Generational Patterns of Family Dysfunction

dysfunctional family

We all tend to think that our families are crazy. When we live under the same roof as a group of widely variant individuals for any prolonged period of time, we are more than likely to develop a strong sense of their unique characters – defects, peculiarities, neuroses, and shortcomings. We may become harshly critical of the way that our family members conduct themselves. It is extremely normal to fight with our loved ones on occasion – even regularly, depending on the stage of our lives that we, ourselves, are in. During our early teenage years, for example, we may feel as if our parents are truly out to get us. We may feel as if we have to fight them tooth-and-nail to gain any semblance of autonomy. In most cases, this feeling is valid. At our certain point in our young lives, we do begin fighting for independence and self-sufficiency. We innately experience major inner conflicts between our authentic selves, intrinsic desires, and the values and belief systems that our families instilled upon us.

Attachment and Familial Dysfunction

John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist notable for his interest in child development and his pioneering work in attachment theory, first suggested the validity of inner-generational transfers. He observed that most of these generational transfers occurred through the development of mental models in the minds of the affected children, rather than through the observation and learning of certain behaviors (such as abusiveness). These working mental models are now professionally referred to as schemas, and are recognized as such by both psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapists. We are able to look at the subjective experiences of the involved children throughout the developmental process, and identify patterns that can be attributed to or directly linked to generational transfers. What does this mean? In so many words, it means that parent-child interactions (from infancy and on through development) will inevitably shape the way the child feels, thinks, and acts well on into adulthood. We strive for autonomy, yet will be unable to keep escape the influences of our parental figures.

“Patterns of relating are considered to have more far-reaching consequences than specific traumatic events.” Zeanah and Zeanah (Psychiatry, 52, p. 182, 1989)

The Ways in Which We Rebel

When therapists first began studying the interactional patterns of the families of their patients, they made quite an alarming discovery. What they discovered has not been covered to much extent in later empirical studies. While many children had adopted the dysfunctional behavioral patterns of their parents, others children seemed to veer in the total opposite direction. There was rarely a middle ground. For example, the children of alcoholic parents will typically either begin abusing alcohol themselves – or, completely avoid drinking any alcoholic beverages for the entirety of their lives. The child of a workaholic parent will either fall into the same patterns of workaholism as his mother or father, or go for years without employment of any kind, claiming disability and spending his days at home watching television. In some instances, patterns will vary from generation to generation. One generation of a specific family may be predominantly alcoholic, the next generation may avoid alcohol at all costs, and the third generation might struggle immensely with addiction.

Intrapsychic Conflict

If issues such as these were exclusively genetic, it would be impossible to explain why some children tend to veer in the total opposite direction of their parents, avoiding the self-destructive behavioral patterns they witnessed they parents employ. This strange pattern can be attributed, at least in part, to intrapsychic conflict. For example, a patient may come from a strictly religious background. The parents of the child may have continuously condemned all hedonistic pursuits, and had focused the majority of their condemnation on the evils of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Perhaps there is some ambivalence towards alcohol in general, seeing as his parents do imbibe on occasion. When the child chooses to rebel, he leans towards the perceived lesser of all evils. He would, on some deep level, be acting out upon the suppressed urges of his parents – while simultaneously proving to them that their advice should have indeed been heeded. The child grows up to be a self-destructive alcoholic, and his son, when old enough to actively rebel, decides to do so by becoming a teetotaler. This generational pattern of rebelling by rejecting obvious behavioral patterns may then continue for decades and decades.

Of course, it is entirely possible to reverse these generational patterns of behavioral dysfunction at any point in time. If the child who is rebelling against his strictly religious parents is guided towards identifying the underlying issue, he may be less inclined to pick up heavy drinking as a method of spiteful retaliation. Instead, he may be guided towards a healthy development of his own religious practice or spiritual ideals. We at Next Chapter have extensive experience working closely alongside men who have adopted self-destructive patterns from their parental figures, as well as men who have rejected the ideals their parents instilled upon them in unproductive and harshly detrimental ways. We work to help our patients develop a strong sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency, and slowly ease them into becoming the independent and self-contained men we know they are more than capable of being.