counseling, parenting, psychology, self-help

Adverse Childhood Events: How a Rotten Childhood Can Linger On

Happiness, trust, love, self-worth, the ability to be open and vulnerable–all can be lost through the ordeal of a bad childhood.

Often in therapy sessions, many adult patients trace their current struggles back to their childhood. Some people really struggle with moving pass their formative years if they experienced pain and adversity. Freud famously posited that our lives are pretty much determined by events in our early childhood. We all know counseling gets a bad rap for its tendency to blame parents for all the problems a person has long into adulthood.  To state the obvious– the case can be made that blaming parents for adult problems in a cop-out. It is of course easier to blame your parents than take personal responsibility. At some point, it is fair to say, whoever we are and whatever we may have experienced, we do need to let it go. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done for those who experienced childhood as unstable and uncertain.  The wounds of a rotten childhood can be all but healed. The pain of the past haunts many who walk among us.

Anger taken too far is often at the center of many therapy sessions. As a clinician I have seen people express deep-seated anger at their parents (and I am talking well into middle age). From my experience as an in home counselor for a mental health agency, which is often mandated counseling, I also got to see firsthand the impact traumatic events had on the development of children. Many children who experienced trauma during their formative years developed debilitating anger. How this anger presented varied but the impact being detrimental to a client’s mental health would always hold true. I often wondered how these experiences would impact these youngsters in their adulthood, long after I would be gone from their lives.

Growing up with unstable parents is inevitably hard. Living in an unpredictable home environment can be severely traumatizing. It is all to easy to blame one’s upbringing for the problems that follow us through life.

Parents are an easy target to dump blame on. I struggle as a clinician to pinpoint down an exact age where parents need to stop being so central to treatment–is it by college? One’s 20s? 30s? Never? There is no clear-cut answer. And while it is not beneficial to blame your parents for all your problems, there’s no doubt that parents and other caregivers are pivotal figures in a child’s development. We also can see for some people, the impact is still very much present in their adult lives. The effects of a difficult childhood can linger long after it is over.

Our early childhood experiences do shape us to a large extent. For many of us our earliest memories are positive–times filled with great love and affection from our parents or caregivers. Many of my earliest memories in life are of much affection from my parents and of me constantly asking my father, “UP” (up as in to carry me around because I loved being carried by “daddy”–probably a bit passed the age I should have been asking!) These are fond memories I hold dear and the feelings of love from that time I can still feel within me.

Children need to feel loved and valued. If they don’t, it will almost certainly impact their mental health and well-being.

Yet the sad reality is many people experience disruptive and harmful events that hinder their psychological and emotional development. Example of such events include parental divorce, death of a parent, frequently moving and switching schools, abuse (physical, mental or emotional), parental mental illness, and poverty.  Many times childhood adversities are interrelated. For instance, a parental divorce can lead to a change in socioeconomic status for many families. Research has found that people who experienced “ACEs” are at a much greater risk to develop mental health issues in adulthood include being a greater risk for suicide.

ACEs are “adverse childhood experiences” that can bring on struggles for a person in their adulthood. ACE is well-studied part of developmental psychology. Sadly people with a history of ACEs often pass on the dysfunction to the next generation. These are events beyond a young person’s control. Many times in transgenerational family therapy the counselor examines the interactions of clients across generations as a method to understand and explain current problems within the family system, as well as predicting future difficulties. A genogram can map out family relationships across the generations.

I copied and pasted below a Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire for you to take to see how many you may have experienced.

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:

1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often …
Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?
or
Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often …
Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?
or
Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever…
Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way?
or
Try to or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal sex with you? Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

4.Did you often feel that …
No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?
or
Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
5. Did you often feel that …
You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?
or
Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
7. Was your mother or stepmother:
Often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her?
or
Sometimes or often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard?
or
Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill or did a household member attempt suicide?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
10. Did a household member go to prison?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _______ This is your ACE Score

Many people may take this questionnaire and answer one or none. Other people, regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or gender, may find themselves checking off yes to quite a few adverse childhood events.

