The simplest meaning of “dysfunctional” is “doesn’t work right.” Dysfunction comes in differing degrees. Some dysfunctional things or people grate on one’s nerves just a little bit—like a squeaky door. But when a situation involves people who must relate to each other or when circumstances are perceived as intolerable, you must do one of two things. You must modify this situation—at least partially—or remove yourself. For example, when a dysfunctional organ or system of your body results in disease, you’d better see a doctor sooner rather than later if you want to survive.
When families become dysfunctional, society becomes dysfunctional because the family is society’s foundational unit. Alcohol, drug abuse, “workaholism,” mental illness, parental neglect, indifference, abandonment, or the untimely death of a family member can contribute to personal dysfunction and dysfunctional group behavior. Even a physical disease like congestive heart failure can become so serious that significant cognitive impairment, cantankerous attitudes, and impaired interpersonal relationships result, all because the blood vessels supplying the brain are not receiving sufficient blood and oxygen for its needs. Like a genetic disease, dysfunction is frequently passed on in some form from generation to generation. Its ripples can affect society in social costs, affecting non-familial relations. They sap our energy and resources, as would a chronic disease. The extent to which a specific family dysfunction influences us depends upon the degree, timing, and context in which we received the abuse, injustice, or injury and our coping capacities.
In this article, we will gingerly, but openly, explore issues with which individuals from dysfunctional homes have to contend, and offer some suggestions that promote healing, health and happiness. I choose to write from the viewpoint of an adult child from a dysfunctional family and from a Judeo-Christian philosophy. However, the principles outlined apply powerfully to any dysfunctional relationship. For example, children from dysfunctional parents often become dysfunctional themselves. Perhaps they overcompensate and become perfectionists to earn approval. Or as adult children they can become manipulative, demanding interest fees from their divorced parents—a guilt trip, in other words.
Again, there could be a codependent friendship or workaholism—a super-demanding boss. For encouragement, let us consider some real people who experienced some degree of dysfunction in their homes as children and who, in spite of this, blessed the world with their presence.
When Eleanor Roosevelt was born, her gorgeous socialite mother, Anna, marveled that she could have produced such a homely child. “She was a sensitive, timid child, and from her earliest years Eleanor knew she was a disappointment to her mother, who would look at Eleanor rather coldly, worrying that her daughter might never become beautiful. She would even discuss it in the presence of Eleanor and her friends. Even as an adult, memories of her mother’s attitude haunted her—echoing the painful realization, ‘I’m ugly.’ ” 1
When Eleanor was eight, her mother died, and her father’s alcoholism prevented his caring for her. While under the care of a strict but concerned grandmother, she was exposed to two mentally ill relatives. One was an alcoholic uncle who would shoot at the neighbors and their children. For Eleanor’s protection, her grandmother sent her to boarding school as soon as possible. Homely as Eleanor was, even in her twenties her loveliness of personality was evident as she reached out to help the poor. Although betrayed in her marriage, distressed by a controlling mother-in-law, and struggling with depression, she persistently espoused social rights. Yes, indeed, Americans owe a lot to this daughter of a dysfunctional home, as she advocated the rights of the poor, the unfortunate, and women.
How about Winston Churchill? Although his parents provided for his physical needs, they were not there for him emotionally. They would often be away when he went home on vacation from his boarding school. In spite of his heavy drinking, smoking, and bouts of depression, God used him to save Western Europe from Hitler.
As a child, Dorie Van Stone’s mother would put her into a drawer and then close it. Eventually she left Dorie at an orphanage, where a lesbian matron sexually abused her. At age 14, she entered a foster system that moved her from one home to another, where she was almost always abused. Fortunately, before she left the orphanage, this little terror of a teenager heard about and accepted the love of God. As a young lady, she finally located her father. However, her joy was short-lived, for, unfortunately, he too rejected her. But in spite of all this, for decades she has been a successful, warm, and sometimes jubilant motivational speaker and missionary. 2
How to Survive
Maybe you happen to be one of those “good” troubled youth. Or perhaps you were one that got into trouble a lot. Maybe you are middle-aged and still hear critical voices from the past shouting into your psyche, maligning your genuine accomplishments. Or perhaps in your work you almost daily come in contact with the hurting and the deprived. What solace do you have to offer? What spiritual dynamics need to be recognized before you can offer the gospel to these suffering ones? Maybe God is calling you to be a mentoring mom or dad. If any of these situations apply to you, I would like to suggest to you five life-giving principles to speed your healing or help others who come from dysfunctional homes.
