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12 Things That People Who Grew Up In Dysfunctional Families Don’t Understand

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For people who grew up in dysfunctional families, life can be difficult in ways that “normal” others don’t understand.  If your partner grew up in a more average or functional family, then s/he likely doesn’t know why you say or do certain things, or DON’T say or do them.  And you may always feel like you just don’t fit in.  Here are 12 things that people who grew up in dysfunctional families don’t understand, and you can use this post as a way to start a discussion with your friends or intimate partners who want to better understand you.

Note: This post covers kids from all types of dysfunctional families, from chaotic alcoholic families to wealthy and high functioning emotionally neglectful ones.  Not every point will resonate with every person, but if you have had a difficult upbringing, some of these will speak to you.

  1. What is normal?  There is a book written for Adult Children of Alcoholics (and it will resonate with adult children of any type of dysfunctional family), called Adult Child’s Guide To What’s Normal.  This goes through many specific questions that kids who were raised in dysfunctional families have no idea about, like how to say no to plans, or what time is considered too late for a visit.  When you grow up in a very dysfunctional family, you have no idea what other people do, and if other people’s families really resemble the families you see on TV or not (answer: they kind of do, sadly for those who were raised in far, far different scenarios).
  2. What is it like to rely on family members?  For adult children of dysfunctional families (which I’ll abbreviate ACDF), it is very strange to hear other people say things like, “I really want my mom there when I give birth” or “I’m annoyed that my dad left after only a couple hours of helping me move.”  For people who rely only on themselves, and possibly friends/spouses, it can be mindblowing to hear about how other people’s parents help with housework, childcare, finances, and, most distressingly, provide emotional support.  This is not the world of the ACDF, who has learned not to expect any support, although they may often provide support of this nature to parents.
  3. How do people treat their kids?  For ACDF who grew up being ignored, neglected, or verbally/physically abused, having kids can be terrifying.  There is no way to overstate the truth that ACDF have no automatic default when it comes to parenting.  Other people may say things like, “I just think, what would my own mom do?” This is 180 degrees away from how the ACDF operates; s/he is always thinking, “If my own mom would do it, I better do the opposite.”  Many women (mostly women, because in our culture, women are expected to innately be “good with kids,” which is tough for women who had no healthy maternal role model) devour parenting book after parenting book, hoping to figure out how to talk to and behave with their children in functional ways.  Sometimes, when you observe very stilted but well-intentioned interactions between parents and kids, like parents who ask about the child’s feelings about every minor event and then extensively validate them, you are witnessing the courageous efforts of people with zero frame of reference for positive parenting, who are nevertheless trying valiantly to raise happy and healthy children.
  4. What’s it like to have your parents involved with your kids? It can be very painful for the ACDF to see pictures on social media of friends with their own parents and their kids, captioned, “Three generations!” or the like.  The idea of leaving your kids in your parents’ care for even a couple of hours is frightening for many ACDF, even if in actuality their parents have become more stable or calm over the years and nothing terrible would befall their children.  Just the idea of your parent potentially yelling at or neglecting your own child is a major trigger and fear for the ACDF.
  5. How do people pick a career?  For some kids who grew up in chaotic families, with job loss and financial instability, no adults may have had the time, inclination, or ability to provide any input on potential education opportunities or career paths for an adolescent.  Rather than having parents who try to cultivate a child’s talents and strengths, the parents of the ACDF are often struggling to survive.  They have no clear career path or financial goals themselves, so it is hard for them to pass on any words of wisdom even if they wanted to.  Often, they advise their kids to get a job right out of high school as they distrust higher education and college loans, and the adult children, particularly if they were interested in academics, may always regret this decision.  Other children grow up and make a lot of money, but feel unfulfilled because they know in their hearts that their career isn’t a good fit for their strengths… yet, they are still unclear what else would be a better option.
  6. What does a healthy romantic relationship look like?  For people who saw distant, emotionally shut down, or, conversely, histrionic and violent relationships between their parents (or parents with other people), it can be almost impossible to figure out what a healthy relationship or marriage should look like.  Often, ACDF are addicted to the idea of romance and fairy tale endings, and they figure out the ins and outs of dating from TV or watching other people.  However, when the honeymoon stage ends, ACDF are often at a loss for how to maintain a healthy relationship in the absence of tremendous and overwhelming passion and early-stage romantic drama.  They may resort to dysfunctional behaviors they saw at home, like withdrawing from partners, verbally abusing them, or cheating on them, in order to keep their partners interested, or even just because they have no other template in their minds of how to behave in a long term relationship.
  7. What are appropriate boundaries?  For ACDF, it can be very hard to know what healthy boundaries are, either for oneself or for others.  When a friend says she has to get off the phone, the ACDF may fear that the friend hates her.  When a husband has to work late, the ACDF may start scouring his computer for evidence that he is cheating.  In many dysfunctional families, there is no privacy, either physical or emotional.  Parents enter rooms without knocking, they say anything on their minds even if it’s inappropriate for kids to hear, and kids may witness things that should be done in private, like sexual behavior or substance use.  Later in life, the ACDF has no idea what should be kept private, and what should be shared.
  8. How do you manage money?  In homes where money was diverted to substance use, gambling, or other dysfunctional uses, parents are often unable to pay rent or bills on time.  The kids learn nothing about how to save money for a rainy day, or even for ongoing expected bills.  As adults, they can struggle mightily with managing their own money, and even when they get their first well paying job, they may still live paycheck to paycheck.
  9. What does a normal house look like?  Kids of many different types of dysfunctional families, like those where there is hoarding, substance abuse, social anxiety, depression, and more, never learn how to keep a home in a clean and welcoming condition.  This is because there are never any visitors, and without anyone coming into the house, it progressively deterioriates, and parents who are struggling with their own major issues often have no energy or desire to clean it up.  ACDF can either become compulsively clean and neat or struggle with encroaching mess and chaos in their own homes.  Either way, they are frequently secretly very worried about how their home looks to outsiders.  Sometimes, if they have enough money, they will rely on a cadre of experts, like interior decorators, housekeepers, and the like, to keep their home looking “normal.”  Even when they are told their home is beautiful by other people, they don’t believe it deep down, or they think that they will eventually be found out as an imposter.
  10. What is self-care?  ACDF frequently struggle with eating healthy, exercising, and prioritizing their own needs or health in any way.  They go years between dentist or doctors’ appointments, even if they have the financial resources to go more regularly.  This is because, if these needs are neglected by one’s parents in childhood, the child never really gets into the mindset of caring for these needs even in adulthood.  ACDF parents may be assiduous about monitoring their own children’s health, hygiene, and exercise while neglecting their own to a surprising degree.
  11. What is a healthy body image?  Children whose bodies were not well loved in childhood, either via criticism, not being fed or cared for, or being abused, have great difficulty loving their bodies in adulthood.  This can extend to not feeling any sexual desire as well.  Children whose parents had eating disorders were exposed to self-hatred in their parents, and likely learned to model this behavior from a very young age.  When ACDF go into a dressing room with a friend, and the friend is happy about how she looks in outfit after outfit, this can be shocking to the ACDF, who has never felt acceptable-looking in anything.
  12. How can I tell anyone about my childhood?  This is a key question that plagues ACDF who want to grow closer to friends or intimate partners.  They want to share some of what has happened to them, but they were frequently instructed in childhood, “Don’t tell anyone what goes on in this house” either directly or indirectly.  They want emotional support from others, but they fear that others won’t understand or will be disgusted or mocking.  This leaves the ACDF very lonely and isolated, even in the midst of people who would genuinely want to learn more and who would be understanding and compassionate.

