Let us begin by looking at a family. Let’s say we have a husband and a wife–maybe the wife is a nurse or a teacher or some kind of “helping” profession. Let’s say they have three kids–a serious and very responsible eldest kid who is a miniature adult, a middle child who is sullen and rebellious and gets into trouble, and a youngest child that is fun and protected and well-loved. Congratulations, we have a stereotypical image of a co-dependent family.
It is why this is a stereotypical co-dependent family, in which there is often some kind of drug or alcohol dependency in some person (in this case, the father, and possibly also the younger two children), that is of interest to me. As an analytical person I like to turn my focus on understanding and diagnosing what is around me to solve and understand problems. When I started reading about co-dependent families, and saw the very narrow and constricted roles that were allowed in families with severe dependency and abuse issues, I became aware that I knew these roles all too well, but never knew the context in which they fit in.
It is vital to understand that these patterns are remarkably similar whether one is looking at a family in the United States or one in a refugee camp. The same roles appear over and over again, and the wary and watchful person can pick up many clues by being observant. Most families that are troubled have no idea that their troubles are so obvious to others who are paying close attention, and it is this reason that predators find it easy to prey on the children of such families, because it takes very little skill to spot a deeply troubled family. It takes a great deal of skill to do something about, especially given the context in which family problems tend to congregate together.
The context itself is instructive. Because a family with dependency and abuse issues is under so much stress, there are very few places where people can fit in. For a co-dependent family to have any kind of functionality, it can only afford one dependent parent–the other parent must be an enabler, someone of a caring mindset who likes to help save people and who runs themselves ragged trying to keep a family together, without much time for bonding or for showing love to children. Often they will show a great deal of favoritism for the oldest child–one who is often a lot like them (who usually are heroes–growing up to be world-saving enablers making the world safe for dependents to avoid facing accountability). When I see an oldest child who is extremely prim and proper and adult-like, it’s an easy clue that something is going on in a family.
Once someone takes the role of hero in a co-dependent family–that role is filled. That means that everyone else has very limited roles to play without a lot of flexibility. Second children (if there are more than two) are often scapegoats, since acting out or getting into trouble is the only way to get attention in a family where love, affection, and attention are hard to find because of all the issues. Whenever I see a middle child who is sullen and acting out, and who seems particularly anti-social, there’s a good bet that something more is going on in a family than meets the eye. It’s a quick tool to recognize potential troubles.
Likewise, if one sees a child who is particularly day-dreamy and shy about intimacy, a “lost child” who hides away and builds castles in the sky and has a rich imagination but an atrocious social life, again, it’s a pretty obvious tip that one is dealing with a troubled family. Perhaps the most obvious signs of a troubled family are extremely hyper and attention-seeking youngest children, who are called “mascots” who are entirely absurd and random in their behavior.
I have made it a point, therefore, when seeking to examine what is going on in families and what deeper problems there may be, to start from an examination of specific roles, to see if anyone is acting in ways that are stereotypical. After all, a healthy family is able to accept people for who they are in all their complexity, while a dysfunctional and troubled family requires very rigid behavior and roles for its members. The more stereotypical the roles, the more troubled the family. And sadly, my examination tells me that a lot of families are very troubled, and fairly obviously so.
So, why is this important? As someone who would like to help eradicate the scourge of child abuse, it is vitally important to understand the sorts of families where these problems are the most common. After all, our societal evils are part of a larger context, and a great deal of that context has to do with families–whole, intact, and well-functioning families have far evils in the broader society than families where dependency is rife and where people are deformed into stereotypical roles and never can fully develop into the much larger and more vital roles designed for each person by our Creator. The family is the source of many of our society’s gravest problems, and what most needs work if we are to endure as a society and as a civilization. And yet it seems as if even those who pay the greatest lip service to defending the family show no interest in helping families to become functional. For cycles repeat themselves over the generations, and it is hard to break molds formed over centuries of repetition. But no one said that what was right was easy, after all.