Principle 1: Beware of bird’s nests
There is an old adage that says, “You can’t prevent birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from making nests in your hair.” This holds true for negative automatic thinking that is fueled by relational dysfunctionality. Their actions set up distorted thought patterns and emotional auras that contribute to depression, uncontrollable anger and rage, and paralyzing anxiety. Here are some detrimental patterns of thinking we need to recognize and replace if we are going to progress.
Personalization: In this distorted thought pattern we assume the blame for a problem outside of our responsibilities or capabilities. When parents divorce, for example, children often blame themselves. I know that when my mom became mentally ill, I thought, If I had washed the dishes and cleaned my room, she wouldn’t have suffered this mental illness. If I had been a better daughter, this wouldn’t have happened.
Perhaps Danny Smith’s parents are separated. Mr. Smith promised to take his son camping but doesn’t show. Danny thinks, He didn’t show again. Guess I don’t count! So when someone disappoints him as an adult, Danny thinks, I don’t count and spirals down into deep depression. When he can’t take this contempt any longer, he lashes out in anger or perhaps resorts to addictions. These are examples of unwarranted personalizations.
This and any other kind of distorted thinking pattern is dangerous in that it usurps the true value that God places on us. The healing answer is: “The Scriptures reveal that God wants you, He loves you, and He has chosen you. 3 This love, if accepted, is powerful enough to satisfy all love hunger. Of course, it takes time for increasing maturity to realize the possibilities of this healing love.
- Labeling is a kind of jumping to conclusions in which a parent applies a negative term to a complex situation. Sammy fails math. His parents assume that Sammy is “lazy.” Don’t get me wrong. As a teacher, I know laziness and procrastination contribute to poor grades. Perhaps, though, there are other contributing factors—distractions, discouragement, individual learning-styles, and others. All of these need to be explored. It is much more accurate to say, “Sammy has problems with math,” than to call him “stupid.” Or maybe, someone refers to his own father as “my old man, the drunk.” But the father is much more; he is a human being. He needs to be treated with respect. Loving respect usually, sometimes slowly and even awkwardly, awakens respect in others.
- Selective filtering is another distorted thinking pattern that must be recognized and replaced before any healing can be maintained. In this cognitive distortion, a person focuses on one aspect, usually negative, to the exclusion of the positive. To continue our scenario, Sammy’s parents focus on his poor math grades without praising him for his good grades in social science.
Children from dysfunctional homes often see their parents as being totally evil, wrong, mean, or cowardly, without any middle ground. In many cases, dysfunctional parents do really love their children, but are emotional kids themselves. They have not learned to fulfill their legitimate emotional needs in healthful ways, so they cannot help their child meet his needs. However, they do manifest care for their children by providing for their physical needs—the one thing they know how to do.
Bobby was a handsome, talented, hard-working young man with a temper. Early in his childhood his father deserted him and his two sisters. His mother worked two jobs and had little time for nonsense. Bobby remembers her as a very strict parent. In being controlling, however, she lost control and would scream and occasionally whip her children for what Bobby later would term ordinary childish adventures. After establishing rapport with him, I asked him to make a list of the times that his mother did show that she cared for him, how he benefited from being her child, and how God turned the curse into a blessing. Here is what he came up with: He got his good looks from his mom. His smarts, too. He also remembers her working extra long hours to send him and his siblings to camp one summer. And being the oldest, he learned how to take responsibility, cook and do laundry, and work hard—that was his blessing in disguise.
