Many families living with the proverbial “black hole” child start to cope in unhealthy ways. Everyone gradually alters their normal behavior to avoid stress, frustration, anxiety, or anger, but these behavioral accommodations actually make things more chaotic. It’s unintentional, but parents, siblings, extended family and friends take on psychological roles, and the resulting dynamics are harmful. This is the “dysfunctional family,” and these are some common roles:
- Protector is the emotional caregiver and defends the child regardless.
- Rulemaker wants Protector to stop enabling the child and set boundaries.
- Helper smooths over conflict, calms others, and sacrifices for others. They become “parentified,” and miss important childhood experiences, like play.
- Escapee stays under the radar for safety, and finds ways to stay away from home to avoid the stress.
- The Neglected shows a brave face but hurts. They need nurturing but don’t ask for help because the parents are so distracted. They become depressed.
- Fixer has all the answers and keeps trying to make everyone do things ‘right’. They repeatedly jump into everyone’s lives and stir up chaos.
- Black Hole Child devours everyone’s energy, and gets trapped in their own black drama. For complex psychological reasons, they learn to manipulate, split family members against each other, and blame their disorder for behaviors they can control. Due to insecurity, they act out repeatedly to test if those they depend on still care.
If this is your family, it’s not your fault. Forgive yourself and everyone else. Families living with an alcoholic or addict behave similarly, but they have specialized 12 Step programs like Al Anon and Narc Anon to help them become functional again. Their 12 Steps would help you too! I’m not aware of a similar 12-Step approach specifically for families living with mental illness, but I strongly recommend a support group. Look for one near you (in the US or Canada) at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org) or the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (www.ffcmh.org).
For a child to be well, each person around the child must be well.
First: A stress relief meeting. Meet together without the “black hole” child present… now is not the time to include them. Meetings might be held with the guidance of a family therapist or support group to keep emotions safe. The goal is to ease everyone’s fears by bringing them out into the open. Each member vents their true feelings. Brace yourself. You may hear upsetting things, but once feelings are out in the open people will feel better. There will be more problems to solve, but now everyone knows what they are. No more secrets. All everyone needs is to feel heard and understood. Clearing the air helps people move on.
It is a relief to tell your story and have someone listen and understand.
Check in with family members (perhaps not the troubled child yet… use your best judgment). Ask everyone how they‘re doing. What is working well? and what isn’t? Be prepared to hear more complaints and venting. Just listen and ask clarifying questions until they get it out of their system. (It’s like vomiting, and feeling so much better afterward.) Brainstorm solutions together. Ask for ideas on what needs to happen differently. You don’t need to agree or comply, just listen.
At some point, the troubled child’s own opinions and needs need to be woven into the new family system. This can be very tricky. If you feel things will get out of control, get help from a therapist or counselor for yourself or for your family. The methods for doing this are too lengthy for covering in this article, but you can find out more by exploring books or websites on family interventions for an alcoholic or addict.
Warning: Once family teamwork improves, prepare everyone for an explosive defiant backlash. This is actually a good sign, so plan for it in advance. It is a sign you are regaining your authority. Visualize standing shoulder-to-shoulder to keep everyone safe while the child explodes. Stick together. The child may blow-up multiple times, but stick together. The explosions fall off over time. This article explains the reasons for these explosions, called “Extinction Bursts” by psychologists. They are the final act of defiance when limits are firmly enforced and the child loses power.
Ultimate goal: The child’s behavior improves! The child stabilizes; they are surrounded by a caring but firm team that locks arms and won’t be shaken by chaos. Surprisingly, this actually helps the child feel more secure and less likely to cause distress.
How it might unfold:
- Protector steps back; cares for themselves; and accepts that Rulemaker has some legitimate reasons for boundaries.
- Rulemaker steps in to help Protector as needed and gives them a break. Rulemaker and Protector work out acceptable structure and make two to three simple house rules for everyone that are fair and easily enforced.
Rulemaker and Protector also make two to three simple agreements between themselves. Number one: no fighting or disagreements in front of the child. Next, checking in with each other and agreeing on a plan or strategy. Ideally, their relationship improves, and trust and safety is reestablished. This can happen between parents who are divorced too.
- Helper gets a life of their own, accepts they are not responsible for everyone, and is encouraged to spend time with supportive friends or doing activities they really like.
- Escapee and The Neglected need lots of support and comfort and emotional connection to a nurturing adult. They are at risk of mental health problems in the future, especially depression and addiction. They may suffer from PTSD as adults, from enduring years of emotional distress or neglect. Both may need mental health treatment such as therapy and relaxation skills.
- Fixer: withholds judgement and realizes there are no simple answers. Their education or experience does not necessarily apply to this family. They should ask how to help instead of trying to make people change, and they should be gracious and supportive.
Helping a troubled child means helping the family first, and family teams are the best way. As each member strives for a healthier role, each gets support from other family members and hears things like, “Atta girl!”, “You rock!”, “Go Mom!”. Teamwork creates therapeutic homes and strong families. Research proves that strong families lead to better lifetime outcomes for the child.
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