Hi guys! This is the second in a series of articles on dysfunctional families. In the first article on signs of a dysfunctional family, we covered:
- what happens in dysfunctional families
- the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family
- accepting the reality that your family is dysfunctional
In this article, we’ll focus on how to overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. While growing up in a dysfunctional family can affect you in some very profound ways, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
You can heal.
You can build a better life.
You can move on.
Here are the five things that have helped me the most in overcoming my own dysfunctional past.
How To Overcome The Effects Of Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family
1. Feel The Feels
You might be tempted to minimize the dysfunction that went on in your family growing up – to focus on the positive experiences you had along with the negative, to find the silver lining, to hurry into forgiveness.
But I don’t think you should. Your adverse childhood experiences are a big deal and it’s ok to have big feelings about them.
It’s perfectly normal to feel angry, sad, and resentful. And I would even go as far as to say that feeling these feelings is essential to your healing process.
In a dysfunctional family, normal feelings are not dealt with in a healthy way. It may be that your feelings were always ignored, and therefore, invalidated. Or it may be that you were actively taught to suppress your feelings.
But trying to ignore or suppress feelings just doesn’t work. The more you try to willpower feelings away, the more they will fester.
In order to move on from feelings, you need to feel them and process them.
This can be accomplished a few different ways:
- Writing your feelings down
- Talking to a trusted someone who is capable of handling big feelings
- Simply sitting with the feelings for a while, including crying or ranting if you need to
Having negative feelings in response to a negative experience is perfectly appropriate and these negative feelings can be the force that propels you toward personal growth. As in:
“I am sad I didn’t have the kind of carefree childhood all children deserve.”
“I am pissed off these people treated me like shit.”
“I am pissed off I STILL have to deal with the consequences as an adult.”
“I am sick and tired of feeling miserable and I am not going to let people treat me like shit anymore.”
Note that feeling the feelings is not a once ‘n done task. They may pop up from time to time for a while.
There may be triggers, such as hearing other people rave about their happy childhoods, or they may just come up out of the blue.
And when they do, just let them. Just let them come and go.
They will eventually run their course.
2. Work On Reducing Your Stress Levels
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave you with more than just psychological effects. It can seriously mess with your body – even if you weren’t physically abused.
There is a whole bunch of scientific research showing that adverse childhood experiences – whether physical, emotional, or social – can change your brain and your fight-or-flight response so that you become more sensitive to future stressors and have a harder time returning to a normal state after being stressed than other people. The resulting overload of stress hormones can leave you vulnerable to various chronic illnesses later in life. For an eye-opening summary of this research, check out this site.
While this sounds like a shit ton of bad news, it’s far from a hopeless situation. There is a lot you can do to reduce your exposure to stress hormones from here on out, prevent further damage to your body, and even reverse some of the damage that may already have occurred.
Here’s what you can do:
- To the extent possible, reduce the number of stressors in your life.
- Learn stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises and mindfulness, that you can employ when faced with a stressful situation.
- Make a list of activities that you find relaxing and then do them. As often as possible.
For more ideas, check out my articles on stress and anxiety.
3. Give Yourself The Parenting You Never Had
And then there are the psychological effects.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family, you might have developed some warped beliefs about the world and your place in it. Beliefs telling you that you are not important, that your feelings don’t matter, that you are not worthy. That you are bottom of the pile compared to everyone else.
When you were a child, these beliefs made perfect sense. They matched your experience of the world.
But here’s the thing. The voice in your head that – to this day – keeps telling you that you don’t matter is that of a helpless child, parroting back the messages that helpless child received from grown-ups who sucked at parenting.
What you need to understand in order to heal that child is that you are an adult now. That you are an adult who has the capacity to embrace the helpless child and tell her that things are different now. That you are an adult who has the capacity to take over and make everything better.
What you need to understand is that now that you are an adult you have the capacity to parent yourself.
You can talk back to that child. You can tell her that what happened to her in childhood was not fair, but that you are going to make up for it.
That you are going to be a different parent. A good enough parent. You are not going to be like them. You are not going to be just another one in the line-up of abusers and neglecters.
You will do things differently. You will finally give yourself the parenting that all children deserve.
You will do what good enough parents do.
And in case “good enough parenting” is a foreign concept because you never experienced it, let me give you the highlights of what good enough parents do.
Good enough parents take care of your physical needs for one. They make sure you get enough sleep, good nutritious food, and exercise to burn off all that extra energy.
They take care of your emotional needs. They talk to you with love and compassion. They empathize and encourage you when you are down. They find ways to comfort you when you feel stressed or scared.
They do their best to keep you safe. They steer you away from unhealthy environments and from other kids who are up to no good.
They make your well-being their #1 priority. You are important to them.
They also realize that parenting is hard. So when they don’t know what to do, they ask an expert or buy a book.
This is what good enough parents do.
And you, dear reader, have the capacity to do all of this for yourself.
You can work toward meeting your physical and emotional needs.
You can talk to yourself with love and compassion.
You can find ways to comfort yourself.
You can seek to avoid unhealthy environments and cultivate supportive relationships.
You can make yourself a priority.
You can get help and support when you need it.
And the more you do these things – the longer you stay the course – the more that little helpless child inside you will heal.
She will learn that her needs matter and that she is worthy.
Just like when you put a plant in nourishing soil, she will flourish.
