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Six Tips on How to Overcome Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family


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Relationships with our parents as adult children can be, well.. complicated. While complex family dynamics will often work their way out, some of us are left wondering how to handle difficult relationships and dysfunctional family dynamics with loved ones and what is really expected of us as adults. Whether these breaks in relationships stem from childhood or more current events, it can be confusing to navigate. Whatever it is, just know that you deserve to feel heard and respected by all, including family members


The Family Unit: The Ties That Bind...and Gag


Family. The very word can evoke a spectrum of emotions, from the warm fuzzies to a deep-seated urge to book the next flight to Timbuktu. For some, family life is like that cozy, slightly worn sweater that fits perfectly. For others, it’s more like a scratchy woolen tunic that you’re forced to wear at every family gathering and boy can this scratchy wool not only be irritating but painful as well.

Difficult and dysfunctional family dynamics and complex relationships with parents aren’t just plotlines for blockbuster movies or the stuff of dramatic novels; they’re real and present in many people’s lives. Sometimes, these family relationships are strained by communication breakdowns, unrealistic expectations, dysfunctional family patterns or unresolved childhood issues that we carry into our adult lives like invisible backpacks filled with bricks.


Understanding the Impact of a Dysfunctional Family on Mental Health:


Growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave lasting scars on mental health. The constant exposure to conflict, poor communication, harmful patterns and instability creates a breeding ground for anxiety and depression. For many individuals, these feelings become a familiar companion, a constant weight that they carry with them throughout their lives.


Moreover, the lack of emotional validation and support within dysfunctional families can cause low self esteem, negative self talk, emotional turmoil, and lack of confidence. Criticism, neglect, or emotional abuse can leave individuals feeling unworthy, unlovable, and at times like the black sheep of the family. As a result, many individuals when they become adults may struggle to form healthy relationships, as well being plagued by deep-seated trust issues and a fear of vulnerability.


In the absence of healthy coping mechanisms, individuals from dysfunctional families may turn to destructive behaviors like alcohol abuse or self-harm to numb their pain. Furthermore, the interpersonal struggles learned in dysfunctional households can manifest in familiar patterns modeled to them in childhood and difficulties navigating relationships in adulthood, perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction.


Indicators of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family:


Looking back, there are often subtle signs that something wasn't quite right in our family dynamics. The lack of emotional support, emotional intimacy, lack of unconditional love, the chaos of a constantly shifting household, and the role reversal and feeling of being forced into adult roles at a young age—all of these experiences leave their mark.


In dysfunctional families, emotional needs of children are often overlooked or dismissed, leaving individuals feeling unseen and unheard. The unpredictable nature of the household creates an atmosphere of tension and unease, where conflict is never far from the surface. Many millennials find themselves thrust into adult roles before they're ready, forced to take on responsibilities that should have been shouldered by their parents.


Moreover, dysfunctional families often have unspoken rules or taboos surrounding certain topics or behaviors, leading to a culture of secrecy and shame. This secrecy only serves to deepen the sense of isolation and alienation within the family that many individuals feel.



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Recognizing Signs of Family Dysfunction and Trauma:


Identifying the signs of family and relational trauma is the first step towards healing. Many individuals may carry invisible wounds from their upbringing, silently struggling to make sense of their experiences. Persistent feelings of guilt or shame often linger, even when there is no rational basis for them. Individuals may find it challenging to set boundaries, feeling guilty for prioritizing their own needs.

Moreover, patterns learned in dysfunctional families can manifest in relationships, with individuals repeatedly drawn to partners or friends who exhibit similar dysfunctional behaviors. Emotional detachment may become a coping mechanism, a way to protect oneself from further pain. Avoidance of family gatherings or triggering situations may also indicate unresolved dysfunctional family dynamics or trauma, as individuals seek to shield themselves from past hurts.


Six Tips On How To Deal With A Dysfunctional Family and Begin Healing:


1. Identify Your Own Unhealthy Patterns To Communicate More Effectively


One of the biggest hurdles in any relationship is communication, or often, the lack thereof. It’s like everyone is speaking their own dialect of an emotional language, and nobody thought to bring a translator. Misunderstandings between family members can escalate into arguments, and before you know it, you're in World War III over who forgot to refill the ice tray.


In many toxic families, emotions are either suppressed or expressed in unhealthy ways, such as explosive outbursts or passive-aggressive behavior. Learning healthy communication skills empowers individuals to express their own emotions, in a safe and constructive manner. This includes learning to identify and label emotions, communicate needs and boundaries assertively, and actively listen to others without judgment.