When selective thinking would ruin your life, remember the good and look for ways in which God can turn the curse into a blessing. Of course, this takes time and practice, but it makes our disappointments and grief manageable.
Sometimes selective filtering is manifested in a different way. Children from dysfunctional homes can focus on all their weaknesses, but often exclude their strengths. They sink down in learned helplessness and succumb to passive insecurity: I’m no good. No one wants me. I can’t make it. Hopefully, this learned helplessness wouldn’t be present in all aspects of their lives, though this is possible, but usually it predominates in at least one area. An objective friend or counselor can help identify their strengths and potential contributions, and help them also to gradually learn to refocus.
- Generalization: This is assuming that the same negative events will happen over and over again. Worried about losing her job that she loved so much, Jill had a few days of anxiety attacks. With several disabilities, Jill feared that she wouldn’t be able to find a suitable job. However, she had determined not to let a threat of possible loss discourage her, even though she had been bounced from a few jobs previously. Thinking about other possibilities, she pondered, What is going on in my thinking? Where did this emotional aura—this stabbing, jabbing, and oppression—come from? Then she remembered what her family’s long-time cook and housekeeper had said when her mom developed manic-depression and practically disowned her, “Your mom doesn’t want you anymore,” these words had haunted her until she spiraled down into a deep depression. That assessment summarized her teenage years and perverted her discernment for years thereafter. It was buried in Jill’s psyche when she was a teenager, so that even thirty years later, whenever she is threatened by a loss, the thought No one wants me immediately intrudes into her mind. Through oversimplification and misinterpretation, the thought becomes, I am no good. Now, though it takes her some time to recognize the origin of her distress, she uses logic to combat it successfully. I do have friends and customers who do appreciate me. The good news for Jill is that Jesus is not embarrassed to have her as His sister. May I assure others who are like Jill that He loves you just as much. 4
All of us who are offspring of dysfunctional parents and perhaps somewhat maladjusted ourselves, must accept the value God places upon us, realizing God wanted us or He would not have sent His Son on such an expensive errand to redeem us.
Critical parents often leave their children with two sets of rigid cognitions. “All-or-none thinking” and “should-thinking.” In all-or-none thinking we engage in labeling events or people as all good or all bad, with no shades of gray. For example:
- If I don’t make straight A’s, I am a total failure.
- If I do not marry, my whole life will be miserable.
- Position and power are everything. I won’t get hurt if I have those.
- All pain is bad. Pain is an emotion. Therefore, I won’t feel, so I won’t hurt.
- I can’t trust anybody to understand my dysfunctional family.
- All-or-None Thinking: All-or-none thinking nullifies God's grace and graciousness in our own lives and the lives of others. Then shame accrues more interest. In addition, it promotes impatience, intolerance, and contempt. When applied to people, all-or-none thinking discounts the fact that people can learn from their mistakes. When applied to circumstances, all-or-none thinking helps us to lose sight of the fact that God has ability to transform any curse into a blessing.
So, to summarize principle one: Recognize automatic distorted thinking patterns and replace them with healthier ones. Without doing this, you will certainly lose control.
Principle 2: Set your boundaries
Boundaries are essential for devastated individuals. One of the first boundaries to address is forgiveness. Unless we forgive our dysfunctional parents, they will forever exercise their power to contaminate our lives. Roots of bitterness poison our perceptions and pervert our judgment. We make poor choices. Shame then follows.
