8. Gentle on Teasing and Sarcasm
Teasing can be OK as long as the teased is in on the joke. Same with sarcasm. A functional family won’t use either as a poorly masked put down.
Nobody likes to be the butt of a joke. And nobody likes being the perpetual fall guy. In dysfunctional families, it is common for people to poke fun at the Scapegoat and if the Scapegoat expresses hurt by crying, complaining or even walking away, then the offense is often compounded by claims that the Scapegoat “can’t take a joke” or has no sense of humour.
Make no mistake, this kind of behaviour is passive aggressive. It is thinly-veiled hostility. It is not funny and those who find amusement at the expense of another person’s feelings are demonstrating insensitivity and even sadism.
But even people who grow up in functional families may engage in this kind of so-called humour because today, unfortunately, to be viewed by your peers as clever and witty, you may have to engage in such behaviour, either as the so-called wit or as part of the laughing entourage. Popular culture endorses this behaviour with insulting, sharp-tongued television hosts on game and competition shows, reality TV divas indulging in verbal cat-fights, even movies in which the “winner” is the person with the sharpest tongue and most devastating wit.
Wit is a good thing, as is cleverness, but when it is at the expense of the feelings and dignity of another, the witty one is nothing more than a glib bully. In functional households children grow up learning the value of respect, not only for themselves, but for others as well. If they engage in this kind of socially-sanctioned bullying, calling it to their attention will make them feel guilty and even ashamed of themselves. In functional households, parents do not use sarcasm and verbal bullying on their children and do not allow their children to do it to each other. Teasing, when it happens, is affectionate and the teased is part of the joke…he is not hurt by the teasing but views it as one of the ways his family shows affection. And if he expresses hurt, the family not only stops, it apologizes and tries to make amends.
It is through this respect for the child’s feelings that the child grows up to be an adult who can take a joke…but doesn’t mistake veiled hostility for humour.
9. Allows People to Change and Grow
It used to be people in the family were labeled the smart one or the pretty one, the funny one or the shy one. While that’s not done so overtly any more, labeling is still something to watch. A functional family lets people define themselves. Individual differences are appreciated even celebrated. It also lets the kids become independent when it’s appropriate and come back to the safety of the family when they need nurturing.
The adults in the family need to be allowed to grow as well. A mother may want to get a graduate degree, or a father may decide to retire early and start something new. These changes merit discussion on how they will effect everyone in the family, adjustment, perhaps negotiation, but again, if done with respect every one can be satisfied.
This is actually a very important aspect of functional families. Think, if you will, of a family of birds. The role of the parent is to provide the young with a home and food and to teach the young one the necessary skills to fly the nest and not only survive, but be able to perpetuate the species by doing the same for its own nestlings. If you were to come across a dove that refuses to teach its little ones to fly, that thwarts their every effort to gain independence, or that keeps the young ones tied to it in a way that does not facilitate their own independence and autonomy, wouldn’t you think there was something really wrong there?
The role of human parents is little different, although more complex due to the length of time the young ones are under their care and the demands and expectations of the society. But ultimately, the role of the human parents is much the same: shelter and nurture the little ones and facilitate their learning the skills and lessons necessary to survive in the society. These lessons range from learning to walk and talk to learning to drive and shop, cook, and take care of themselves. Inherent in the latter years is increased freedom and autonomy so that by the time the young one is launched, he has the basic skills and some experience that will help him survive…even thrive…independently. Unfortunately, dysfunctional families often thwart this drive towards independence because the dysfunctional parents may wish to maintain the status quo. Even if the young leave the physical presence of the family, the dysfunctional parents wish to keep the ties the bind intact so that their emotional needs are met, even if it is at the expense of their children.
I have heard more than one daughter of a narcissistic mother echo my own complaint that NM refused to acknowledge our puberty by refusing permission for us to engage is the normal grooming rituals of developing teen girls. No bras or other feminine underthings, permission denied to tweeze unruly brows, shave legs and underarms, or begin using cosmetics or hair styling products. We were kept in childish clothing long past the time it was appropriate, and we were limited in our permission to associate with our peers and explore our surroundings in the same way we were limited at age 10. At age 14, I was wearing clothes from children’s department at Sears with the seams let out and the hems let down, rather than be allowed to choose my own clothes from a more adult section.
