Understanding Family Dynamics
Can’t we all get along? That’s a tall order when your limelight has been snatched away by your adorable new little brother. Family, you love them and you hate them. There are so many things to consider when you think of family: there’s birth order, rivalries, the only child, to name a few.
So what is a functional family? How do we know if we have one? How would you define a functional family?
The study of family dynamics, family therapy and treatment are complex and a whole field of psychology in itself. While I don’t have all the answers, I do have some thoughts. These impressions come as much from my experience as from education and training. No family is perfect, even the functioning ones. My family of origin was what I’d call dysfunctionally functional. From them I learned as much what not to do as the opposite. In my work with couples and counseling parents, I see what works and what doesn’t.
So here’s my personal list of qualities that make up a family that functions. It’s unscientific, but it’s a good place to start the discussion. Functional families encourage and provide:
Respect is the Holy Grail of functional families. All people in the family, brothers to sisters, mothers to fathers, parents to kids must be respectful as consistently as possible. Being considerate of each other is the tie that binds, even more than love. I think too much emphasis is put on love in general. I’ve heard of many atrocities done within families in the name of love but never in the name of respect. Just about all the things on the list come out of respect first.
An Emotionally Safe Environment.
All members of the family can state their opinions, thoughts, wants, dreams, desires and feelings without fear of being slammed, shamed, belittled or dismissed.
A Resilient Foundation.
When relationships between and amongst people in a family are healthy they can withstand stress, even trauma, and, if not bounce back, at least recover. Resilience starts with encouraging sound health, eating and sleeping well, and physical activity.
Privacy of space, of body and of thought. Knock and ask permission to enter before going through a closed-door. All family members are sensitive regarding personal space and aren’t insulted if someone needs a wide berth.
Being accountable is not the same as planting a homing device on your kid or abusing the cell phone to track her whereabouts 24/7. That’s not much better than stalking. No, being accountable is (again with the respect thing) respectfully and reasonably informing people in the family where you are and what you are doing so they can grow trust and not worry.
It’s sad when people hold out for an apology on a point of pride, never acknowledging their part in a dispute. How many times have you heard of rifts in families that last for years because someone feels they are ‘owed an apology’?
A functional family will have conflict. It’s very cool when we can have an argument and get to the other side of it still friendly and satisfied with the outcome. But let’s face it, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we say things that we regret. If we can feel and show remorse for our part, quickly apologize, ask for and receive forgiveness, no harm is done. You may even become closer for it.
Allow Reasonable Expression of Emotions.
When I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to be angry at my parents and my father would walk out on me if I cried. I was determined to not do that to my kids. It hasn’t been easy. The main thing for me was to teach them to state their anger in a managed manner and to teach myself not to fly off the handle when they did. I had to learn that their telling me they weren’t happy with something I did or said could be done with respect. And, very importantly, vice versa.
Gentle on Teasing and Sarcasm.
Teasing can be OK as long as the teased is in on the joke. Same with sarcasm. A functional family won’t use either as a poorly masked put down.
Allows People to Change and Grow.
It used to be people in the family were labeled the smart one or the pretty one, the funny one or the shy one. While that’s not done so overtly any more, labeling is still something to watch. A functional family lets people define themselves. Individual differences are appreciated even celebrated. It also lets the kids become independent when it’s appropriate and come back to the safety of the family when they need nurturing.
The adults in the family need to be allowed to grow as well. A mother may want to get a graduate degree, or a father may decide to retire early and start something new. These changes merit discussion on how they will affect everyone in the family, adjustment, perhaps negotiation, but again, if done with respect every one can be satisfied.
Parents Work as a Co-Parenting Team.
I strongly believe that a functional family is one where the adults are at the center of the family, in charge and pulling together in the same direction. In a functional family parents, divorced or married, take responsibility. Kids need the assurance that a firm hand (not too tight and not too loose) is at the tiller, even if they may not thank you for it.
Courtesy at Home First.
An ounce of a well-placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘I’m sorry’ is worth a pound of explanations, defensive arguments and misunderstandings.
Encourages Siblings to Work Together.
Brothers and sisters have a unique relationship and it’s a dead shame when it is not nourished. Functional parents encourage siblings to play, work and problem solve together, enhancing inter-sibling communication, instead of interfering with their arguments. That way siblings feel empowered and their bond is closer when they find a solution by themselves.
Provides Clear Boundaries.
We aren’t each other’s friends. A parent is a parent no matter how friendly they may be. Our children are not extensions of ourselves, they are individuals. Do not ‘friend’ them on Facebook unless you talk about it first and they say it’s OK and they mean it.
