BY Loretta Gilmore LCSW
What is a dysfunctional family:
We can all argue that our family is/was dysfunctional to some degree but this article will focus on the dysfunction that creates maladaptive coping skills and causes suffering. First let’s examine what a functional family looks like. A functional family provides for its members the basic needs of life, like food and shelter. A functional family also provides safety to members of the family, creates an environment where everyone feels like they belong and are loved. It also creates an environment where each member’s self-esteem is fostered and opportunity for growth is available. Therefore, if we were raised in an environment where these things were not addressed, or not available then the stage is set for a dysfunctional family system. As a result, maladaptive life skills are learned and practiced during childhood and often continue into adulthood.
Dysfunctional family roles
As a member of a dysfunctional family system we often begin to prescribe to maladaptive roles in order to adapt to a situation in which we are often powerless. Those roles often include the scapegoat, the hero, the mascot or the lost child. The hero tends to be the person who makes the family proud. He/ She is a perfectionist, and a high achiever but struggles with an internal fear of failure that seems to drive their every external action, way into adulthood. The mascot provides the humor and a sense of fun in the family. The mascot grows up to be the life of the party, the person everyone wants to be around but they are also the person who is internally miserable. The mascot often struggles with depression and feels inadequate. The scapegoat takes the blame and is the center of negative attention inside and outside of the home due to behavioral related issues. These children grow up and often continue to struggle into adulthood. The scapegoat often feels misunderstood, angry and or sad. The lost child does not receive much of the family’s attention. They minimize their own needs and wants. They put others needs ahead of their own and attempt to stay out the way of adults. These children grow up being fixers and continue putting others needs before their own. They are insecure and passive. Often, they have difficulties making decisions and may suffer from anxiety and depression. Regardless of where you identify within these roles, it is likely you began practicing maladaptive life skills at an early age.
Maladaptive life skills:
Maladaptive life skills are those things we do, or the ways in which we think that create an outcome we desire but also create additional hardships. Think of a maladaptive life skill being much like prescription medication. While the medication helps control a symptom (outcome) they often result in undesired symptoms (outcomes). Or think of them as a double edge sword, every time you use the sword to deal with an issue you are effectively (perhaps) dealing with the issue but at the same time you are harming yourself to some degree. Maladaptive life skills are present for a reason, they serve a purpose, and that is why they are hard to let go of. However, if you are ready, follow the steps below and seek additional help with a trained professional in your area if needed.
1.Become curious about the self, asking yourself these questions;
What am I doing? Why am I doing that? What am I reacting to? What is the core belief(s) attached to my reaction? Are these my own core beliefs or those that were encouraged or modeled for me during childhood? Are they working for me now?
2. How does this belief and or behavior protect and harm me or those close to me?
3. Am I ready to work on a more adaptive life skill?
4. Develop a plan of action
5. Anticipate barriers to success and create plan of action
6. Implement plan of action
7. Honestly and without judgment evaluate, what did you learn? Was it helpful? Where you disciplined and consistent?
8. Take what you learned and continue practicing, taking each mistake as a learning lesson instead of turning it into negative self-talk. Remember you did not develop a life skill without much practice, so too learning a new skill will require practice.