When abuse injuries and indifference surface, forgiveness is a gradual process and a commitment. We must acknowledge our pain, allow ourselves to cry, receive some validation for our pain, and refuse to allow the past hurts to motivate us to egocentric or excessive self-protection and distrust. In forgiveness, one does remember, but does not dwell on past hurts. For this reason, I cannot accept the advice of some counselors who suggest that I chronologically record the hurtful events of my life. If one does this, positive memories or present opportunities are lost—and one is lost in a graveyard of sadness, for “by beholding we become changed.” 5
However, to a very real extent, the past helps to shape the present, and the present the future. As children we learned lessons, which are seldom obliterated. Consciously or subconsciously, negative events can motivate us toward a stunted, suspicious manner. We develop strategies of protection that subtly rob our integrity and sabotage many of our contributions to society. It is therefore imperative that we are open to learning from the past. I like the way David prayed if I can paraphrase the literal Hebrew. “Lord, search my heart, to see if there be any anger, pain, or anxiety in me—that could accumulate in wickedness in me.” 6 We might have survived the past, but we can’t live—really live—in the present until we forgive those who have hurt us. 7 In true forgiveness I must reject the devaluation that the offender or abuser has placed on me. In its place, I must accept God’s estimation of me. He sees my weakness and wickedness as well as my strengths and successes. Because He sees all and it is His very nature to love, I can accept His unconditional love. 8
Still, forgiveness and respect don’t mandate that we absolve our parents from their accountability. By all accounts, Bill Ginglen, was an upstanding citizen—a former Marine, a loving husband, a devoted father and grandfather. “Then on August 19, 2004, Jared, a Peoria, Illinois, police officer, read a story in the paper about a series of bank robberies in another part of the state. ‘The description just oddly matched my father to a T,’ Jared says. ‘The description of the vehicle—the getaway car—was the same vehicle my father drove. And he spends time over in that area.’ As he continued reading, he noticed that the newspaper story referenced a website set up by local police authorities that contained surveillance photos of one of the robberies. ‘Just to clear up my own mind, I decided to go look to be sure that it wasn't he,’ Jared says. ‘But it was.’ Jared immediately called his brothers.” 9 . They made a heart-wrenching decision to turn their Dad in to the authorities. They didn’t want anybody to get hurt.
We must hold our family members accountable when they have committed a crime, even a crime against us. To not report childhood abuse, sexual abuse, or physical abuse because it is one’s family member—is irresponsible. Mothers who ignore their abusive husbands injuring or molesting their children jeopardize the lives of their children and sacrifice the self-respect and integrity of everyone involved. The dysfunction will only accrue terrible interest rates until we heartily face it.
Forgiveness also doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation. If our parents frequently put us down, we need to recognize that this is their problem. We are not obligated to require their acceptance. If we always try to win their approval, it sets us up for defeat. However, an occasional overture in form of a letter, call, or phone visit might eventually lead to some healing. And forgiveness certainly does not mean a superficial acceptance of a superficial apology in order to be conciliatory and escape painful memories.
Principle 3: Do not project
Some of the attitudes I have regarding my parents can unwittingly be projected upon God and others. The promise and power of parenting must be recognized. Respect the power of parenting. In a perfect world, God designed parents to be as God to their children, to portray His character faithfully and accurately until the child can develop an independent concept of what a personal, loving God He really is. Our parents are to reflect the goodness of God. However, as a result of sin, individual or collective, even good parents fall short. Mark this point well. Whatever we think about our parents determines, to a great extent, our personal concept of God. This distortion, whether obvious or unconscious on our part, can profoundly impact our loved ones because it erodes our happiness, and contaminates our other important relationships.
Let me mention my own background again, if I may. Our parents had separated by the time I was three. Dad, however, would faithfully visit us children every Saturday, but when the divorce was final, he dropped out of sight completely and did not send any monetary support to our family. I know from my own personal experience, even while intellectually understanding and accepting the concept of God’s love, that somewhere in my core being, I subconsciously felt that, because my earthly father was indifferent to me, my heavenly Father was too. He never seemed to answer certain prayers. In these secret pockets of my soul it was as if I had certain black holes into which the grace of God never seemed to penetrate.
Later, I would recognize that genuine healing comes when we can discern and acknowledge how our parents negatively impacted our concept of God, and repent of projecting their deficiencies, anger, or indifference upon God. One of the first steps in this process is refusing to let what you don’t know about God shake your confidence in His love. We all use electricity, for example, but most of us don’t understand the deep scientific principles involved.
