The Harvest Series, THS: Social Issues

What It Means to Come from a Dysfunctional Family

I thought for the first issue we could discuss what it means to come from a dysfunctional family. Obviously this is something Lexie can relate to as well as millions of us out in the real world; therefore, it seemed like a great place to start. Since this is the first of my “Issues Series” I feel it’s necessary to explain a few things. I will break it up into The Facts, where I will discuss relevant articles or stories I have read on the topic and then I will provide My Thoughts. My thoughts are to be taken as just that. While I have a plethora of personal first-hand experience, I do not want my thoughts to be misconstrued. These are my own opinions based on what I have seen occur within myself, those close to me or others who I know have dealt with similar issues. 


The Facts:
I read two different articles, both of which brought up great points. In the first article, “The Eight Most Common Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family” by Steven Moneyworth, he states that, our culture today looks very different than it did fifty years ago. What seemed idyllic and normal back then is no longer typical and what would have been classified as possibly dysfunctional then, would probably be more common today. What is more important than the ever changing roles of the nuclear family is what sets differing family dynamics  apart from those that are truly dysfunctional and the ways in which different children learn to cope. 

In the second article, “Understanding Dysfunctional Family Roles” by Ruthie Gold, She describes four specific roles that children fall into when living in families with severe dysfunction. Lets first look at the characteristics.    

The eight common characteristics of dysfunctional families, according to Moneyworth include:

1. Addiction
2. Control
3. Unpredictability & Fear
4. Conflict
5. Abuse
6. Perfectionism
7. Poor Communication
8. Lack of Diversity

When we relate this to Harvest moon, we can clearly see that Lexie’s life fits the mold of dysfunction in 7 of the 8 characteristics (Which I have highlighted) and I know from personal experience this is not uncommon. I can say with total honesty that my own family fit into all 7 of those same areas as Lexie, which is probably what made writing from her perspective so easy for me. 

Now lets take a look at these 7 characteristics individually.    

Addiction is the most prominent cause of a dysfunctional family. Drugs and/or alcohol abuse cause communication issues within families, financial problems, and can also lead to conflict, abuse, poor communication and unpredictability and fear. 
Control is often seen “when one family member dominates his or her family and can be from spouse to spouse or from parent to child. Control typically results in emotional ‘stunting’ and may make people feel as if they are not entitled to an opinion or to a life of their own.” One way that control can manifest is by causing family members to feel guilty for “wanting to step outside the box.” (Moneyworth, 2009).

Unpredictability & Fear are two characteristics that go hand in hand and can be brought on by a single family member or multiple. Unpredictability can be the result of numerous factors, such as conflict, financial difficulties, emotional issues and so on. The dysfunction occurs when the family member elicits fear and unpredictability on other members of the family. When combined with substance abuse issues or severe conflict, abuse is often seen. 

Conflict within a dysfunctional family is one of the most obvious characteristics. Moneyworth (2009) explains that some degree of conflict within the family structure is normal and even expected. But when that conflict is continuous or heated this is where the line is crossed. “If a serious argument erupts over slight misunderstandings on a frequent and unyielding basis, there is a good chance that there is a certain level of dysfunction.”

Abuse like control, can be spouse to spouse, parent to child, or even sibling to sibling and can manifest as either physical or emotional and is a major indicator of dysfunction. 

Poor Communication when “strained, ineffective, or nonexistent” is another important sign of dysfunction. This characteristic typically occurs throughout the family due to members not being able to properly voice their wants and needs. 

Lack of Diversity “refers primarily to differences in interests and beliefs between family members. A lack of diversity usually occurs in families where there are children, though some people may be emotionally quashed in romantic relationships to the point where they adopt all of the interests of their partner” (Moneyworth, 2009).

Furthermore, as a result of these characteristics, children take on specific roles to help them cope with the dysfunction within their home. These roles include:

1. The Hero: is the responsible child in the family unit who often times takes on more responsibility than one or both parents. They get good grades, are typically popular and they excel in whatever he or she takes on. “The parents use this child as proof that they are good parents. On the inside the hero is insecure, and requires a lot of positive attention to make up for their inner emotional deficit. They generally grow up to be successful adults, although they generally continue to feel inadequate” (Gold, 2009). 

