Monday, March 23, 2009

Unit 5 Lesson 1, The Dysfunctional Family Part 1

In all the groups I've led and every woman I've counseled, I have found that every family plays a huge role in one's recovery from sexual abuse. Even if you would not classify your family as "dysfunctional", please do not discount this lesson... Please read it carefully and ask God to clearly show you how your family has impacted your recovery in the past, how they are impacting you today and any changes you may need to make going forward. If you are a family member, please read this with a prayerful spirit, asking the Lord to reveal to you any missteps you've made, to give you the courage and humility to seek forgiveness from the survivor in your life (if necessary), and to show you the next right steps in order for you to lovingly offer support and encouragement as they continue their journey towards recovery. It can be very difficult for a survivor to talk to their family members about how they feel about them, so it is my hope and prayer that this lesson will help family members to understand what is running through the mind and heart of the survivor in their life.


Family issues have a tremendous affect on recovery from sexual abuse. In some families, parents or family members may be abusers, while others parents or family members are unaware that the abuse has occurred. In other families the abuse may occur outside the boundaries of the family system. The family may or may not know about the abuse, or may not realize that something has happened to the victim. Whatever your case, with God's help you can understand the role you family played in your sexual abuse and the role they can play in your recovery.

If the father abused an incest victim, the victim must also deal with anger toward the mother. A child molested by an uncle may feel unprotected by both parents. A victim of rape may feel she cannot disclose that fact to her family if the family is emotionally shut down and incapable of giving support. In families where the child is abused by a babysitter, the child, as we would expect, has been told to obey the sitter. Often this victim has a great deal of anger toward both parents; the child believes the parents must know what is happening and therefore they must approve of it.

Many reasons contribute to a family's inability to cope with sexual abuse. No families are perfect and most families lack the tools necessary to weather the storm that sexual abuse creates. How well they survivor the trauma will depend on how well the family has learned ways of functioning as a family. In recent years, counselors have identified the common characteristics of a dysfunctional family. A knowledge of these characteristics helps us to understand sexual abuse and to recover from it.

Dysfunctional family: A family in which some behavior such as alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, an absent father or mother, excessive anger, or verbal or physical abuse interferes with the ability of the family to do its job effectively.

In most families where sexual abuse occurs, the family clearly is dysfunctional. But this does not mean that all dysfunctional families are sexually abusive. The term dysfunctional is used to express the inability of family members to meet the God-given needs for nurture. These families are unable to communicate their feelings, both positive and negative, in a consistent and caring way. They are unable to respond to the needs of each family member.

Think about your family. In your journal, list all the primary members of the family. What does each individual represent to you? For example, who in your family represents comfort, expectations, abuse, peace, rescuing, neglect, betrayal, etc.? After writing what each individual represents to you, write down your feelings toward each person.

Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family:
  1. Needy family members receive an inappropriate proportion of the family's time, attention, and energy so that members learn to be overly-responsible toward needy people and irresponsible about themselves.
  2. A dysfunctional family promotes denial and secrecy.
  3. A dysfunctional family has either repressed emotions, explosive emotions or both.
  4. A dysfunctional family does not teach effective living skills to the children. Children do not learn to touch, feel or trust. They learn to expect rigidity and emotional or physical abandonment.
  5. A dysfunctional family squeezes the members into rigid, inappropriate roles.

As you think about these characteristics, we will begin discussing each one individually. You are encouraged to think about how each one relates to you and your sexual abuse experience.

1. Needy family members receive an inappropriate proportion of the family's time, attention and energy.

An emotionally needy family member may be one who is addicted to alcohol or drugs, or one who demonstrates other obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The energy and attention of the family is directed toward caring for the emotional needs of this family member. As a result, all of the family members become emotionally needy.

Families with addictive family members have an increased potential for sexual abuse. In a family where the focal person is an alcoholic, the unspoken rule in the family may be "Make Dad happy, then maybe he won't get drunk." In a family where there is a rage-aholic, the rule may be "Whatever you do, don't make Mom mad." In a dysfunctional family the family members operate according to these spoken and unspoken rules and not according to personal need.

Can you identify a member of your family who was emotionally needy? What affect did living in the family with this person have on you?

Did a relationship exist between this family member and the way your family dealt with the abuse? If so, describe that relationship.

2. A dysfunctional family promotes denial and secrecy

Gretchen describes many bizarre incidents of abuse by her babysitter. Sometimes she had to watch the sitter and her boyfriend have sex. Sometimes the babysitter would fondle Gretchen or would stick straws, pencils and other objects into her vagina or anus. She would tell Gretchen that she was bad and that she was ugly. Gretchen tried many times to tell her mom and dad about the abuse, but they were so busy with their own problems that they didn't seem to care or even pay attention to her. They scolded her for making a fuss about nothing.

Finally, Gretchen screamed and yelled the whole gruesome story. Both parents were shocked. They couldn't believe it. Gretchen had been very irritable, but they never dreamed what was happening while they were gone.

Although Gretchen's parents were supportive of her in general, the abuse had come at a very troubled time for the family. Once aware, however, the parents brought Gretchen to counseling and participated in family counseling as well as individual counseling. In counseling, Gretchen expressed her appropriate anger toward her parents. The parents accepted the responsibility for their seeming lack of interest, selection of the babysitter, and failure to recognize Gretchen's attempts to communicate.

