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Episode 66

Do I have a dysfunctional family (and what can I do to change it)? Part 1 

February 13, 2023

[Kyle]: In today's podcast we're going to talk about dysfunctional families. What does that even mean? Well, we're going to talk about it and hopefully illuminate that subject for you.


[Kyle]: Hello, and welcome to The Art of Raising Humans. I’m Kyle.

[Sara]: And I’m Sara.

[Kyle]: And today we want to talk about dysfunctional families. You know, we hear that term a lot in our society, Sara. Like “man, my family's so dysfunctional”.

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah.

[Kyle]: You’ve heard that before?

[Sara]: It's like “something's broke”. And so, the word for that is “dysfunctional”.

[Kyle]: Dysfunctional, okay, and many times I don't think people even know what that means, like, what are we calling dysfunctional? You know?

[Kyle]: And so, we can label our families or other families as dysfunctional, but I think it's really important to understand what makes a family functional or dysfunctional.

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah, what does that look like.

[Kyle]: And so, before we delve into that topic, which I think will be very helpful to illuminate things for you, is I want to remind you that you can go to our website at and on that website, we've got so many great resources to help you and your family and equip you to be the parents you want to be and this February in particular, when this is coming out, we've got a lot of great speaking opportunities coming up and so, that's why we're trying to broach these topics. We think in 2023, we really want to hit some topics that are really foundational to families being successful, for families growing closer together, to having the deep connected relationships they want. So, we just hope that you share this podcast with your friends and family send it on to people who you think this could be helpful for. In particular these next two podcasts are going to be about conflict.

[Sara]: Right, because that's a big piece of function or dysfunction.

[Kyle]: That's right. Well, I mean, that's kind of what is at the core of a dysfunctional family, it's a family that doesn't know how to handle conflict. So, in the podcast today, we're not going to talk about how to resolve conflict, we're just going to kind of discuss, describe, illuminate what it means to be dysfunctional in a family.

[Kyle]: You know, and I would you say, I think almost every family is dysfunctional in some way in this regard.

[Sara]: Right, nobody is-- We're not perfect, families aren't perfect. So, we want to just kind of show “hey, watch for this, look for that” and specifically conflict is a big area where those seeds can go in and if those parts aren't going well, if conflict isn't being handled well, then it just sort of goes out to the whole family and how you all function and so, we want to kind of bring that up.

[Kyle]: Yes. Well, if you start from there, when you have a home and you have people, human beings living together, conflict is inevitable.

[Kyle]: Right? I remember--

[Sara]: Not even meant to be avoided. It's going to be there, it’s part of humans working with other humans, they're gonna have their own ideas and those are going to conflict sometimes.

[Kyle]: Yeah. I remember specifically, Sara, when we were getting our master's degree, we're in group therapy, we're in a group therapy class and they talked about a guy doing group therapy with families and there's an audience watching the group therapy and the first group, the group family he did, there was very little arguing at all. It was very much-- Everybody was sweet and kind to each other and it was all like, they all flowed really well. Second family he had, in this family there's a lot of arguing, some even anger present or upset feelings or sad or whatever kind of-- It was all over the board, kind of a little bit-- You know, it was a little more chaotic and at the end of that, he had the audience kind of rate which of these families they thought was healthier and almost 100% of them thought the first one was.

[Kyle]: But in reality, the first one was super dysfunctional, you know? The second one was much more healthy, because they were willing to talk about things. They weren't scared of the conflict. Whereas the first family was-- They're all putting on a mask.

[Sara]: Yeah, they just avoided, it was all very avoidant.

[Kyle]: Yeah, and they're all really afraid of conflict and were not willing to do this. So, I remember thinking about that, one, because it helped me feel a little better because in my childhood, there was a lot of arguing. Not to say we handled it functionally, for sure, but it was like “man, we were definitely talking about stuff a lot”, right? Now, there were some stuffs that we did not talk about that we, you know, in retrospect, you know, we could have been much more honest and forthright about it. It would have really helped our family, but going into the family we wanted to form, we knew we didn't want it to be a family that was arguing all the time and we didn't want it to be a family that never talked about anything.

[Sara]: Couldn't talk about things, right?

[Sara]: I mean, you know those families where it's like “oh, we don't talk about Bruno”.

[Kyle]: Yeah, that’s right. That’s perfect, yes.

[Sara]: We don't talk about, we hide the-- These things are topics off the table. They don't come up, we don't talk about them, you just move on and act like everything's okay.

[Sara]: And so, that isn't healthy, but how you have conflict it’s what matters.

