How to End Family Dysfunction by Being a Transitional Character

Updated on March 7, 2020
letstalkabouteduc profile image

Ms. Meyers became a "transitional character" after her son's autism diagnosis. She saw the dysfunction in her family and said "no more!"

To stop the dysfunction in your family, you must identify it and figure out who or what is causing it.
To stop the dysfunction in your family, you must identify it and figure out who or what is causing it. | Source
  • Do you give lip service to the notion that you came from a dysfunctional family but never gave much thought to what that really means?

  • Do you have a strong desire to change your life and be healthier, both physically and emotionally, but don't know where to start?

  • Are you wishing to parent your children differently than your mom and dad parented you but find yourself falling into the same old destructive patterns?

Like so many others who grew up in dysfunctional families, my answer was an unequivocal “yes” to all three questions. It took my son getting diagnosed with autism, though, to make me see how truly impaired my family was and that serious changes needed to be made. Moreover, it took me learning about transitional characters to finally end the dysfunction and set things right for the next generation.

When you know better, you do better!

Pinpoint the Dysfunction in Your Family

While chatting with my supremely religious 77-year-old mother, she characterized her years of parenting my sister, brothers, and me as martyrdom (defined in the dictionary as any experience that causes intense suffering). While feeling a little wounded by her words, I certainly wasn't surprised. She had never esteemed the role of mother, never wanted to be one, and often referred to parenting as “the selfish life.”

My mother had always planned on becoming a nun while growing up in Catholic boarding schools. When she announced her intentions to her father, though, he forbade it. Marrying my dad and having four children was not her dream—only her plan B. She was a reluctant mom at best, remaining emotionally detached from us kids and struggling to keep her resentment in check.

Family dysfunction rolls down from generation to generation like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to their ancestors and spares the children that follow.

— Terry Real

Become a Transitional Character

My mother's ambivalence about her maternal role was nothing new in my family's history. My grandmother and great-aunt were indifferent moms as well. Both of them abandoned their young daughters—one due to alcoholism and the other due to depression. My only female cousin is now estranged from her mom after years of emotional abuse.

Recognizing this pattern of apathetic mothering, I wanting to end it but didn't know how. That's when I started reading about transitional characters and chose to be one. I decided to become the first woman in my family for generations to fully embrace parenthood. You, too, can become a transitional character and write a new chapter in your brood's history!

You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy.

What Is a Transitional Character?

A transitional character may not have super powers such as the Hulk's astonishing strength or Spider-Man's technical prowess. Yet, within a family's lineage, a transitional character has a mighty influence to right a wrong and stop a destructive pattern. It could be alcoholism, divorce, physical abuse, name-calling, obesity, infidelity, poverty, illiteracy, and so on. A transitional character is that insightful and determined person who says: “No more! This behavior stops now with me. I don't need to parent as I was parented. I will be the change I want to see.”

It can take a deep examination to identify the dysfunction in our family because it's all we've ever known.
It can take a deep examination to identify the dysfunction in our family because it's all we've ever known. | Source

What Does a Transitional Character Do?

The concept of transitional characters was first put forth by Carlfred Broderick, a 20th-century psychologist, family therapist, and author. He wrote this about transitional characters:

"The most noteworthy examples are those individuals who grow up in an abusive, emotionally destructive environment and who somehow find a way to metabolize the poison and refuse to pass it on to their children. They break the mold. They refute the observation that abused children become abusive parents, that the children of alcoholics become alcoholic adults, that 'the sins of the fathers are visited upon the heads of children to the third and fourth generation.' Their contribution to humanity is to filter the destructiveness of their own lineage so that generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives.”

I don't regret my past. I just regret the time I've wasted with the wrong people.

How Do You Be a Transitional Character?

My journey to become a transitional character was not planned. It came about because my 4-year-old son got diagnosed with autism. During this heartbreaking period, I fell into a deep black hole of despair from which I could not escape by myself.

I was in my forties, already struggling with depression and social anxiety, just as my three siblings were. My son's diagnosis was the impetus that sent me to a therapist. She connected the dots so I could see the complete picture of my life—how my current grief about my son related to my mother's reluctant parenting when I was a kid.