Has Each Others’ Backs.
Part of resilience – being supportive to each other no matter what, will allow your kid to call you when he thinks he’s in trouble, like needing a ride home from a party that’s gotten too wild.
Get Each Other’s Sense of Humour.
Functional families laugh a lot. They have ‘inside’ jokes and favourite stories, anecdotes of memories shared that delight and re-enforces a healthy bond.
Eat Meals Together.
So hard to do in today’s society but research does show that communication within a family is enhanced if we take more meals together, even if it’s in front of the TV.
Follow The Golden Rule.
It’s golden for a reason. “Treat each other as we wish to be treated in turn.” It was true way back when and it’s still true now.
Roles in Families
Were you considered the responsible child while your younger brother or sister was the rebel or ‘Mummy’s little one’?
According to experts as children we all played a specific role in our family, although which role was not always within our control. It may be due to gender, family culture or the order in which we were born. However the legacies of being the model child or the baby may continue to help or haunt us in our adult lives and understanding these silent family agreements can help us break behavioural patterns which could at times be disabling. Flavia Mazelin Salvi explains the four different roles:
The Model child is the ideal child. If this is you, you satisfy parents’ wishes and expectations and lives by their rules. Your strengths are perseverance and reliability, which help with professional success but when it comes to your personal life things are a little more complicated as your feelings were generally repressed in childhood.
The Eternal child is the baby of the family. You generally get away with things and help your parents feel young. Charm and spontaneity are your strengths but in relationship you are often financially and emotionally dependent on your partner.
The Sick child always grabs the family’s (especially Mum’s) attention with allergies, viruses and all sorts of psychosomatic problems. Validating mum’s role as a devoted figure, you may become dependent on being cared for as you get older and this in turn may affect both your professional and personal life.
The Rebel child provokes, questions, refuses and is always in trouble. You test limits but also set them as you know how to say no. Rebel children make great leaders but need to learn to be more agreeable at times. Breaking lifetime habits particularly when they are such a strong part of our identity can be incredibly hard. However by becoming more conscious of their effects it makes it possible to take control and even give us permission to start new ones. Who said the perfect child can’t say no, or the rebel can’t be agreeable and charming?
Other Roles of Children
There are other roles children can play in a family that are rarely addressed. In a two child family, most likely there will be a scapegoat and a golden child, but in larger families, there can also be a Lost Child, a Clown, and a Rescuer (codependent). It’s unhealthy for a child to be in any of these roles, but the Scapegoat and Golden Child role are probably the most dangerous to a child’s mental and emotional health, for different reasons. Even in a two-child family, the roles can shift back and forth (according to the Wikipedia article, families in which the children’s roles change and shift are called Balkanized families–this alludes to the constantly shifting loyalties and borders of the Balkan countries in Eastern Europe). Both Scapegoat and the Golden Child role are the soul-killing roles, but for different reasons.
The Scapegoat is the child who is targeted by the narcissistic (or alcoholic) parent. The parent often is able to get the rest of the family to serve as flying monkeys and gang up on that child, projecting anything they don’t want to “own” onto them. Like the sacrificial goats described in the Bible who were banished to the wilderness and tormented by villagers, the Scapegoated child carries all the shame the rest of the family doesn’t want to confront or deal with. All the unwanted emotions and bad qualities are unloaded and projected onto them, so the abusers don’t have to confront or deal with these problems in themselves.
Usually it’s the most sensitive child of the family who becomes the Scapegoat, because that child tends to be the Truth Teller, the only family member who can see the dysfunction and may even react against it. The most sensitive child, being the child who shows the most emotion, is also a threat to the narcissists in the family because emotional expression is such a frightening thing to them. In many, if not most dysfunctional families, the expression of emotion is not allowed. So the most emotional or sensitive child becomes the scapegoat, especially if they rebel against the dysfunction or criticize it.
The Scapegoat may be assigned the role of Bad Child, the Loser, the Stupid One, the Ugly One, the Crazy One, the Weak One, or any combination of these. No matter what they do, they cannot please the parents (or the siblings who have been turned against them). Scapegoat Children usually develop severe C-PTSD or possibly another mental disorder, and having been trained to be victims and never given the emotional, financial or other tools to succeed in life, tend to fulfill their families’ predictions of being “losers,” so then their families can say to others, “See? This child really is worthless.”