Sometimes we misplace our anger upon others. Years ago there was a colleague and supervisor that I just didn’t like or trust. When I realized that he had some of the same qualities of the distant grandfather that I lived with—small frame, frugal, avid gardener, laconic, and that subconsciously I had projected the discomfort I felt with my grandfather upon my co-worker, my relationship with him improved tremendously. Today, I regard him as a true friend and trusted advisor. I can’t help thinking that if grandfather had lived long enough, I might have had a meaningful relationship with him, also. To summarize principle three: In order for us to develop and maintain healthy relationships, we must be aware and acknowledge that we have made unhealthful transference of the negative qualities of our dysfunctional parents onto others and upon God.
Principle 4: Honor my father and mother?
King Solomon observed of one who curses his father or mother that “his light will go out in time of darkness.” 10 Whatever we reflect back to our parents will come back upon our heads—be it for good or for evil. “Indifferent” would be the one adjective that best summarizes my parents during our teen years. Although my mother was at first patient and gentle, by the time my twin sister and I entered our adolescence, my mother had developed paranoid schizophrenia. She thought we children were actually spies. Not only blinds and curtains covered the many windows of our house, but also blankets snuffed out any possible penetrating light. Mom was indifferent, incapable, scary, and embarrassing. As a teenager I was ashamed of my mom, and didn’t want to be seen with her. Clean, but unkempt in appearance, she would gyrate from the tactile hallucinations she felt. What teenager wants to go out and eat at a restaurant with her mother jerking and moving because she thought that someone was shocking her? She was so embarrassing to be with in public. However, I gained some insightful sympathy when, as a 30-something adult, I struggled with a severe social phobia which crippled my social life for a few years. I couldn’t even walk my dog! I would venture out for only work or groceries. It is a principle of life: what measure we give to others, will eventually in some way be reflected back upon us. Any contempt with which we have regarded our parents will surely come back to us.
Another point to consider is, even if we cannot respect our parents as being deserving, we can respect them as human beings. We can also honor our parents by stopping the cycle of contempt—even self-contempt caused by an unhealthy sense of shame.
Few, if any, individuals who come from a dysfunctional home themselves, have their lives together by age 30. So why should we condemn our parents so harshly for the mistakes they made? This isn’t to say we can’t hold them accountable for their actions, confront them, and express our anger to them—if it would be wise. However, in doing so, we want to exercise sympathy for their childhood development, the conditions they had to endure.
Elaborating more on my parent’s separation when I was three—the separation, as I mentioned before wasn’t too bad, because Dad visited every Saturday—faithfully. When the divorce was final, however, (we twins were eleven) he dropped out of sight—no visits, no letters, no calls, no financial support—only Christmas and birthday presents. Eventually, we made contact. Decades later, I discovered he really had had a hard decision to make—to support his mom and provide her nursing care or support his two children. He knew my mother worked (until her mental illness took over) and further, that my mother’s dad would provide for us. So we really didn’t lack any food, clothing, school supplies, or shelter.
When I was in my early forties, he also paid for my speech therapy for several years. When he died, my sister and I inherited a reasonable sum of money. Having subsequently experienced financial difficulties myself, I can better understand the dilemma that he faced as a young man. He had made a hard decision, and later paid his dues to me. I discovered that he had written to us, but apparently my mom had destroyed his letters to me. Though our relationship was rocky at times, I still do miss him. As I grow older, and learn more of the situation as it really was at the time, rather than how I perceived it, I no longer judge his behavior. As for mom, I would learn that schizophrenia was not only a mental disease, but also a brain disease that could cause damage to certain key structures in the brain. Therefore, her capacity to love and relate to her children was, to a large degree, determined by mental illness, not necessarily of her own choice.
I want to be crystal clear. There is no excuse, for abuse, alcohol addiction, or, worse yet, heartless abandonment. Still, there can be many underlying factors that contribute to various abusive behaviors, and these need to be recognized and sufficiently dealt with for the children’s resulting dysfunction to be overcome.
