No family is perfect. Disagreements, miscommunication and emotional reactivity are all natural and normal elements of family functioning. While healthy family functioning can facilitate growth for all members by providing both practical and emotional support, unhealthy family traits can contribute to isolation, sadness, stunted personal development, or a lack of self-esteem and self-efficacy among members. How do you know if negative interactions in your family have reached a dysfunctional level?
The five traits:
- Family members threaten each other physically or verbally. Is criticism a feature of communication in your family? Has anyone ever threatened or exhibited physical violence? If any form of violence has become typical of family exchanges, the family dynamic has become unsafe and unhealthy.
- One or more members of your family withdraw from family life. Can emotions be expressed in your family? Does your family turn towards or away from each other in times of need? Withdrawal can be an important signal that your family member – and, by extension, your family – is struggling.
- One or more members of your family exhibit extreme emotions. The family context does not soothe sadness, fear, or anger. While emotional reactivity is normal to a degree, when it cannot be soothed or contained within a family, it can suggest that emotional needs are not being met.
- A child or adolescent member of your family acts out (at home or at school). Acting out can be a reaction to and a symptom of internalized family stress. It can indicate that the child or adolescent is having difficulty coping with and making sense of the distress they are experiencing as a result of family tension.
- There are no boundaries between parents and children or there are alliances between family members that function to exclude other family members. A lack of boundaries between parent and child can lead to a child feeling insecure and distressed. In contrast, when boundaries are too strong leading to a dynamic of ‘us against them,’ feelings of anger, rejection, and sadness can emerge.
If you notice any of these traits in your family, keep the following in mind:
- Negative patterns in a family can develop unintentionally. These patterns can be interrupted and changed once they are acknowledged.
- Families can get stuck in negative patterns of interaction because that’s the way that the family has learned to function. It often isn’t until one or more family members begin to exhibit negative emotional or behavioural symptoms that the family dynamic becomes dysfunctional.
There are many reasons for family dysfunction to arise such as the transition to adolescence, or unexpected stressors like job loss or divorce. Strong families can foster resilience, and family therapy can help your family build tools to communicate effectively, to understand one another better, to foster a positive and safe emotional environment, to help delineate clear and healthy boundaries between family members, and to learn to recognize and interrupt negative dynamics before they become destructive.
By Alexa Leon, MSW, MSc(A), Marital and Family Therapist, Montréal Therapy Centre