Dysfunctional family vs. defeated mother
May 8, 2007 7:27 AM   Subscribe

How can I break the cycle of dysfunction in my family?

My 12-year-old son with Aspergers Syndrome, is rigidly inert, with very poor executive functioning (can’t tie shoes, open plastic bags, etc.) My 10-year-old daughter is a shooting star/drama queen, stuck (in her mind) in the middle of this freak show. My other daughter is 9 and when she’s not pathologically sucking her thumb and twirling her hair (or someone else’s hair preferably,) she’s jumping out of her own skin, hyper and high-strung. My husband travels very, very frequently. TV is his favorite “activity.” He is very overweight, and so am I, although I have lost 25 pounds since January and plan to lose 25 more. My 83-year-old incontinent narcoleptic father lives in an adjoining in-law suite and I cook and clean for him. I just started working 25 hours a week outside the home, after being a stay-at-home mom for nearly 10 years. I have been in psychotherapy for many years now trying to overcome my depressing childhood, including fanatical Catholic parents and an incestuous older brother who sexually molested me repeatedly when I was around 10-11 years old, among other things. Those are the highlights.
I’m angry and I scream a lot. I freak out on the kids because they don’t clean up after themselves, get their homework done without nagging, do chores regularly, etc. I realize though that they have no one to model good behavior from. My husband and I do the same thing. When the mood strikes us, we let it all go. I drink and smoke pot almost everyday, and lately I’m just trying to keep the kids away from me.
How can I start new, and tell my family that the past is just that (and that I’m sorry for that), and from this day forward we are going to live differently. Then how do I follow up?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. I don't think the answer is on a web site. The answer is family counseling with a professional. Period.
posted by spicynuts at 7:48 AM on May 8, 2007

Seconding spicynuts' wow. While I admire your desire to change and commend you for being able to acknowledge all these issues, trying to change everything simultaneously and instantly is a recipe for frustration and failure. I think small steps are the answer here - family counseling and, say, learning to cook & eat in a healthy way.
posted by brozek at 7:53 AM on May 8, 2007

What spicynuts said.

Also, maybe lay off the drinking and smoking pot. It's pretty clear you're probably using it to cope with the chaos, rather than as a healthy recreational activity.
posted by chiababe at 7:54 AM on May 8, 2007

I think you're trying to take one huge step to turn your family's life around, and while it is valid and necessary, you might wanna take a small step at a time. The old baby steps. Choose one thing. Make the change. Move on to the next. Best of luck.
posted by ArchBr at 8:00 AM on May 8, 2007

Listen to spicynuts and brozek. This isn't a "I'm going to change everything today!" thing, but "I need to slowly change my behaviours and try to help others change theirs."

You've started changing, by acknowledging this and doing things like losing weight (congrats!).

Your family seems to not want to/be able to change (thumbsucking etc.).

If you wanna stop drinking, you usually don't do it alone, you go to AA to get outside guidance and help. If you want to change your family as drastically as you seem to want/need, you usually can't do it alone, you need them to be on board, and you need someone outside the family to provide guidance -- the counselor.

"So, kids, I've come to realize that I could be a better role model, so that's why dad and I have decided to go to family counseling with you guys. This will help us all change so we can be healthier and happier..."
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:07 AM on May 8, 2007

How can I start new and tell my family that the past is just that (and that I’m sorry for that), and from this day forward we are going to live differently. Then how do I follow up?

Therapy, but more proactive therapy. Less talking about your feelings and more doing stuff to address those feelings.

Baby steps. Concentrate on fixing one or two things at time. It's not impossible, you're lost weight right?

Let the small stuff go. At this point, just do triage, fix the big things and then you can concenctrate on the details. I.E is their room a mess? Close the door.

Take'em to the beach, park, whatever and just hang out. The kids need sometime where they can just be with you.

Do not make some big speech about how it's all gonna be different and better, 'cause you're probably not going to be able to change so completely, so quickly and you'll wind up disappointing the kids and doing more damage.

Continue therapy.

I’m angry and I scream a lot.
If you can find a sitter, take up a sport to release this more productively.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:10 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Family counseling would be a good bet, but just in case that's completely not an option, you might want to try just focusing on yourself for a little. The rest of your life won't just take care of itself, of course, and I have to say I have no concept what it must be like for you (although my own mother was an occasional screamer, and I still get a little tense just remembering those episodes -- it was truly terrible). But if you can just somehow make your own life better, by making friends that you like, doing something to fulfil your mind, something like that, it will at least show your kids that people can be happy and fulfilled.

I recently read a book you might or might not like: "She got up off the couch" by Haven Kimmel.

It sounds like your situation is quite different from the main character's situation, as is my own, but, I don't know, I found the book inspirational anyway.

If your kids don't behave as you would like, I'd consider trying to figure out how to enjoy them anyway. It's not going to be easy or fast to change them -- you can't just "make it happen", and they need to feel close to you, and loved, before they try to please you. And if you yell at them even when they do try to please you (and you may not always know the exact moments/days/weeks that's happening), it's going to make it impossible.
posted by amtho at 8:16 AM on May 8, 2007

FlyLady. Hey, wait -- hear me out.

