By Lynn Roush
Lynn Roush, MA, PLPC started a Counseling Ministry at The Crossing in Columbia, Missouri 14 years ago, and has enjoyed providing counseling and teaching classes on marriage and parenting ever since. As a Christian counselor, Lynn strives to integrate biblical wisdom on human nature with sound psychological research on human development to help people grow. Lynn enjoys CrossFit, watching her 3 kids play sports, and sitting on porch swings with her husband.
Many of my clients seek counseling in order to make sense of their unique story and family background. Often, there is a desire to break long-standing patterns of dysfunction in order to avoid passing hurtful behaviors to their children. Psychological research reveals that patterns of abuse and addiction are usually repeated because they are familiar, and will remain in motion until there is an intentional movement towards change. Becoming aware of these patterns is the first step in breaking them.
Claudia Black, author of the best-selling book, “It Will Never Happen to Me” has identified the three unspoken rules of a dysfunctional family. The basic purpose of these unspoken rules is to push us into ignoring hurtful behavior that exists within the family and avoid the pain of systemic change. By following these rules, each member of the family becomes complicit in keeping painful secrets, thus maintaining the status quo. This compounds feelings of shame and helplessness, which tends to reproduce destructive patterns which get passed down to the next generation. Here are the three rules Black outlines in the book.
Family thinking under this rule goes something like this: “Don’t talk to anyone outside our family about what you see going on in our family. Don’t tarnish our reputation – let’s keep up appearances. We won’t talk about problems within the family either…We will only discuss safe subjects and pretend everything is OK. Don’t ask questions and don’t share your feelings! This is dangerous because someone might get upset.”
“Don’t trust anybody outside the family. Who knows what they might do or say about our family? You don’t want to be responsible for that do you? You need to care for us and not worry about them. But don’t lean on me, because I can’t take care of you. I’m not responsible for my failures, so don’t be upset with me. I know I’m not perfect, but can’t you just forget about it and move on?”
“You shouldn’t feel this way anyway because your life isn’t that bad. Those are just silly, childish emotions. Don’t make such a big deal about things. It’s better to put them out of your head completely. You have no reason to be angry with me. Besides, your pain is not nearly as terrible as mine so don’t bother me with your feelings.”
These rules are not posted on the refrigerator, or even spoken out loud, but they become the subtext for how the family functions. These rules perpetuate disconnection between the parent and the child, which can leave the child feeling alone, distrusting and unable to successfully navigate relationships. So now that we know what rules we want to break, what should we do instead?
Adam Young, whose podcast “The Place We Find Ourselves” is full of insightful wisdom, identifies “The Big Six: What Every Child Needs From Their Parents.”
- Attunement – This happens when the parent notices distressing emotions in their child and tunes in and pays attention to changes in the child’s affect and body language.
- Responsiveness – Instead of ignoring or dismissing, this is when the parent takes action and moves towards the child’s needs instead of away from the child.
- Engagement – Both verbal and non-verbal communication that sends the message that the parent is present and has the intention and desire to engage with what the child is experiencing.
- Affect Regulation – Providing comfort when the child is dysregulated through soothing and being a calming presence in the midst of the child’s intense emotions or stimulate the child when they are shutting down.
- Strong Enough to Handle Your Negative Emotions – Giving the child freedom to express intense negative emotions like anger, fear, sadness and disappointment. Containment of the child’s negative feelings without shaming, blaming or emotionally escalating.
- Willingness to Repair – Even if the parent has failed at steps 1-5, if the parent is willing to re-engage and repair any damage that has been done, then connection can be re-established, which is the primary need of the child.
As we work on breaking some long-standing rules and establishing some new ones, we can build a healthy foundation for our kids. The great thing is that it’s never too late to start forging new patterns and the positive results can not only impact our kids but can leave a legacy for generations to come.