We also need to consider that even dysfunctional parents can make genuine contributions to society. Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln. His father was such a hard taskmaster, even physically slapping his son around at times. Lincoln developed a significant sense of serious self-depreciation. However, both his mother and later, his stepmother, encouraged him. By the time of his presidency, Lincoln had enough self-respect to invite his political rivals to be members of his Cabinet. To some extent, his own family life was also dysfunctional. At times his wife was mentally unbalanced and difficult. His biographers write that he was very distant toward his first two sons. When his second son died, he soon became overindulgent to a serious fault with his last two sons. 11 This moderately dysfunctional dad, subject to difficulties, still did much to help his nation stop its expansion of slavery and later proclaimed its abolition in the South. My point is that, even in dysfunctional families, imperfect people can make significant contributions. Abraham Lincoln is great, in part, because he cared and worked diligently in the face of obstacles—some of which came from a dysfunctional home.
How much information do we dare share? In many dysfunctional homes, children are strictly commanded to keep silent about family secrets, never divulging them under any circumstances. This degree of secrecy stifles complete mental and emotional maturity. We grow maximally when we are accepted with truth and grace. This does not happen when we totally conceal our pain and injury from others. 12 Although we are confused and hurting, some little kernel of courage within us leads us to try to learn from pain. Then our agonizing experience will not be totally in vain. This benefit requires wrestling with great themes of life. At times, for us to be healed, we need an advisor that is on our side, someone who can validate our suffering. It is usually best to proceed gradually—testing the waters, so to speak—with a trained counselor, pastor, or a friend who can be objective as well as keep confidences.
After we have gained insight and peace, we can share what we have learned to encourage others. Nonetheless, unless a crime has been committed, we do well to guard the reputations of our parents. We do not want to broadcast all the nasty details of abuse to anyone and everyone unwisely, or exaggerate our parents’ weaknesses and indiscretions.
Principle 5: Learn to accept yourself
Usually when significant trauma happens in a child’s life, it leaves him vulnerable to stunted growth and development in important areas of life. These areas must be acknowledged, accepted, and corrected before one has total freedom from his parents’ blunders. But no one can achieve his best growth unless he is within a sphere of acceptance. The love of God provides this acceptance, even when our parents have rejected or ignored us. He says, I will not cast out anyone who comes to me. To the extent we refuse to acknowledge and squelch the undeveloped parts of our character, our personalities will never totally be integrated in love and integrity.
On the average, children have certain psychological tasks to master approximately every two years. Any grade-school teacher can tell you those aged 11 to 13 are in a very important stage of social development. So if a father, for example, deserts the family when his daughter is within that age group, that daughter, as an adult, might be stunted in social aspects in her life as an adult. Understanding the stages of childhood development, then, can be a useful tool and a valid approach to helping adult children of dysfunctional homes achieve integration and well-adjusted lives. In other words, if as children we didn’t learn a particular psychological task, such as trust, determination, industry, purpose, courage, or initiative, we will have to acknowledge our deficits and patiently work upon them as adults. 13
Frequently, as children pass through different stages of development, they have fear, anxiety, anger, or sadness, and it is better for them to be taught how to express their emotions, positive or negative, rather than bottle them up inside. They need guidance to progress into constructive thoughts and actions. If their parents are wise and available, the children learn healthful ways of coping. When parents are unavailable, indifferent, or angered by their children’s needs, and these needs are left unaddressed, the children’s personality is not fully developed or integrated. Then the emotions of fear, anxiety, or dejection often result in addictions (to ease the pain) or even psychosomatic disease. For example, uncontrollable fear, devastating anger, and harmful habits and addictions are rooted in the limbic system (as the middle portion of the brain that is concerned with lower emotions is called). One may be either aware or unaware of these manifestations. If emotional pain, anger, confusion, and depression are kept inside, they often trigger disease, especially when they become attitudes. For example, anxiety and major depression increase pro-inflammatory agents that fuel chronic diseases. An epidemiological study has shown that severe bouts of anger are reported significantly more often than expected during the hour preceding myocardial infarction. 14 Other studies show that anxiety, impatience, and depression can increase the risk of even otherwise healthy men developing hypertension. 15
As some investigators believe, expression of such emotions to a wise counselor can help to transfer pain from the emotional and imaginative right side of the brain to the logical left side and also somewhat to the front brain. When a person is able to verbalize the situation and clarify it, he can start solving some problems. It is like the long-worded math problems most of us never enjoyed in high school. To solve the problem, you need to sort out the information pertinent to defining the problem, eliminate what you don’t know, and have resources available to look up what you forgot. An effective counselor might be compared with a good math teacher. He doesn’t solve the problems, but helps provide the tools with which you can solve it. Reflective thinking, applying Biblical principles to one’s situation, and pouring out our hearts to God, will help our front brain to process our problems successfully. It is the front brain, in cooperation with God, which enables us to focus, discern, and forgive.
