We hear so much today about the importance of the family and how modern society is leading to the breakdown of family life. It is true that there are more pressures on families in our rapidly changing society. It also seems to be true that more and more families have difficulties coping with these changes and consequently there are more conflicts within families.

I believe that the family is as important today as it has ever been in the past to the psychological health and well being of it’s members. A family that is functioning well provides a safe haven from the pressures that children experience when growing up in our society. A healthy family provides a loving and supportive environment and the children feel wanted, valued, approved of, and heard.

To be healthy, a family doesn’t have to be perfect. A chap called Winnecott termed the phrase “good enough parenting”. In short, this means that children can grow up normally in families that “get it right” most of the time. Nearly every family have periods when the “wheel falls off”. Most families muddle through this and the children are not damaged by the experience.

But in some families there are underlying problems that, if they are not rectified, will cause damage to the children. Some of these difficulties are caused by the breakdown of communication.

There is an urgent need for families that have these underlying problems to seek qualified help. Appropriate help can lead to resolution of the problems and often reconciliation. Reconciliation is usually is the best option. Psychologists, social workers, and other therapists play an important part in improving effective communication and assisting in the process of reconciliation.

However, the sad truth is that sometimes differences within a family cannot be reconciled and the family members go their different ways.

Dysfunctional families
Families with major problems are said to be dysfunctional. Dysfunctional behaviour in some families is obvious to the outsider, such as when there is domestic violence, alcoholism or gross neglect of the children’s needs. However, in other families, the problems are not so obvious. They appear to be happy, but contentious issues are never talked about, and there is also a rule that nothing is to be discussed outside the family.

Family loyalty is paramount. Children growing up in these families have to adapt in order to belong in some way. Some children will adapt by blaming themselves for everything that goes wrong and suffer from excessive guilt. Other children will adapt by blaming the world, and may grow up as bitter and angry adults.

My experience in treating families where there are dysfunctional patterns, is that the most parents genuinely love their children and want the best in life for them. Often they are not even aware that the children are being hurt and would be horrified if they knew the damage that their behaviour is causing.
If nothing is done to resolve major problems and the family remains dysfunctional, the children will often carry problems into their adult life. Most of the adult clients that I see have come from families of origin where there has been some level of dysfunction. The old ways that they learned in order to adapt, are still being used long after the “used by date” has passed.

The really sad thing is that if these adult children do not sort out their problems, they run the risk of doing to their children what was done to them.

The child who is the “trouble maker”
Some dysfunctional families have a child who is called the “trouble maker”. The parents say; “If it weren’t for Little Johnny, there would be no problems in our house hold”. All the family’s attention is focussed on this child. With the spotlight on the “trouble maker”, other family problems are not seen. An example of a problem that is not seen, might be the tensions that exist between mum and dad because of the many affairs that dad has had. When Little Johnny grows up and leave home, the hidden problems within the family become harder to hide. Even though mum and dad will say “we can’t wait until Little Johnny leaves home and we can have some peace and quiet”, at a subconscious level, mum and dad put every obstacle in the way to him leaving home because of the fear of what they may have to face once he has left.

The difficulty of letting go
There are many reasons why some parents find it difficult to let their children leave home when the time comes for this to happen. Often parents who have this difficulty with letting go have a deep seated fear of abandonment themselves. When the children are ready to leave home, rather than the parents being able to see it as a normal healthy process, they see it as their children abandoning them. These fears usually have their origins in what happened to them as children, and these fears usually are not registered consciously.

Parents who feel this way may feel a deep sense of distress and betrayal about the direction that their adult children choose to take in their lives. Sometimes, these feelings of distress will lead parents to behave in a way that drives their children further away. They will try to be too controlling and place demands on their adult children that children can’t realistically meet.

A parent who fears abandonment by their adult children may try and manipulate them with guilt. This leads to unhappiness from both sides. From the adult child’s point of view, they resent their “Sunday lunches with mum and dad”, but feel obliged to go to avoid a fuss. From the parent’s point of view, they stay locked in the imagined battle of abandonment and never adjust to their new life where they are no longer responsible for their children. Parents who are able to make the adjustment to the children leaving home have the chance to develop their own direction free from the old responsibilities of looking after children. I find it pleasing to see how many parents take advantage of their new found freedom and create exciting opportunities for themselves.

Parents who are having difficulties coming to terms with their children leaving home would benefit from getting help from a qualified therapist. The therapist will assist them to let go of excessive control of their children. More often than not, all family members will benefit from this type of help.

Appropriate help can lead to both the children and the parents being able to see it from the other person’s point of view. This can lead to reconciliation within the family. After reconciliation, a parent and adult child can form a mature relationship based on mutual trust and respect. A relationship largely free of guilt trips and resentments.

Who is responsible?
When the children are young, clearly it is the parent’s responsibility to sort out problems which are potentially damaging to the children. However, as the children grow older they must become more responsible for their own behaviour. When the children are adult, the must be fully responsible for their behaviour, just as the parents have to be for their own behaviour. If both parents and adult children are interested in reconciliation, then it is sometimes advisable that both receive some help to deal with unresolved feelings. There are therapists that specialize in mediation to help resolve disputes between family members. This is a valuable service.

In summary, whatever the problems are within families, if this lead to a dysfunctional system, then the children of the family are at risk of being hurt. When the children are young, it is the parent’s responsibility to seek help. When the children are adult, it is a joint responsibility to seek reconciliation.
I have seen many families benefit from professional help. So many of the problems that seemed insurmountable at first, can be overcome with love and a commitment to seeing the difficult process of reconciliation through.