Welcome to this week’s blog on families, and the power they have to be amazing or amazingly difficult in one’s life! I’m grateful for the people I spoke while writing this blog and their insights into their own experiences. Navigating both my personal and my professional observations was an eye opener and here is what came up from the last few weeks of interviews and research.

The journey starts at birth…

For all of us, we are born into a family. If we are lucky, our happy parents loved each other, wanted us, and were prepared emotionally, physically, financially etc for our great arrival. Unfortunately, in my experience that’s often a minority of the cases. For a lot of us, we were born to parents who had no idea about life, may already have known they didn’t love each other or were riddled with mental health issues and therefore, we just became an extra stress to their already complicated lives.

My amazing daughter Julianna, also a therapist specialised in child and youth mental health, often talks to me about the importance of attachment which I spoke about in my blog previously (for a recap click here). To save repeating the same old info, here is a picture that sums it well:

So based on attachment theory, if we were born to parents who couldn’t meet our emotional needs, we may develop relational patterns as per the above. The cure? Parents who have enough insight to either get their crap together at some point or are able to apologise and do repair work with their children. In short, attachment can be improved in supportive families who accept their share of mistakes, and that includes me, who made more mistakes as a parent than anyone else.

Emotional intelligence and communication patterns

I was speaking to a relative a couple of months ago and she said that our family was “emotionally stunted”. I reflected on the wording and honestly, she was completely correct. But what makes a family helpful or unhelpful when it comes to the above? Examples include being able to communicate respectfully, a lack of defensiveness, a lack controlling behaviours, or thinking one side is always right. We all make mistakes and we all could improve, however when a family or family member is convinced that there is only one truth, which of course they hold, one should start worrying.

Cult mentality

I grew up, for today’s standards, in a dysfunctional family, and based on the patients that I see on a regular basis, I’m not the only one. I recall being sat at the dinner table so the whole family could call me names (generally the names of other relatives they deemed “unworthy”) and all taking turns until I had no choice but to comply/agree. This could have been complying about the fact that only they were right, that I agreed I should reject set relatives outside the immediate cult, that everything was for my own good, or that my behaviours post various traumas were my fault since my sibling seemed to “cope quite well” with the life we lived.

It’s ironic that as a result, my sibling and I spent our childhood (and our adulthood) in direct competition, scoring brownie points by stabbing the other. What can I say? If families reward that type of behaviour, kids are going to engage in it.

The biggest concern when it comes to the cult mentality in dysfunctional families, and there is a large number of research on the topic (here are some easy reads to get you up to speed Cult mentality in families, Family or cult, family dysfunctions in a cult like setting) is while members are in it, they do not see how damaging it might be, as this is the only reality they know. However, the second they enter the real world, they’re in for a rude awakening and that’s when the cookie crumbles.

Examples of cult mentality in families:

  • They are always right and almost never apologise or admit fault
  • They have limited social circles and limit friends to a short amount – and these are almost individuals who won’t challenge the “cult”, or they’re quickly shafted out
  • There’s an expectation that all events (birthdays, Christmas’, anniversaries, weddings etc.) will be dedicated to the “clan” and family members generally have no in laws or difficult relationships with them
  • They encourage a high level of mistrust from a very young age, and definitely expect no trust be given outside the family unit
  • They demand all new members pass some subjective test and that they fledge loyalty to the leaders of the family. If new members aren’t willing to comply, or simply have different values etc, they will not be accepted
  • No one can join the family group unless they quickly adopt their ways/culture/beliefs which generally leads to them withdrawing from their own families
  • There’s always a scapegoat or someone in the “bad” books. The family cult struggles being happy with everyone at the same time and it’s a constant revolving door of who’s turn might be next, with everyone joining in the merry-go-around
  • The ultimate decision is left to the stronger members of the family, with the rest either too weak, too brainwashed, or too blind to speak up
  • Challenging the ultimate authority of the family leads to consequences, generally being treated as social outcast or belittled until they cave into the pressure and see the “light” again
  • All confidentiality is void. Members are not entitled to privacy and personal opinions since the cult is the only one who “knows” right from wrong. Considering there is a belief that all is done for “your own good”, boundaries are generally pretty dismal
  • Professional support is avoided, in fear of “skeletons” coming out of the closets. When “secrets” are shared to the outside world, consequences soon follow
  • Genuine, rigid and immovable belief that there is only one way and that’s “in” the family unit while sharing their beliefs
  • They go from extreme closeness to extreme distance in short amount of time with punishment or rewards at the key