So why does this matter?  For one, such adverse events impact the development of one’s identity which takes place across the lifespan. If you experienced the aforementioned events in childhood, most likely basic survival took over for you, which impedes the normal development of self.  Worse as a child we have no frame of reference. Thus one experiences this dysfunction as normal because the behavior of their caregivers is all they know. Often people get stunted at the age of said trauma. That is why as a therapist we may diagnose someone at being at the emotional development of a 12-year-old yet their chronological age is 45.

The task of identity development is challenging enough in and of itself when one comes from a safe, secure, upbringing. If one is struggling with the after effects of development trauma, the process will be especially difficult to master. The adult consequences of trauma are vast–often resulting in substance abuse issues, depression, anxiety, behavioral issues, difficulty in personal relationships, and difficulties with maintaining employment. Often our childhood trauma impacts the way we are effectively able to parent out own children.

Furthermore, we see broken adults come from homes where abuse-physical, emotional, mental was present and are more likely to develop complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD).

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD) is characterized by difficulties with emotional regulation, consciousness and memory, self-perception, difficulties in relationships with other people, distorted perceptions, and negative effects on one’s  life.

Even if you find you have not experienced the adverse childhood events of the questionnaire, none of us grow up unscathed from pain and hardship, in whatever form it presents in your life. Learning how to deal with negative emotions and experiences are a part of growing up. You grow up every day, no matter what your age.

No matter what your past, it is NEVER too late to better your life with positive experiences and overcome the long shadow of childhood adversity. Don’t get stuck in the past which hinders your ability to live the life you want in the present. It is important to remember even in adulthood such events can be remedied. Counseling can help you to process and overcome the trauma of one’s childhood. Often we need to work through the pain in order to release it. Repressing it, denying it, or suppressing our feelings will not remedy the situation. If you are willing to put in the work, you can tap into your inner resiliency and lead a happier, healthier life.

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To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

https://anewcounselingservices.com/erin-theodorou%2Cm-ed-%2C-lpc

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822
etheodorou@anewcounselingservices.com

 

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counseling, psychology, self-help

Why You Need Boundaries to Live a Happy Life

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Have you been feeling exhausted lately?
Stressed out?
Completely drained?

Ever feel under appreciated, unseen, and unsupported?

If you do, it may be that you need to learn how to set some boundaries in your life and relationships.

Our relationships need boundaries.

Healthy self-esteem=good boundaries=happy life 

The more you love and respect yourself, the more you can love and respect others.

In this day and age, we are living in an increasingly boundary LESS society.

Boundaries, or personal boundaries, can be understood as an invisible shield or fence around you. It’s a line you set for yourself and others that separates you from others and their influence.  Boundaries fulfill an important role in relationships. They are the emotional, physical, and mental limits we set with others that determine what we will, and will not, accept.

We are all separate people but we are also interconnected. Boundaries are the space between.

A lot of issues that arise in counseling, relate to boundary issues in a client’s life.

People who lack healthy boundaries are often unhappy. They are more likely to be emotional needy, get taken advantage of, and get treated with disrespect. Boundaries mean not letting people into your life to behave badly.

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Good fences make good neighbors.

Boundaries go both ways-you need to extend the same respect to the boundaries of others.

Boundaries give us a framework on how to act. They give us a warning when they are being violated. If someone steps over our boundary, we know it, we feel it, we have a visceral reaction.

Our emotions and thoughts are a compass guiding us–who we want to spend more time with and who we want to stay away from.

We all have the right and responsibility to set limits and create boundaries that work for us. It is up to you to enforce your boundaries.

You need to value yourself because when we value something we protect it.

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What are some signs you have poor boundaries?

~Your relationships tend to be difficult

~You always feel a little bit annoyed

~You think others don’t show you respect

~Your relationships tend to be dramatic

~You hate to let people down

~You feel other people let you down

~You may be passive aggressive

~You have trouble making your own decisions

~You fear being abandoned or rejected

~You are tired all the time

~You have trouble saying no

~You are easily guilted into things

~You coerce others into doing things

~You struggle with anxiety

~You often feel like a victim (especially to situations that you feel are out of your control)

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Boundaries are a form of self-care. They don’t steal your happiness, they protect it.