ArchBr is right about the baby steps -- you want small changes you can sustain and build on, not sweeping revolutions that will just confuse the kids and fade away after a week or two. FlyLady is about keeping your house clean, in just that way -- and the discipline you build in following her system will help you with whatever change you want to make.

You know therapy is what you need; maybe if you go shine your sink and get dressed to shoes, you'll find it easier to make the call. FlyLady: "You can do this, you have just needed someone to pat you on the back and give you a great big hug to get you started."
posted by Methylviolet at 8:23 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Stop drinking, stop smoking, and turn off the TV. Start going outside. Start trying to appreciate the life that you do have, your 3 unique children, and your home. You cannot appreciate what you do have if you're spending your time trying to cope with it.

And then start talking to your family. Not about the issues, just talking. Listen to what they have to say.

You cannot change things by decree. It's not going to mean anything anyway to say that things will be different. You need to make things different and it starts with communication and setting an example. I agree, slow change.
posted by cotterpin at 8:26 AM on May 8, 2007

I came in here to suggest flylady too. She changed my life. Seriously, the best gift you can give yourself and your family.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:30 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Family counseling is your best bet, but change is hard in any case.

I grew up with Transactional Analysis and it still makes a difference today in helping me deal with people and deal with my own issues. Communication is the keystone to improving things and TA helps tremendously.
posted by Argyle at 8:38 AM on May 8, 2007

I agree with all of the above about doing this little by little and using professional help.

To add to this: someone in my family grew up in a fairly dysfunctional environment and what helped her was having places to escape to -- good relatives, friends, and teachers who were good role models to her or just showed her that there are a lot of ways to live.

If your kids already have people they are close to who are good for them, maybe you can try to work with them (whether by actually talking with them about this problem or by just making them partners in helping your kids grow.) If not, try to help them find activities or places that they like, where they can find good people and learn things that let them build up a functional world for themselves. This isn't instead of you being a good role model, just instead of you being the only one.

Best of luck in everything.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 9:03 AM on May 8, 2007

Congratulations on losing the weight! You’ve clearly begun to take steps towards one of your goals.

Now, you need to identify your other goals and set up plans for achieving them. You’re going to need help. If you’re in psychotherapy, your current therapist may not be the right person to help you with this, but you should absolutely ask him/her about it—s/he may have a referral for you. Ideally, you should look for someone who will help you identify major goals, set game plans for achieving them, and then provide support as you begin this work.

Flylady occurred to me, as well. I don’t currently subscribe, but on of the main thrusts of her program is that routines are important, helpful, and useful. It sounds like you could all use routines, as a family and as individuals. In particular, your son and younger daughter would probably take extra comfort from reliable routines.

Is your son in therapy or involved in a program for children with Aspergers? If there are support groups for relatives of children with Aspergers, perhaps you and your daughters would benefit from those, as well.

Getting your family involved with this process is key. Your kids, pre-teens that they are, may whine and roll their eyes, but ultimately I think kids are happiest when structure is provided for them. I’d suggest calling regular family meetings (or integrate them into Sunday night dinners, for example). At each meeting, 1. Compliment each member of the family on something they’ve achieved that week, 2. Set out the goal for the following week, 3. Specify a family reward for each goal achieved (a special meal, going out to ice cream together, stickers on a chart/calendar, etc.). This might require some advance work for you. Make a list of the changes you want to make—you’ve already identified picking up, doing chores, and doing homework. Break these down a bit further and use those as your weekly goals. (For example, instead of the goal being: “Do your chores this week,” say, “Everyone will make their bed each day this week.” The next week, move on to the next chore. Instead of: “Pick up after yourself,” say, “All dirty clothes go into the hamper this week.” Next week might be, “hang your coat up when you come home.") Be flexible enough to realize that a goal may require more than one week to achieve. You can do this for yourself, as well. If your goal is to keep up with the laundry, say that you’ll do a load each day as soon as you get home from work.

To sum up: Identify your major goals; set game plans to achieve them; break down game plans into manageable (very small!) tidbits; set up a system to ensure that each tidbit gets accomplished.

Another bit of wisdom from Flylady: It’s not all going to change over night. Trying to do everything at once is setting yourself up for failure. Instead, change one thing at a time—set yourself up for success.
posted by CiaoMela at 9:04 AM on May 8, 2007

Everyone has given good advice. Mine is pretty simple: just try to make every day a net positive day. Aim for a few days a week that go better than they go badly. Then try to up that number of days per week. When I was working on exercising and losing weight that was my plan. So one day when I didn'r meet goals wouldn't start the "oh man I just can't do this" pity party, it would just mean that I had to work a little more on it the next day. In the meantime, while you're ramping up to making improvements, start with small things that will make big differences

- Stop yelling at the kids. This is under your control. Find other ways to unleash your anger on non-animate things (punching bag? gardening?)
- Ease back on the drink/smoke thing. These solve the problem temporarily but make it worse in the long run. Pot and alcohol are both great for immediate anti-anxiety effects but it just comes back with a vengeance and the cycle continues.
- No big "we're going to change" speech, I'd agree there
- forgive yourself and ask the forgiveness of others. Along the same twelve steps line, realize you can't change the people around you [husband particularly] but you can make choices about how you interact with them
- find some "you time" to do things that you think are awesome even if it means making the family fend for themselves for a bit
- counseling often helps with things like this.

