Why Kids Think They’re the Problem in a Dysfunctional House—and Why They Aren’t

I grew up in a dysfunctional home that my parents unknowingly created.

It was the root behind my 30-year eating disorder and also getting involved in an eight-year emotionally abusive relationship.

Though they didn’t conjure dysfunction intentionally, the message to me was clear – you are not worthy, you are not enough. Also, I saw that the dad lays down the law, and the mom lets it happen.  

kids dysfunctional households

Dysfunctional homes aren’t uncommon

“Many children grow up in dysfunctional households,” explains Dr. Carla Manly, Clinical Psychologist. “Although most parents don’t intend to cause harm to a child, many do—unknowingly—engage in behaviors that create both short-term and long-term problems for a child. Many parental behaviors ranging from overdrinking and chronic fighting to untreated mental health issues create a toxic, dysfunctional environment for any children in the home. A child’s basic needs for love, safety, and security are generally left unmet in dysfunctional households.”

Growing up, I thought my home was typical.  It was my normal.  What did I really have to compare it to? It wasn’t until after 30 years of compulsive overeating and bingeing that I went to therapy and a professional helped put all the pieces together for me.  

My eating disorder was my coping mechanism for the lack of love.  But sometimes I take a step back, see how fiercely I love my two children and wonder what was wrong with me that my parents didn’t love me the same way.  Why wasn’t I lovable?

Children think they’re to blame, but they’re not

“Most children instinctively believe that mom and dad are perfect and that the child must be to blame; as a result, the young child comes to feel damaged, unworthy, and unlovable,” says Dr. Manly. “In a child’s mind, the only reason a parent would not be loving, protective, and kind would be some defect within the self. The young child comes to think and believe, ‘If mommy and/or daddy don’t love me, I must be bad. I must be broken. I must be unlovable.’” 

I learned that it wasn’t my fault, that I did nothing wrong. My parents didn’t do anything wrong; they just weren’t wired to be warm, loving, supportive, set-a-good-example people.

“Although a parent may not intend to be emotionally or physically negligent, the impact on the child is devastating. The child—who inherently only wants to feel safe, loved, and secure, absorbs the toxic energy in a dysfunctional household. A child’s brain does not have the capacity to understand that one or both parents have dysfunctional personal issues that have not been addressed. To make sense of the situation, the child adjusts and manages as best as possible,” Manley said.

Kids compare their home to their friends’ homes

When I went to friends’ houses to hang out as a teen, I saw families that laughed together. Voices weren’t raised; the warmth was in the air. It made me wish I lived in one of these friends’ homes instead of my own.

“In many cases, until a child goes to school or into other children’s homes where truly kind and loving dynamics are experienced, the child does not even realize that the home environment is abnormal and dysfunctional,” said Manly.

The importance of a strong role model

In therapy, I learned that I had no strong, female role model to look to for guidance or mentoring.  My mother wasn’t a good model, which I found out the hard way in the abusive relationship.  My mom had one sister, my aunt, who I loved, but she lived in another state.  Her two daughters, my cousins, were ten years older and were wonderful, but again, we lived far away from one another.  I also didn’t know, at a young age, that I should be reaching out to them.

Manly explained if that child benefits, at some future age, from a warm, supportive environment or receives professional psychotherapeutic treatment, the “I am defective, unlovable, and unworthy” mental schema can shift. However, left untreated, the child will often grow into an adult who repeats the negative behaviors learned in childhood. Many of the children who grow up in dysfunctional households suffer from mental health issues such as eating disorders, substance abuse, alcohol addiction, PTSD, depression, and chronic anxiety. 

Thank goodness for that night a little over 12 years ago when my mind happened to be wide open, and I heard the words “compulsive overeater” on TV, and it piqued my interest enough to start Googling on my computer. That night was the turning point in my life as I realized there was a name for my obsession with food; that I was, in fact, sick.

And those who seek treatment often heal, learn to understand and forgive their parents, and then choose to live their lives in a conscious, more elevated way. The journey of thorough healing is a long and difficult one and, in my experience, often a lifelong task. 

The breakthroughs I had in therapy helped me to put the pieces of my life together.  The therapist helped me discover the role my parents played, which allowed me to process my feelings towards them and what problems they inadvertently caused.  I learned that I was lovable, deserving, and worthy, though I still battle with that sometimes.

Ronni Robinson is the recently published author of Out of the Pantry, a memoir of her struggles and triumphs with binge eating disorder. Buy Out of the Pantry here.

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About Ronni Robinson

Ronni is a member of the Sandwich Generation; she's the tired lunch meat layered between two children and aging parents. She is an eating disorder recovery coach, a 3-time Ironman finisher, and is a certified spin instructor. Her first book, Out of the Pantry: A Disordered Eating Journey, can be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can find more of her professional writing and coaching info on her website (https://www.ronnirobinson.com/)