Scapegoated children also tend to attract other abusers throughout their lives and are at risk for being targeted for bullying even as adults and for entering into abusive relationships. If the adult child doesn’t go No Contact, the abuse continues, usually through some form of isolation, silent treatment, or exclusion. Scapegoated adults are talked badly about by the family and not invited to family functions. They are given no emotional or financial support, even though other members of the family are given these things. It’s not unusual for a scapegoated adult child to be living in poverty, even if their families are wealthy–not only because they were denied financial support when they needed it, but also because their self-esteem took such a terrible beating that they have no confidence at all and never take any risks that could improve their lives. Severe C-PTSD can also cause a person to have an inability to focus or concentrate or set realistic goals.
The Golden Child, often (but not always) the eldest child, is the parent’s trophy, pride and joy. The parents may seem to love that child, but being incapable of real love, their “love” is conditional and is based on their fantasy of what they want that child to be, not on who the child really is. The child is assigned to be a Mini Me of the narcissistic parent.
The Golden Child, basking in constant approval, showered with toys and gifts, never held accountable for any wrongdoing (which may be projected onto the Scapegoat), and often recruited as a co-abuser in the abuse of the Scapegoat, grows up entitled, grandiose, and spoiled. Because their Real Self has never been appropriately mirrored and their less than perfect traits are ignored or projected onto someone else, and because they were rewarded for playing the role of the Perfect One, a Golden Child in a family is the most likely to develop NPD and become a clone of the abusive parent. In this way their souls are destroyed even more than the Scapegoat’s. To continue to be the parent’s favorite, they had to play a role which became internalized. This becomes their False Self. After a while, they are no longer able to access their Real Self at all. Golden Children who have become narcissistic continue their entitled, bullying, manipulative, grandiose behavior into adulthood and are likely to head dysfunctional families themselves, continuing the cycle.
A non-Golden Child, even a Scapegoat, can become a narcissist too (usually the covert form of NPD), for self-protection, but Golden Children tend to develop the grandiose, malignant form of narcissism and as such, are the least likely to ever seek help for their disorder or admit they have become abusers themselves.
In larger families (three or more children), one child is likely to be ignored and treated as if they don’t exist. This isn’t a form of silent treatment; it’s as if the parents don’t notice the child is there at all. The Lost Child isn’t victimized like the Scapegoat, but they aren’t spoiled either. They may or may not be recruited to assist in the abuse of the Scapegoat, but they won’t necessarily be punished if they don’t cooperate; they will simply be ignored.
The Lost Child tends to be quiet and shy, and not make any waves. They are probably aware of the family dysfunction and may sympathize with the scapegoat (but don’t let anyone know this). As they grow older, they may crave attention or develop addictions, or they may remain shy and retiring throughout their lives. They tend to avoid confrontation and drama, and may become extremely introverted.
The Clown/Mascot attempts to divert attention away from the family dysfunction (and also get attention for themselves) by making light of everything. Everything becomes a joke to them, and they even use their own families as sources for humor. Clowns can be disruptive in class as children, to get attention, but because of their ability to see the humor in things, they tend to be outgoing and develop a large circle of friends during adolescence and adulthood (even if they are never taken very seriously).
Family Mascots are almost never scapegoated, because they entertain everyone and take the focus off the family problems.
David Sedaris, a writer and humorist, is a good example of this dynamic at play. Several writers in the ACON community (and even outside that community) were outraged by Sedaris’ callous essay (“Now We Are Five,” which appeared in the New Yorker after his younger sister, Tiffany, committed suicide). Tiffany was clearly the family scapegoat and had evidently gone No Contact with the rest of the family. At the time of her death, she was living in poverty and only had, as her father put it, “two lousy boxes” of belongings. I don’t know all the details, but it seems as if she was offered no support, either emotionally or financially, in spite of the family’s wealth and Sedaris’ success as a writer. She was probably mentally ill, but her mental illness may have been due to being the family reject.
It’s been suggested that David Sedaris is himself a narcissist (possibly the golden child) and that could certainly be true, but I also suspect he served a secondary role as the family Clown/Mascot. His callousness toward Tiffany in his famous essay (and grandiosity about how great the rest of the Sedaris family was–it’s very common for narcissists who were golden children to hold their dysfunctional families up as paragons of perfection) seemed to be drawn both from narcissism and from a need to hide his anger and pain behind a wall of humor.
Now We Are Five
The accompanying photo is interesting.
Tiffany, the second to youngest child in a family of six children, sits in the bottom right hand corner. Her hair is cut short and unkempt, and she looks very unhappy. David, wearing the glasses, stands above her. Actually, none of the kids look very happy. Not a smile in the bunch. Something’s definitely not right about this family. It’s common to see family portraits where no one is smiling in the 18th or 19th centuries, but not in the late 1960s, when this photo was taken. Here’s another photo, from the Vice interview, where only Tiffany (again in the bottom right hand spot) looks desperately unhappy and disconnected from her siblings.