However, just to express unbridled emotion for the sake of doing so, can be dangerous because expression deepens impression. What we say reacts back on our brain and in our minds more powerfully many times, than if left unsaid. It strengthens the circuit of anger and depression. It is when we express emotions in a safe environment to a godly counselor who distinguishes between giving wise sympathy and enabling crippling self-pity, that one can receive help. Expression by itself doesn’t necessarily heal; it is the connection, the support, the respect, and the perspectives that help to change and heal us.
Having said this, though, even legitimate needs can deteriorate into selfish, unrealistic demands. Legitimate needs can easily be degraded into uncontrollable selfishness as is seen when an adult child blames his parents’ divorce for his unhappiness as an adult and plunges into a self-destructive addiction. As important as childhood environment is, the will, strengthened by wise choices, contributes even more to adult happiness.
Meet needs in a healthy way
There are many ways God can help us mature and meet needs healthfully. One is to find a father or mother in Israel (a mentor) to befriend us. They will teach you how to struggle fearfully, but bravely, with life’s difficulties and unexpected problems. Many limitations can be overcome by teamwork, even those from childhood deprivations due to growing up in a dysfunctional family.
In His church, God has provided us with families, with friends who stick closer than blood brothers. These individuals can help to mitigate the effects of our troubled past. By becoming involved with children or adolescents, we can become more acquainted with ourselves and develop in the areas in which we need to grow. Teaching part time at a grade school has sharpened my perception of my own defects that needed to be remedied. Certain events there sometimes remind me of how I felt as a child or teenager, and perhaps those emotions tap into a current dilemma. Many times I rejoiced over my and my students’ taking leaps into maturity. Almost every time I correct or discipline, a still small voice tills the fallow ground of my heart.
A word of caution here: God’s church is also a hospital for sinners. Choose your mentors wisely, and look for one person to take the place of your mom, dad, or family. Be careful not to fall into a co-dependent relationship, where you get your self-worth from one person, one job, and one position. Balance here is absolutely essential. You need a variety of relationships and activities to achieve optimal mental health.
Don’t expect even the best friend or mentor to take the place of the parents you should have had. They can’t. If they are wise, they won’t try. God has reserved that privilege for Himself.
Undeniably, our parents have capriciously left some of us. Perhaps a cruel mental illness took them from our embrace. Sometimes they themselves, as children, were not truly loved. Having not received love, they didn’t know how to give it. For whatever reasons, we want some absolutes. If you, as I was, are in that position, you will have to search for them as in a treasure hunt. Perhaps you will pursue a wrong trail and will have to retrace your steps. You might have to go to unknown places and endure hardships as a courageous, but tired adventurer. But the treasure is waiting for you.
As a child of a literally mentally ill mom and seemingly “deadbeat dad,” I discovered two dependable absolutes that radically changed my life for good in so many ways. In Romans 4:17, Paul describes God as “calling those things that are not as though they were.” This verse gives you the first absolute. Even if you had a cruel, or maybe an indifferent or abusive dad, God has the ability to give you, as an adult, the same benefits as if you really did have a loving, wise, and wonderful parent! This principle can be applied to any dysfunctional relationship.