[Kyle]: Yeah. Once again, it's not like just having conflict, it's like “yes! we're succeeding!”.

[Sara]: “We're fighting all the time!”

[Kyle]: “Oh my gosh! The kids are always mad at each other, it's so great! Yeah, they don't fake it, they just don't like each other”.

[Sara]: Yeah. “We say it how it is”.

[Kyle]: That's right. So, we're not talking about that either, but we are in general, I think society taught as kids to avoid conflict, you know? As an elementary school counselor, it's like the mission statement in almost every school that I was a part of or got to participate in, to try to get conflict out of the classroom, you know? If one kid was having a conflict with another kid, you were immediately, you know, you were taught to just get those kids away from each other.

[Sara]: And don't you kind of, you could feel everyone tense out? “Oh no, there's a conflict!”, right? And it-- So, learning that and so, it sorts of gave permission of “oh, conflict is okay. Oh, we can actually invite that into a space”. It's how it happens.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, and so, I think in our society, those kids are learning this “not to engage conflict, conflict is bad, conflict in the classrooms is bad, conflict at home is bad”.

[Sara]: Yeah, “ignore it, walk away” and all these--

[Kyle]: Well, it seems like you pointed out as we were looking over the notes to this, is sometimes it's just ignoring it, sometimes it's acting like it doesn't exist, we don't talk about it or it's exploding every time it happens.

[Sara]: Yeah, that's almost-- In my mind it's like stamping it out.

[Sara]: “Oh, we're gonna have conflict? No, no, we're not. I'm gonna shut it down. I'm gonna get big, I'm gonna get loud, I'm gonna get intimidating and I'm just gonna shut this conflict down, because I don't want it”.

[Kyle]: You know, I've had teenagers come in, Sara, to the office when they're getting help and the teenagers will talk about how when they would share their emotions, the parents would get really upset at them, you know? And then they would go to their room to get away from all that and then they get upset for them going into their room and it was like, a really confusing thing for teenagers to experience this, because like “you don't want me to have emotions, yet when I have them and I don't know what to do with them, is you seem to want to have no conflict. So, I'm isolating in my room to keep conflict from happening, but then you're saying that's creating a conflict too”, you know? And so, it's this constant kind of mixed message parents get, where they want the kids to be themselves, to be open and talk about things, but then if it's things they don't want to talk about or things that are uncomfortable or they're just having a bad day, the parent doesn't want to hear it, they want it to shut down, they want the kids just to get along, act like you like each other and they might even say stuff like that. Like, at least act like you like each other, you know? Those kinds of stuff.

[Sara]: Yeah, and I think that's kind of hard, because I think we've all been there as parents where you're just like “oh, not today, not right now. I’m already too full, I don’t want this conflict. I just need to shut it down, guys, shut it down”.

[Sara]: And it's hard to always kind of be open and create space for the conflict.


[Kyle]: Yeah, what I was thinking about, Sara, I think lots of times for me, I want to shut down conflict when I'm already conflicted, you know? Maybe I'm already stressed about something, I'm trying to get something done and it's like “that conflict, I don't have time for that conflict, I've already got my own conflict going on within me”. So, I think a lot of parents that's why we want to shut it down, you know? And at times, you're gonna do that. Every parent's gonna do that. I know we were just in Disney World for several days and there was times I just wanted to shut down conflict, you know? There was that one day where Brennan was sick and I wanted to do things and his sickness was annoying the snot out of me, because I felt like it was a conflict. I had goals I wanted to achieve in the Magic Kingdom and his sickness was deterring me from those goals and I had very little compassion and it's because I felt conflicted inside me.

[Kyle]: I wanted to care for my son, but I also wanted to do the thing I wanted to do and I felt like Brennan was stopping me from doing it, you know?

[Kyle]: So, I kind of wanted to get big and mad at him, to somehow make him not tell me he's sick. I wanted him just to act like he was better, you know?

[Kyle]: So, I think a lot of us do that and that's going to happen. The point isn't that we never do that, the point is to know “that's what I'm doing”, you know? And to know inevitably--

[Sara]: We want to highlight where the dysfunction or the-- You know, where these things take place, so just when it happens, we're gonna do it, we're going to mess up, we're humans. But something in this goes “oh, wait, wait. Okay, I see what's happening here” and we're aware of it.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, and inevitably, we need to come back and address the conflict, that's what's going to bring about health.

[Sara]: The awareness will allow you the opportunity to repair.

[Sara]: And repair is what will help heal your relationship, help your child to grow up and be healthy.