In spite of their raucous and jovial manner, Clowns are likely to be depressed because they have never learned to confront or deal with their true feelings. They hide behind a wall of laughter. Their sense of humor is really just a cover for their pain. Many Clowns become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and a few become suicidal. Many of our great comedians served the Clown role in their families. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of them had drug issues or killed themselves.
This is the codependent child who attempts to “fix” the family dysfunction by being obedient, always good, non-confrontational, overly generous, and self-sacrificing.
The Rescuer may be highly empathic. The Rescuer tries to serve all the needs of the narcissistic/addicted parent, which of course is not possible. They will never argue with or criticize the narcissistic parent, and are always trying to get everyone to get along, which also is not possible. They may be the only family member who doesn’t abuse the Scapegoat, but they might if they feel like it’s required. However, even if they do collude in the Scapegoat’s abuse, they will be less abusive than the other family members, tending to take a back seat or even sympathize with the Scapegoat in private. In trying to please everyone, they please no one, and grow up feeling impotent and helpless. It’s a no-win situation.
When Rescuers become adults, they tend to unconsciously look for other abusers to “rescue,” having failed to do so in their families of origin. Like Scapegoats, Rescuers are likely to become abused themselves as adults, but it’s hard for them to leave an abuser because of their high level of empathy which keeps them tied to the abuser in their attempt to want to “help” them. They also tend to fall for an abuser’s promises to change and are easily “hoovered” back into a codependent relationship.
In Balkanized families, the child roles can shift. The most common situation is a Golden Child becoming a Scapegoat, often upon reaching adulthood, if they fail to fulfil the unrealistic expectations put on them. (“You were such a disappointment to me!”) If a Scapegoat goes No Contact or leaves the family for some other reason, another child, possibly the Lost Child, becomes the new Scapegoat. Someone has to carry all the family shame. If the family only has two children, the Golden Child may find themselves suddenly scapegoated or serving both roles.
Children who serve as both Scapegoats and Golden Children (very common in only children) often develop Borderline Personality Disorder as well as severe C-PTSD and possibly other mental disorders like Dissociative Identity Disorder (almost always the result of severe emotional abuse).
Serving as both a Scapegoat and Golden Child is the ultimate mindf*ck because there isn’t even any consistency. The child never knows if they will be punished or rewarded from one minute to the next. Their only advantage (if they are an only child) is that they don’t have siblings who have been turned into flying monkeys who collude in the abuse.
If the family ever develops a need for a new Scapegoat (if the Scapegoat goes No Contact, dies, or disappears), the Lost Child is usually picked as a replacement, due to their non-confrontational, malleable temperament and lack of any real pre-existing role in the family.
Lauren Bennet – The Mind Journal
Children have moments of looking at themselves apart from the established structure. This becomes more pronounced in the teen years. This can become a major source of contention inwardly where the child sees himself in a way that may not meet to the approval of the family structure. The structure where authoritarianism reigns may shun the thought and creative expression of the child leading to repression of independent thought and action. The child is expected to do those things which protect and preserve the family structure. The structure may be faulty, but nonetheless it is maintained, at times violently so.
Being a deviant from the structure can have dire consequences for the child, from within the family structure itself and as a result of the energies wasted in a struggle to change something where they have not been empowered to evoke change. They are left only to comply. Their unhappiness and discontent will be ignored to preserve the ‘integrity of the family structure.”
Often there exists the situation of self-fulfilling prophecies within certain structures. What one hears they unfortunately become. If a child is told that he is a certain way, and this becomes a repetitive message, it is likely he will behave in like fashion. The child may repeat the very language he hears, not necessarily knowing its meaning, but knowing it conveys a feeling and can be used as a defence.
There exists at times in families, one who will do all possible to preserve the structure, no matter how dysfunctional it may be. This person often utilizes an authoritarian stance and expects their children to respect them solely for the sake of their presumed authority. Their objective is control, and the independent or creative nature of the child is looked upon as a deficit.
