Stuck in Family Dysfunction? Here’s How to Free Yourself

Dysfunctional family characteristics

Dysfunctional family behaviors can derail even the most well-intentioned plans. These five steps will help your family adopt a functional approach to elder care:

Mary is a 55-year-old woman, but whenever she tries to help her elderly parents, she ends up feeling like a wounded child, forever vulnerable to her mother’s criticisms and reprimands. These feelings intensify whenever Mary’s older brother Joe is around. Mary believes her parents have always favored Joe, and that leaves her more hurt and at times, even resentful.

Sound familiar? Are personality conflicts, sibling rivalries or other long-standing family issues impacting your relationship with your elderly parents?

During my thirty-plus years working with countless families and their aging loved ones, I have learned that often the most challenging aspect of elder care isn’t the senior or the senior’s needs—it’s the family dynamic. And the larger the family, the more complicated that dynamic becomes.

Think about it: When family members start having conversations about elder care, everyone brings their own experiences, perceptions, and motivations to the table. Add in medical complications and other stressors associated with the aging process, and you have all the ingredients for a full-scale emotional quagmire. That’s why even the kindest and most well-intentioned individuals can get bogged down in family dysfunction when faced with the prospect of caring for and supporting their elderly loved ones.

What is a Dysfunctional Family?

If something is “functional,” it works. In a functional family, the relationships have a sense of balance and stability, and interactions occur smoothly, without major conflicts.

In a dysfunctional family, the opposite is true, and relationships, communications, and interactions are off kilter. Reaching agreements about the types of family dysfunction can be complicated if not impossible.

Often, family dysfunction is so deeply rooted in a family’s habits and history that family members aren’t aware of it. In other families, their dysfunctional family characteristics tend to let it creep in over time as equilibrium shifts, and as abilities, perceptions and priorities change. Little by little, family members become used to specific patterns of behavior, and eventually, most will stop trying to set things right. In both cases, it is more natural and more comfortable to stick with the status quo.

When you’re caring for elderly parents, there may inevitably come a time when even the comfortable status quo is no longer a healthy or sustainable option. As difficult as it might be, you may recognize that it’s time to break out of old dysfunctional family characteristics and move forward, for your family’s sake.

But how?

Signs of a Dysfunctional Family

As you’ve probably heard before, recognizing the problem—or in this case, the obstacle to change—is the first step in solving it. Over the past three decades, I’ve observed many signs of dysfunctional families. Here are the main causes of a dysfunctional family that I’ve found to be most common:

  • Lack of objectivity. When you are dealing with your own family, it’s difficult to view situations factually. Instead, you tend to look through thick “lenses,” forged by all the interactions—both good and bad—of your family relationships.
  • Denial. Because aging can cause so much anguish, your parents or your siblings may refuse to acknowledge it’s happening. In so doing, they choose to deny the challenges that lie ahead.
  • Inability to let go. Most people don’t like change and will cling to old patterns and perceptions for as long as they possibly can. Your family members may be sticking with certain behaviors—even the most dysfunctional ones—just because those behaviors are familiar and safe.
  • Unfinished business. Some families can’t function well because siblings hold onto grudges or have a habit of dredging up past injustices. Could sibling rivalries be undermining perfectly good plans in your family?
  • Hidden benefits. Sometimes dysfunction actually works, at least for one member of the family. For example, I recently cared for a woman whose daughter relished her role as the family’s chief organizer. She didn’t mind all the chaos involving her mother and her siblings because her self-esteem was linked to her ability to consistently “put out the fires.”

When it comes time to support and care for an aging loved one, getting stuck behind obstacles like these can be extremely detrimental. I have seen time and time again how functional families can meet difficult situations head-on, clearing the hurdles along the way and arriving at meaningful, positive solutions. Meanwhile, dysfunctional families tend to stay in one place, spinning their wheels and experiencing the most distress.

5 Steps to Overcome Family Dysfunction

If you feel that your family is struggling with dysfunctional patterns, know that you can break free. Once you have identified the obstacles that are holding you back, follow these five steps to help your family adopt a more functional approach when dealing with elder care issues:

    1. Evaluate the underlying issues. Ask a third-party expert, like a Geriatrician, Aging Life Care Professional™ or a Geriatric Care Manager, to assess your family’s specific needs, preferences and risks. It’s critical to begin at this very basic level of understanding, and it’s essential to ask someone else for help. If you try to do this type of analysis yourself, you could easily sabotage the whole process by making invalid assumptions from the start.
    2. Prioritize. Once you fully understand your family’s needs, preferences and risks, have everyone work together to identify the top priorities. Resolve to tackle only one or two issues at a time; taking on more may leave you feeling so overwhelmed that you end up accomplishing nothing.
    3. Keep the focus on your elderly loved ones. If you haven’t already, now is the time to have a conversation with your parents about their well-being. You need to fully understand their wants and needs so you can help them make decisions in line with their wishes. If a medical issue, cognitive decline, depression or some other condition prevents your parents from taking an active role, make decisions that are consistent with the conclusions they would make if they could.
    4. Balance the family caregiver needs. Caring for seniors isn’t easy, and the path forward is rarely straight. Make sure you and your family members get the support you need, too.
    5. Take action. Create a plan that includes specific tasks. Identify the interventions you need to undertake, who’s responsible for each one, how the tasks are going to be completed and when people are going to report back on their progress. Finally, remember to update the plan periodically.

Even if you follow these five steps, peeling back layers and layers of conflict between and among family members can seem daunting. If you need more help, reach out to geriatric care professionals and/or counselors who can coach your family through the process and help you understand the issues that need to be addressed. With their guidance, you’ll be able to start repairing your family’s dysfunction as you build healthier relationships with your loved ones of every age.

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Steven Barlam

Author Steven Barlam

Steven Barlam, MSW, LCSW, CMC is the Chief Professional Officer and Co-Founder of LivHOME. Since 1985, Steve has worked exclusively in the field of geriatrics, working directly with clients and their families, and developing innovative service delivery models. He has served as President of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. Steve is a regular lecturer at local universities and national conferences on topics relating to care management, technology, and patient/client care.

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