Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Family relationships can be sources of strength or systems of dysfunction. A parent’s choices, fortunately or unfortunately, can decide life for everyone else. Often, their ways of operating don’t serve a healthy family life and emotional well-being.
You are responsible for your adult life, but that life was shaped by what your parents/guardians did and didn’t do. Unfortunately, as children, we don’t have the emotional wisdom and maturity to recognize if the environment we were raised in was toxic. So in order to get along, we just went along.
As an adult and mentor, take some time to identify the level of family health you experienced during your upbringing. Here’s a framework of family health. Where do you fall in this framework?
Family Health Level
Level 5 – Severely troubled family. This a very confused family where there is no clear leadership, no clarity or coherence, and a constant sense of danger. It’s full of unresolved conflicts and ungrieved losses, similar to a picture of a nation at war with itself.
Level 4 – Dictatorship. Instead of anarchy, there is a rigid system of rules enforced by intimidation and threats. Financial abuse is a common form of control. There is no room for diverse perspectives and no patience with ambiguity. The perceptions are black and white.
Level 3 – Average. At this level, there is no chaos or dictatorship, but the rules of the family are seen as more important than the people. You must follow the rules in order to feel loved. The words “should” and “ought” best define the family. People’s emotional lives must be bottled up for the good of all. The chance of true emotional intimacy between one another is limited at this level.
Level 2 – Suitable. At this level, there is flexibility around the rules when the situation calls for a wise revision. Family members sometimes experience real delight and feelings of love and trust. There is a good capacity for growth in intimacy.
Level 1 – This level is similar to Level 2, but to a greater degree. There is a strong sense of security and trust. If there is a difference of perspective, there is either a strong chance that it can be worked out or that the alternative viewpoint will be respected.
What level was your family? Who made the rules, and what were the consequences of not following them? What can you add to the description for your family’s level?
How did your family handle important decisions that needed to be made? How did your family adjust to change?
It’s been said that a family is where a life makes up its mind. Patterns of sin and brokenness can be transmitted through the generations. To change, you must identify the sins of the family, because when you can see the patterns, you can then make a conscious decision to interrupt or break from those patterns.
We shouldn't disrespect or betray our parents, but we need to see them objectively. Just because you love your family doesn't mean you have to be like them.
My time on this Earth has taught me that sometimes life is not fair and we reap what we have not sown. You may not have created the problem, but it's yours to heal. It can be helpful to establish generational patterns and earthquake events. Generational patterns are incidents that tend to recur throughout the generations. You can decide to follow the pattern, or decide you will not follow it. Earthquake events are usually one-time, extremely disruptive incidents that change family life.
Generational themes of families: Out-of-wedlock birth, affairs, sexual abuse, alcoholism, workaholism, divorce, abortions, addictions, unstable marriages, enmeshment (overly close relationships), emotional abuse, financial instability, teenage pregnancy, untreated mental illness, domestic violence, incarceration, drug abuse
Earthquake events: Premature death, abuse, suicide, war, cancer, business collapse, infidelity, natural disasters, or immigration from another country.
Considering these lists of family themes and earthquake events. Which of these apply to your family of origin? What are some insights regarding how your family has been impacted, and how this has affected who you are today? What reflections and resolutions do you have from the lists above?
Examples of Reflections and Resolutions on themes and earthquakes:
· I saw that the men in my family did not stay faithful to their wives so I will stay faithful to mine.
· My father and grandfather were alcoholics, so I know what I need to stay away from.
· My family has generations of out-of-wedlock births. It hasn’t turned out well for us.
· My parent’s addiction decided life for all of us. I’m going to be a better father to my daughter, so she doesn’t go through what I went through.
· I don’t want my son to have a father who is still broken in some areas because of childhood sexual abuse. I’m going to start going to counseling.
· I am my father’s son, but not my father’s choices. The cycle of incarceration ends with me.
· I’m not doing myself or my future family any favors by keeping secrets.
Some of us have become stuck in our family’s value system and way of relating. You often have to re-organize your life to break cycles, rooting out deeply ingrained family patterns. The process might prove far more difficult than you expect.
In many ways, this process is a continual one. Life will always throw new challenges at us that expose the values and ways of relating from our family background that need to change. An important part of this exercise is determining what newfound realizations you have made. Here’s a statement that you might use in your group or even in your own personal time of reflection.
1. What are you beginning to realize?
2. In light of this exercise, what is one step that you can take to change harmful or negative generational patterns that have affected my life?
Examples of Responses
1. I am beginning to realize is that changing these family patterns is like getting off crack cocaine. Breaking deeply rooted family patterns might prove to be one of the most difficult tasks of my life.
2. I am beginning to realize that real peace is not living in stable misery.
3. I am beginning to realize that the baggage of our families continues to shape us, even after we’ve left the house.
4. I am beginning to realize that it’s not only about changing who you are in front of people, but changing the depth of who you are.
5. I am beginning to realize that some demons are inherited. Others are invited.
6. I am beginning to realize that when you hear the voices that say “You are going to be just like your mom or dad,” you have to talk back.
7. I am beginning to realize that if you don’t deal with your stuff, your stuff will deal with you.
8. I am beginning to realize that truth and freedom go hand in hand; if you're not living in truth, then you're not free.
9. I am beginning to realize that if I do my work, I can help others do theirs.
10. I am beginning to realize that I was too indoctrinated with my family’s script to receive contrary paradigms that might have been better for me.
11. I am beginning to realize that I didn't create the problem, but it's mine to heal.
12. I am beginning to realize that my biological family of origin does not determine my future; God does.
13. I am beginning to realize that to see your drama clearly is to begin to free yourself from it.
14. I am beginning to realize that I can build on the positive legacies and heal the negative ones.
Practical Next Steps
· Pick up information on family backgrounds and how they affect us. I suggest Unlocking Your Family Patterns: Finding Freedom from a Hurtful Past by Dr. Henry Cloud, Dave Carder, Dr. John Townsend, Dr. Earl Henslin and The Genogram Journey: Reconnecting with Your Family by Monica McGoldrick
· Start a small group based around Part 1 (Self-Awareness) and Chapters 31 to 35 of Bridge the Gaps.
· Find a therapist. To be sure, much of the territory is beyond my level of expertise, but there are experts who can help you sort through what you inherited and what you want to use going forward.