Tag Archives: Dysfunctional Family

Family Systems Theory And The Family Scapegoat

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FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY :

FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY was developed by the American psychiatrist, Murray Bowen (1913-1990). The theory proposes that :

a) The family acts as a highly complex system

b) This system is made up of family members who are emotionally intertwined

c) The ‘units’ of the system (i.e. the emotionally intertwined family members) interact in highly complex ways

d) Family members, through emotional interaction, affect each other’s thoughts, behaviors and emotional states (though are often unaware of the degree to which this process is taking place)

e) Some family members are more emotionally interconnected than others, but all are emotionally interconnected to some extent.

THE EFFECTS OF ANXIETY PERMEATING THE FAMILY SYSTEM :

When one or more of the family members become anxious, the anxiety becomes ‘contagious’ and ‘infects’ other members of the family. As the level of anxiety increases, so, too, do the emotional interactions between family members become correspondingly, increasingly stressful.

Eventually, a particular family member (the most sensitive and vulnerable) starts to absorb the majority of the anxiety produced by the family system which puts this person at risk of developing various forms of mental illness including depression and anxiety disorders. In this way, this individual acts as a kind of ‘container’ or ‘vessel’ into which the lion’s share of the stress and anxiety generated by the entire family system is poured ; this process, in turn, can result in him/her becoming the ‘family symptom bearer‘ and/or ‘family scapegoat’ (see related article recommendations below).

I provide an example of how this can play out below :

Let’s take a hypothetical family consisting of four members : mother, father, oldest son (age 16), and youngest son (age 14). Now, let’s imagine the following scenario :

The family functions relatively well until the parental marriage comes under strain. The stress and anxiety generated by this marital friction permeates the whole family.

In response to the increased anxiety in the family home, the father spends much more time at the office, becoming a workaholic; the mother, to distract herself and bolster her self-esteem and self-image, throws herself into charity work and religious activities; the oldest brother cuts off from the family, spending his time in his bedroom listening to music or doing homework (when he is not bullying his younger brother); the youngest son responds by getting drunk, taking drugs, getting into fights and becoming involved in petty crime.

The family then identify the youngest son as being at the root of the family problems and decide they should all attend family therapy sessions.

However, the family therapist points out that the youngest son is NOT, in fact, the source of the family’s problems, and that therapy can only work if all family members face up to their own specific problems.

However, the father, mother and older brother do not wish to entertain the idea that they might have anything to do with the way in which the family has become dysfunctional, insisting, instead, that it is the youngest son who needs to be ‘fixed’, certainly not any of them!

Having made their feelings on the matter abundantly clear, the family then terminates the family therapy. Permanently.

Because the family is still convinced that the youngest son is, as it were, ‘the root of all evil’, the family pack him off to a psychiatric hospital for a couple of months.

Due to the fact that the youngest son is now away from the malign influence of the family atmosphere (rather than due to any treatment the hospital attempts to provide proactively) the youngest son’s psychological condition improves considerably. Eventually, therefore, his family (magnanimously, in their own grossly distorted and self-serving view) grant him permission to return home.

However, when the son does return home, because the other family members have failed to acknowledge, let alone address, their own issues, the youngest son’s psychological condition deteriorates again and things go from bad to worse…

In other words, it is the system as a whole that needs to be ‘repaired’, not just one part of it (i.e. the family member displaying the most inconvenient, and least socially acceptable, symptoms / psychological defenses).

 

You may like to read two related articles from this site (see immediately below) :

 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Dysfunctional Families: Types And Effects

 

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A dysfunctional family is one that has at its core destructive and harmful parenting and a lack of concern for the child. The harmful effects on the child may go completely unacknowledged or be minimized. Often, little or nothing is done to rectify the situation nor to alleviate its adverse effects upon the child.

If the distress caused to the child is severe and long-lasting s/he may develop a psychiatric condition such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which, if not properly treated, may seriously adversely affect the rest of his/her life.

images68 - Dysfunctional Families: Types And Effects

 

Above: Family members are often unconsciously assigned particular roles.

Types Of Dysfunctional Family :

1) A family in which the mother and/or father are addicted to drugs or alcohol (or who have another psychological addiction).

This may lead to the parent passing out, going missing for extended periods of time, behaving unpredictably, getting out of control or causing the family severe financial hardship.

Children who grow up in such families tend to grow up into distrustful adults who see others as being essentially unreliable.