Writing down what is wrong is often an early step to getting a grip on it. I wish you and your family the best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 9:16 AM on May 8, 2007

Everyone has very helpful things to say, and I n-th them to the appropriate degree regarding therapy and baby steps.

I've found the Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish books to be extremely helpful in my interactions with children. I have none of my own but have suggested them to real, live parents and asked for their feedback and it's been very positive. It focuses on what has been reiterated here a lot - communication. And it reminds adults that kids sometimes need repetition before anything really sinks in.
posted by oreonax at 9:39 AM on May 8, 2007

"How can I start new, and tell my family that the past is just that (and that I’m sorry for that), and from this day forward we are going to live differently. Then how do I follow up?"

actions speak louder than words. work on yourself first, then you'll have the foundation for rebuilding the trust and expectations with your family.

nothing in your life will change, unless you change first.
posted by wayward vagabond at 9:55 AM on May 8, 2007

Write down four or five great things about each of your kids. Refer to it when they irritate you; keep an eye out for opportunities to add to it.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 10:54 AM on May 8, 2007

Absolutely agree w/everyone re the baby steps.

One baby step: Start a gratitude journal. Corny, maybe, but extremely effective. Every day write down a few things that you are grateful for - a few things about your life in general, and then something about each member of your family. Reread past entries frequently. This will make you focus more on the positive and less on the negative, which in turn will generate more positive things in your life - especially in the way you feel about your family members. One of the easiest and most powerful tools there are to change your life. Best of luck to you.
posted by widdershins at 11:16 AM on May 8, 2007

Get rid of your TV. Cancel your cable, throw it out, give it away, whatever it takes. If you're going to get your life together, you need time, and that glowing box sucks up an incredible amount of it. Do it as soon as possible. Your kids and husband might hate you for it initially, but it will improve your life. If you're watching more than an hour a day right now, that's bad. It sounds like you have a lot to work on and you don't need the distraction. If you need entertainment, play a board game or cards with your kids. It sounds like they're not quite old enough to think this is the lamest thing ever.
posted by SBMike at 11:31 AM on May 8, 2007

My mom had the "I'm angry and I scream a lot" thing when I was really young, but she pretty much conquered it by the time I was 10 or 11. I have four younger brothers (3, 6, 9 and 12 years younger than me), and it's really weird that the youngest two have a completely different memory of mom than the oldest.

She shared a lot in common with your background, too: coming from a violent alcoholic and sexually abuse family, she really had no good models. But she overcame it. I think she's a great mom, I love her a lot, and I'm incredibly proud of her. She had already grown a lot by the time I was born, and she has continued to grow on into her 50s. So don't give up. You can do it.

FIRST: You have to stop drinking and smoking pot. I'm not against living in a haze when it's just you that you're taking care of, but it's not acceptable when you have kids who are dependent on you. They are either judging you or learning your bad habits. You won't be able to control your life or your kids when you have a substance abuse problem. You want your husband to stop too, and hopefully he will, but take care of yourself first.

SECOND: Love your kids. Push them to be the best versions of themselves, but accept them for who they are. Kids need that. Don't judge them for their emotional problems.

THIRD: Don't talk to the kids about your issues. Don't ever call your family dysfunctional in front of them. You'll offend them, hurt their feelings, make them defensive, and piss them off. Stop it now. They're kids and they're not equipped to handle it.

That's just the beginning, and you have a long way to go. But those steps will be huge accomplishments, and they will start you on the right path. Love your kids, and do everything you can to give them the childhood you deserved and they do deserve.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:33 PM on May 8, 2007

Nthing the journal, family therapy and getting proactive in your own therapy. Congratulations and good work on losing your weight, too. You've already started to take the steps toward healing.

No one's said much about the incest, so I will. It's been my experience that this is usually a hidden central issue. While I have never experienced incest directly, it's affected my entire family because my mother's father was a perp and raped his three daughters, over a period of years. He died before I was born thankfully, but incest is a "gift that keeps on giving" even if your children have never been molested. Your past abuse has shaped your perceptions and more than likely is affecting your children. My mother's past abuse and the shame and secrets that come part and parcel with it, certainly affected me. Look into Survivors of Incest Anonymous. It's free and confidential.

Best wishes and good luck.
posted by luminous phenomena at 4:34 PM on May 8, 2007

That should be

Survivors of Incest Anonymous. Sorry about the borked link.
posted by luminous phenomena at 4:38 PM on May 8, 2007

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