[Kyle]: Whoa, whoa, stop there, that's for the next podcast. Chill out.

[Sara]: Yeah. Turn that back, turn that back.

[Kyle]: I know, we'll get-- We’ll erase that, we'll get into that later, but okay. So, we are taught to avoid conflict and the goal lots of times in homes, is to have a house that is conflict-free.

[Kyle]: And schools also teach our kids how to avoid conflict, you know? Constantly trying to make classrooms conflict-free. So, they're getting this message all the time from the time they're very little, is what I noticed as a school counselor, Sara, is they're getting this message non-stop from the time they wake up to the time to go to bed that conflict is not good.

[Kyle]: And what-- Sometimes that is true, right? Sometimes conflict if somebody doesn't know how to handle the conflict, it can be very toxic, very detrimental, you know?

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah, cause a lot of harm.

[Kyle]: Yeah. I mean, there's times where I know these teenagers will tell me things and I'll say “you want to talk about that with your parents?” and they don't, because they think it will cause a conflict that could be irreparable to their relationship with their parents.

[Sara]: Yeah, I think we all have those in various relationships, where we think “yeah, I can't go there, I can't engage that conflict because the stakes are too high, too much could be lost”.

[Sara]: And I can honor that, that that can be true, sometimes you need to put it aside. We don't want to-- We just need to be aware of that in our families, thinking about that as a parent with my children. “Hmm, I wonder if there’s places they feel like they can't talk to me?”

[Kyle]: Yeah, it's off-limits.

[Sara]: They can't bring that conflict up.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, “I can't handle that conflict”. Yeah.

[Sara]: And just be brave enough to be curious where those might be, watch for those things where you feel like your child goes “oh yeah, I gotta pull back. I can't engage this; you can't handle it”.

[Kyle]: Well, so we want to create a space where the kids feel like that's never something they have to worry about, you know? That we can't handle it, but also realizing there may be things that we have blind spots and the kids go “yeah, Mom and Dad don't see it, but I really can't bring that up. Every time I brought that up, they've blown up at me”, you know?

[Sara]: Well, that's where we're watching our reactions going back to that dysfunction. “What's my reaction in the conflict? Am I getting big and aggressive and shutting it down? Am I passive? Am I ignoring it? What am I doing in this in these conflicts? What do I need to be watching for?”.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, and so, anytime you're seeing the kid kind of pull back and shut down and not willing to face the conflict, I think those are things to note, you know? Things to watch for and be curious. Say “what is that about? How come we can't seem to talk about this?”, right?

[Kyle]: So, one of the most common things, Sara, that you and I see in families that really goes “yeah, that's dysfunctional conflict resolution right there, that's a dysfunctional thing”, is something called triangulation, okay?

[Kyle]: So, triangulation as the name implies, if you can picture a triangle, you got three different parts to the triangulation, three different roles that are being played by the people within the conflict, and would you mind identifying those roles, Sara?

[Sara]: Yeah. So, I mean, I've kind of seen them with different names, but a common one is first, you have the aggressor. So, that's the person that’s hacking--

[Kyle]: Yeah, the persecutor, yeah.

[Sara]: Yeah, the persecutor and then, you have the victim, right? So, whoever the persecutor is attacking is the victim and then you have the other party come in and they're gonna save the victim.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, and so, typically it looks like you'll have somebody who's identified as, like you said, the meaner one, the one who's causing the conflict and then the victim feels unable to stand up to that person, so they go and get somebody else.

[Sara]: Yeah, “save me!”.

[Kyle]: They team up and it's like a two against one thing.

[Kyle]: And so, just initially, that's part of the problem, right? When you have conflict and you got two against one, what tends to happen is that persecutor feels attacked and they feel kind of victimized by the other two, right?

[Sara]: Right, and you can just imagine this going around and around that triangle with no real resolution.

[Kyle]: Yeah. So, let's see, I know I wrote down a few different examples I'd love for you to chime in. One that I was thinking of that's super common, lots of kids complain about it, is Mom and Dad teaming up against the kid, you know? Teaming up against the teenager. So, the teenager, I'm thinking of a few different ones I've helped with, where maybe the teenagers, teenage son or daughter will get mad at Mom or Dad and yell at them and then the other parent will step in and like, be the rescuer with the cape on and be like “I've got this! Back off of her!”.

[Sara]: Yeah, you were yelling and--

[Kyle]: Yeah, “you will not talk to your mom that way!”. That's a real classic one, you know? And then the kid's confused now, like “why are you part of this conflict? You know, the problem was between me and my mom or dad and now you're jumping in and now the conflict gets really dicey”. Because now it's all about how angry they are at what you did as opposed to the other conflict.

