The Cool Communicator: What is a Dysfunctional Home?

By Karen E Herrick, PhD ~

Many popular television shows talk daily about dysfunctional homes.  One of the most dysfunctional types for children is a home where parents argue and then refuse to speak to each other.  This type of atmosphere causes children to live in a highly stressed environment.  In this atmosphere the children’s emotional needs are not met because their parents are not paying attention to them.  Their parents are expending their energy in their power struggle with each other.  These children will then assume “survival roles.”  Depending on their individual personalities they will rigidly fall into the roles of:

  • Heroes are overly responsible children and people
  • Scapegoats who get attention through negative behavior
  • Lost children who are shy and withdrawn
  • Macots or clowns who use humor in any way to get attention
  • Placators who are always taking care of others’ needs

How rigid the role of each child becomes depends on the degree of dysfunction in the family.  The type or personality of your parents is important also.  Whether or not you perceived yourself to be in a dangerous situation as a child determines whether or not you believe your family to be more or less dysfunctional.  Statistics are that 95-98% of families in the United States are dysfunctional on some level.

The three rules in most dysfunctional families that children learn are:  don’t trust, don’t talk and don’t feel.  Many times it is therapy that teaches us how to trust again.  Guidelines for being with people who you can trust are:

  • They should not abuse your feelings
  • They should be honest with you
  • They should let you be yourself and not judge you
  • They will keep confidences when you ask them to do so
  • Being with people like this will teach you how to trust yourself

Stages of recovery start with coming out of your family with certain survival skills.  You watch a TV show, read an article or a book and realize you are from a dysfunctional home and have assumed a particular role or roles.  Then comes a flash of a lightening bolt as the “ah ha” feeling comes over you.  This is what is wrong!  With this awareness comes new energy that allows you to identify some of your behaviors and give you new strength to learn more about yourself.

Identifying your “core issues” such as:  the issue of wanting to control, which is usually huge, ignoring personal feelings and needs, not trusting your own feelings or perceptions, which fills decisions and self-direction with anxiety, feeling overly responsible for parents and other sin the world and having difficulty with intimate relationships.

If you are in therapy or are a “self-help” person you can start making the connections between your present behaviors and past circumstances and learn how to change to new behaviors.  This transformation takes time – about 10% of the age you are when you begin this journey into recovery.  Integrating new behaviors feels wonderful when you not longer think one thing, feel another and do something else.  You can also make mistakes without hating yourself.

The genesis stage is the final spiritual stage where you learn to transcend your past traumas and become creative using your recovery as a stepping-stone to a different life.   One positive spiritual component that comes from dysfunction that is virtually unknown is that dysfunctional people “zoned out” in their original family, which is called dissociating.  This means they have a greater ability in adulthood to have spiritual experiences.

A spiritual experience of the immediate kind is often described as a transcendent relationship between a person and a higher being, which goes beyond a specific religious affiliation.  Some types of spiritual experiences are

  • Seeing and/or talking to dead loved one (25% of population)
  • Having extrasensory perception (5l% of population)
  • Having a Near Death Experience (20% of population)

Usually when people tell of a spiritual experience they’ll start by saying, “I don’t have the words to describe this to you” or “You’re going to think I’m crazy when I tell you this but…”  And then they tell you what happened to them.

If more people realized that approximately 50% of people in the United States and England have these types (and other kinds) of spiritual experiences, may more would explain theirs to us and the world would be a more spiritual place.  These experiences add substance to people’s lives and people need permission to talk about them.  This is a huge benefit that comes from living in a dysfunctional home.

This excerpt comes from the book “You’re Not Finished Yet” written by Karen E. Herrick, PhD. who has shared her clinical expertise for the past twenty-plus years in her private practice in Red Bank, NJ (  She has lectured throughout the United States on dysfunctional homes, grief, loss and dissociation.  Her book reveals ways to overcome one’s childhood and ends with chapters on spirituality and the development of your soul.  Available on, & E book.


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