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How to Recover From Your Dysfunctional Family and Find Peace

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

A transitional character is a determined person who vows to put an end to family dysfunction and make life better for future generations.

A transitional character is a determined person who vows to put an end to family dysfunction and make life better for future generations.

Are You Ready to End the Dysfunction?

  • Do you give lip service to the notion that you come from a dysfunctional family without giving 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 of origin was and that I needed to make serious changes in my life and in my relationships. Moreover, it took me learning about transitional characters to finally discover how to end the dysfunction and make things right for the next generation.

5 Steps to Recover From Your Dysfunctional Family

1. Pinpoint the dysfunction in your family of origin.

2. Commit to ending the destructive patterns.

3. Become a transitional character.

4. Get help from a professional if you need it.

5. Be empowered and thrive.

1. Pinpoint the Dysfunction in Your Family of Origin

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.

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.

Pinpointing my family's legacy of apathetic mothering, I wanted to end it but didn't know how. That's when I started reading about transitional characters and made the decision to become one. That choice motivated me to become the first woman in my family for generations to fully and joyfully embrace parenthood.

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

2. Commit to Ending the Destructive Patterns

Once a person pinpoints the dysfunction in their family of origin, they must begin the hard work of ending those destructive patterns. They may need to make the difficult choice to end or minimize unhealthy relationships with parents and siblings. They will need to adopt the persona of a strong and determined transitional character, even though they may have always been the weak person in their family, the people pleaser, or the one who lets everyone walk all over them.

To assist with this colossal task, they can heed the inspiring words of Carlfred Broderick. He was the 20-century psychologist, family therapist, and author who first put forth the concept of transitional characters. He wrote this about them:

"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.”

3. Become a Transitional Character

While ending the noxious patterns in one's family is a challenging task, it can also make a person stronger. In fact, choosing to become a transitional character is one of the most empowering decisions that a person will ever make. It will alter their life’s trajectory, improving their relationships and ensuring a better future for their children.

While transitional characters don’t have super powers like the Hulk's astonishing strength or Spider-Man's technical prowess, they do have the might that’s necessary to right a wrong. They have what it takes to stop the damaging behaviors that have plagued generation after generation. They can put an end to their family’s long-time dysfunction whether it's alcoholism, physical abuse, name-calling, obesity, infidelity, poverty, or illiteracy.

A transitional character is that insightful, determined individual who says: “No more! This behavior stops now with me. I won't parent as I was parented. I will be the change I want to see.” Once someone chooses to be that person, they’re on their way to ending the pernicious patterns in their family of origin. Having already pinpointed the problem, they’re ready to make a game plan.

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When I had determined that apathetic mothering was the issue in my dysfunctional family, I established specific goals to change it. Some of them included the following:

  • Minimizing contact with my family of origin with all its chaos and drama.
  • Prioritizing the needs of my husband and kids above those of my family of origin.
  • Eating dinner together with my husband and sons every night with no television, no cell phones, and no screens of any kind.
  • Reading to my sons each night before bedtime.
  • Designating Friday nights as a time to either watch a movie together or play a board game.
Pinpointing the dysfunction in one's family of origin is extremely difficult and may require professional help.

Pinpointing the dysfunction in one's family of origin is extremely difficult and may require professional help.

4. Get Help From a Professional If You Need It

Unlike those who deliberately choose to become transitional characters, others have it thrust upon them. My journey was not planned but came about from sheer desperation when my 4-year-old son got diagnosed with autism. During this heartbreaking period when I had no family support, I fell into a black hole of hopelessness from which I couldn’t escape by myself. Thankfully, I went to a therapist who told me about transitional characters. She provided the lifeline that I needed to pull myself out of darkness.

My therapist helped me deal with old wounds that had been reopened when my son got diagnosed. She connected the dots so I could see the big picture—how my current grief about my boy related to my mother's reluctant parenting when I was a kid. Upon hearing the news that my son was autistic, I longed 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. Working with a skilled and compassionate professional was just what I needed. She helped me realize how crucial it was for me to become a transitional character and change my life and the lives of my sons.

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

5. Be Empowered and Thrive

My therapist helped me come to grips with my mom's reluctant parenting and her inability to provide comfort and connection. The hurt little kid in me was finally able to see that her indifference wasn't caused by me being a rotten kid—ugly, stupid, or unlovable. She had rejected me because her mother had rejected her. Recognizing that fact, it was now my responsibility to finally end that calamitous pattern.

While forever grateful for my therapist's expertise, I'm convinced that some people can become transitional characters without professional help. They simply need to shine a light on their family of origin and identify the dysfunction that has plagued it.

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

In this video, a therapist discusses a common source of family dysfunction: emotionally absent mothers.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a transitional character helped me recover from my dysfunctional family and gave me a newfound purpose. I was no longer a prisoner of my past, struggling to be seen and loved by a distracted, reluctant mother. I was no longer a wounded little girl, starving for her mom’s attention and acceptance. I was finally able to live in the present and focus on my sons.

Becoming a transitional character gave me the greatest gift of all: liberation from an unhappy childhood and a dysfunctional family. It empowered me to break the pattern of apathetic parenting that had plagued generation after generation. Today, instead of shunning my maternal duties, I fully embrace them. As a result, I feel proud of myself for ending the damaging behaviors that had caused so much heartache for so many.

Becoming a Transitional Character Brings Peace and Hope

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


McKenna Meyers (author) on June 12, 2017:

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.

Michelle on June 11, 2017:

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

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