How Children Cope With Family Dysfunction
Through Connection, Creativity, and Control
The Silent Observer
I remember being curled up in the darkest corner of the dining room. Knees pressed as tightly to my eyes as possible to prevent the tears from spilling out. Fear rising from my belly and flushing my cheeks. I pushed it back down, as far down as I could, so the terrified sobs remained unvocalized and unobserved.
They were fighting again.
Before their divorce, my parents seemed to have nightly fights in the kitchen while I silently eavesdropped in the adjacent dining room. They didn’t know I was there, and I couldn’t tear myself away from listening to their arguments. So instead, I stayed, tracing the brown and white pattern on the carpet with my tiny pointer finger, hoping to hear that they still loved each other. But, unfortunately, I don’t remember ever getting that resolved.
My mother would yell at my father as he blankly stared back through her. He would rock back and forth on his heels with his arms crossed over his chest, protecting his already fragile heart. My mother, starved for love herself, would get so agitated she would shake and shout in what I could only discern as her best effort to be seen and heard. The shouting felt caustic against my baby skin. It sank into me. No, absorbed through me. I sat there frozen, unable to move for fear their anger would turn on me.
Caregivers show their children how the world works by modeling, mirroring, attuning, and communicating. Children learn less by what they are told and more by what they see. I saw two adults who seemed to yell at and give up on each other. When there is a problem, I observed that you either scream about it until you get your way or shut down and withdraw. Parents can be excellent at using their words as they try to explain and teach their children the ways of the world. Unfortunately, words only go so far if actions speak differently.
Children Connect Through Dysfunction
Children are naturally and appropriately ego-centric. Everything relates back to them. Thus, when a parent(s) responds inconsistently and/or disproportionately, the child believes they are at fault for their parent’s outbursts or silent treatment. A young child is incapable of seeing their parent as a separate entity and therefore responsible for their actions. The child will blame themselves because they see their parents as an extension of them. In dysfunctional families, the parent(s) who abuse, neglect, or exploit their child(ren) rarely take responsibility for their actions, let alone apologize for causing hurt, pain, or confusion. To do so would be to acknowledge their wrong-doing and the need for change that, for their reasons, feels impossible or not even in their awareness.
As an only child, I couldn’t bear upsetting my parents or feeling they disapproved of me. I kept so much of their pain inside my growing body. I tried my hardest to make my dad happy so he would show my mom the love she craved; so her voice would settle back into the calm lullaby, it once was, instead of the scathing and tangled inflections it had become. Children depend on their parents to teach them about how relationships work. I learned, quietly and unknowingly, that I was alone and responsible for making others happy.
In an effort to make their world a safer and happier place to be, children will join in the dysfunction and become a part of the dynamic to maintain homeostasis of the family environment. An amalgamation of the child’s personality, temperament, birth order, and inner wisdom on how to blend with their family and what caregivers reinforced or punished create the role in which the child fits most comfortably. Children use this role to connect with their caregiver(s). If a parent is emotionally enmeshed with their child, the child fills the role of taking responsibility for their parent and learns to reduce or eliminate their needs to comfort their caregiver. Conversely, if a parent is physically abusive to the oldest child and their siblings, the oldest child may fulfill the role of protector of their younger siblings and become the family punching bag.
Relational roles are both a saving grace and a burden for the developing child. For most children, having a role feels like a safe road map to navigate their family system. Roles serve as a set of relationship rules to follow that lead to a predictable outcome. Children are highly attuned to their parents’ emotions and energy. Therefore, they can notice subtleties prior to an outburst of aggression or a shut-down/cut-off of love from their caregiver. To successfully fulfill a role, one must forfeit their right to self-determination and rising to their full potential in an effort to act out what others want from them. This is largely subconscious, and children are not typically aware they are involved in such a complicated connection. They are just trying to survive.
