dysfunctional families

Boundary Problems in Dysfunctional Families

Have you ever had the experience of someone who stands too close to you when they speak? It’s strange how we can recognize right away when someone crosses that invisible boundary line into our personal space.

According to Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book Boundaries, boundaries are similar to property lines.  They define what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility.  They separate “me” from “not me”. 

Let’s use a fence in your yard as an example.   The fence line separates your property from your neighbor’s property.  You wouldn’t climb the fence and mow the lawn in your neighbor’s yard: it would be inappropriate to take on that that level of responsibility for him or her.  Similarly, you wouldn’t want your neighbor to use your property as if it were their own.

Emotional, physical, and relational boundaries work in much the same way.  They are intended to protect you from harm.  They help you to experience goodness in a way that feels safe.  If a lack of boundaries led to you to feel the need to mow the lawns of everyone on your block, you would likely overexert yourself and be unable to maintain your own yard.

Yet it is important for these boundaries to be permeable: in a sense, to have a gate.  That way, you can let your neighbors come over to visit and get out to spend time with your loved ones.  Without permeable boundaries, you’ve built a fortress and isolated yourself inside.

The structure provided by these boundaries offers safety to those inside of them.  It allows you to be confident in what you own.

Boundaries in our Families-of-Origin

The easiest way to see boundaries in action is to watch parents rearing their children.  Take a toddler.  Toddlers need limits.  They need to know that if they place their hand on a hot stove, they’ll be burned.  They need to be protected from harmful and dangerous activities.

At the same time, a toddler’s inquisitiveness about the world is a creative gift that can be quashed by strict rules based more on parents’ desires than children’s needs.  Good boundaries with children are intended to provide safety rather than punishment or control.

If a child is exposed to a certain type of boundaries during development, they’re likely to internalize those boundaries.  These can take the form of healthy boundaries and awareness of limits.  But in dysfunctional families, often boundaries are more problematic.  These boundaries can be too rigid, too loose, or an unpredictable combination of the two.

If you’ve been able to identify dysfunction in unspoken family rules or family roles in your family-of-origin, you may resonate with some of these descriptions below of the effects of unhealthy boundaries in your family.

Types of Dysfunctional Family Boundaries

Too Rigid/Strict

Parents who offer rigid boundaries use authoritarian parenting strategies or “helicopter” parenting.  They attempt to protect their children by exerting too much control over them, not allowing them the opportunity to learn through failure.

These boundaries can feel more like walls than a fence: they are meant to keep the bad out, but they also prevent any nurturing or good to get in.  These families may lack healthy affection and physical touch and struggle with intimacy.  They might be characterized by a lack of praise or affirmation, focusing more on criticism and judgment for decisions.  There is a tendency to hear more negatives than positives from these parents.

For the child, this style of boundaries can lead to dependency on the parents to define reality with a corresponding fear of risk-taking or failure.  Impossibly high standards can be internalized in a way that fosters shame when they can’t be met.  Perfectionism can develop, as this style of parenting associates a child’s value with their performance.  Adults raised in this environment can experience stunted creativity.

Too Loose

Parents who offer too few boundaries and allow their children to have an inappropriate amount of freedom in childhood are opening their children up to harm.  Similar to having no fence at all, the child has no idea where the limit of their responsibility are and are left vulnerable to harm.  In childhood years, this can lead to engaging in more high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use.  Children end up having to make adult decisions as children because they don’t receive adequate guidance from their parents.

Too few boundaries, while it might sound appealing especially to adolescents, can actually be scary for children, as they don’t know how to keep themselves from getting hurt.  They miss out on learning skills necessary to protect themselves from harmful behaviors or experiences, and therefore face confusion and uncertainty in childhood.

In adulthood, those who had few boundaries can struggle with responding well to “no.”  They may overindulge or have difficulty with discipline or follow-through.  They may struggle with emotional regulation, as parents with loose boundaries often give in to temper tantrums, preventing children from learning healthy ways to cope with emotions.

Unpredictable Boundaries

One of the worst boundary styles parents can offer is an unpredictable combination of both strict and loose boundaries.  This can happen when one parent offers strict boundaries while the other offers more loose ones, or when one or both parents alternate between the two extremes.  This is typical of families with alcoholism or other addictions due to personality changes surrounding using the drug of choice.

Children in these families are given confusing messages of what is right and wrong.  They alternate between the walled-in isolation of rigid boundaries with the fear associated with no boundaries at all.  Never knowing what they can expect is crazy-making.

These children have learned to always be on guard for how their parents will respond.  It’s easy then, as adults, to be wary of relationships and people-please to control others.  They may lack confidence in setting limits with others because if they attempted to do so with their parents growing up, they would be unsure of what type of response they would receive. 

Which boundary style was present in your family growing up?

Are you dealing with the after-effects of rigid or loose boundaries in your family-of-origin?  Do you feel like you always have to be perfect and despair when you don’t meet the high expectations you set for yourself?  Do you struggle with discipline and setting limits with yourself?  Recognizing the links between these present-day behaviors and past experiences is the first step toward healing.  At Restored Hope, I help you explore how your past influences your present, offering counseling to help change your future. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Roles in Dysfunctional Families

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In a previous article, we discussed the effect of unspoken family rules on your present-day view of the world and of yourself.  Those family rules set up or reinforced relational dynamics in your family that placed each member in a different type of role.  If your family subscribed to the “don’t talk” and “don’t feel” rules, these roles provide distraction and denial from problems the family is facing. 

