Understanding and Dealing With a Dysfunctional Family

Cathey Brown knows the painful dynamic of a dysfunctional family. She knows it because she has lived it. She learned to pretend that everything was "great" when paraded to church on Sundays … even though most weekends she avoided her drunken father … and tried not to notice her mother's bruises.

Young Cathey learned to create her own reality because no one confronted the harsh realities of alcoholism and domestic violence. She learned that living to "look good" was more important than living with integrity … and that keeping secrets was far better than telling the truth.

What Is a Dysfunctional Family?

Like millions of others, Cathey grew up in a dysfunctional family in which family members failed to function together in a healthy way. Just like Cathey, millions of others grow up in family relationships that are fractured with family roles that are a distortion of what they should be.

It's not unusual to see a role reversal take place. Simply said, a parent becomes emotionally dependent on a child; therefore, the child parents the parent.

In a functional family, if one parent begins to engage in negative behavior, the other parent is able to confront that behavior because both are emotionally healthy and secure in the positive strength of their relationship. In a dysfunctional family, a passive parent enables or allows the destructive behavior of the problem parent to continue by failing to take adequate steps to confront him/her.

The Damage of Dysfunction

As a result, a destructive cycle of behavior envelops the entire family. Often the passive parent will make excuses or try to mitigate the damage that the problem parent has created, while failing to address the harmful actions that are destroying the family.

In Cathey's situation, her father's alcoholism and violence ripped the family apart, even as her mother (sometimes with a blackened eye) denied there was any problem at all. Fear, shame and a lack of healthy boundaries created an environment for dysfunction to flourish.

Role Playing for Survival

When parents are unable to manage their lives, children learn to cope by playing specific roles in the family or "acting out" in damaging ways. Typically, the child will adopt one of four roles:

The Responsible Child
The "hero" tries to fix the family problems and help create a positive family image through noteworthy achievement. This child receives positive attention but often develops perfectionistic, compulsive behaviors.

The Rebellious Child
The "scapegoat" draws focus away from the family's problems and onto himself or herself with rebellious, uncontrollable behavior. This child consumes time and energy from the family members and often develops self-destructive life patterns.

The Reclusive Child
The "lost child" hopes that by ignoring family problems, the difficulties will go away. This child avoids attention and is often lonely and withdrawn.

The Reveling Child
The "clown" uses humor and antics to direct the focus away from family problems. This child is often hyperactive and usually seeks to be the center of attention.

A child may even display a combination of these traits or progress through different stages as they attempt to manage their emotional pain … just seeking to survive.

Initially, Cathey learned to cope with being sexually abused by her uncle through rebellious behavior before settling into habits that characterize the responsible child. This hero became responsible for the safety and well-being of her younger sister, took on responsibilities that belonged to her parents and focused on high achievement and personal perfection.

Failure to Fix the Family

In filling these roles, she nurtured a desperate need for control – so obviously missing in her family of origin – that would plague her for years. There's a major problem with this picture: Heroes are supposed to "save the day" and fix everything. Well, Cathey tried … so hard, but no child has the ability to fix the family. Cathey always felt at fault for the family's dysfunction and a sense of inadequacy overshadowed her soul.

Typically children from dysfunctional homes feel guilty. They assume, "I'm the reason that my parent gets so upset. It's my fault that my parents are fighting. If only I could be a different kind of person. … If only … the family wouldn't be such a mess." Yet there are three key points these children need to know: 1) They didn't cause it. 2) They can't cure it. 3) They can cope with it … without carrying a heap of false guilt. It's impossible to escape the stress within a dysfunctional family, but they can survive it.

Every child needs to find a "safety zone" – a way to find expression in life that is positive in order to cope with that stress. Children need to know activities they can enjoy that will divert their attention away when situations become dysfunctional, such as playing a game, doing a puzzle, riding a bike, reading a book, quoting a Scripture: Philippians 4:13 (ESV) "I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me."

A caring, responsible adult can help a child learn how to make healthy decisions that are not dependent on unhealthy parents. They can learn to do this by making a list of pros and cons and picking the best choice.

Rainbow after the Storm

As the founder of Rainbow Days, Cathey has for 30 years guided children toward maturity by encouraging positive life choices and teaching important life skills built on a foundation of authentic Christian faith. In the process, Rainbow Days has served nearly 140,000 children and trained more than 37,000 professionals to implement support groups and abuse-prevention programs.

You can't change the past but you can make peace with your past. Recognize any dysfunctional family roles you've played and decide to let the past stay in the past. This is today.

Once a storm passes and the sun breaks through the clouds, a beautiful rainbow adorns the sky! The rainbow reminds us there is always hope … even after the most violent storms.

If you have been wounded by the storm of family pain, God gives you this promise: "I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV). That's His rainbow for you.


June Hunt, counselor, author, radio host and founder of the worldwide ministry Hope For The Heart, offers a biblical perspective while coaching people through some of life's most difficult problems. June is the author of How to Forgive . . . When You Don't Feel Like It, © 2007 Harvest House Publishers. Learn more about June and Hope for the Heart by visiting Here you can connect with June on Facebook and Twitter, listen to her radio broadcasts, or find much-needed resources.Hope for the Heart provides spiritual guidance, heartfelt prayer, multi-media resources, and biblical wise-counseling. Call 1-800-488-HOPE (4673) to visit with a Hope Care Representative, 7:30 a.m. until 1:30 a.m. (CST).

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