[Sara]: Well, and I think just-- I think bring some conversation to that is, I think a lot of times the other parent feels like “oh, I'm gonna have your back. We're gonna be equal, we're going to be this front for the children, we're on the same page”.

[Kyle]: Yeah, a unified team.

[Sara]: “This is healthier”. But in times of conflict, that's really not what you're accomplishing, that's not the space to be the unified front, because it “we’ll get into this later”. It distracts from the conflict, doesn't actually bring real resolution. But I feel like that's sort of the intent, my thought is, you know, where you--

[Kyle]: 100%. Yeah, yeah. Well, you feel like you're a bad parent if you don't step in and do that, right?

[Sara]: Right. “I've got to back this person up, it's really important that they get their homework done and do the dishes”.

[Kyle]: But what's important though, it reinforces though to the kid, that they're the persecutor, they're the bad person. Mom or dad, whoever's getting yelled at is the victim and--

[Sara]: And you had to go get this other person. We couldn't solve it.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, and so, the kids resent that. The kids resent that because they're like “I don't understand why he or she keeps stepping in. Like, this is between me and them” and really, the other parents lots of times needs to learn the skill to stand up for themselves.

[Sara]: Yeah, it's a missed opportunity that parent and that child needed to resolve that conflict. The other person coming in takes that away.

[Kyle]: Yeah, and then what happens, you know, that's– I use this example, then the teenager now feels like they're the victim, you know? That the maybe the dad yelling at them is the persecutor and they go on to get a rescuer by calling their girlfriend or boyfriend or calling their friend and getting on the phone and complaining about what a jerk their dad is or whatever and so, then they continue the triangulation through that phone call.

[Kyle]: And once again, what's getting resolved? Nothing.

[Sara]: Yeah, even if the child then does what-- Let's say they were supposed to do the dishes. Then they finally do the dishes, the conflict wasn't really resolved. You got them to do the thing perhaps, but them calling and the fallout between Mom and the kid still is there and then they're talking to their friend and all that, all those emotions are still there, they're unresolved there, you know?

[Kyle]: Yeah, that's good, and then another example I had, was a parent-- This is a real common one too, especially when they're little, you know? Elementary age. Is one parent doesn't like how the other one's parenting. So, one parent thinks-- You know, typically just in general terms, it's the mom is maybe more nurturing with the little kid and dad is more aggressive, you know? And so, then you'll see Mom team up with the kid against the dad, you know? And lots of times-- I've even seen sometimes where the kid sees this dynamic and will use it to their advantage, you know? So, as soon as Dad gets upset, the kid will run to Mom “look what Dad's doing, mom” and then, once again, you see how the triangle takes shape. Now the dad feels very hurt that mom is leaving him and joining with the kids, now he feels like the victim.

[Sara]: Nobody likes being teamed up on.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah. I mean, if you've ever been there, it just feels like “what is happening? How--? Am I really that bad?”. You know, and you'll see such defensiveness, you know? You don't see any receptivity or openness or willingness to learn or listen, it's all just “I am not what you say I am! I'm not that bad!”. So, whoever is being labeled the persecutor, ends up switching to the victim and becoming very defensive.

[Sara]: It just has that thread through it all of the win/lose dynamics, you know? This team is going to win, they're gonna lose.

[Kyle]: Well, and once again, that we're not even on the same team. We're on opposite teams, you know? “You're on that team and we can't let you in” and then, the last one that I thought of is the most common, is siblings, you know?

[Kyle]: Siblings turning against each other. So, I know-- There's three siblings of mine, that was a real common one. Even when we were married and talk about having kids, I kept saying “I don't want to have three”. Now, we have three, it's great, but I didn't want to have three because in my experience, three was always two against one.

[Kyle]: It seemed like every time it was one of us was the victim, one was the persecutor, one was the rescuer and you were--

[Sara]: Well, sometimes it'll be a couple siblings and a parent.

[Kyle]: Yeah, that's true. Yeah.

[Sara]: You know, you have the kid who maybe-- You know, I don't want to say like, golden child, but maybe they're the sweet one.

[Sara]: And so-and-so is always the aggressive one and run to Mom or run to Dad and “so-and-so hit me again” and you see that repeating and repeating and repeating, because Mom or Dad steps in and they yell at the kid who did something and--

[Kyle]: Well, I'm even thinking when you said that, you might have the golden child and the black sheep, you know? So, then the golden child always goes-- You know, they know as soon as something happens, they just go “Mom! Dad!” and then immediately, mom or dad run to their aid and then they just like “look, Mom and Dad are on my side”, you know? And you'll see that that kid, that black sheep gets even more resentful and angry about that, because then pretty soon, they just think “that's who I am. I am--”.