Children Creatively Fantasize About the Life They Want
Children have magnificent ways of coping with challenging environments. Often, they use their imagination and power of magical thinking to whisk them away to a fantasy land that they feel is safe and unencumbered. Before their brain has a chance to fully develop, their uncanny ability to pretend their life is different often saves them from cruel, unjust, violent, or severed worlds. I remember being able to do this in the snap of my fingers until the age of eight, when my parents finally divorced, and I entered another stage of development.
My parents, windswept and collapsed in their own pain, rarely acknowledged, let alone helped me process, what I saw between them or how I felt. I was left to do this on my own. Creating a fortress of stuffed animals and dollies, I covered my small body in the soft squishy love of inanimate objects. With closed eyes and my thumb pressing the roof of my mouth, I would enter a fantasy land whereby roles were reversed, and I was the parent – my actual parents, now the children. In my syrupy sweet fantasy, I would take care of them, bathe them, soothe them, feed them, play with them, give them everything they wanted and needed.
Children Deal With Their Family Dysfunction by Exerting Control Because They Feel Helpless
My way of self-soothing was to take control, even if in fantasy land. It didn’t take long before I figured out how to control my parent’s emotions. I knew how to perform just right for my dad, so he would smile and pay attention to me. I predicted the moments my mom would be upset, and I would distract her by asking her to read me a book (she loved this) or throwing an epic tantrum. I felt powerful, a stark contrast to the helplessness I felt when I listened to their nightly fights.
The power came at a price. The cost? Connection to myself. I suppose it was my little kid’s version of selling my soul. I learned how to make others love me by being someone they wanted to love, not who I actually was. People-pleasing became second nature as I fine-tuned the craft of anticipating others’ emotions and subsequent behavior. I developed the skill of hyper-attunement to others’ moods, using my body as an antenna to pick up possible danger. Looking back now, I see a sweet little girl trying to navigate her treacherous world the only way she could manage.
Four Survival Pathways Children Use to Control Their Family Dynamic
|People-pleasing (fawning)||People-pleasing is the most socially acceptable form of a survival response. It is the most relationally secure and offers the least negative short-term consequence of the four strategies. If a child is successful in charming his or her caregivers, it keeps them engaged in the relationship and prevents the caregiver from getting angry – sometimes. Often the child will forfeit their needs and connection with themselves to offer soothing or pleasure that the caregiver cannot get from themselves or the other adults in their life. |
|Hide and try to be invisible (freeze)||The freeze response is akin to “play dead” in the wild. The child, scared for their physical and emotional survival, learns to remain unseen and unheard. As if they were a magician, children who “freeze” have a remarkable ability to disappear without a trace. Being alone feels safer, and thus they retreat to their room or a small, hidden corner of their living quarters. If they have to be around others, especially those who have been abusive or neglectful, they will dissociate from reality and retreat into their own world of fantasy or darkness.|
|Aggression (fight)||Children who adopt the “fight” response are labeled as difficult, problem child, or obstinate. Children who utilize aggression try to protect themselves from further pain by being inflexible, immovable, physically combative, and/or a bully to others. Yet, underneath the tough persona lies an incredibly hurt and distressed young one.|
|Becoming anxious, overly distracted, and/or hyperactive (flight)||Children with a flight response appear “busy” or ultra-productive. They distract away from their home life through extracurricular activities, school, or friends. When threatened, these children become dysregulated, which can look like hyperactivity, joking and humor, “silliness,” watching screens, or reading books beyond what would be developmentally appropriate. They may also take on tasks at home that require their full attention and presence, therefore excusing them from familial interaction.|
My story of parental neglect and how I compensated for their lack of attunement is not uncommon. Many children experience the loss of connection with their caregivers because of various reasons, some of which are circumstantial and unintended. In an effort to cope with poor attachment, children create their own brilliant way of surviving their world. Not only are children challenged with the task of performing past their developmental capabilities in childhood, but they are also in charge of becoming a functional adult; no easy task when you come from an abusive or neglectful home life. Often the survival strategies one used as a child follow them into adulthood, but with much less success. The fantasies fade, their control strategy now pushes others away or damages the adult’s well-being, and they now go back to addressing what was unaddressed throughout their formative years.
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