Conflict is a normal part of healthy family living. Healthy families expect problems and have healthy ways of coping with them. Family members talk about issues even though someone may feel embarrassed or hurt. Family members take responsibility for their own behavior. Problems can be discussed and solutions found. In a dysfunctional family the "don't talk" rule keeps the victim of sexual abuse bound in silence, even if the crime is committed by a complete stranger.

Write in your journal about how you family solved problems when you were a child.

Families solve problems in many ways. Healthy families recognize that they have choices. If one method doesn't work, they try another. Unhealthy families often use the same dysfunctional methods over and over. Maybe your family refused to recognize problems. Often the rule is "don't rock the boat." Other dysfunctional families overreact to things so strongly that everyone is afraid to mention a problem or issue.

What effect has you family's method of responding to problems had on your abuse recovery?

Some dysfunctional families look perfectly normal on the surface. The father and mother do most of the things that parents should do. They keep and orderly house, a nice yard, food on the table and clothes in the closets. However, the family may still be dysfunctional because the parents are not emotionally present for their children.

Consider the example of Beatrice, a volunteer for a local rape crisis center. She became a victim herself. She was raped at knife point. The rape occurred one morning when Beatrice, after having breakfast with friends, returned to her apartment. Hearing a knock on her door, she peeked out and saw a man she knew, although not very well. She asked what he wanted. "I need to talk to someone," he said. One rule most crisis center teach is never to open the door under such circumstances. Unfortunately, Beatrice did open the door and was raped. Then she decided she didn't want to press charges.

When asked why she, of all people, didn't press charges, she replied that her parents told her it was her fault for opening the door and if she were to follow through on the charges, it would be an embarrassment for the family. She said it was just like when she tried to tell them about her grandfather. Her body was covered with bruises from the beating he gave her. All her parents could say was, "He didn't mean what he did," and, "What did you do to cause it?"

More of Cindy's story

Cindy shares that even when she was a very young child, she felt she could tell absolutely no one what was happening to her.

"Everyone around me seemed to have so many problems that I knew it would be useless to tell. Besides, I loved my perpetrator. When he would come home from work, I would run out to meet him. Caught in this impossible situation, I chose to keep the abuse to myself and hide from others. I never played with children in the neighborhood. To stay away from everyone seemed the safest choice. Trying to figure out if the people around me were "good" kept me too confused.

"I also remember always feeling sad, dirty, and completely alone. People frightened me. Once I lived in a place where th emothers in the neighborhood tried to be friendly and talk to me. I would run from them, wondering, "What do the want from me?" One in particular would leave me cookies, showing me from a distance that they were at her door, then going back inside her house. When I was sure she wasn't coming back outside, I would run as fast as I could to get them. I was so afraid and anxious, it seemed like miles down her walkway."

A dysfunctional family keeps the secret of sexual abuse. Other family members may or may not actually know about the abuse but everyone is aware that something is wrong. The family members work together to keep secret the fact that something is wrong, especially from non-family members. Those who are allowed access to the home are screened carefully. The family acts as though all is well and the visitor only sees the performance.

Was your family open to the outside world? Were you free to talk about your family to others?

How does this characteristic relate to your sexual abuse experience?

Many survivors keep their abuse a secret to protect the family from having to deal with the fact that the abuse is occurring. Sometimes they keep the secret because the victim fears that someone will get hurt physically or emotionally or that the family will not survive. The victim will endure the pain of the abuse rather than risk losing the family.

How and what did you do to protect the family?

The focal passage for this unit is from Isaiah 54:4, "Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth."

As I close for today, I want to encourage you to cling to that scripture. What has happened to you is not your fault. You are not to blame. You did nothing to be ashamed of. You are not a disgrace. God is ready, willing and able to rescue you from this mess. Allow Him to do just that.

I am praying for you constantly.


Anonymous said...

I missed your entries, but this one was well worth the wait! My sexual abuse "wasn't as bad" as most of the stories I've read on here, but this quote made me cry because I felt like it rang so true in my life.

"Needy family members receive an inappropriate proportion of the family's time, attention, and energy so that members learn to be overly-responsible toward needy people and irresponsible about themselves."

Kind of a kick in the butt to me that I need to not feel so guilty about taking time for myself. Maybe even spoil myself for a couple months with just opening up this wound.

Thank you for all that you do and God bless.

Leigh Hall said...

I couldn't agree with you more! That feeling that "mine wasn't as bad" as someone else's is so common and always leads to neglecting your own needs and diminishing your own pain. So unfair what we do to ourselves! I am so proud of you for recognizing that and taking the time to process this pain. I would say it's an incredible indicator that you are on the right track when you consider this journey toward recovery as "spoiling yourself". It is very hard work, but it is so well worth it.

Sorry for the sporadic posts over the last month. I think we are back on a "regular" schedule again and I'll have the time I need to commit to blogging much more regularly. Thanks for hanging in there.

Virginia said...

I too have used Shelter from the storm as a facilitator for many years. Kudos to you for using it in your blog.

I was surfing the web a few days ago and came across this interesting "out of the box" fund raiser for a person with a goal to raise money for a recovery center. Maybe you or your readers can help them out.

Squirrel Fantom said...

My family seemed 100% dysfunctional. The one time I finally told my mother about anything, at the end of it she blamed me. Once my stepdad was arrested she then blamed me for her losing her husband. Blogs and stories and comments like these help so much in the journey of healing. I started my own blog last year coming out about this. I just started a new one that's more anonymous so that I could be more honest. I wasn't transparent and honest about a lot of things because I was scared of what the people I knew reading it would think. Thanks so much again. Even to those who leave comments, it really helps a lot.