Dysfunctional Families . . . What Exactly Does that Mean?
Part 2

by LuAnn Pierce, MSW, CMSW

Link to Part 1


Now that we have an idea of what constitutes a healthy family and some common stressors for families, we can look at ways to prevent a family from becoming "dysfunctional" during times of change and stress. Since families are made up of individuals we have to take into account ways for individuals to take care of their own emotional needs. One basic truth most people in 12 step programs come to terms with pretty early in their recovery is that we can only control and change our own behavior. If we could control or change the behavior of others, our efforts to stop loved ones from drinking, using drugs, gambling would have worked long ago. I tell people that if I could control what others do or think, everyone would be happy, healthy and financially secure. Unfortunately, I don't have that kind of control over anyone but myself.

First we need to identify the basic needs of human beings so we can understand what drives us to do the things we do. Our basic needs are:

1. To be capable and successful at something.

People who are not succeeding in at least one area of their lives often feel hopeless. Those who are resilient and have adequate support can move on from failure and keep trying. However, those who have a history of repeated failures may give up, which can lead to depression and despondency. This pattern may begin at an early age, especially in children who do not do well in school or who receive other negative messages about their worth as human beings, such as verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Some may channel their talents in alternate ways that are illegal or socially unacceptable, yet that give them a feeling of success. One thing you can do for yourself, and your children, is to find something at which you excel and do it! Doing so builds self esteem, increases competence and can give you the courage to take on bigger challenges. Set up ways to succeed in life by doing what you do well.

2. To feel cared for and belong to a group.

Everyone needs to care for and be cared for by others. This need never leaves us. Many people do not get their need for belonging met through their immediate families, because the people in their families are not capable of caring for them. Longing to be cared for by our parents and immediate family may never go away completely, and is a loss that we may spend a lifetime trying to fill. That void is sometimes filled with unhealthy habits and relationships. It is a loss that must be grieved, people that must be forgiven and hurts that must be healed to enable us to live a healthy life. As we mature, we have more control over who we care for, and where we get our needs for belonging met. We can choose our own network of friends and family members, and choose to care for and be cared for by people who are more capable of giving and receiving love. Many people who aren't yet skilled at caring for other people, have learned to care for themselves and others by caring for pets.

3. To have power and control.

All of us have a need for power and control over our lives, minds and bodies. We exercise this need in highly individual ways. Some openly try to meet this need by bossing others around. Others are more subtle and meet their needs in a passive manner, by acting helpless and needy. Some ask for what they need, ie. "I need a hug, will you hold me?" This is the middle ground that we should strive for and it takes the three steps of identifying our needs, making them known, and asking for what we want.

Doing this can be difficult because we risk rejection. It may help to realize that the person you approach also has needs, and a refusal doesn't mean you are being rejected, but that the other doesn't have what you need at that time. Sometimes, people don't have the emotional energy to give, even if a hug is all you ask for, as their own emotional needs are not met.

If you respect others' needs, you are less likely be hurt if your request for emotional support is denied. To respect others' needs you must first know, accept and respect your own. Forcing someone to give emotional energy against their will is a violation of their power and control. Whether emotional or physical, the end result of being forced is feeling violated. Many children grow up to be victims, because we force them to say and do things that are socially acceptable, yet that disregard their feelings and rob them of their own power and control. Protect your power and control, and respect the power and control of others by allowing them choices.

4. To give of ourselves and help others.

While we must take care of ourselves and our own well-being first and foremost, we also need to give to others. It is in giving love, care and generosity that we receive what we need in return. These things are not returned because they are owed it to us, but because as other peoples' needs are met, they have the emotional energy to give as well. When in relationships with people who take and are unable to give, the "taker's" needs are so great that they drain the life from us, and we may become emotionally depleted, bitter and resentful. This is the classic co-dependent relationship, which is often found in families with addictions, physical or emotional disabilities and other dysfunctional relationships.

5. To be stimulated and have fun.

As we get older and work harder, caring for ourselves and others, this need is often overlooked. For mental health, it is vital to keep the fun parts of life alive, so whatever yours are, do them! It should not be necessary to be with other people to have fun, so if you're unable to have fun alone, work on your relationship with yourself. If you don't enjoy your company, others won't either. Many of us don't know ourselves very well as adults.

Sometimes we put limits on ourselves based on old beliefs that keep us from having fun. If you believe that adults shouldn't ________, re-evaluate that belief to decide if it is still rational by your standards today.

Continued in Part 3


LuAnn Pierce is a licensed social worker and therapist, as well as an author and publisher. She has worked with hundreds of youths and families in the last 15 years. Ms. Pierce writes columns for several other publications and is the publisher/editor-in-chief of Person to Person.

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