If this article resonates with you, try to work on answering #12 first.  Shame that is not expressed never goes away.  If it is too scary to confide in a trusted friend or partner, you can always find a therapist, who can listen and support you through processing your feelings about your childhood, as well as help you to move forward in a more free and confident way.  And if you need a springboard into a conversation with your partner, you can use this post to spark a discussion about things that you may have previously glossed over when describing your upbringing and its impact on your life now.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, A Secret Shared Loses Its Hold Over You.

Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.

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3 Comments

  1. sadblob
    June 6, 2018 at 11:56 am — Reply

    “it is very strange to hear other people say things like, “I really want my mom there when I give birth” — this so much; but also, my mother would have found it very strange (and inappropriate, and inconvenient, and ridiculous) if I had asked her to be there when I give birth. Thankfully my sister was there to support me, and she was awesome.

  2. Jazzdivamom
    June 23, 2018 at 11:05 am — Reply

    I just started living with my younger brother. He is in his 50s I’m in my 60s. It took me to live with him to see we both clean up or do laundry almost everyday…but it never lasts! We had very loving parents who were gamblers. Keeping a house in order was not on the list. I’ve never been able to maintain a home in decent order. I’m amazed and in awe when I visit a well kept beautifully decorated home.

  3. Zainab
    July 6, 2021 at 7:28 am — Reply

    I cried while reading this post .. I am struggling for years! I overcame some things and now trying to overcome the others in order to accept the happiness in my life!

    Now, I am considered a lovely, bold, and successful woman who was told one day that she has it all! On that day I was really shocked because I was in a depression wave not seeing things this way after years of trying to fix myself to be able to live a normal and happy life!

    It is indeed a long journey to overcome our sadness, but it totally worth it. I am still learning a lot and feeling like a kid discovering new amazing feelings and things each day…

    Thanks for this post a lot, it enlightened a new part of me needs cleaning <3

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