But it goes further than that. By refusing to teach a child the skills s/he will need for survival in the real world, the narcissist binds the child to her by necessity. If it is a malignant narcissist, the withholding of life skills training may be part of an ultimate revenge: if the narcissist is insulted by the child’s natural drive towards autonomy and independence, the narcissist may intentionally withhold training and even forbid the child from learning certain skills necessary for independence, not to bind the child to her, but to “teach her a lesson” about how important the narcissist is to the child’s survival. My own mother was a master at this: I was not allowed to cook, to use the washing machine, sewing machine or learn how to grocery shop, pay bills, balance a check book. I was told to do certain grunt-labour jobs that to relieve her of the drudgery, but never taught how to sort laundry, choose a good steak, determine if an avocado was ripe or not. I was even forbidden to attend junior college after high school, despite the fact that I graduated only 3 months after my 17th birthday and had nearly a year to fill before I turned 18. No, to let me learn any more might make me competent to manage my own affairs and the plan was for me to turn 18 and be shoved out the door with a couple of suitcases, no money, no job, and no life skills. This was to be my payback for daring to not need her, to be preparing to move beyond her control.
A functional family wants their children to succeed as independent adults and give the kids increasing responsibility and autonomy as they grow older and demonstrate their ability to handle it. My own kids had to learn to do laundry, get the groceries without me there to pick out the meat and produce, and even to fix their own food. They may not have liked learning it, but they all went out on their own with the knowledge to make it independently. Whether or not they used it, of course, was up to them.
In a functional family, the parents encourage growth and autonomy and the eventual launching into independence. Those who had such parents may find it difficult to even fathom what it was like with our families. If you grew up having privileges taken away because of something you did wrong, when a friend tells you she spend most of her adolescence shut in her room, it is natural to wonder what the friend did wrong to get restricted to that degree. Why? Because capricious parents who put their own desires ahead of the developmental needs of their children are simply outside their frame of reference.
10. Parents Work as a Co-Parenting Team strongly believe that a functional family is one where the adults are at the center of the family, in charge and pulling together in the same direction. In a functional family parents, divorced or married, take responsibility. Kids need the assurance that a firm hand (not too tight and not too loose) is at the tiller, even if they may not thank you for it.
This can be a tough one for some people to grasp, the idea that a home with two parents in it is not necessarily healthier or more functional than a home with only one parent or a blended family. It comes down to the functionality of the people who are heading up the household.
Some people get smart fairly early in a relationship with a dysfunctional person and bail out before they become stuck in victimhood. Unfortunately, sometimes there are kids involved, when that happens, the children may be stuck in a dysfunctional family even if they are living with the more functional parent. If one of your parents was dysfunctional and the other is not, your home may become a battleground as one parent fights for what is best for the children against the other parent who is fighting (or sneaking around) for what she or he wants. The more functional parent often is left on the horns of a dilemma: keep objecting and thereby keep the conflict alive; opt for peace but let the dysfunctional parent exploit the child; get out and continue the fight through court. There is no easy answer for the functional parent married to a dysfunctional one.
In a functional family, both parents put the well-being of the parents ahead of their own desires and even needs. If they differ on what constitutes what is best for the child, they don’t degenerate into screaming or tantrums, threats, or sabotaging the other parent. They will work together for the well-being of the children, putting aside their personal animosities and desires and working toward a common goal. One parent will reinforce the other, even if they personally disagree, and take up the disagreement with the other parent privately. Functional parents say things like “Did you ask your mother? What did she say? Well, let me talk to her for a minute before I make up my mind…” so that they don’t inadvertently undermine the other parent.
In a functional household, parents are less concerned with themselves, less concerned with trying to be your buddy, less concerned with displeasing their kids, and most concerned with doing the right thing, even if it disadvantages them or upsets the kids. Children, to survive in the real world when they enter it as adults, need to know how to deal with disappointment and that they don’t always get what they want. Parents who ease their own wounded souls by never saying “no” to their kids or who satisfy their need for control through regimenting their children are not functional and do their kids no favours. Functional parents may deny their kids things they want but never what they need: dysfunctional parents often cannot tell the difference.
11. Courtesy at Home First
An ounce of a well-placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘I’m sorry’ is worth a pound of explanations, defensive arguments and misunderstandings.
This, again, is about respect (are you noticing a trend here?). Functional people will step out of themselves, even if just for a moment, to acknowledge another. My father used to tell me “Courtesy is contagious…infect somebody.”
