13 Characteristics of Children From Emotionally Barren Families
As previously explained, the initial work on the roles learned by children and the rules they live by was completed looking at adult children of alcoholics. Over time, it became clear that these roles and rules applied to any child raised with an emotionally unavailable parent. The reasons for the emotional barrenness of the family are many; addiction, chronic illness, mental illness, moving around the foster system, and even rigidly held religious beliefs.
In a therapy session this morning, the client and I talked about the challenges of trying to live and respond to life as an adult when our beliefs were cemented in childhood. It usually takes a great deal of work to change our beliefs so we can see things differently. Why? Because we develop characteristics when we’re born into emotionally empty homes?
One of the first people to articulate this material was Dr Janet Woititz. In 1983 she realized the work applies to many adult children, because emotionally barren families are legion.
All of this work (from her and many others) resulted in a list of characteristics common to adult children. These characteristics are listed all over the web and in many books (usually in reference to adult children of alcoholics), but this particular list has been taken from about.com
Adult children of emotionally barren families:
- Guess at what normal behavior is.
- Have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- Judge themselves without mercy.
- Have difficulty having fun.
- Take themselves very seriously.
- Have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- Overreact to changes over which they have no control.
- Constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Usually feel that they are different from other people.
- Are super responsible or super irresponsible.
- Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
- Are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
As you read this list, I’m sure you can see some similarity to the discussion of roles, and you’d be right. Some of these characteristics apply more to some roles than others. But I think you’ll see that they are applicable to many of us, in many situations.
Because there are so many of these characteristics, I’m going to consider three or four per post. I’ll post the major informaiton on Monday and then follow up with a discussion later in the week. Feel free to ask questions and post comments. As always I love to hear from you. If you see yourself or someone else, feel free to share your opinions, but remember: no diagnosing others. This material is presented simplistically to aid in personal understanding.
The first characteristic of adult children raised in emotionally barren homes is that they guess at what normal behavior is. This is very common in adolescents as they explore and are exposed to new circumstances, but these adults seem unable to generalize what they’ve learned to more situations. They may become comfortable at small family dinners (or not) or team meetings. But put them in a large social event or major professional event and they are uncertain and lost. This discomfort may be covered by over-congeniality or by introversion and withdrawal but it is present.
Remember, as children, these people were never certain of what would be happening at home: war or peace; emotional outburst or withdrawal; parents talking, not talking or screaming; using or not. As a result the ability to generalize social settings was compromised. For an extrovert, this often shows up in a different way: that discomfort will be masked with ultra-sociability. Talking to everyone and being the life of the party. But that behavior can mask the discomfort of the social event.
How does that work with the roles? A hero, for example, may be very comfortable as the conference chair, president of the organization or leader of the team. In that role, they will network, made introductions and ensure that everyone is included and participating. But as soon as their job is finished (ie they’re no longer president, chair or leader) you will notice they sit in the back row and remain quiet. They may have a hard time itneracting with others or reaching out to others – especially people they may not know well. They’ll remain with friends and well known associates, almost ignoring the guests of honor from the conference they chaired. Why? Because they know how to work the room if they are responsible but not as one of the guests because they don’t know how to be comfortable when not in charge – they’re guessing at normal for members of the group.
Can you think of ways the other three roles might play out this characteristic?