Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families

December 4, 2009

The phrase Adult Children was initially coined by people within the field of chemical dependency treatment.  Originally it was Adult Children of Alcoholics and an organization was formed with the same name.  However, within the field of chemical dependency, addiction, and mental health treatment the term has broadened to signify an adult who grew up in what is called a dysfunctional family.  The things that dysfunction a family are any type of addictive behavior (alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, food addiction, gambling addiction etc.), chronic mental illness, abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), neglect, abandonment as a result of death or divorce, codependency, poor boundaries, chronic physical illness or disability, or violence.  Basically any behaviors that shame a child and/or make them feel guilty.  Children at an early age are what are called egocentric meaning that they think the world revolves around them but not in an egoistical way.  An example would be a child who feels responsible for a parent’s drinking or death.  Such a child might think “if only I had been a good kid my daddy/mommy wouldn’t drink”.  Because of the child lacks the needed support and positive role models they do not successfully accomplish critical development tasks this leads to dysfunctional/irrational core beliefs and this then gives rise to certain core issues which make adult relationships nearly impossible.  These core beliefs and core issues also result in the individuals becoming more vulnerable to certain emotional, physical, and spiritual problems.

One of these core issues is control.  The individual who grew up in any type of dysfunctional home is prone to develop a fear of losing control.  Because the person has such a strong fear of losing control of their emotions, thoughts, feelings, actions, or in relationships they develop defense mechanisms such as denial or suppression to maintain control of their internal thoughts and emotions so that they can control their outward actions and emotions.  This makes maintaining healthy relationships extremely difficult because the Adult Child has to neither become so rigid and guarded in their behavior that they cannot be spontaneous nor have fun.  They also tend to overreact when things change for example changes in work related plans or family plans tend to cause angry outburst.

Another issue is trust.  The earliest developmental task of an individual is that of basic trust versus mistrust.  If the child does not have the necessary nurturing of a loving and caring parent or caregiver who is available both physically and emotionally it is difficult for them to develop trust.  Also being raised in the chaotic environment of a dysfunctional family causes the individual to even mistrust their own perceptions.  Since they can not trust people in relationships they are again overly vigilant and suspicious.

The third issue is the avoidance of feelings.  In a dysfunctional family a child’s expression of feelings are typically met with censure, disapproval, anger, and/or rejection.  Therefore they are taught at an early age to hide their feelings least they be criticized or belittled.  Hiding feelings leads to repressing, denying, or minimizing the feelings which in turn makes expression of true feelings in relationships impossible.

The fourth issue is over responsibility.  Children growing up in dysfunctional families are either overly responsible or overly irresponsible.  Adult Children come to believe that they are responsible for what is happening in their family.  They grow up believing that their actions cause another person’s emotions and actions.  Therefore they may become overly responsible in an effort to control the dysfunction or overly irresponsible because all of their efforts to control the dysfunction in the past have failed.

The fifth and most devastating issue is that they Adult Child ignore their own needs.  This maybe because their needs always to a back seat to the dysfunction or because their needs made them feel weak and vulnerable.  They may also feel that if someone else had met their needs then they would be forever indebted to that person.

According to the many twelve step programs in order for an individual who has become emotionally, physically, spiritually unhealthy as a result of growing up in some form of dysfunctional family the way to begin to heal is to become healthy spiritually and then the emotional and physical health will also improve.  So what are some things that a person might do to improve spiritually? The following are seven actions to help improve spirituality.

  1. Personal prayer and/or meditation – spend quiet time on a daily basis for personal renewal through some form of prayer and/or meditation.
  2. Spend time in some group activity – this can be a church, community, work group but this enhances the individual’s ability to develop relationships with other people.
  3. Expand your mind through learning – begin to spend some time learning through taking classes, book study group, self-help or mental health material, new skill or hobby.
  4. Take time for yourself – take a personal retreat to indulge yourself in some quiet time away from family and work to renew your spirit and recharge your batteries.
  5. Engage in regular physical fitness and eating a proper diet – it is helpful to take care of you.
  6. Have fun – engage in some activity just for the pure enjoyment, and make time to actively do this activity/or activities.
  7. Help others/be of service – do some volunteer work or engage in some acts of kindness.