2. The Scapegoat: is the child the family typically wants to hide. They are always acting out, getting into trouble or causing additional conflict. They figure even negative attention is better than no attention at all and use this tactic to their advantage. This child typically has problems in school and is the most emotional and sensitive. They take things personally and get their feelings easily hurt. In addition, the scapegoat is the most likely to have their own problems with substance abuse, have a teen pregnancy or troubles with the law. 

3. The Caretaker: is the child that acts as the families distraction. They allow the family something else to focus on besides their own dysfunction. Typically characterized as the class clown who gives both emotionally and physically. “They often try to ‘save’ other people, from themselves or from their bad situations. This is the child that is most likely to grow up to be co-dependent, continuing the cycle of dysfunction” (Gold, 2009). 

4. The Lost Child: is the child that escapes the dysfunction with “escapism”. They put on a facade of not being emotional, they tend to zone out or daydream. They are often shy and/or anti-social. “This child is likely to become an artist, as dysfunction in real life is usually a great outlet for art” (Gold, 2009).



My Thoughts:

Let me first start by saying that Gold (2009) points out that children can change roles while living in a dysfunctional family and I could not agree more. I also would go a step further and say that depending on the level of dysfunction and/or the characteristics that are present within the family, children may take on traits of more than one role. I read a book years ago called “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics” by Robert Ackerman and in his book he explained something very similar. He argued that children in these types of environments can take on numerous roles and often do so as a way of coping. When I first read some of the roles in Ackerman’s book as well as in Gold’s article I thought to myself that while I fit one more than the others, there were definite traits I saw in myself from several of the roles. 

Coming from a dysfunctional family I can say that these roles have severely shaped me as an adult. Some are not as obvious as others and some don’t even appear to be negative characteristics or traits, but… I will touch on this more in a moment, let me first  share some of my thoughts on the characteristics and roles of dysfunction and how I feel they relate to Harvest moon. 

I think that it’s often difficult for people outside the realm of a dysfunctional family to truly understand. One of my beta readers for Harvest moon came to me at some point and said, “I finally understand why I can’t relate to Lexie. I never grew up in a family like that. My family was more like Caitlin’s, so I was having a hard time relating or understanding her, but now I get it. I can understand her secrecy and her unwillingness to trust.” Trust is a huge thing for children like Lexie. Even when you have a few very close friends who you know love you, you still can’t bring yourself to rationalize telling them the truth. Fear, self-doubt, and insecurity that typically accompany trust issues always win. And even in circumstances where you do tell someone, there is often some apprehension from them. 
I experienced this all the time while I was growing up. My friends, who I willingly or unwillingly (they witnessed it accidentally) let into my circle of trust, would often have a difficult time understanding the realities of what my siblings and I had to face. Some even tried to downplay the situation, because on the surface my family was loving and kind. It’s the stuff that happens behind closed doors that is often difficult to swallow. With that said, I believe that children learn to keep their secrets partially from fear of being judged, being bullied, or not being allowed to associate with certain people. 

Children and adults are undoubtedly cruel with issues they don’t understand and dysfunction is no different. I had friends who couldn’t handle the realities of my life, as well as parents of several friends or boyfriends who didn’t know how to separate me from my family situation. This is torture for a child of any age. It creates low self-esteem, trust issues, relationship insecurities, and in some children it fuels the desire for perfectionism in ways that can be unhealthy, which brings me back to the point I started to make earlier. 

As I mentioned before, Lexie experienced 7 of the 8  characteristics within her own home, which resulted in the behaviors we saw in her particular character. These characteristics can and often do shape who these children will become as adults. Even the ones who essentially escape, who “step outside the box” or break the so called cycle of dysfunction, are not without their scars. They may be able to hide them well, but they are there, hidden beneath the surface or masked by some behavior that to others looks normal. What I mean by this is the tendency for some children of dysfunction to become over-achievers, perfectionists, or extremely frugal about finances. To an ordinary person, these qualities may even be envied, but the root of it is still tangled up in dysfunction. They were created as a coping mechanism to mask insecurities and doubts of self-worth that may exist. 

