FUNCTIONAL AND DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES
Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D. © October, 2002
Let us consider the functional family as one that works. It works for everyone in the family, not just some of the people. It is not perfect, but it is good enough. It is good enough so that the people in the family feel loved, valued, recognized, and appreciated. In the functional, good enough family, safety is a priority. Parents ensure that they create and maintain an environment in which the family members are physically and emotionally safe. Physically, parents are attentive enough to their children that they are able to protect them from harm. They are observant enough that they don’t let little kids run out in traffic, play with matches, put their hands on hot stoves, or swallow detergent. They protect the children from people who might hurt them. If a child has been hurt the parents take prompt and definitive action to ensure that this does not happen again. Parents have enough control, both physically and emotionally, so that they can be in charge to keep the children safe. But they do not control so much that they smother or stifle the children. They guide while still allowing the children the freedom to explore and grow.
Here, parents are also in control of their own egos, their own self-image, aspirations, hopes, and desires. They are able to differentiate their needs, wants, and identity from their children’s. They do not have to be in control of every decision children make, and they are able to allow and encourage children to make decisions for themselves. If children are never allowed to scrape their knees, they will never learn how to differentiate between those circumstances where they will scrape their knee instead of break their neck.
However, that does not mean that the parents must abdicate complete control to the children. Kids want and need parents to be in charge. This means that the parents need to be able to recognize the difference between the big issues, those that the parents need to hold their ground for, and the lesser ones, those that they can give on. When parents do allow a child to make decisions, the child learns to deal with the consequences of those decisions. Sometimes the child must endure some discomfort or unhappiness if they are to learn from their experience. If they don’t do their chores, then they can’t meet their friends at the mall.
In the well functioning family, parents and kids will usually agree on what constitutes the big and little issues. However, it may not be until after some heated arguments that they reach consensus. In this type of family, parents know their kids well and are able to communicate with them effectively, so that they can understand the meaning and importance of a particular issue to the children. Similarly, the kids in that family are empowered enough that they don’t have to manufacture power struggles in order to differentiate themselves from their parents. They can have an identity of their own. They feel heard, recognized, and important. They feel a sense of their own power. For these kids in the well functioning family, an argument or a battle with their parents is about something significant, though the significance of it may not be immediately apparent. An important part of the measure of functional vs. dysfunctional is how the parents and kids treat each other during the discussion or the argument. In the functional family, disagreements and arguments are definitely allowed. Parents and kids treat each other with respect and dignity, even when they disagree or argue. They do not put down, degrade, humiliate, shame, belittle, mock, ridicule, dismiss, berate, invalidate, undermine, sabotage, or otherwise attack each other. They address issues together.
They talk together, even though it may get heated. Kids need to learn that it’s ok to disagree, to have strong emotions about something, and to express those emotions fully, clearly, and directly. They also need to learn that if they do so they will not be punished in some way, such as by being physically hurt, verbally attacked, or emotionally abandoned. They need to learn that all emotions are normal and natural, and while they may need to control how they express those emotions, the emotions themselves are ok, legitimate, valid, accepted, valued, and respected.
In fact, an important lesson that does get learned in the functional family is that it is permissible for an argument to become heated. But it is not permissible that the intensity careens out of control. Among other things, this means that neither parents nor kids lose control and hit each other. Hitting is not allowed, tolerated, nor excused by either party, because hitting in any form is an abuse of power in the family. The intensity of an argument in a functional family is limited not only by the prohibition against physical violence but also by the injunction against psychological or emotional violence such as name-calling.
While these descriptions may help elucidate criteria for a well functioning family, let me emphasize that functional and dysfunctional should best be viewed as along a continuum. Let us also remember that functional means good enough, not perfect. None of us had perfect parents, and all of us had to deal with some unfortunate life circumstances that were no one’s fault, such as accidents, illness, loss, or financial difficulties. If a family was operating pretty well in most areas, it might be described as 90% well functioning and 10% dysfunctional, with that dysfunctional part occurring in one or more areas. If we can approach the question of functional versus dysfunctional from this perspective rather than as a label to judge or blame the family, then we can use it productively as a means to heal the wounds that people live with.
To the degree that a family is well functioning, the children grow up with an ability to see and experience themselves as separate individuals who are capable of autonomous action. They have the capacity for interdependence. They have minds of their own and do not have to look to others to define themselves or to reflect their goodness or abilities. They have flexibility in the roles and rules of interaction that are available to them. They are not dependent on someone else’s behavior in order to see and experience themselves in a particular light. They are not bound to having to enact certain roles.
As we grow up, we all learn lessons about rules of attachment. We learn who we can and can’t be and what are the costs for breaking those rules. We learn what thoughts and feelings are acceptable and unacceptable to have, what thoughts and feelings are acceptable and unacceptable to express, who we can and can’t express them to, and what manner of behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable ways of expressing them. We may learn that we must be smart, accomplished, successful, sexual, manipulative, deceptive, rational, unemotional, or dishonest, or we may learn that we must not be those things. Children also grow up learning about what range of emotions is allowed to them within the context of their family. In a well functioning family, all emotions are allowed, and parents and children alike are all free to vent those emotions within a reasonable range of expression.
What are the implications of these perspectives about functional and dysfunctional families in relation to psychotherapy and healing? In therapy, people come in and talk about how their lives do and don’t work for them, how their lives today are functional or dysfunctional. We discover how their experiences growing up have impacted their abilities to have pleasure, joy, and satisfaction in their lives and how those experiences have helped or hindered their capacities to deal with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We also look at how they are able to cope when bad things happen to good people.
We look back to people’s experiences growing up not merely for some kind of intellectual exercise. Rather we look back to discover how the learned rules of attachment, the rules of identity, the rules of relating have shaped the way this person has come to know themselves and to relate to the world around them. When we see where those lessons were learned and the significance they held in that learning, we can understand more about the importance they carry today. We can understand why the ones that no longer work are yet so difficult to surrender, and why it is so hard to learn new ways of being and relating.
It is said that unless we study history it will repeat itself. The same can be said for the history of a person’s life in their family. The lessons of yesterday yield the new lessons of today and tomorrow as we strive to undo old and deeply ingrained learning that no longer works for us and to rewrite that programming with newer formulations that serve us better today. We can learn new ways of thinking, feeling and interacting and in doing so we can create a life that works for us and is fully functional. This is the healing that happens in psychotherapy.
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