Holiday Depression

December 4, 2009

At this time of year we hear all the stories of old-fashioned down-home Christmas times, wonderful family gatherings and celebrations.  It paints a picture of happiness, love, warm relationships, etc., just like a Norman Rockwell painting.  However, for some people that is not the memories they have of Christmas.  For these individual Christmas is a time of sadness and despair.  Their memories of Christmas are ones of disappointment, unfulfilled expectations, angry outbursts, fear and anxiety.  For other people Christmas mean loneliness, memories of lost loves and lost loved ones.  It is a time of grief and sorrow because they are all alone.  For others wintertime itself is a time of depression.

Research has shown that more people suffer from clinical depression during the holiday season than at another time of the year.  The month of December has the highest incidents of suicide and suicide attempts.

Depression during the Christmas season can be triggered by a number of factors, such as losses, failures, loneliness, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  Because everyone around seems to be so happy and joyous, reaching out to someone for help with depression is more awkward and remote.  For some people just the holiday itself is stressful enough to trigger depression because of the hustle and bustle and need to produce.  Death, separation, and divorce can leave people alone at Christmas.  People who have lost a loved one are particularly mindful of the loss at Christmas time.  Also during this time of economic instability the cost of Christmas and place a significant financial burden on already tight budgets.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of clinical depression that is linked with sunlight.  The decreased amount of sunlight during the winter months triggers this form of depression.  December has the least amount of sunlight in the year.  It is believed that the decreased sunlight causes chemical changes in the brain that make many people prone to depression.  Although all of us may be affected to some degree those individuals with SAD have a more pronounced reaction to the decreased sunlight.

Therefore as we go planning the holiday celebrations we need to be mindful of what others are experiencing.  If your holiday plans include someone who has sustained a loss during this past year be mindful of the fact that they may not be in the usually holiday mood.  If that loss has been a financial one look for more inexpensive ways to celebrate and focus more on the meaning of the season and less on spending.  This year more than others we should have as our main intent spending time with friends and family and not on spending money.  This would be a good time to reinstitute the tradition of inexpensive homemade gifts. 

For those who may be the ones experiencing one of these situations here are some things to help get through the season.

  1. Realize that this is only a temporary season it will soon be over.
  2. If necessary slow down from the hectic pace and take a much needed rest.
  3. Prepare yourself for those quirky relatives that you only see once a year and don’t let little jabs and sarcastic remarks, drunken or careless remarks make you miserable.
  4. Brighten the houselights.  SAD is a real illness and often can be overcome by increasing the light in your home and workplace. 
  5. Consult your doctor is your depression jeopardizes your daily activities.
  6. Budget your money wisely, don’t overspend just because others do.  Set a spending limit and stick to it.
  7. Drop the need to be perfect.  Your meals don’t have to live up to Paula Deen’s standards and your house does not have to look like it belongs on the pages of Martha Stewart’s Living magazine.  Remember Christmas is meant to be a time of sharing Christ’s love with others not competing with them.


To help someone with depression encourage them to seek treatment and also encourage them to stay in treatment until the symptoms lessen or to seek different treatment if no improvement occurs.  Don’t accuse the person of being lazy, faking illness, or expect them to “just snap out of it”.  DO NOT ignore remarks about suicide.  Remember to report suicidal thoughts to the depressed person’s therapist or doctor.

Some additional ways of coping with Christmas depression:

  1. Stay active – getting enough exercise, oxygen, and fresh air and sunshine may help lift the holiday blues.  Surviving holiday depression is easier if you are active and breathe deeply.
  2. Start new traditions – if this is your first season without a lost someone let yourself grieve naturally.  Starting new traditions, instead of engaging in old traditions that may be to painful at this time, is a good way to lift your spirits.
  3. Be aware of your family’s dynamics – you may not be able to change them but by being aware of what situations maybe triggers to your depression and then avoiding those if possible.  Also you may want to consider limiting your time with certain family or friends who have a negative effect on your emotions.

Remember that a good therapist can help you learn to set healthy holiday boundaries while coping with the negative aspects of Christmas depression.  It is better to get help instead of waiting until the depression has spiraled completely out of control.