[Sara]: They can't step more into that role.

[Kyle]: Yeah, “I am the prosecutor”.

[Sara]: Even if let's say, it shifts all the time, but the kids-- The dynamic of just the kids running to the parent going “I need someone to side with me, I'm a victim here. Let's go team up” and that dynamic is something that you want to watch for, you want to be aware of. “Oh, what's happening? Here am I coming in and siding with a kid against a kid” and I think, again, you feel like “that's what I'm supposed to do, I'm supposed to see who's the guilty party, who's not the--"

[Sara]: And you know, lay out the punishment or you know. “I'm supposed to fix it all”.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, and I would say a good way to notice that is “am I being a referee?”.

[Kyle]: So, if I feel like I am being a referee, if I feel like I'm putting out red cards and yellow cards or throwing out yellow flags. If you feel like it's your job to dole out the penalties and to point fingers, you know? You are triangulating.

[Kyle]: So, if that is happening, then just notice that and your job is not to be a referee, your job is to be a coach, okay?

[Sara]: Okay, but we're not going to talk about it right now.

[Kyle]: We're not going to talk about it right now and actually, we did a whole another podcast about being a coach. So, if you want to listen to that podcast, there's a great one about not being a referee and being a coach, because I really think that is a pivotal, pivotal shift in almost all the parents I help with. If you're trying to have siblings who know how to resolve conflict with each other, is moving away from being a referee and start being a coach. So, it is not our job to take sides with other people. You want to watch “am I teaming up--?”. I was thinking, you know, one other example you might have-- You might have also even with adult kids, you know? Sometimes a parent might call up an adult kid to complain about another parent, you know? In divorce situations that's real common or those--

[Sara]: Yeah. I would say-- Or it's like “oh, let me tell you all the things going wrong. Hey, could you call someone so-and-so and just--”, you know.

[Kyle]: You know, I even remember-- This sounds silly, but I remember even in college, Sara, there was maybe a girlfriend I had or something like that, somebody I was dating and maybe my-- I wanted that relationship to continue and the relationship was about to break up. I would in my immaturity, call up my mom and be like “hey Mom, would you mind calling so-and-so and just talking to her about, you know-- I mean, how this relationship is really good”.

[Kyle]: And I was like-- And I loved my mom's response, almost every time was like “I'll pray about that” and I was really good looking back, that my mom didn't try to rescue me. My mom didn't think “oh, I need to fix this for Kyle”. She instead just said “hey, I'll pray about that”. I knew when she said that, that that meant “I love you, son, but she but you've got it. I'm not gonna rescue this, I'm not calling no girl up and trying to like, help salvage your relationship”. But you know some families might do that.

[Kyle]: Some parents might do that; they might call up that other person and try to--

[Sara]: And maybe it's not a girlfriend, but they would do it with between siblings or--

[Kyle]: Between friends even.

[Kyle]: Between friends or something like, some conflict in school, you know? They might do that with a teacher or whatever. So, I just-- We wanted to spend this podcast, the goal for this one is just to illuminate to families what dysfunctional conflict resolution looks like, okay? And wanting everybody who's listening this, to be more aware and notice when it's happening, okay? So, if conflict is not getting resolved and it seems like we're facing the same conflict over and over and over again, it's probably because some form of triangulation or were either avoiding conflict or blowing up and trying to squash it, you know? So, just look for these things in your family, because I think this is one of the most important skills you can give your kids. Is the ability to face conflict, to understand that conflict is not bad and it's necessary for us to have real meaningful connection with other human beings.

[Sara]: Uh huh, yeah, in order for families to function and thrive and do well, this is a really important part of that.

[Kyle]: Really important part. I mean, I think it's something that we every day, it's something every day that we face, on how we're choosing to face conflict. So, I hope this topic was really helpful to you and helped give you maybe a language to use. Triangulation is-- I thought were really helpful once it was illuminated for me, to start seeing it and start putting some healthy boundaries, which we'll talk about more in the following episode next week and really give you some specific ways to help change these dynamics in your family and start resolving conflict in a healthy way.

[Kyle]: So, hope you're having a fantastic day. Definitely give us-- We'd love to get five-star reviews and any comments and any suggestions on other topics that we could face in 2023 and talk about this year. We'd love to hear back from you. So, thank you for your time.

[Sara]: Thanks for listening.

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