Overcoming Rules of Dysfunctional Families.


The concept of dysfunctional families is wide spread throughout the United States currently. This blog is not designed to debate that concept, nor is it designed to vilify any families. I suspect that every family today has some level of dysfunction.   However, there are consequences that come with being raised in a dysfunctional family. In order to explain the rules of dysfunctional families, I need to engage your imagination for a moment, please. Just for a few minutes I would like you to imagine that there’s a small family. This family has decided to bring an elephant home and put the elephant in the middle of the living room. When the parents do this, they tell the kids explicitly that they cannot tell anyone that there’s an elephant in the house. They even go so far as to explain that people will remove the kids from the home if someone finds out about the elephant. After a few days of the elephant living in the home, little Johnny goes to school and falls asleep in class. The teacher is mortified and asks Johnny what’s going on. Johnny explains that it’s just difficult to sleep while the elephant is making so much noise. The teacher doesn’t say much to Johnny, but calls his parents later. By the time Johnny gets home from school his parents are livid. They begin yelling at Johnny that he’s not supposed to be telling people about the elephant (Don’t talk is enforced). When this tactic doesn’t work, Johnny’s parents begin denying the existence of the elephant to him. While trying to reinforce that there’s no elephant in the house his parents unintentionally reinforce the second rule, Don’t think. Exhausted with Johnny’s unwillingness they send him to his room. While in his room Johnny is crying because he’s confused, hurt, and just wants people to be honest. In this moment the third rule is reinforced: Don’t feel. Unbeknownst to Johnny, his parents have called the teacher prior to him returning to class. When Johnny sees the teacher she jokes about how he imagined an elephant in the living room. In that moment the fourth rule is reinforced: Don’t trust.

I’m sure to many people that seems like a far fetched example. But what if we replace the elephant for anyone of the following: debt, gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse, medical issues, and the list goes on and on. If we replace the elephant with whatever the dysfunction of choice, does it seem more plausible then?

With the ever growing rate of dysfunction in America I wanted to spend some time laying the foundation of this blog. Many people who grew up in dysfunctional families; now struggle to communicate with their partners or loved ones in an open, honest and transparent manner. Here’s some tips I use with my clients in overcoming and abolishing those rules in their lives:

  1. Safety is a priority: In this context safety does not just mean in the physical sense. Emotional safety is often times the most prevalent need. Once a person knows, understands, and believes they are physically and emotionally safe anything is possible.
  2. Let go of the need to please: This is a deep-seated need for many people who are raised in dysfunctional families. This need many times gets in the way of being able to communicate openly, honestly, and transparently. Make yourself the number one priority.
  3. Find your own normal: To explain the shift from the family you were raised in to the family you desire is substantial and massive. The key, for many people, is understanding and developing their own sense of normal.
  4. Understand your communication style: What I mean by this is do you communicate better in writing, in person, or on the phone? If you communicate better in writing and your partner communicates better in person it can create some issues.
  5. Self care is crucial: Taking care of yourself is the exact opposite of what most people were taught in dysfunctional families. But at the core that’s what begins the healing necessary. Everyone’s versions of self care looks different, but do something.
  6. Forgive easily: Communication is a problem for a variety of reasons. Whether you want to ascribe it to being raised in a dysfunctional family or subconscious mind programming, it’s a challenge to say the least. I would encourage you to practice significant amounts of forgiveness towards yourself. It’s unrealistic to expect you to get it correct and perfect every time. Perhaps it would be better to set a more realistic goal such as: communicating honestly a little bit more each day.
  7. Affirmations: No matter what the goal is I recommend using affirmations. The concept behind it is that once you commit to a thought in writing it has that much more power to occur. I recommend affirming thoughts such as: I am easily able to communicate my feelings, thoughts, needs, and desires at all times.


If I could give you one suggestion it is to find safe people to practice this with. Because when you have safe people in your life supporting you, anything is possible.

Jenn Bovee, LCSW is a life coach and psychotherapist. Jenn offers in person therapy as well as distance counseling. If you would like to learn more about Jenn please go here: www.JennBoveeLCSW.com