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

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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counseling, psychology, self-help

Expectations: The Root of All Unhappiness

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All of us of us have expectations.

We hold expectations of ourselves, others, circumstances, and what we want out of life in general. Managing our expectations is key to our happiness. We need to have realistic expectations, of ourselves and others, if not to be met with never-ending hurt and disappointment.

At a basic, simple level we are unhappy when our expectations of reality exceed our experience of reality (Nat Ware). 

The further away reality is from our expectations the more miserable you can expect to be.

expectations

I feel there are some common expectations held by unhappy people: that others MUST treat them well, that they should NOT have to deal with difficulty or hardship, and that they MUST do well.

This type of thinking is toxic and a recipe for misery.

Yet what about the specific expectations we hold for ourselves?

When you were a little boy or girl, did you want to grow up to be a baseball player, a super star, or a singer? At some point you probably gave up that dream for something more attainable (unless you are Derek Jeter, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Adele). When our dreams are out of reach, we feel stress, frustration, and anxiety. Many of us abandon our dreams, feeling they are impossible.

Carl Rogers, one of my favorite psychologists, referred to this gap as it relates to our self as incongruence.

Incongruence is when our desires and feelings are not aligned with our actions.

Maybe you always wanted to be a doctor but felt you can never do it and are now a med tech. You can’t bring yourself to go back to school to further your career, even though you always felt you can be more. You WANT to do more. But can’t motivate yourself to do it.

Maybe you want close relationships in your life, yet find you keep people at arm’s length. You can’t bring yourself to apologize to people you may have hurt or put yourself out there to build new relationships with people. Still–you WANT to have intimate relationships but aren’t willing to put yourself out there with people to obtain them.

Maybe you want to be healthy and in shape yet find yourself overeating and not exercising. You can’t bring yourself to change your diet or will yourself to even exercise for 15 minutes a day. You WANT to be healthy but can’t seem to muster the willpower.

Maybe you want to be financial secure yet find you are not saving enough for the future and are unwilling to live within your means. You repeatedly spend more than you should and procrastinate making a budget. You WANT to get your finances in order but can’t get your spending habits in line.

And the list goes on and on. You are in a state of incongruence when there is a gap between your ideal life and your REAL life.

Incongruence is going to cause psychological pain.

We all want our ideal self and actual experience to be consistent and overlap as much as possible. If you recognize yourself in one of the examples above, you are probably unhappy with the current state of your life.

congruence

Many psychological problems may arise when we are in a state of incongruence.

Expectations are the enemy of happiness.

We can see how our expectations of ourselves can lead to unhappiness, but what about our expectations of others?

Often our expectations of others leads to disappointment and hurt.

We all heard that the secret to happiness is LOWER expectations. Some even would probably say NO expectations is the real key to happiness in your relationships.

This is not to say you shouldn’t have standards. Standards are different from expectations. The two are not interchangeable.

A standard is a principle of how you will conduct yourself and behavior you will accept from others. It is a norm. For instance, a common standard people have is they would not scream or curse in public NOR would they find it acceptable to witness someone else engaging in such a manner. This isn’t an expectation-it is a standard of what is acceptable. Our standards are our values.

An expectation is how we would like people to behave or a situation to turn out. For example, an expectation would be if you expect your boyfriend to text you every day, regardless of how busy he is. Sure, it would be nice, but it is not a standard. It is an expectation of how you are expecting someone to ideally behave. They are more like unspoken rules. Expectations are in large part our ideals.

The reality is no one cares about our expectations except us. 

The simplest example of this truism is the golden rule. We think if we treat others well we will be treated in kind. I think we all have experienced otherwise.

The problem with expectations is they are often unspoken. You just expect people in your life to meet your expectations. But people have their own expectations that they live by which may be in conflict with yours.

Often we he hold expectations of others that we ourselves don’t even fulfill. We all have encountered someone with high expectations of others and little to no expectations of themselves.  These are the do as I say, not as I do types. Perhaps from time to time this has been you. Human nature can be hypocritical.

Nevertheless, there are going to be a few people in life whose expectations we are driven to fulfill. We try to anticipate expectations for important relationships in our lives. Most of us try to be cognizant of the expectations of our spouse, partner, boss, clients, kids.

But even in the these important relationships expectations are unmet and expectations can gradually slid into a sense of entitlement.

The problem with expectations is it can sour relationships if not managed.

As a society, we are living in a time where many who walk amongst us are profoundly unhappy.

And many of these people are unhappy by their own making: their expectations.

If you want to be happy, you are going to need to keep your expectations in check. Both of yourself and others.

Start to be mindful of the vicious expectation conflict cycle. Be mindful of how you interpret situations and other people. This is where lots of problems start since they are entirely subjective. If you identify a problem, you need to carefully consider your response. Pay mind to what you expectations are of the person AND the situation to determine if they are realistic.

If you hold an expectation of someone and they do not meet it you have a few options. You can end the relationship. You can address it. You can act passive aggressive. Or you can decide it isn’t a big deal and let it go.

All our interactions with people have the opportunity to weaken, strengthen, or remain neutral in our relationship with them.  This is why it is so important to examine your underlying expectations. You need to ask yourself  if you are being reasonable. It is reasonable to expect to be treated with civility and basic human respect. It is unreasonable to expect people to do as you expect them to do according to your rulebook. We need to be able to catch ourselves when we begin to drift into unrealistic expectations.

If it is an issue with respect or some other type of basic standard, that really isn’t a relationship you should be too concerned about, if a lack of basic respect exists. If it is a more superficial issue, remember people rarely behave exactly the way we want them to.

Remember the magnitude of unhappiness you experience will be proportionate to your thoughts and how you choose to interpret things.

As a therapist, I find many people come to counseling because their expectations of others are not being met. This is causing pain and problems for them. I work with them using CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) which focuses on changing THEIR thoughts and behaviors including their expectations. I gently remind them we can’t change others, we can ONLY change ourselves.

I find it is helpful to work with clients to improve their coping skills, tweak their expectations, and look at what role they are playing in creating unhappiness in their life.

Try taking some time to reflect on your expectations. Of yourself and others. It can be the beginning of a happier, more satisfying life.

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