As for Lexie, her secretive behavior and her anti-social tendencies outside of her close circle of friends, shows us the realities of this. She was a straight A student who holds down a job, plays sports and thrives in her own social circle. She is the epitome of Golds description of the hero, yet the other dysfunctions that exist in her home create a blending of multiple roles that have shaped who she is as an adolescent. So while Lexie appears as the perfect daughter from a loving family that has simply experienced great loss, she has learned to hide her true self from the world, which is not completely uncommon. 
More often than not, conflict, abuse, fear and unpredictability go hand in hand with substance abuse. Any child who has grown up in a home with parents who abuse drugs or alcohol can probably attest to this and share some graphic and horrifying stories. It’s how the secrets are kept. Shortly after releasing Harvest moon I had a reviewer state that the storyline was unbelievable because Lexie kept her abuse a secret for so long and that there was no way her friends didn’t know. It is for this reason and so many others, that I decided to start writing issues posts. This is one of the myths/stereotypes I want to clarify because it is SO important. According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, “The number of victims of abuse who never reveal their secret or who wait many years to do so is very high.” More importantly, they go on to argue that most victims of abuse wait five years or more before coming forward. 

The main reason for keeping this kind of secret you ask? 85% of female victims and 89% of male victims are abused by someone they know; therefore the consequences of coming forward carry more weight. In addition, the abuser typically uses control or fear to prevent the child from coming forward. 

Now I know that this doesn’t answer all of the questions and veers slightly off topic in some regard, but I think that when we are talking about characteristics of dysfunctional families we have to explore some of the ways they effect those involved. Abuse is at the top of that list.  Another thing I wanted to point out, that relates directly to Lexie’s character was from a study that stated, “keeping a major secret didn’t necessarily cause psychological problems, but rather that the kind of person who is secretive might be more prone to these issues. Presumably coming from a family with poor communication might make a child more secretive, and it seems possible that the actual secret of abuse might be less damaging than the feeling that one has no one to talk to” (North, 2010). I honestly believe from my own experience that children who grown up in dysfunctional homes are more likely to be secretive and untrusting, even with those closest to them.

On a finally note, I must point out that while many friends and family members outside the home may be unaware of the dysfunction, perpetuating the secrets and lies that inevitably go round, children within the home are not. Parents who abuse drugs often disillusion themselves into believing that their children have no idea about their extra curricular activities. But the reality is, children typically know at an early age. Children are not oblivious to the warning signs of drug use; ie. being secretive, lying, holding up in some room of the house where the drug use typically occurs, poor financial conditions, or of course the obvious other dysfunctions that occur as a result. 

I can understand how someone who has never lived in a truly dysfunctional home environment might read a story like Lexie’s and feel there is no way it could happen like that, but it can and more importantly, IT DOES!! 
Thank you for taking the time to read my first Issues Post. It is my intent to provide some clarity and understanding of social issues that affect not only the characters in my books, but everyday people like you and me and to give us a place where we can talk openly and honestly about them. 

Below are a few links to books or articles that I found helpful. Coming from a dysfunctional family myself, I can appreciate the need to understand, a desire to move forward, and finding the ability to break the cycle. 
Links:


Please feel free to share your thoughts, comments or stories with me. This is a safe zone and no judgements or put-downs will be tolerated. 



Sources: 

Steven Moneyworth (2009, May 12). The Eight Most Common Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family. Yahoo Voices, (http://voices.yahoo.com/the-eight-most-common-characteristics-dysfunctional-3288568.html?cat=25).

Ruthie Gold (2009, May 12). Understanding Dysfunctional Family Roles. Yahoo Voices, (http://voices.yahoo.com/understanding-dysfunctional-family-roles-3292396.html?cat=25)

Anna North (2010, January 22). “It’s Time To Tell:” Many Keep Childhood Abuse A Secret Forever. Secrets & Lies, (http://jezebel.com/5454547/its-time-to-tell-many-keep-childhood-abuse-a-secret-forever)

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