The child’s only voice is to be the parental voice, if it is not, punishment will certainly come. This person is many times a person who implies the idea of ‘do as I say” but not necessarily as they do. This creates despair in the child, leading to states of hopelessness and depression. They may begin to question their sense of self, their own identity. They become anxious, fearful children who appear timid because they dare not speak something which could bring them punishment from the authority in charge of the structure. This learned behaviour begins to manifest outside the family structure as well, as these are the children who then become easily swayed by peer influence. These are the children who do not really know themselves so they adopt the traits of those around them, seeking to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging. They are thus always victims of control. Once they branch out from the control of the authoritarian parent, they are bound to be controlled by some other party who will influence their decisions and deprive them of critical thought. They may not realize they are being controlled, thinking they are somehow apart because they belong to a ‘clan’ who dresses this different way or that, but nonetheless they are under the control of something or someone. These children are usually the underachievers. They are not sure of what to strive for, thus they often do not strive at all. They allow life to merely ‘happen’ rather than taking charge themselves.
The overachiever is one bound by feelings of inadequacy and this often takes its roots in the familial structure. It is often in these situations where there exists a force within the family who has defined the rule of what it means to be ‘successful’. There is the constant pressure and drive to have the child to conform to expectations. Those with this structure in place highly value competitiveness. The siblings are often competing for attention for one another. It is often the only child or the firstborn who is placed in the glorified role. If they meet the expectation, they are heaped with praise, if they do not; they are likely to be cast aside. Once cast aside, or in the worst case, cut off from the family, they often enter into depressed states. They may seek various avenues to mask their feelings of inadequacy. These feelings of inadequacy may impair their future relationships. They may become those always striving for an unreachable ideal, always slightly out of reach. They cannot fully accept themselves in the present moment, but always want to be gaining or achieving more. They become individuals whose level of dissatisfaction can become immense.
There exists in some families as well where the gap between ages of the siblings is significant, and where one sibling may have been seen as having provided a contribution to the family and deemed ‘successful’, and the far younger sibling once reaching the ‘freedom’ of adulthood develops a resentment towards the older sibling and adopts a victim mentality. This then can lead to the younger sibling entering a period of rebellion, rejecting opportunities, and seeking to align himself with those who standards are lower than himself or that of his family. By doing this, the younger sibling can stave off their feelings of inferiority.
There is the public image and the private image. This dichotomy often creates great confusion and distress and can lead the child to questioning of reality and their identity. What is meant by the public image is what the leader(s) of the family structure wish to convey to the outside world, whereas the private image is that dysfunction which lies within that these individuals are wanting to conceal at whatever cost. Familial secrets exist, trust is lacking, and children are guarded about their expression. Children may be lied to and dilemmas between family members masked or suppressed. The real nature of things may be shrouded in confusion and ‘mystery’. Mixed messages may arise, or the members of the family may see themselves placed in ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t situations.” Some family members may frustrate themselves in striving for the ‘ideal’ structure which never arrives.
In the dysfunctional structure, as in oppressive societal regimes, there are those who seek rebellion. Rebellion against the structure becomes more pronounced in the stage of adolescence where already the teenager is beginning to exert a greater sense of autonomy and desire to be apart from the familial structure. However, because children lack the resources for which to engage in a rebellion that could be successful, the rebellion is always squashed. What does this leave the child to do? They can do little but endure and await the period where they can break free from the structure that they find oppressive. What is termed ‘conduct’ problems is usually this desire to break free from what the child has perceived as oppressive in their lives. Often without the appropriate guidance and ‘moral compass’ coming from the familial structure, their rebellion turns not just to fighting the familial structure, but the structures outside which also resemble the authority they have found oppressive. This type of rebellion is usually futile and self-destructive. There exists the warring between parents themselves, which cause the children to be placed in the predicament of divided loyalties, not knowing which parent to turn towards. There may exist the opposing styles, one parent who is permissive and one who is the authoritarian. This scenario leads to immense conflict.
In the worst scenarios, the combination of ‘seared in’ memories of trauma, with the dynamics as mentioned above leads to the disintegration of the person. Reality is too painful, and is questionable. Reality is not reliable. As a result, this member of the family seeks to ‘break out’ and develops the behavior that would be termed psychosis. They retreat into their own inner world, their own sense of reality and identity. This too is often a painful journey, but not anymore painful than the experience of the structure they have felt subjected to. Children in some structures are still viewed as ‘property’; therefore they are often enslaved to the faulty structures. Mere compliance does not earn one’s freedom but neither does active rebellion. Cycles exist, once a structure is learned, it is bound for continuation. The child in many instances will perpetuate the structure that they learned once they have their own family to lead. The stresses and trauma of one can often become the stresses and trauma of all, it becomes a collective trauma. The faulty structures within the family dynamics are seen in society as a whole. Therefore, we are all shaped by the society and the family structures in which we have encountered. Thus, concepts of ‘mental illness’ or the ‘unruly child’ all take shape and form by the experience one has in the family and ultimately in society. These are not biological processes, but rather social and political processes.