Our family constitutes our entire reality as a child. It teaches us who we are and how we are supposed to interact with the world. Good families give us the skills and encouragement to interact successfully with the world and other people. They teach us to lead a successful life. Toxic families teach us survival skills that may or may not translate into leading a successful life. Because of this, many abused people make self-defeating choices like believing they can’t trust anybody, that they aren’t worthy of being loved, or that they will never amount to anything. They are programmed to conform to the dysfunctional behaviors of the family. People from abusive families are taught that to be different is bad—they must conform and obey the rules of the family at all costs. To be different is to be a traitor—and being a traitor or turning on the family is high treason in abusive families.
Many families take on role-playing to perpetuate the family system. For instance, if Dad’s role was to drink, Mom’s role was to be codependent, and the children’s roles were then to be the parents in the home. Children from dysfunctional homes often take on specific roles in the family.
Here are some common roles (my three siblings and I fit into these roles pretty clearly):[i]
The Rebel gets into trouble and is known as the “bad boy” or “bad girl.” Their behavior often warrants attention, distracting everyone from the real issues at home. They are also known as the “scapegoat.” They are ashamed of their family life and often the first to get into “recovery.”
The Mascot/Clown uses comedy to ease tension and calm explosive situations. The humor helps a family in pain but is a temporary balm. This child is kind and goodhearted but never seems to grow up.
The Good Girl (or Boy) or Golden Child is dutiful and respectable. They get good grades, don’t make waves, and are often a confidante of a parent. They are fixers of the family but never get their needs met. They can be rigid, judgmental, and controlling. They are very self-sufficient and usually very successful in life but lack emotional intimacy.
The Lost Child becomes invisible. They stay out of the house by escaping into activities, friendships, or sports. They escape from reality but are generally very sad and angry, which they deny and avoid.
How Toxic Parents Cope
Toxic parents react to threats to their balance by acting out their fears and frustrations, with little thought for the consequences to their children. Here are some common coping mechanisms:
- Denial—Denial that anything is wrong or that it will never happen again. Relabeling is also denial—an alcoholic becomes a “social drinker.”
- Projection—Abusive parents frequently accuse their children of the very inadequacies they suffer from.
- Sabotage—In dysfunctional homes, other family members assume the roles of rescuers and caretakers. If any family member begins to change or get healthy, it threatens the balance of the home, and the other members may unconsciously sabotage their chances of success so that things get back to normal.
- Triangling—One toxic parent may enlist a child as a confidant or ally against the other parent. The child is pressured to choose sides and becomes an emotional dumping ground for their parent’s discomfort.
- Keeping Secrets—This turns families into private clubs. Children who hide abuse by saying she “fell down the stairs” are protecting the club from outside interference.[ii]
Parents are godlike in their positions in the home. They provide sustenance and shelter, make rules, and dole out pain, whether it’s justified or not. Without parents, children instinctively know they would be unprotected, unfed, and unhoused. They would be in a constant state of terror, unable to survive alone.[iii]
Abusive homes tend to have common characteristics, including the appearance of normalcy, emotional isolation, secrecy, neediness, stress, and lack of respect.
All children have certain rights. They have the right to have basic needs met, such as being fed, clothed, sheltered, and protected. They also have the right to be nurtured emotionally, the right to make mistakes, and the right to be disciplined without being physically or emotionally abused. Unfortunately, these rights are seldom honored in abusive homes.
However, most people (especially abused ones who crave parental nurturing) still have a need to deify their parents—no matter how bad they were. Many victimized people still believe their parent’s behavior was justified: “I guess I probably deserved it” or “Sure I was beaten, but I turned out okay.” Abusive parents have a propensity to deny that any abuse happened or they justify it. Just because inadequate parents “didn’t mean it,” doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt and cause harm. Intentionality is not a prerequisite of abuse. We hear people excuse these parents by saying things like, “they didn’t mean to do any harm” or “they did the best they could.” Too often inadequate parents expect their children to somehow take care of them and meet their needs—tasks children are not capable of fulfilling. I truly didn’t believe that many of the behaviors my parents exhibited were abusive until enough counselors and friends pointed it out or asked if I would ever treat my children that way.
Since many of us either deny we were abused or justify our parent’s behavior, we will look at some specific types of abuse in upcoming posts. It’s hard to break a behavior (and heal a wound) if we are not aware of it or refuse to acknowledge it.
[i]Lisa A. Miles, “Early Wounding & Dysfunctional Family Roles,” World of Psychology, PsycheCentral, August 8, 2013, http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/08/10/early-wounding-dysfunctional-family-roles/.
[ii] Forward with Buck, Toxic Parents, 169–70.
Excerpted from Rick’s newest book, Overcoming Toxic Parenting: How to be a good parent when yours wasn’t, by Revell Publishing. To find out more or to get a signed copy, click here.