Healthy people have boundaries.
Boundaries are different for everyone—we are all comfortable with different levels of closeness in our relationships.

Boundaries are largely subjective. What I may be comfortable with you, you may be uncomfortable. Neither of us is right or wrong-just different.

If you set a boundary with someone and they do NOT respect it, they are showing you they care more about their own ego gratification than they do about you and the relationship. If this is the case, while it will be painful to find out, it will lead to greener pastures.

There are two possible outcomes when you set boundaries with people:
~a BETTER, healthier relationship (for both sides)

OR

~you find out the person doesn’t care about the relationship enough to respect the boundaries set forth and the relationship disintegrates (if this is the case you usually feel liberated in the end because you are taking care of yourself)

Ultimately, either outcome, is win-win for you.  Boundaries strengthen understanding and connection between both parties. Healthy boundaries are the cornerstone of happy relationships.

Boundaries are fluid and change as we change.

As someone who is naturally a pretty open book, I have learned over the years to be more private. Perhaps this is a natural progression of maturing. On the flip side, you may be someone who is more reserved, who is working on becoming more open with others.

Boundaries are a two-way street.

Just as we want to ensure people respect our boundaries, it is equally important for us to respect OTHER people’s boundaries.

If you struggle with respecting the boundaries set forth by others, causing conflict in your relationships, it would be helpful to take some time to reflect on why.

Unless there’s an emergency, the one screaming is usually the problem.

There are extenuating circumstances when there’s an emergency or crisis. Or if you are dealing with an extremely toxic person. But if you find yourself flipping out on people, blaming or resenting others for your feelings, the first place to look is in the mirror. You and your boundaries are probably the problem.

If I feel strong in my boundaries and you feel strong in yours, we can meet and connect in a healthy way.

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It’s important for our mental well-being to have personal boundaries. They lay the groundwork for how we approach relationships. Our boundaries help us live according to our values.

Clearly established boundaries help us to take care of ourselves emotionally, physically and spiritually. Our boundaries help us to become less concerned about how we are viewed by others and more satisfied with the perceptions we hold of ourselves.

 

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counseling, psychology, self-help

Dysfunctional Families: Who They Are and How to Overcome Yours

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Ever wonder if you were raised in a dysfunctional family? There is no real guide to determining if a family is categorically dysfunctional, but here are some questions to ask yourself:

~If people tell you that you are like your mom or dad do you get upset and hope it is not true?

~Do you have a history of struggling with depression?

~Do people in your family always “react” to the choices of other family members? Dramatic reactions in fact?

~Have you said something hurtful (or many hurtful) things to someone in your family and wish you could take it back?

~Is your family quick to blame?

~Do you feel guilty standing up for yourself?

~Have people in your family said things to you that were just plain cruel?

~Do you feel angry often?

~Do you constantly people please?

~Are you a perfectionist?

~Do you struggle with your self-esteem?

~Do you self-medicate? Alcohol, drugs, food, sex?

~Is your family judgmental and critical of others?

~Do you relate to others with dysfunctional families? Alcoholic parents? Divorced parents?

~Is your family competitive with each other?

~Do you believe you will be (or are) a better parent than your parents?

~Is there on-going conflict in your family? With different members? Across the different generations?

~Do you struggle with anxiety?

~Is it hard to communicate in your family?

~Does it feel like there is a hierarchy within your family? Where some members are more important than other members?

~Do family members gossip about other members? Lots of third-party conversations?

~Growing up was your home life unpredictable? Did you move a lot? Switch schools frequently?

~Do you feel afraid to disagree with your family outright because risk of rejection?

~As a kid, did your parent feel more like a friend than a parent?

~Does your family hate change? Are new members welcomed in? Are adult children encouraged to be independent?

