self esteem and a deep feeling that their needs are not worth to be taken seriously by others. As a result, they may face difficult establishing satisfactory adult relationships and often find we are finding people who are almost like our family members.
Patterns of Dysfunctional Families
Following are the examples of patterns frequently observed in dysfunctional families:
- Either or both parents subscribe to authoritarian control over the children. Often such families rigidly adhere to a particular belief. Here are few examples:
- Personal: No child of mine talks back to me; no one in this family marries out of caste; women in this family do not wear skirts/trousers etc. You follow the recipe as I taught you to.
- Religious: In this family we follow our religious rituals in a particular way; our religion is the best etc.
- Political: In this family we only vote for X political party because we have been doing so for generations etc.
- Financial: Money is hard to earn, it is not for spending on fashion etc.
Food & Shelter What Else?
- Either or both parents are unable to provide adequate emotional support or threaten to withdraw emotional of financial support. Failure to provide basic physical care or provide it conditionally to the children. It is commonly heard in desi families- “We provided you with every comfort, even those that were beyond our financial reach.” “If you disobey me, I’ll disown you.” “If you marry him/her I’ll commit suicide.” Atiya, grew up with best amenities but resents how her mother was never emotionally available. Her mother was always preoccupied with her self and the needs of everybody else in the extended family. Even when Atiya initiated a talk about her day or life it always became all about mommy. Atiya feels she goes emotionally unavailable to her partner for days and weeks because that way she does not have to deal with his problems.
Needy Parent: You Are Me, You Are For Me
- Either or both parents treat children as possession and use children to meet their physical or emotional needs. Anuja, grew up in a family where she and her siblings had to protect her mother from her father’s openly sexual demands and his family’s vicious violence. Anuja feels she is observing similar trend in pareting her child. She often asks her son to take sides for minor things. My mother grew up taking care of her sick mother because her father did not pay attention towards his wife, as a result she has hard time accepting even she can fall sick and someone can care for her. Some parents use children to get even with their partner. They ask children to take sides. In some desi families mothers raise sons with a constant reminder to them how they brought them up irrespective of the hardships piled by their fathers and grandparents; how they are counting on their sons to pay back their sacrifices by caring take care or taking sides in any future dispute in the family. Some parents treat children as their extension. They expect children not only obey them but think and act like them.
Angry Parent: Child’s Problem
- Either or both parents us use threats or physical violence as primary means of control and disciplining. Children may witness physical aggression between parents or experience aggressive disciplining. Some parents force children to participate in punishing siblings, or they may live in fear of parent(s)’ explosive outburst. One time while growing up I saw a neighbor was punishing his very naughty teens by asking them to slap each other hard. I heard him say slap the other hard or I’ll beat you both; both boys were crying and slapping each other. Recently when I was back at my childhood neighborhood came to know both boys are no longer at talkig terms with their father and the older on has pretty bad anger issues famous in the neighborhood.
All in the Family
- Either or both parents have addictions or compulsions like, drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, overeating, overwork, over indulgence in children’s lives etc. these have strong influences on all family members. My high school friend Veenu’s mother followed too many religious rituals- fasting, extended poojas etc. Thus Veenu could never invite us to her home so she refrained from coming to our homes. Our friend Vinita’s mother was like a helicopter, she not only hovered on Vinita and her siblings for home work but was too involved in their lives. Vinita feels her mother was trying to escape her over bearing and adultrous spouse through her children. Vinita finds so many similarities between her spouse and her father. She said “Now I can join the dots, I am actually married to my father. During the courtship he acted just like my father, controling, emotionally unavailable, making evasive replies, and pouting if I refused to do as he wanted. I felt it odd but then I thought I could handle it as I had seen my mother managing with my father. This familiarity seemed comforting but now I see how big a problem it is. I see a pattern here, I am just a copy of my mother, something I hate.” Atiya says she married her needy mother, as her spouse demands too much attention and time.
There are numerous variations in how often dysfunctional interactions and behaviors occur in families so is the severity of their dysfunction. No family will have an absolute match to the mentioned patterns and some families will have over lapping conditions. If the patterns mentioned above are a norm rather than exception, they systematically foster abuse or neglect. Children may:
- Be forced to take sides in conflicts between parents.
- Feel ignored, discounted, or criticized for their feelings and thoughts.
- Have parents that are inappropriately intrusive, overly involved and protective.
- Have parents that are inappropriately distant and uninvolved with their children.
- Have excessive structure and demands placed on their time, choice of friends, or behavior; or may receive no guidelines or structure at all.
- Struggle with rejection or receive preferential treatment.
- Experience restrictions on direct and full communication with other family members.
- Face temptations to use drugs or alcohol and subtle encouragement from parent(s) who abuse the same.
- Experience physical violence- slapping, hitting, kicking etc.
- Experience verbal and emotional abuse- name calling, undue criticism etc.
- Experience “reality shifting,” means there is a contradiction in what is being said and what is happening in actuality. A child may see one a parent hit the other but one or both parents may deny if physical scuffle ever took place.
For children to develop trust in the world, in others, and in themselves they need life free of abuse and neglect. Those experiencing abuse and neglect as children later as adults find it difficult to trust not only others but their own judgments and actions; they have doubts about self worth. They also experience problems in their relationships and their identities.
Abused and neglected people often struggle to interpret their families as “normal.” They make accommodations to make their situation seem normal, such as, “I wasn’t beaten, I was just slapped little too often.” “My father didn’t have anger issues; he just had low threshold for frustration.” The more accommodations they make the more likelihood is they will misinterpret themselves and develop negative self concepts (example, “I deserved it,” “I had it coming,” “I am a bad person”).
All behaviors are learned behaviors. At times we continue in our roles in a hope that our parents will give us “permission” to change. This permission has to come from within. People can ask you or encourage you to change but it is only your prerogative to change. Often people and parents in dysfunctional families fear change; they feel threatened by changes in their family members and children. They may even try to thwart your efforts to change by manipulating you to give up attempts to change or revert back to your previous self. For this reasons it is important for you to trust your own perceptions and feelings. Change is difficult but not impossible. Only you can change your self. You can do the following:
- Identify difficult or painful experiences of your childhood.
- List your those behaviors and beliefs you would like to change.
- Against each behavior or belief in the list write what you would like to do instead.
- Choose the easiest item from the list and begin practicing the alternative behavior or belief.
- After you have performed the first alternative behavior number of times and you feel comfortable performing it without much difficulty follow the other items on the list.
You may seek support from people who believe in what you are doing. You can also seek help from professional counselors.
- Perfection is not the aim just be comfortable in practicing the change you want.
- Don’t try to make your family perfect. You can only change your self and inspire others to change.
- Don’t try to win the old struggles- you can’t win.
- Set clear limits- e.g., if you do not plan to spend your vacations with your parents say “no” not “will see.”
- When you try to change your self people around you may not like it. Even if you make small changes be prepared for adverse reactions from you near and dear ones. The anticipated reactions are tears, yelling, temper tantrums, threats etc. Prepare your self how you will respond to these adverse reactions.
Change is difficult but not impossible. It is normal to slip back to your original behaviors patterns because you are accustomed. Change is slow and gradual. If you miss some day do not treat it as an excuse to give up. Instead continue to practice healthier and new behaviors soon they’ll become part of your daily life.
Forward, Susan. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Bantam Books, 2002.
Osterkamp, Lynn. How to Deal With Parents When They Still Treat You Like a Child. New York: Berkley Books, 1992.