Member ‘roles’

Family members generally hold a role in the dysfunction. Here is a summary of positions in the group you may identify with:

1- The family enabler (or caretaker) is the person who tries to keep the family going in the face of its dysfunction. The enabler protects troubled family members, covers-up dysfunctional behavior, and assumes responsibility for the problem so that the family doesn’t go into full-blown crisis mode day after day. To keep the family peace, the enabler allows the dysfunctioning dynamic to become worse in the hope that the explosion will resolve the crisis faster.

2- The scapegoat (or troublemaker) is the child that is labeled the black sheep of the family. He or she is often blamed for the problems that occur within the family. The other children are often viewed as “the good children,” while this child is labeled as “bad” or “different.” In behavior akin to bullying, parents will often single out, leave out, and blame the child, making them feel like they don’t belong or that they’re always ‘the trouble.”

3- The lost child, also known as the quiet one, this individual spends most of their time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunction. The quiet one often makes a conscious effort to avoid causing trouble. They fade into the background, which unfortunately leads to their needs being unmet and ignored. 

4- The mascot is essentially the comic relief or the family clown. They tend to use humor and mischief to alleviate tension or divert attention away from the family dysfunction or themselves. 

5- The hero, much like the caregiver or enabler, is a family hero often assumes the responsibility for making the family look like its functioning normally. They are usually the only ones who understand what is happening in the family better than anyone else, but no matter how hard they try, the rest of the family refuses to listen.

6- The mastermind is the clever one who learns to use the dysfunction to its best and for his or her best interest. They’re probably the craftier here and knows how to get things going to their advantage.

6- The leader, though there may be sometimes multiple, or they may change/evolve with life as they get older etc. and generally are looked upon for approval by the rest.

Do you recognise any of these in yourself or others? Any surprising thoughts or reflections? Not all roles may be fulfilled but it gives you an idea.

Mental health and other psychosocial symptoms

Here are some of the signs you may experience, some in childhood, some in adulthood. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive and will be different for different people:

  • Depression from a young age
  • Anxiety, especially social anxiety
  • Social withdraws
  • Physical distance/Lack of physical contact
  • Emotional neediness/Emotional regulation issues
  • Inability to make decision or the opposite, and needing complete control
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • PTSD
  • Borderline personality disorder/Reactive attachment disorder
  • Difficult relationship patterns
  • Constant need for approval
  • Difficult in making new friends – generally small social circles
  • Communication difficulties \ Trust issues
  • Ongoing feelings of shame and guilt
  • Lack of appropriate boundaries with others
  • Self esteem and self worth concerns

Where to from here?

For the many patients I have the privilege to work with, they didn’t realise they were stuck in their family dysfunction until it was brought up to their attention, generally by an external party. It may be a shunned family member, a new partner, a professional or simply feedback from work/sport team/church etc. Then, a phase of reflection follows where the person questions their sanity, perspective, and perception.

Hopefully, at that point they seek help. Whether through a therapist, a psychiatrist, or trusted outsiders, until their come up with their own conclusion. For me, it took almost six months of seeing multiple professionals, having multiple heart to hearts with relatives outside the “clan”, and having the ongoing support of my adult children and partner, for me to accept I can not change of whole structure on my own. It comes with grief and sadness, and yet, it comes with an eye opener and letting go of my scapegoat status once and for all.

I sure as hell am not perfect, as neither is any other person on this planet, but we all deserve equal respect and the right to different opinions, lifestyle, privacy and emotional safety.

If you’re ready to tackle your family trauma (and let’s be honest, most of us have them), why not make an appointment to chat? Call me on 0403774459 or email stephanie.azri@bigpond.com

Couple counselling, couples therapy, sexology

Don't leave yet!

Let me support you

Subscribe to my newsletter for free resources, book chapters, and general positive psychology news. I promise not to spam you!

You have Successfully Subscribed!