My therapist helped me deal with old wounds that were re-opening because of my son's condition. At this desperate point in my life, I was longing for a mommy—someone to hug me, cry with me, listen to me, and tell me everything would be okay. My mother's coldness only increased my feelings of hopelessness and made me recall how emotionally unavailable she was during my childhood.

Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions.

Shine a Light on Destructive Patterns

My therapist helped me come to grips with my mom's reluctant parenting and her inability to give emotional comfort. The hurt little kid in me was finally able to see that my mother's indifference was not caused by me being a rotten kid—ugly, stupid, or unlovable. She had rejected me because her mother had rejected her. It was now my responsibility to stop the pattern.

While forever grateful for my therapist who pulled me from that dark hole, I believe that many people can become transitional characters without professional help. They simply need to shine a light on their family of origin, do a little detective work, and discover the dysfunction that plagues their family.

I highly recommend Good Stuff from Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family: How to Survive and Then Thrive. Unlike most books on the topic, this one has an affirming message for those of us who had rough upbringings. The author, having endured a difficult childhood herself, focuses on the wonderful qualities many of us develop as a result of our painful past: a sense of humor, resilience, compassion, and kindness. These make us highly qualified candidates to become transitional characters and save future generations from the suffering we endured.

Be the person who breaks the cycle. If you were judged, choose understanding. If you were rejected, choose acceptance. If you were shamed, choose compassion. Be the person you needed when you were hurting, not the person who hurt you. Vow to be better than what broke you, to heal instead of becoming bitter, so you can act from your heart, not your pain.

— Enlighted Consciousness

In this video, a therapist discusses one of the more common sources of dysfunction in families: emotionally absent mothers.

There are some people I'm glad I'm not close to anymore.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a transitional character has empowered me as a parent and a person. I no longer feel like a victim of my childhood but a champion of my children and future grandchildren. I've learned that changing family patterns is a daunting task that requires perseverance, patience, and hard work. You, too, can become a transitional character and leave your dysfunctional family behind. Believe me, it's worth the effort!

Becoming a Transitional Character Brings Peace and Hope

Do you see yourself as a transitional character in your family?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 years ago

      Thanks, Michelle. I'm glad it helped. Congratulations for breaking the cycle of abuse. That's huge. I "parent" myself, too, and now see it as a positive. Throughout the day, I talk to myself as a loving mother would talk to a child. I remind myself to eat right, slow down, take time for myself, etc. It feels really good because I never had that growing up. I even write letters to myself from my imaginary mother, offering support and words of advice.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Wow! This really helped me!! I consider myself a pioneer because I'm break in the cycle of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. It's very difficult to parent to little ones as I at times parent myself. This article has given me hope. Thank you

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image


      3 years ago


      That's great to hear! That your sons are doing so well! Congrats! Awesome :)

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 years ago

      Thanks, Rose, and blessings back to you. Growing up in a dysfunctional family makes it hard to be a good parent, and I struggle with it. I know what not to do but have no model for what to do. My sons, however, are doing so well so I figure I'm doing something right.

    • schoolgirlforreal profile image


      3 years ago

      Beautiful article, many good points here, thank you.

      I firmly believe in trying my best to better myself...and not repeat mistakes in my family. But I would rather not have children than be a bad mother. I am at a point now where I've thought of having a child, but I'm not married. I do however happily have a cat who is my "baby".

      God bless,


    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      4 years ago

      Thanks for reading, B Brian!

    • B Brian Hill profile image

      B Brian Hill 

      4 years ago

      This is a fantastic and new concept for me! Thanks!

    • profile image

      Nancy Mitchell 

      4 years ago

      Thanks so much for the compliment, Marlene. You made my day! I'm usually wary of labels, but the "transitional character" one I wear with pride.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      4 years ago from USA

      I've never heard this concept before now, but this is something amazing. I imagine people would be happier if they make the decision to be the one to turn things around for their family. Your hub is well written and a joy to read.

    • sujaya venkatesh profile image

      sujaya venkatesh 

      4 years ago

      parenting is an awesome delight as you say Let

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      5 years ago

      Thanks, Bill, that means a lot coming from you. This was a hard one to write with many starts and stops. I'm not surprised you're a transitional character in your family. I've read enough of your hubs to get that from you!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nancy, this was a great read about a fascinating topic. I'm a transitional character in my family...the first white collar worker...the first college educated....the first, really, to follow my dreams. Oh, this is such a great read....well done.


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