~As a kid, were your parents overly strict? Overly permissive?

~Is there a lack of diversity in your family? Are differences of opinion tolerated?

~Do you fear being abandoned?

~Did one (or both) of your parents leave you as a child? Physically or emotionally

~Is it hard for you to trust others?

These are just some possible signs of dysfunction in the family system. You may relate to some, none, or many of the aforementioned questions. Dysfunction exists on a continuum. If you relate, don’t feel too bad–most families have some level of dysfunction inherent in them– which is usually passed down from generation to generation.

Nobody comes from a perfect family.

Yet in dysfunctional families, every member has a role. The rescuer, the victim, the persecutor. For every rescuer there is a victim. For every victim there is a persecutor. So starts the triangulation of these “roles.” Dysfunctional families frequently engage in triangles.

Triangulation is when instead of members talking directly with each other about problems, they bring an outside person in to intervene in a conflicted or stressful relationship, in an attempt to ease tension and facilitate communication.

Let’s say brother A tells brother B he would like brother C to help out more with their sick father who needs a lot of day-to-day assistance at home. Dad is getting older, with more severe health issues, and can use all the support he can get from ALL his sons. When brother B goes back to brother C and gives the message, then brother C will wonder why brother A didn’t just come and ask for himself.

There is always a manipulation tactic within triangulation. Brother A might not like to ask brother C or he might know brother C will say no so he hopes brother B can be more convincing than he was when he asked the last week. Or maybe brother A realizes the only way to get brother C to do what he wants is to put familial pressure on him. When both brother A and brother B ask brother C, then brother C might feel even more pressure to comply.

Dysfunctional families triangulate to coerce other members to do things they rather not do. They also use it as a way to manage conflict. People who triangulate will call this “venting” but the healthy way to deal with conflict is to talk about it directly with the person you are having conflict with. The problem with triangles it is usually prevents, rather than invite, the resolution of conflict.

Venting and complaining about family disintegrates all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who talks about others behind their backs. Respect also lessens for someone who listens complacently to endless fault-finding.

 

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Triangulation is also extremely unhealthy when children are involved. The wife who confides in her young son about the troubles in her marriage. The father who shares his worries about finances with his tween daughter instead of speaking directly to his wife.  In dysfunctional families we often see parentified children-where the child is expected to act as the parent and the parent acts like the child. The oldest child may help his siblings off to school, makes lunches, helps with homework because the parent, for whatever reason, is unavailable–whether physically or emotionally. Often a parentified child acts like parents to his OWN parents. The parentified child usually takes on the role in an attempt to keep chaos at bay and keep the family unit functioning and together. Later when the parentified child grows up they usually pick a spouse who is dependent–so they can continue to play this role of parent to their spouse.  This is a clear example of boundary problems and unhealthy roles within the family system.

Another common problem in dysfunctional families is the lack of self-differentiation. Murray Bowen, who is the father of this concept, made it one of the cornerstones of family systems therapy.  Self-differentiation has two tenets: that you are able to separate your feelings from your thoughts AND you are able to distinguish between your experience and the experience of those you are connected to.

Being self-differentiated is being able think for yourself and act according to your own values. When you are self-differentiated you able to disagree with the choices of a family member without trying to get them to change.  The less differentiated you are the more impacted by others’ thoughts and opinions you will be. A highly differentiated person can maintain a solid sense of self even under considerable stress and anxiety (Bowen). People who are self-differentiated are not reactive and are able to make decisions independent of the input of others. At a lesser level of differentiation, a person is dependent on the input of others to make decisions and function. A person with a low-level of self-differentiation will exhibit many symptoms of stress and often act destructively under pressure. Even intelligent people can be poorly differentiated (Bowen).

When you are self-differentiated, you still care about your family and want to be connected to them. Yet you are able to limit the chaos and are not be enmeshed with your family. Enmeshment is when you are defined by the family system and look to it for your happiness rather than to the outside, larger world. When you are enmeshed, your sense of identity is wrapped up in your family. You are not able to recognize where you end and they begin. This psychological boundary does not exist in dysfunctional families.

