I have often defined a dysfunctional family as one in which the family members are not free to be themselves. They have to adapt and give up their true self to live out an adapted self who is trying to survive in a family where they are used to regulate the emotions of the parents. But let’s go a little deeper into what causes a family to become dysfunctional, especially one that is more in the extreme of dysfunction. (We know there are different degrees of healthy vs. unhealthy families).

The main cause of an extremely dysfunctional family is “trauma.” The types of traumatic childhood experiences that I’m referring to are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and they include experiencing any of the following during your childhood:

Physical abuse
Sexual abuse
Emotional abuse
Physical neglect
Emotional neglect
Witnessing domestic violence
A parent or close family member who is an alcoholic or addict
A parent or close family member who is mentally ill
Parents who are separated or divorced
A parent or close family member being incarcerated
In healthy families, children experience their parents tuning in to their experiences and reacting in ways that make their experiences feel real. For example, when an 18-month-old toddler gets excited about something, the parent sees that excitement and responds in a way that mirrors back the child’s excitement. It is actually an organic process that happens naturally in healthy families. If a parent misses a child’s experience and does not attune” correctly, it is not the end of the world if it is infrequent and especially if the parent corrects him or herself and gets back in touch with the child’s experience.

But what if your parent is so stressed and emotionally out of control that he or she consistently responds to the 18-month-old child from his or her adult reality as opposed to that of the toddler. What if the naturally excited 18-month-old gets met with anger from the caretaker because he or she needs you to be quiet since the parent is recovering from a hangover (as an example). This toddler can grow up not trusting his own feelings or hiding and suppressing those feelings. That toddler may learn to subdue his natural, healthy excitement because it was met with unrewarding parental responses.

In families where the child experiences one of these Adverse Childhood events, he is exposed to more traumas, probably has one or both parents who have been exposed to trauma and have siblings who have been exposed to trauma. There is a consistent lack of “attunement” which leads to the child growing up as an adult who has “disowned” or suppressed his true self. This is a person who has much trouble being happy in the world.

The good news for most people who have had one or more of the ACE’s listed is that they can heal. Here are the main ways I can help people heal and return more and more to their true self:

1) I do EMDR, which is a trauma treatment that helps people process past trauma including childhood trauma and can help people develop healthy internal resources that could reconsolidate and desensitize painful memories. This can free people up to reclaim their healthy true selves. Feel free to Google EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

2) I do couples counseling where couples learn to emotionally regulate themselves and each other that can not only heal their own intimate relationship; it could actually help people heal some of their childhood wounds. The intimate relationship often is a place where partners can continually get re-wounded and re-triggered. However, with the right guidance, each partner can help the other heal.

3) I also can do family therapy even with “adult” children and their parents and/or siblings to shift dysfunctional patterns among family members. This kind of family therapy can be very liberating for those ready to break free of unhealthy interpersonal patterns that do not serve them anymore.

These are the three main things I do even though I have other approaches and techniques depending on what works for each particular individual, couple or family. There is hope so do not settle for anything less than you deserve! It is time for you to discover and make room for your true feelings, to stand up for your opinions, to set healthy boundaries, to be curious about your wants and desires and to be a healthy force to be reckoned with in your relationships. You do not have to restrict your life because of your past wounds; you can learn to live from your most unconditionally loving, confident, self-accepting and best self.

Author's Bio: 

Mr. Creager is educated and trained as a Marriage and Sex Therapist and spends much of his time helping partners in long-term relationships learn how to create passionate, alive and nourishing interactions. He provides unique and powerful insights that lead to powerful breakthroughs which result in his clients getting closer to realizing their full potential.

He founded his practice in 1982 in Tustin CA, and has since helped thousands of individuals and couples learn how to bring the best out of others to achieve their goals. The biggest joy in his career is witnessing clients increase their capacity to receive more from life as well as others.

He has developed the gift of helping couples and individuals move past their resistance to have the relationships and love they crave. His specialties include helping couples heal from infidelity, helping couples rekindle passion and helping individuals break free from their earlier toxic relationships and dysfunctional families. He does this in a variety ways including specialized programs that are powerful and effective as well as seminars, workshops, speaking and informational products.

Todd’s practice in Huntington Beach, CA has been helping couples and individuals all around Orange County including Long Beach, Newport Coast, Irvine, Corona del Mar and Seal Beach – for over 30 years!