4. Learn The Life Skills Your Family Failed To Teach You
When babies are born, they are clueless about how the world operates. It’s the job of parents to serve as mentors and teachers for their children. It’s the job of parents to help their children develop the basic skills needed to navigate the world successfully.
Obviously, this system fails when parents a) don’t have some of these skills themselves, b) aren’t very good teachers, or c) don’t see “teacher” as part of their role as parent.
The good news is that all these skills can still be learned in adulthood. Sure, it would have been easier and saved you from various heartaches to learn them as a kid, but better now than never.
To help you get started, I’m going to list life skills that are often not modeled or actively taught in dysfunctional families. Depending on the ways in which your family was dysfunctional and your life experiences, you may have already picked up some of these skills, while you may recognize others as needing some further development.
In a good enough family, children learn self awareness. Good enough parents “mirror” their children. They see you. They notice your feelings and your preferences and your natural strengths. They see the authentic you. Then they tell you what they see.
“I see you really enjoy art projects.”
“Wow, it looks like math is your thing.”
This is how children in good enough families come to know themselves.
In dysfunctional families, parents either don’t mirror their children at all or they do it inaccurately. They either don’t see you or they only see what they want to see.
Emotional Management And Coping Skills
In a good enough family, children learn to understand and manage their emotions. Good enough parents give labels to feelings and help their children find ways to process them and cope with them. Good enough parents also model healthy emotional management and coping skills in their own lives.
“I can see you are really angry. Do you think you need some quiet time to cool off?”
“I can tell you are sad. Losing your teddy bear is hard.”
“Wow, mom is getting really frustrated with this task. I’d better take a break and try again tomorrow.”
When these kinds of statements are repeated a gazillion times over an entire childhood, a child will learn that feelings are a normal part of life and that they can be dealt with.
In dysfunctional families, parents might ignore their children’s feelings altogether, avoid talking about feelings, disapprove of their children’s feelings, fail to teach healthy ways to cope with feelings, or let their own feelings spiral out of control in front of their children.
Communication And Relationship Skills
In a good enough family, children learn communication and relationship skills. Good enough parents model these skills themselves. They pay attention, listen attentively, empathize, address problems with the people involved, keep calm, take time-outs when they can’t, and apologize when they make mistakes.
In a dysfunctional family, communication may be non-existent, only happen behind people’s backs, or it may be entirely too aggressive.
Problem Solving Skills
In a good enough family, children learn that problems are a normal part of life, but that there are usually things we can do to solve them or at least cope with them.
In a dysfunctional family, problems are either swept under the rug or ranted and raved about. Either way, they are not addressed in a productive fashion.
In a good enough family, children learn a bunch of practical life skills, such as household management, time management, money management, decision-making, and goal setting skills. Good enough parents may teach these skills actively or through modeling.
The dysfunctional parents leave you to your own devices.
Good enough parents raise children who will one day be good enough parents themselves. Good enough parents model good enough parenting.
Children of dysfunctional families don’t have this modeling and this is why family dysfunction is often multi-generational. Children learn unhealthy patterns from their parents and then employ these same patterns with their own kids.
How Exactly Do You Learn These Skills?
You learn these basic life skills just like you learn anything else. You ask someone who seems to have their shit together or you google it or you borrow a book from the library or you take a class. Whatever works best for your learning style.
And then you practice.
With patience, always remembering that it takes other people an entire childhood to learn. 🙂
5. Notice How Your World Is Different Now
As you practice steps #2, #3, and #4 above, your world will literally change. Or your world may already be different from the world of your childhood if you’ve managed to distance yourself from the dysfunction at least to some extent.
And once your world is different, then all that’s left to do is to notice this change and revel in it.
When your brain is exposed to unpredictable stressors as a child, it learns to be on guard. This is a natural survival mechanism that kicks into place. Your brain tries to keep you safe by constantly scanning for threats. Constantly looking for evidence that you are not loved, not wanted, not safe.
To the point that this is what your brain focuses on most of the time. To the point that it no longer pays attention to anything else.
Now, let’s thank your brain for doing this service for you. Let’s thank your brain for doing everything in its power to keep you safe.
Let’s also accept that your brain might never be fully able to let go of this responsibility. It might always be working a little harder on this safety thing than most other people’s brains.
But let’s also try to give this poor hard-working brain a break. A bit of work-life balance.
Let’s make a conscious effort to look for reasons NOT to be scared. Let’s make a conscious effort to help your brain develop a sense of safety – something that your brain never had a chance to learn when you were a child.
You can do this by making a list of circumstances when you either have felt safe and secure in the past or when it might be possible for you to feel safe and secure. Maybe a big warm hug from your SO? Or maybe in bed alone with your fuzzy socks on and cocooned in a heavy blanket?
Whatever the circumstances you come up with, either re-create them or make an effort to notice them when they occur naturally.
Whenever they do, REALLY soak that feeling in. “I feel SO safe right now. I am at peace. In this moment, right now, nothing can get to me.” Stay with that feeling for just a bit. Milk it for all its worth. 🙂
If you do this consistently, many times, over a long period of time, your brain just might learn to look for evidence of safety and relax a little.
Your brain might learn that your world is not quite as dangerous anymore as it once was.
P.S. Don’t miss the third installment of this series: how to deal with dysfunctional family members who are STILL wreaking havoc in your adult life.