At least since psychology discovered that emotional-social dysfunction frequently begins with childhood trauma, parents have blamed themselves for children’s antisocial behavior. Since no family (or family member) is consistently flawless, some people see “dysfunction” in every argument and thoughtless word. It’s all too possible to create a self-fulfilling prophecy with the stress of constant fretting.
Still, the dysfunctional family is no myth; and if any of the following symptoms describe your household, it’s time to make course corrections before things get worse.
What makes an expectation “unreasonable”? Assumptions that imperfection equals worthlessness, that change should happen overnight—and that there’s always one way of doing things. You probably have a problem there if you want to cry over 99% grades, or fight a child’s wanting to be an artist when you dreamed of raising a doctor.
Course Correction: If you suspect you’re being too hard on your children, take a good look first at how well you accept yourself. Are you expecting too much from the kids because you fear they’ll be “faulty” like you—or because you want someone to fulfill dreams you never achieved? Make a list of things you like about yourself and things you can still do to fulfill old dreams. Gather the whole family to share their own lists, and plan ways for supporting each other in working toward personally meaningful goals.
The parent who never listens to children is inviting trouble, but so is the parent who completely abdicates leadership, and so is the parent who always defends the child. Each approach is a recipe for raising either a chronic dependent or a perpetual rebel.
Course Correction: Get the family together and allow everyone to share any ways they feel disrespected or ignored. Figure out together what constitutes reasonable household rules, and reasonable consequences for breaking them. Implement new boundaries as a family, holding each other accountable.
Some stress is inevitable, especially in times of uncertainty or major change. But if you can’t send the kids upstairs without visualizing a fall and a broken neck, or if you lie awake nights envisioning the end of society as we know it, you’ve made anxiety a way of life, and are likely influencing your children toward excessive fearfulness.
Course Correction: Study anxiety-management life hacks; share them with your family. Encourage children to try new things (and, try new things yourself). If you’re worrying about a large-scale problem, find something proactive you can do about it. And remember: risking one specific venture’s not working out is not the same as risking a lifetime of destitution.
If your family is truly dysfunctional, course corrections may be more than you can handle alone. (This is especially true if you and/or your spouse grew up in a dysfunctional family, or if someone has an addiction disorder or mental illness.) Get professional help.
Most people get accustomed to accepting current situations as normal and inescapable, but there is a way out of dysfunction. Pursue it for your children’s sake.