Remember Dorie? She was visiting California with her daughter and a friend, when her daughter wanted to go and visit the orphanage that Dorie was in as a child. Unaware of the sexual abuse that occurred there, her daughter had heard Dorie’s interesting stories and wanted to see the place. Dorie wasn’t thrilled, to say the least, but with urging from her daughter and her friend, she consented. The orphanage had been transformed into an art museum. Occasionally, one of the orphans returned to reminisce. That person was given a special guided tour.
As the guide announced, “Now, we will go to the basement,” Dorie refused and abruptly replied that there was no need to do so. The guide gently placed her hand on Dorie’s shoulder and encouraged her. “I understand, but please come. I know what happened in that room downstairs. But come and see what it is now.”
As Dorie entered the room where so much abuse had taken place, it was totally different. Her guide explained that a terrible fire had swept through the basement, and they had had to totally remodel it. This fire seemed, in her mind, as if the justice of God had devoured the abusive years meted out to so many young orphans and had validated their pain.
Perhaps you, too, have haunting memories of a variety of abuse or neglect. When I think of Dorie’s experience, I marvel in the truth of another verse, made especially for you. First Corinthians 1:28 says, “God has chosen the things which are not to bring to naught things that are.” The second absolute, then, is that God will create future events—people you do not presently know, places you haven’t been, capabilities you do not presently possess. He will create successive scenarios that will eventually nullify the detrimental effects of any abuse, neglect, or rejection you might have received in your family or from society. Like the fire that destroyed the room of Dorie’s abuse, God will destroy the effects of the abuse in your life, validate your pain, and in its place create a beautiful monument.
He has done this in my life to a large extent. I know God will continue to satisfy the demands of my craving soul. He will do that for you also. Skeptical? Raging? Hopeless? Whatever you feel, wherever you are, He understands and will definitely help you. This vertical connection with God is as vital as any horizontal connections with other human beings. With God we can, as the psalmist encourages us, “pour out our hearts at all times.” (Psalm 62:8) And it is only God who can satisfy all the needs of a longing soul. In Him and with Him we can find peace, hope, love, healing from the past, and courage in the present.
Hope for You
Everyone can look to the future with hope, for God made and loves us. He made the human brain to be plastic, not stuck in cement. This is why good things “can come out of [even] Nazareth.” Our environment does not and cannot determine our behavior. The finest of white water-lilies can come out of the blackest mud. Josiah grew into spiritual excellence in spite of dysfunctional genetics and environment. Each individual can look to God, to truth, to the future, and grow out and above the mud of the past into the sunshine of the future.
The will is the governing power in the nature of man. So, instead of focusing on the negatives of the past, the will can aim high and, sparing no pains, reach the mark. Some people are trapped in negative vicious circles by dwelling on their private negatives instead of looking, thinking, even feeling the rewards—the new motives of faith, hope, and love. These can help them take hold of God, and the duties and opportunities of better promises He affords—better thinking, better service for God and humanity. The “victimization syndrome” claims, “Don’t blame me, I came from a dysfunctional home.” Faith and gumption rise up and say, “I am the architect of my own destiny, for God can transform any curse into a blessing and Christ will be everything we let Him be to us.” Let’s GO!
American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt, PBS, transcript of film, Written by Sue Wiliams↩
1 Cor. 3:18 ↩
Hebrews 2:11 ↩
Strong’s Analytical Concordance, Ps. 129:23,24 ↩
Ps. 139:23,24 ↩
Hall, The Healing Power of Forgiveness,Journal of Health and Healing ↩
Rom. 5:7-11 ↩
Oprah Winfrey, Facing their Father, January 2006 ↩
Proverbs 20:20 ↩
Abraham Lincoln, audio books, A & E Television Network, 1996 ↩
Towsend, John; Hiding from Love ↩
Towsend, Changes that Hea l↩
Therell, T., et al, Coping with critical life events and lack of control—the exertion of control, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2005 Nov ↩