October 11, 2021
Disclaimer: This article does not cover issues of physical or sexual abuse in the family.
We may not be aware of it, but the way we think and act are primarily shaped by our childhood experiences and the families we come from. The way we respond to and cope with anxiety is one of those areas heavily shaped by the worldviews and values of our families.
As we try to determine how our family dynamics affect our lives, this may open our eyes to the wrong we’ve done to each other within the family, but that is not our goal. We want to recognize the effect of our actions on one another, acknowledge the shortcomings of our parents and siblings, embrace our own shortcomings and sinfulness towards them, and, in so doing, take the initial steps to extend forgiveness to and receive forgiveness from family members so that emotional healing can happen.
Reconciliation may happen and any relational breaks may be mended by God’s grace. But we must manage our expectations. This process will take time. We cannot expect our self-awareness to be instantly understood by our family members. We cannot expect them to want to change their ways, too. Change will require God’s grace for hard work, and most people will stick to old ways because it requires less effort, even if these ways were dysfunctional.
Our family’s response to the change of our mindset and behavior will not always be ideal, but take heart, your humility and love will flow like water on solid rock. It may take a while for the water to chip away at the rock, but it will certainly leave an indelible mark.
If this is such hard work, why bother to change how we respond to family dynamics? After all, you seem to have survived the pain and hurt of your childhood.
Here’s the hard truth: Unmet needs, role reversals, and other dysfunctions in our family can lead to difficulties and dysfunctions in our current and future relationships.
Do you easily get anxious when there’s conflict?
Do you feel responsible to address every need?
Are you afraid of intimate relationships?
Are you having a hard time expressing your negative emotions?
When your heart is heavy, are you able to cry?
If you have answered yes to any of these questions, that means emotional healing needs to happen so that we can relate with others in a healthier way.
How do you know that you have become healthier in relating with others? You are on the path to become a healthier person when you start embracing responsibility for your own worldview, thoughts, feelings, and actions while enjoying a sense of belonging in your relationships. You become your own person without losing intimacy with family and friends.
There are many possible approaches to becoming your own person while honoring your parents. Let’s zero in on responding in a healthier way to family rules.
In order for us to gain the right perspective and make steps towards the right response, we need to recognize whether the dynamics in our family relationships are functional or dysfunctional.
(Source: Corey & Corey. 2015. Becoming a Helper, 7th edition. Cengage Publishing)
It’s not right for us to label our own family as “functional” or “dysfunctional.” Because of our human failings, certain aspects of our family life will tend to be unhealthy. Instead, ask yourself these two questions: What specific aspects about your family dynamics tend to be unhealthy? What aspects were healthy, functional, and helpful?
As you uncover these realities, pray for your family members. The first step for a change in family dynamics is for your family members to encounter the gospel and have a change of heart and mind as they follow Jesus Christ. But as a child who may not have the authority to change the family rules, what can you do?
Every family has a set of rules that govern interactions between family members. Family rules are essential, and they initially assist children in responding to fear, helplessness, or anger. They are supposed to act as safety nets to a child in preparation for independence from their parents and for interaction with the rest of the world. Sometimes, parents dictate these rules in an attempt to control the situation when they feel worried or helpless.
Family rules include dos and don’ts, unspoken rules, family myths and secrets, as well as silent messages of parents to children. Where rules can go wrong is when they lack choice or when they are impossible to maintain.
Always stay on top.
You must not get angry.
Boys never cry.
Don’t ever shame your family.
These kinds of rules can lead to unhealthy responses to negative situations or emotions, which can result in chronic anxiety. How can we navigate these rules so that we honor our parents and yet stay emotionally healthy and centered as an individual?
1. Evaluate the rule. Do I have a choice? Is it possible to follow the rule every single time? For instance, you may consider these questions for the rule “Always stay on top.” Do you have control over the performance of other people? What if you have a classmate who is far smarter or more talented than you are? Does that mean you are of less value? Do you beat yourself up, or even cut corners and cheat just to follow the rule?
If you have believed something untrue about yourself or done something dishonoring to God because of this, it’s time to acknowledge the sin, receive God’s forgiveness, and repent.
2. Try to change the “never,” “always,” or “must” to “sometimes.” For instance, for the rule “you must not get angry,” there are certainly instances when we should get angry. We should be angry when we see injustice being done, when we experience the consequence of someone’s irresponsibility, or when others presume to know how we think or feel. Therefore, we can try to shift this rule to “I can sometimes get angry.”
Also, when they say this, your parents or guardians might mean “You must not express your anger explosively.” There are certainly ways to express anger without being explosive or damaging.
3. Communicate to your parents or guardians your reflection. For families open to communication, getting clarity from each other is important. If you haven’t tried communicating to your parents before, this can be an opportunity to try. It is important for your parents to realize the negative impact of some rules they have given. Sometimes, all they need is awareness to clarify the rule or to make a change. If you’ve attempted to have a conversation before but your parents or guardians are not open to it, process it with God and open up to a trusted person for advice.
The truth is, more often than not, parents want to be better at loving and protecting their children. But because we live in an imperfect world and we are imperfect people, what we think is best may inadvertently hurt the people we love. This is why Jesus Christ preached about forgiveness a lot—repenting and receiving forgiveness from God as well as extending forgiveness to and receiving it from each other.
As Christians, we may find ourselves having to do the humbling and tiring work of forgiving and asking for forgiveness a lot more than we receive it from others. But praise God that He gives unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness to us. Because of that, we have enough grace to offer love and forgiveness to others.