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Family Information

Unhealthy Family Interactions

Health care professionals define an unhealthy family as one where the relationships among family members are not conducive to emotional and physical health. The majority of families experience stressful situations (death in the family, a child’s illness, etc.) that may impair functioning. Healthy families tend to return to normal functioning after a stressful event. Unhealthy families’ problems tend to be chronic and children inconsistently get their needs meet if at all. Negative patterns of parental behavior tend to be impact the child’s life and development in various ways. Children can be impacted into adulthood by one or all of the following behaviors that often result from unhealthy family patterns or dynamics. This material is not meant to blame your parents. Many parents do not realize that their behavior is harmful to their children and may lack the tools to have insight into their behaviors or coping skills to handle their difficulties.

  • Impaired parenting: Parenting is a complex and demanding task that can be impacted by other factors influencing the parent.
    • Impaired parenting can cause the child to become scapegoated, experience abuse, or emotional neglect. This impaired parenting could exist for a variety of reasons including:
      • Physical illness or physical disability
      • Alcohol and drug use
      • Mental illness and developmental disabilities
      • Trauma
  • Parentification of children: Having an impaired parent often leads to a child having to fill the vacant parental role.
    • Unfortunately the child is also acting as an impaired parent due to the child having responsibility but no authority. The child may blame themselves for not trying to make the family better, which may lead to feelings of worthlessness or not being good enough.
    • The child may also overlook his or her own interests and developmental needs will be impacted by the parentification. Children may also develop superstitions and unhealthy beliefs to manage anxiety and experiences within the family.
  • Boundary violations: Boundaries delineate physical and psychological space between individuals within a family. Boundary violations typically occur through:

    • Physical abuse
    • Sexual abuse or inappropriate sexual behavior
    • Violations of privacy with no justification
    • Inability or unwillingness to protect the child from trauma intrusive parental involvement in child’s personal life including relationships, hygiene, schedule, diet, etc…
    • Unnecessary exposure to details of marital conflict, sexual relationships, infidelities, etc…
    • Extreme emphasis on and intrusive involvement in achievement-oriented activities
  • Chronic rejection: Unhealthy parents are likely to be unable to validate a child and the children may be blamed for their parent’s difficulties. This often leads to a child internalizing the blame for any rejection he or she experiences at the hands of the parents.
  • Traumatic experiences: Children within unhealthy environments are likely to have experienced events or witnessed events where they feared their lives or others. They may be forced to adapt to chronic emergencies within their families in which psychological and physical survival was a daily issue. This may lead to impaired coping and information processing.
  • Distorted communication: Many topics are likely to have been avoided, which may lead to a child learning backstage/indirect strategies for how to control a situation that does not require direct confrontation while learning to avoid difficult topics and conversations.
  • Distorted cognitions: Rigid thinking patterns are often handed down from parents through modeling, direct, or indirect styles of communicating. As an adult you may have rigid expectations for yourself that involves a perfectionistic attitude and all or nothing thinking.

What does this mean?

The previous characteristics of unhealthy families can have varying impact on a child’s development hence impacting adulthood. As an adult, you may have difficulty trusting an environment, others, or yourself. You may have difficulty understanding what “normal” is given the adjustments you were forced to make in childhood. Due to the invalidating experiences, you may have self-worth concerns and be uncomfortable with intimate relationships as an adult. This may cause you to seek validation from others, which may be a helpful short-term fix for your self-esteem given that you may remember negative or critical feedback easier than praise. You may be self-critical due to blaming and internalizing difficult emotions and experiences in your childhood. Within relationships, you may be extra attuned to other’s needs while not being able to express your own needs or emotions.

What can I do now?

If you have identified with the information presented, you are likely to have experienced some unhealthiness within your family. You have survived and are likely to have some valuable skills that can help in your treatment such as having empathy for others, being achievement-oriented and successful, resilient to stress and adaptive to change. Self-help materials can assist you in gaining insight and the William & Mary Counseling Center is available to all currently enrolled students. Therapy can offer outside support and validation that can assist you in learning how to have healthy relationships, express your emotions, trust others, process childhood events, and address any self-esteem concerns you may have. Patience is needed throughout this process. Your all or nothing behaviors may impact your expectations of treatment but it can be a slow process given that some of the behaviors and beliefs you are addressing have existed since childhood.

  • The complete ACOA sourcebook: Adult children of alcoholics at home, at work and in love- Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D. (2002)
  • After the tears: Helping adult children of alcoholics heal their childhood trauma -  Jane Middleton-Moz, M.S. and Lorie Dwinell, M.S.W. (2010)
  • Toxic parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life - Susan Forward (2002)
  • Leaving home: The art of separating from your difficult family - David Celani (2011)
  • Loving an adult child of an alcoholic - Douglas Bey and Deborah Bey (2007)
  • Healing you emotional self: A powerful program to help raise your self-esteem, quiet your inner critic, and overcome your shame - Beverly Engel (2007)
  • Adult children: The secrets of dysfunctional families - John Friel and Linda Friel (1990)
  • Life skills for adult children - Janet Woititz and Alan Garner (1990)

Unhealthy Family Information