Psychotherapy: We all know that you can’t pick your family members

So often I am struck by someone saying to me, “I come from a dysfunctional family.” This can mean many things, from an explanation of “why” someone is the way he or she is, to an “excuse” for not changing one’s current behaviors.

Actually, there are no totally “functional” or “dysfunctional” family systems. All families are a combination. They have mixed characteristics, with some having more of the positive characteristics, others having more negative ones.

All of us were raised in these mixed environments. It can be valuable to look back and identify the more or less valuable characteristics we experience in our families of origin.

In general, the positive functional characteristics of families include being:

• predictable

• nurturing yet not smothering

• consistent

• limit setting yet not hostile

• safe

• accepting of difference in individuals

• structured yet flexible

Conversely, any of the above could change to dysfunctional, by being:

• unpredictable

• chaotic (fears of rejection)

• inconsistent

• inappropriate expectations

• unsafe (verbal, physical abuse)

• extremes of rejection

• alternating permissive and smothering

• overly punitive, rigid

Since many of us grew up in more or less imperfect family systems, we often decide that when we are adults and have our own families, we will do things differently. By understanding our own families, we can see which characteristics we wish to keep and which we wish to change. It is important to both notice and value the good, strong functional parts of our families, thus only changing those clear pieces which we see as not contributory to well-being, growth and development.

Beyond general characteristic, families also have “roles” for each member of the family. Roles include the role of the couple, the role of the parents and the role of the child. Each of these roles can be functional or dysfunctional, depending on the individual family.

In part two of this article, I will describe those roles, so that it is clear what behaviors to target to increase the functional characteristics of our families. Until then, here are some common red flag symptoms of family dysfunction which may indicate the need to see counseling. These include:

• escalating conflict, anger, irresistibility

• fear, “walking on eggs,” blaming, self blaming

• depression, fearfulness, anxiety, sleep problems

• acting out behaviors, compulsions, i.e., overuse of food, alcohol, drugs

• alienation, isolation, loneliness

• scapegoating, enabling and/or infantilizing a child

• feeling of frustration, helplessness, hopelessness

• self destructive ideation and/or behavior

• aggressive ideation and/or behavior

• work or school problems, poor socialization, impulsive behaviors

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Barbara Kenedy, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Bonita Springs. She trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Northwestern University School of Psychiatry. She can be reached at (239) 992-1233.

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