But here’s the kicker: learning to communicate effectively with family, especially parents, can be akin to learning a new language as an adult. It’s challenging but not impossible. Active listening, expressing yourself clearly and respectfully, and setting healthy boundaries are key phrases in this new language


2. Set Healthy Boundaries With Your Family Members


Boundaries. The word itself can conjure images of walls and barriers, but in the context of family dynamics, think of them more as buoys that keep you afloat. They mark the safe waters of personal space and respect.


Establishing clear boundaries with family is crucial but can feel like you’re navigating a minefield. It’s about finding that delicate balance between maintaining your autonomy and not triggering a defensive explosion. Remember, setting boundaries is not an act of rebellion but a declaration of self-respect and a step towards healthier relationships for everyone involved.


Learning to assert personal needs and healthy boundaries is essential for healing from family and domestic violence and trauma. Individuals must learn to prioritize their own well-being and communicate their needs effectively in relationships.


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3. Learn The Art of Letting Go and Holding On


In the intricate navigation of healthy family dynamics and relationships, knowing when to hold on and when to let go is pivotal. It’s about taking responsibility for discerning which relationships can be mended with time and effort and which are toxic tethers, holding you back from personal growth and happiness.


Letting go doesn’t always mean cutting ties completely with toxic parents; sometimes, it’s about adjusting your expectations and accepting that your relationship with certain family members may not be the ideal you hoped for. It’s a process of grieving the relationship you wanted and embracing the one you have, with all its imperfections.


4. Cultivate Supportive Relationships and Craft Your Own Family Tapestry


Family isn’t just about blood relations; it’s also about those within the family unit we choose. Creating a support system of friends, mentors, and chosen family can provide the emotional support and understanding that might be lacking in your biological or family of origin either. This tapestry of relationships can enrich your life in ways you never expected, offering different perspectives and unconditional acceptance.


Surrounding oneself with supportive friends, mentors, or support groups can provide validation, encouragement, and perspective during the healing journey. Connecting with others who have experienced similar struggles can help individuals feel less alone in their experiences.


5. Practice Self Compassion and Self Care


Embarking on the path to healing from family trauma is a courageous act of self-discovery and resilience. By understanding the impact of family dysfunction, recognizing signs of family trauma, and implementing actionable steps towards healing, individual can make a positive change and can reclaim their narratives and cultivate lives filled with strength, resilience, and hope.


Healing from family trauma is a journey, not a destination. It's important for individuals to be gentle and understanding towards themselves, acknowledging the validity of their experiences and giving themselves permission to feel their emotions without judgment.



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6. Unpack the Emotional Suitcase with a Mental Health Professional


Many of us are traveling through life with emotional baggage we’ve packed since childhood. These suitcases are filled with memories, traumas, and learned behaviors that influence how we interact with our parents and family members.


Unpacking this is no small feat. It requires patience, self reflection, and often, professional help. Therapy can be a valuable tool in understanding the roots of the dysfunctional patterns and learning healthier ways to relate to one another. It’s about giving yourself permission to go through each item in that suitcase, understand it, and decide whether it’s something you want to carry forward or leave behind.

Professional support can help you feel safe to explore past experiences and develop coping strategies. A qualified therapist can help individuals untangle the complex web of emotions core beliefs that accompany family trauma and mental illness, providing guidance and support along the way.


If you're ready to start healing


If you're ready to take the next step on your healing journey and seek support in navigating the complexities of overcoming family trauma, I encourage you to reach out to Living Openhearted Therapy Wellness. Our team of compassionate therapists specializes in providing personalized support and guidance to individuals who are seeking to break free from the patterns of dysfunction and create a life filled with resilience, authenticity, and joy.


Together, we can embark on a journey of self-discovery, healing, and empowerment.

Take the step toward a more fulfilling and authentic life – Reach out to Living Openhearted Therapy and Wellness to book a free consultation and learn more about therapy for adults.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Maegan Jones, LCSW, ASW is a licensed clinical social worker in Puerto Rico and an associate social worker in California. She specializes in adults navigating difficult family dynamics, anxiety, relationship problems, and ADHD.  


***The ideas, concepts, and opinions expressed in all Living Openhearted posts are intended to be used for educational purposes only. The author and publisher are not rendering medical or mental health advice of any kind, nor are intended to replace medical advice, nor to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any disease, condition, illness, or injury. Authors and publisher claim no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or damage as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material.


***If your are experiencing a mental health emergency you can call the National Suicide and Crisis Line at 988 or take them to the nearest emergency room.

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