I think I would have dropped over in a dead faint if my mother had ever said “please” or “thank you” to me…and on one occasion, when I had mustered up the courage to ask if she was going to apologize to me for punishing me for something she later learned my brother had done, she laughed and told me “Consider that punishment for something you did do and I never found out about.” I was crushed. I felt this was just one more example that she didn’t love me, didn’t care about my feelings. In functional families, members do care about the feelings of the other members, and they respect them.
People who are treated with respect and courtesy by family members while they are growing up learn that behaviour. If they observed the role models in the household treating the family members with courtesy and respect…including the children…then this is what they will tend to learn. And when you grow up with the experience of being treated with respect and courtesy, this is what you expect to get from others…and when people don’t behave that way, you don’t doubt yourself, you know there is something wrong with them.
Growing up with the kind of self-worth that comes from being treated with respect all of your life makes you less emotionally vulnerable, more confident. You have a greater tendency to treat yourself with respect, as well. Children who grow up in a household where their feelings and rights were disrespected and courtesy was a one-way street (from child to parent but not from parent to child) may develop hypervigilance or hypersensitivity, and even anxiety; children from a functional household in which their feelings and rights were respected will have a more positive sense of themselves and the world around them.
12. Encourages Siblings to Work Together
Brothers and sisters have a unique relationship and it’s a dead shame when it is not nourished. Functional parents encourage siblings to play, work and problem solve together, enhancing inter-sib communication, instead of interfering with their arguments. That way siblings feel empowered and their bond is closer when they find a solution by themselves.
When parents compare one child to others or pit children against each other, when they demonstrate favouritism or don’t explain apparent favouritism, they are creating a dysfunctional environment.
When my sons were 17 and 10, we went to Hawaii for a week. After breakfast each morning the older boy was told what our plans were for the day and given his choice of coming along or spending the day on his own. If he chose the latter, he was given $10 for pocket money (enough to buy lunch and rent a surfboard) and told to meet us back at the room at a certain time so he could clean up and go to dinner with the family.
The younger boy was outraged because he was not given the same choices as his brother. He characterized it as “unfair” that we wouldn’t give him $10 and let him spend the day running around Waikiki without supervision. And although we tried to explain to him that, when he turns 17, he will have the freedom to go and do on his own for the whole day, his anger did not abate. I finally told him that the subject was not open to debate, he was 10 and he was not going to get the same privileges as his 17 year old brother until he, too was 17.
Without the explanation, both of my sons could have taken the decision as favouritism shown to the older boy…with the explanation, it became clear that this was not a case of favouritism but one of what was appropriate for a certain age and responsibility level. Dysfunctional parents, however, will not see any reason to make such an explanation, just simply cite their own authority and demand that their authority not be questioned.
My mother showed favouritism towards my younger brother so blatant that even family members who did not spend much time with us both saw it and remarked on it. She pitted us against each other and made immaterial comparisons, then doled out privileges or treats based on the results of those comparisons. For example, I was two years older and three grades ahead of my brother. When I was struggling with fifth grade math and he was sailing through second grade math, my mother conveniently forgot that my math scores in second grade were stellar…instead, she accused me of laziness, stupidity, daydreaming and not applying myself as the reasons my math grades were poor (not that I’d never learned my multiplication tables because she had me skipped a grade mid-year and I missed that in school) and he was rewarded for his grades and I was punished for mine. I was also told that he was smarter than I was because his grades were better, even though we weren’t studying the same things at the same levels.
In any comparison with my brother, I always came up short. Not only did this cause me to resent him, it caused him to think he was superior to me. This led to a whole other kind of conflict between us. The last time I saw him was at my grandmother’s funeral, 20 years ago. He was arrogant and condescending to virtually everyone in the family. It was not until years later, when I began to study narcissism, that I began to understand what kind of person he had become. It stuck out all over him, but I didn’t know what I was seeing at that time. But, thanks to my mother’s failure to nurture a bond between us and her delight at setting at each other as competitors or judging us as if we had been in a competition, there has never been any love lost between us.
This is what it means to have a dysfunction relationship with your siblings that was created and fostered by a dysfunctional parent. In a functional family, however, the kind of posturing my brother would do…encouraged by our mother…would result in an admonition to be nice to the sibling, to be a good sport, to have a care for the other child’s feelings. Pride in accomplishments of the siblings would be encouraged from the standpoint that everyone is a part of the whole…the family…and that the family sticks together and cares for each other. Bonding between siblings and between parents and children is a given, trust and love and respect taken for granted because it is how these families work. Of course there will be conflict and strife, but they are not taken as blood feuds or excuses for extended animosity. In a functional family, members of the family love and respect and support each other, even when they disagree.