2) A family in which violence and volatility predominates. Children from such families are at risk of becoming violent and volatile themselves, not least as a result of learned behavior.

3) A family in which the child is forcibly removed from the parents’ care (eg due to bring taken into care or being sentenced to a period of juvenile detention).

4) A family in which the child is used as a ‘pawn’ (eg divorcing parents each trying to turn the child against the other parent). This may include speaking ill of the other parent, limiting the child’s contact with the other parent, preventing the child from seeing the other parent at all or coercing them into rejecting a parent when this is not in the child’s interest.

5) A family in which a parent has a mental illness that adversely impinges upon the child’s own emotional development

6) A family in which the child is overly controlled and a parent makes excessive use of their power.

Apart from the adverse effects upon the child already mentioned, children brought up in such dysfunctional families are also at risk of developing many other problems and difficulties, including depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational self-blame and self-hatred, alcohol and/or drug dependency, an impaired, or even ruined, ability to both give and receive love.

Furthermore, the child may become rebellious and start to behave in anti-social ways eg. getting into fights, vandalizing property, indulging in petty theft,  committing arson, bullying others, dropping out of school.

They may also start behaving self-destructively, self-harm, develop life-long problems with interpersonal relationships, have an elevated risk of attempting suicide as well as lower life expectancy. Also, if they become parents themselves, they may develop their own parenting problems, thus perpetuating the dysfunctional family cycle.

Dysfunctional families which lead to the child having to take on the role of carer (eg before I was a teenager I cared for my mentally unstable mother after the divorce of my parents) can put the child under extreme stress as s/he does not have the emotional maturity to cope. Such children, in effect, have their childhoods ‘stolen’ from them. For more on this, see my article about parentification‘.

Children may also attempt to cope with the enormous stress of growing up in a dysfunctional family by becoming withdrawn.

Compounding this problem, very sadly, they may become the victims of bullies at school due to their vulnerability.

As a result of this, they may grow up to be ‘loners.’

Some children who grow up in abusive households may be at higher risk than average of becoming abusive themselves as adults without the intervention of effective therapy.

 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Did Your Dysfunctional Family Make You The ‘Identified Patient’?

 

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It has been theorized (originally in the 1950s) that in many dysfunctional families an individual within the family is, largely unconsciously, assigned the role of the ‘identified patient’.

Essentially, this process comes about as a result of the dysfunctional family projecting (projection is a psychological defence mechanism by which people avoid facing up to their own unwanted feelings, such as aggressive impulses, by displacing and seeing them in others) onto a family scapegoat.

Another example of projection would be a very selfish person who constantly accuses others of being selfish and, indeed, sees selfishness in others everywhere s/he looks; in this way it is a type of blame-shifting – displacing their own psychological difficulties onto one specific family member, who, as a result, becomes the family scapegoat, diverting attention from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems.

Often, the identified patient is unconsciously selected as s/he is the most vulnerable, weakest and sensitive member of the family (often the youngest, as in my own case).

 

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If we were made to be the identified patient in our family, our family may have:

– constantly belittled, undermined, ridiculed, humiliated and vindictively teased us

– made us feel inferior and of little or no worth

– made us feel like the family outsider, disconnected from its other members and unacceptable to them, excluded and ‘kept at a distance’

– made us feel that we were an ‘intrinsically bad’ person

– showed little or no interest in us

– labelled us a ‘problem child’ and/or ‘trouble maker, ‘ responsible for all the family’s ills.’

– over-emphasized our faults whilst, simultaneously, ignoring or minimizing our strengths, qualities and accomplishments.

As our family will have a vested interest in continuing to keep us in our role of identified patient (namely to prevent them from having to face up to their own failings and contributions to the family’s dysfunction), they will go to great lengths in order to do so. In fact, if we, the identified patient start to recover,  they may be unconsciously driven to prevent this recovery, and thus, by such means, maintain the family’s status quo.

Externalization:

It is likely that, in such families, the identified patient has been psychologically abused by some, or all, other members of the dysfunctional family and that any problematic behaviours s/he does display are, in fact, externalizing behaviours brought on by the family’s mistreatment of him/her.

Indeed, one school of thought has been of the view that in families in which an identified patient has been unconsciously designated, it is not the identified patient who is ‘mad’; on the contrary – it is the other family members. In relation to this view, R.D. Laing put forward the notion that such families suffered from ‘a distorted and disturbing pattern of communications.’

It follows from this that therapy, in cases where an identified patient seems to have been selected, should involve ALL family members.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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