NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families Often Have Difficulty Completing Things

As I mentioned in earlier articles, until they get psychological help, many adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) and dysfunctional families have difficulty in adult relationships.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families Often Have Difficulty Completing Things

These difficulties usually stem from growing up in a family where they lived in a chaotic household where the parents were often drunk, unpredictable, irresponsible and created chaos in the family.

Since dysfunctional family dynamics are often intergenerational, chances are good that these patterns will continue from one generation to the next until the adult child of a dysfunctional family decides to get psychological help to break this pattern.

One of the difficulties is problems completing things, which include personal project, educational pursuits, work projects and so on.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many different cases to protect confidentiality, illustrates how these dynamics play out as well as how to break this pattern:

Dan grew up in a large family where his father, Joe, was a heavy drinker and his parents often argued because of Joe's alcoholism.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families Often Have  Difficulty Completing Things

As far back as he could remember, his family's social activities revolved around the local bar.  As the oldest child of seven children, he was usually the one who helped his father to walk home on a Saturday evening at closing time when his father was too drunk to walk on his own.

Since many of Dan's friends in the neighborhood had the same role in their families, Dan didn't realize, until he became an adult, that there was anything unusual about this.  He thought that this was just how life was for the average family.

Over the course of Dan's childhood, his father had many jobs as a plumber's assistant.  Most of the time, his father would begin these jobs with enthusiasm.  But soon after he began, he would complain about the boss's unfairness, perceived slights, and many other gripes that he would had.

Within a few months, he began to go in late or he just didn't show up at all.  On the days when he didn't bother to go in, he would hang out with his buddies in the bar.  Soon after that, he would lose his job and begin searching for another one where he would repeat the same pattern.

As a result, the family was often in a state of emotional and financial chaos.  Dan's mother, Liz, Dan and his brothers were usually on an emotional roller coaster, hoping the good times would last when times were good and dreading that the bad times would never end when times were bad.

As Joe's drinking problem progressed, Liz got a job as a school aide to help pay the bills.  Even though her salary was low, she managed, somehow, to always have food on the table, although it might be meager.  But she was constantly fending off the landlord, threats of eviction, and bill collectors.

When Joe could no longer work because his alcoholism created health problems, as a young adult, Dan became the primary breadwinner for the family, and his younger brothers helped out by getting part time jobs.  During that time, his mother went to nursing school and eventually got a job in a hospital as a nurse.

Volunteering for double shifts, Liz earned more money than the family had ever seen.  By then, Dan was able to enroll in college where he met and fell in love with Linda.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families Often Have Difficulty Completing Things

Throughout his life, Dan had difficulty completing things.  Even when he was a child, he would start assembling a model car with enthusiasm, but then he would lose interest and drop the project.

Dan was enthusiastic about starting college, but he soon found himself struggling to stay organized and keep up with the work.  Since he was very bright, he sailed through high school without much effort and without completing many of his assignments, but he discovered that college required more, which frightened him.

Whenever Dan felt frustrated and wanted to quit, Linda would encourage him to stick it out.  She helped him to try to stay calm and get organized, but he continued to struggle with an urge to quit.

At that point, Dan realized that he had a problem, but he didn't understand what was happening to him.  So, he decided to go to the college counseling center, where he was able to have three sessions with a clinical social worker, who provided Dan with psychoeducation about how adult children of alcoholics are often affected by their family dynamics.  After the three sessions, his college counselor referred Dan to me for psychotherapy.

Initially, Dan had a problem making a commitment to come to his therapy sessions.  He seemed always on the verge of leaving, saying that he understood his problems and he didn't see the need to continue.

The initial stage of our work involved helping Dan to develop better coping skills, which he was never taught as a child.  As a result, Dan had low tolerance for frustration or anything that required sustained effort.

At that point in his therapy, his motivation was mostly external:  He knew that if he quit college, his chances of getting the kind of job that he wanted would be nil.  

I helped Dan to see the difference between intellectual insight, which is what he had at that point, and actually using this insight to make the changes he said he wanted to make.  As we looked at his life, he admitted that insight alone wasn't helping him to change.

Then, we began working on Dan's early childhood trauma, including the shame that he felt about himself and his family, as well as breaking self destructive patterns related to his trauma.

Even though Dan was aware of the negative impact of his family dynamics, until then, he never thought of himself as having been traumatized.  He had problems accepting this, at first, until he began to connect, on an emotional level, his experiences in his family with his current problems.

Since talk therapy only took us so far, I introduced Dan to concepts of mind-body oriented psychotherapy, including clinical hypnosis, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing.

Over time, by using EMDR, Dan began to work through his childhood trauma (see my article:  What is EMDR? and How Does EMDR Work?).  It wasn't easy work, but the coping skills that he learned early on in therapy helped him.

Gradually, Dan noticed that he began to feel better about himself and he no longer felt ashamed.  He no longer felt responsible for his father's alcoholism and his enmeshed childhood family dynamics.

As Dan became more self aware and self confident, he was able to tolerate frustration better and he no longer felt the need to quit college.  He completed his assignments on time and enjoyed learning.

As Dan saw positive results in our work, he felt encouraged to continue to do the work.  He also began attending Al-Anon for additional emotional support, and Liz attended her own Al-Anon meetings to help her avoid codependent dynamics.

Dysfunctional Family Dynamics Without Alcohol
Although this article focuses on ACOA dynamics related to alcoholism, many people, who grew up in dysfunctional families where there was no substance abuse, also experience similar dynamics.

Aside from substance abuse, intergenerational patterns of trauma, regardless of their origins, can create similar dynamics.

See my other articles on this topic:
Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: Confusing Love and Pity
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people who are affected by childhood trauma related to dysfunctional families, never get the psychological help that they need.  The result is that they continue to perpetuate these dynamics in their own lives as well as in their children's lives.

If these issues resonate with you, even though taking the first step might seem hard, you owe it to yourself and your spouse and family to get psychological help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients with these issues.

With help in therapy, you and your family could be living a happier life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients who grew up in dysfunctional families to thrive.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.