In unhealthy family systems, it is hard to differentiate because differences are not tolerated. If you are conservative and your family is liberal you are mocked. If your family is athletic and you rather read than play a sport, you are teased.  If Christmas is always at sister Susie’s and you want to have it at your house, you are met with resistance. Change is not welcome in dysfunctional families-of the individual or the system as a whole. In this type of family differences are not celebrated. Lots of shame permeates the family system.

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In dysfunctional families, members are made to feel guilty if they don’t visit enough, call enough, come home enough.  In such families, alliances are often being formed. These alliances are ever shifting. Alliances form because members are expected to choose “sides” on every issue. In healthy families, members don’t gang up on others, pick sides, or insert themselves into conflict between other members. These are all symptoms of an unhealthy family system at play. Remaining neutral in the face of conflict is a sign of maturity and self-differentiation.

For example in enmeshed families, there tends to be a lot of drama because everyone feels entitled to opine and react on the decisions of other members. For example, son A decides he is going to move across the country for a job. In an enmeshed family, the parents may take this as a betrayal and personal affront. They may feel he is abandoning the family. Mom and Dad share their hurt and disappointment with son B instead of sharing how they feel DIRECTLY with son A.

Therefore, son B may pick a fight with son A to express his disapproval and as a way to align with the parents. Son B and the parents are forming a coalition to try to impede son A’s decision to move away. When Son A responds in a level-headed, non-reactive way to his parents and brother, calmly stating why he is choosing to move, he is met with anger and rage. His parents and brother take his calmness and composed demeanor as a sign he does not care or love them.

In unhealthy families, chronic anxiety exists. When you self-differentiate and are non-enmeshed you are much more relaxed and calm. This is viewed as a threat to other family members who are still in a state of enmeshment. In toxic, immature families becoming more mature, less reactive, and less anxious is viewed as you don’t care, you don’t love me, you are cold.

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The blurring of self is normal in a dysfunctional family. If you come from a family riddled with dysfunction, the idea of personal boundaries may seem foreign to you. You are used to living in a bondary-LESS environment.  A person’s willingness to accept your boundaries and limits show where their level of respect is for you AND how emotionally developed they are. In a dysfunctional family it is hard to negotiate with other members the amount of separateness and closeness you feel comfortable with because compromise is not something rigid family systems can do.

Dysfunctional families can be cult like. Oftentimes family members are not even aware of the dysfunction or in denial about it. Things are never discussed. Third party conversations run rampant. Direct communication does not exist. Expectations are never questioned. It is just the way it is.

All dysfunctional families want to maintain the status quo. This is what we always done, this is what we will always do is the family motto.

How to Begin to Differentiate from Your Family

1)Uncover your family’s rules and paradigm.

2)Ask if you believe the rules you have been following blindly since childhood. Children follow their parents unquestioningly, adults do not. It is appropriate when you are the child to look to your parents to affirm your identity. As an adult, this is unhealthy.

3)Stop needing your family for things they can’t provide. The mother you never had. The father you always wanted. It isn’t going to happen. Stop waiting on this. The sister you always wanted to love you a certain way–who doesn’t, can’t, won’t.  This is a time to begin the acceptance process.

4)Reflect on what YOU believe. YOU. Stop handing your emotional power over to your family. Be who you want to be not the role your family expects you to be.

5)Understand guilt, shame, and transference of anxiety is NOT caring. It is the norm in dysfunctional, undifferentiated families. Stop holding onto these feelings-it only revictimizes you.

6)Resist the urge to rescue others.

7)Do for yourself what your family could never do for you.

8)Be mindful. This is not about blaming your family. This is about acceptance. This is you being you while being connected to your family. This is not about disconnection. This is about healthy connection.

Accept while you may have changed that we can’t change others unless they want to change. This is a time of opportunity for you. Instead of perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction, you can change the future—when it comes to breaking the cycle with your children and the next generation.

 

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