These roles aren’t necessarily dysfunctional within themselves: they are natural and common to family systems.  There is nothing wrong with drifting toward one of the roles, so long as they are flexible.  But just like the unspoken family rules, dysfunction occurs when they are rigid and unchangeable.  You’ll notice this when shift from the role you typically play in your family and it seems like things start falling apart.

When you’ve become accustomed to playing one of these roles in your family-of-origin, you’re likely to either repeat the same patterns in your adult relationships or carry out the drastic opposite of the role you played.  Take a look at the roles listed below and identify which roles you played, as well as those of your other family members.  Often this will shed light on current family dynamics or strong, negative reactions to your significant other or friends. 

Common Family Roles

Golden Child/Hero/Saint

This child is the favorite, the one who can do no wrong, the perfect child.  All other children in the family exist in comparison with this child.  The golden child allows the family to ignore any problems beneath the surface because of his or her accomplishments and success. This child is proof that they’ve done something right, even when there’s been dysfunction present.

The saint takes the positive aspects of the golden child and adds a spiritual twist, as this family member may be the most devoted Christian.  This particularly comes into light when there are siblings who have “fallen” and are no longer of the same faith background as the parents.

As an adult, the golden child often doesn’t feel as if he or she can make mistakes or mess up, because the whole family would come crashing down if they do. They may also become accustomed to being in the spotlight and feeling special.  The saint may have their identity or value associated with religious behaviors and church service.

Troublemaker/Scapegoat/Black Sheep

In opposition to the golden child, this is the child upon whom all the blame falls for the family problems.  It may take the form of acting out behaviors or disobedience, or it could simply be the effect of illness, mental health issues, or other “abnormal” features that draw attention.  It may be that the black sheep has no problematic behaviors, but is simply different from the rest of the family members and therefore is ostracized.  Their behaviors are seen as the source of any problems in the family, such that more major problems can be denied or ignored.

Lost Child

The lost child naturally coincides with the golden child or troublemaker.  When the attention of the family is taken up by the larger presence of one of these two roles, the lost child receives less attention and feels left behind.  Sometimes this is a natural consequence of having a sibling who is physically or mentally ill, or even the byproduct of being in a large family.  They may live by the unspoken rule of “children are meant to be seen and not heard.”

The lost child wrestles with strong feelings of loneliness and cravings for love and attention which may extend into adulthood.  They learn to take care of themselves, not to need or want anything, and may have trouble later in life asking for or receiving support or care from others.

Peacemaker/Mediator

The peacemaker is often found in the middle of arguments.  As a child, he or she may be pulled into taking sides between opposing parents, as is the case in contentious divorces.  It could also occur as the mediator seeks to keep peace between a troublemaker sibling and parents.  Similar to the lost child, this role requires the peacemaker not to have personal needs or become confrontational themselves, but instead to always be “reading the room” to identify how others are feeling and adjust or adapt accordingly.

Mascot/Clown

The mascot is the family member who lightens the mod when things are getting tense or family problems are rising to the surface.  They’re the funny one who makes jokes that facilitate denial or minimization of the real problems.  This is another role, like the peacemaker, that requires reading the room and gauging levels of tension.  In adult years, the mascot may have difficulty connecting with negative emotions or conflict, instead deflecting with humor.

Caretaker/Enabler

A caretaker is someone who takes on the responsibilities of others in the family and tries to save them from the consequences they might face.  A common example of this in today’s world is the “helicopter parent” who wants to protect his or her child from harm.  Usually this desire is well intentioned, but it actually causes more harm, as the child does not have to face the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes.

When addiction is present in the family, the caretaker role shifts into one of an enabler.  This individual makes excuses for the addict, denies any problems despite their obvious effect on the family, or struggles with lack of boundaries with the addict. 

Doer

This member of the family takes action and gets things done.  Often this is the stereotypical mother who coordinates the schedules of her children, cooks meals, and handles household chores.  This can also happen with older daughters whose mothers have passed away or are not able to be emotionally present, as they take on the responsibilities of a parent.

As adults, doers struggle to rest and are constantly feeling exhausted.  Allowing themselves to just “be” instead of “do” is not an option for them.  They may become angry or resentful as they struggle to say no.

Martyr

Taking the doer role a step further, the martyr makes sure everyone knows how much he or she is sacrificing for the family.  This role often involves guilt-tripping others or sarcastic comments that leave family members feelings as though they owe the martyr something.  If you have a martyr in your family, you may notice vague feelings of guilt when someone helps you, reminiscent of how you would feel guilty for the same with a parent or sibling.

What do I do now?

Read through these roles and ask yourself: which roles have I played in my family?  What about my other family members?  Have they changed over time?  How are they still affecting me in the present day?

When you’ve identified these roles and how they’ve impacted your behaviors today, experiment with breaking the mold.  Ask for what you need.  Say no.  Speak up.  Recognize feelings of guilt for what they are: echoes of the past.  Step into whatever action opposes the dysfunctional role you played in the past.  Talk with others about how you’ve played these roles and seek accountability and help in changing the scripts.

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Do you feel stuck playing out the same patterns of relating that were present in your family growing up?  Do you struggle with vague feelings of guilt when you have to set a boundary or say no?  Are you feeling exhausted all the time by constantly achieving and striving and you just want to take a break?  I’d love to support you in letting go of past scripts that are no longer serving you and living a more wholehearted life.  I offer counseling sessions at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.