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The elephant in the living room

By covering up for our dysfunctional teen or young adult, we are postponing their recovery;
Once the elephant is revealed, the healing can begin.

Photo Credit: INGIMAGE

In dealing with a child of any age who has issues, unrest is naturally caused in the home.

Just like with a hanging mobile, when one piece is out of whack, the entire family is unbalanced as well. Torn by not wanting to worry the other siblings and not wanting to embarrass the child with the issues, parents often tiptoe around the subject of why their child is not functioning at a normal level for his or her age.

Sometimes the parents themselves are reluctant to admit to themselves or to each other that there is a problem. When they are able to acknowledge the issue, they must then consider where the dysfunction came from, whether it is related to environment or genetics (nature vs nurture), and what it says about them as parents.

If both parents are present as caretakers, they must be on the same page in order to handle it properly – and as we know, this is hard enough with general parenting. When it comes to a dysfunctional child, emotions are high, and shaming and blaming can come into the picture and make matters even worse.

So many children today are faced with issues that prevent them from functioning as needed, such as depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders and learning disabilities. These issues can affect everything from succeeding in school, completing matriculation exams, holding down a job, maintaining healthy relationships, controlling their temper, handling money, getting organized, eating healthily, communicating appropriately, acting with respect toward others and their property, and maintaining house and social rules. These challenges in themselves undermine our child’s self-esteem.

Add to that our frustration over not being able to get our kids to “get themselves together,” and you have an explosive situation. Now add siblings to the mix and the family dynamic is totally unbalanced; we often find ourselves putting so much attention into assisting the dysfunctional youth that we lack the time, energy and ability to notice the effect all of this has on the other children, and even on ourselves.

There is a famous saying, “Secrets keep a family sick.” Yes, our children have a right to their privacy, as do we; however, they need to know that if there are issues involving them and the family around them, nothing can be resolved if these issues are kept secret. Hiding problems from the rest of the family and others involved with our kids causes problems to fester and grow. Worse than this is pretending that the problem is a secret, when everyone is already well-aware of it.

The expression “elephant in the living room” describes the pathology of acting as if everything is okay when the dysfunction is as evident as an elephant that nobody wants to admit is there. Serious issues affecting members of the family must be spoken about openly, so the entire family can understand how to react to their family member in a way that will help them and the family to function as best it can. It also shows our children that their issues are not something to be embarrassed about, or something that can’t be resolved.

Sometimes, by not being candid with the other children, siblings may fantasize that the situation is even worse than it truly is – causing even more anxiety and discomfort in the home. Rarely is there a problem that can’t be dealt with in some way, if it is spoken about openly and with acceptance from all involved.

Parents need to share with each other and the other siblings the challenges their dysfunctional kids are going through, and what their limitations are.

The siblings need to know that these challenges do not make their sibling bad, just that they have issues that need to be dealt with in a consistent and open way. This is the best message to give the dysfunctional child as well.

Children are more perceptive then we make them out to be; they notice when there is something abnormal going on.

When the family is off-kilter due to a dysfunctional child and the issue is neither talked about nor dealt with, siblings often find themselves questioning their own sense of reality. This can make them start to doubt themselves, and their perception of what is normal or okay. Whether or not the family issue actually gets dealt with and how, our kids first need to know that we see them too, and that they are not crazy.

Once the elephant is identified, the issues can start to be dealt with. As we all know, identifying the problem is half the cure.

Once the problem is out in the open, siblings need to know how to deal with the dysfunctional child and the situations that can and will arise. On the one hand they tend to be sympathetic to their sister or brother, and quite often enable them in various ways. Problematic siblings often don’t pull their weight in the household, and the other siblings feel compelled to pick up the slack. They don’t want their sister or brother to think they don’t care about them, and are confused as to how to handle their dysfunction.

The healthy sibling is often torn between wanting to help their sister or brother, “tough-loving” them by saying no, or telling their parents about the situation. Their unhealthy sibling may ask them for money, to keep secrets, to do things for them they feel uncomfortable doing, and so on. It is a terrible burden on the siblings to have to set boundaries that do not enable the dysfunction, in a way their brother or sister understands stems from love and concern.

It is up to us as parents to identify the elephant and be proactive before these situations arise, and to give the surrounding siblings the tools they need to respond in a healthy and appropriate way for all involved.

For their own part, parents often find themselves making excuses as to why they need to say no, which in itself is challenging. Our child asks us for money and we should say, “No, it’s not good for me to give you money, because I know you will spend it unwisely,” or “No, you need to be working and being more independent.”

Finally, it is not uncommon for dysfunctional children, teens or young adults to convince themselves they are actually functioning much more normally than they are. It is up to us to be honest with our kids about their general health and daily functioning.

By covering up for our dysfunctional teen or young adult, we are postponing their recovery. Once the elephant is revealed, the healing can begin.


Tracey Shipley CAAP, counsels teens, young adults and parents in Jerusalem, and is the founder of the Sobar Music Center Project (Facebook: Sobar Jerusalem).
She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com, and on her web site.