It’s difficult to write a blog post about this without making it seem like I’m ‘dissing’ on a lot of families but I’m not. A family going through a hard time is not a ‘dysfunctional’ family. All families have stuff happen and things can kind of “go off the rails” for a little while. Stressful circumstances can make any healthy family struggle for a period of time. One of the differences between a healthy family and a dysfunctional family is the fact that even after a rough patch, healthy families have a tendency to get back to whatever their normal functioning was before. With dysfunctional families rough patches and issues and “off the rails” tends to be a chronic condition that seems to happen repeatedly and / or with no break between.
When kids don’t get their needs met in a healthy manner, it can set them up for a lifetime of victimization. The skills they don’t learn are often the ones that are needed to function in healthy relationships. The skills they do learn are often the ones that reinforce unhealthy and / or abusive relationships. Some folks are able to work their way through it all and come out as adults in a good place and some don’t.
You can probably go online and find various lists about behaviours of parents in dysfunctional family environments. You’ll likely see things like abusive parents (physical abuse, sexual abuse), alcoholism and neglect. These are bring very distinct images of abuse and “what not to do” as a parent. But there is more to it than that. Kids also need emotional attachments. They need to feel connected to others in a healthy way. In fact, it was the lack of connection and struggle that motivated us to start our youth program and what we found was astounding.
It went like this;
“I’m here for my friend. They’re having some problems…”
3 weeks later. “well, it’s not my friend, it’s me…”
2 weeks later; “I was sexually abused / assaulted / molested (pick one) when I was 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 (pick one or more). No I’ve never had counseling for it…” or, “I tried counseling but it didn’t work” or, “my parents were really mad at me for telling” or “my mom won’t let me get counseling but I really need to see someone” and so on.
The sheer number of kids, almost all female, (86%) that have had sexual violence experiences was astounding. The kids were coming forward as a result of dating violence (“it was kind of my fault because I was flirting with Dan and I knew that would make him mad”);
sexual violence (“child protection told my parents to watch us better and make sure he never had the chance to do that again and he stopped for a while but then he started again. Now my parents blame me for him getting arrested and I have nowhere to live”);
domestic violence (“my step-dad freaks out and fights with my mom all the time. He breaks things and hurts my mom.“);
sexual exploitation (“he said that if I loved him I would send him a picture of myself and that he would break up with me if I didn’t. He sent that picture to all his friends and it’s all over the internet. Kids are making fun of me, threatening me, calling me names. I don’t want to go to school because everyone knows. They write stuff on my lockers. I don’t want to tell the police because I’ll get in trouble for sending him the picture in the first place”)
and bullying, often as a result of sexual orientation or the fallout from a domestic violence relationship or sexual assault.
Every day. All day long.
Not every youth that is struggling with these issues comes from a dysfunctional home but the vast majority of them do. They’re not all abusive homes necessarily in the traditional sense of physical abuse; sometimes it’s more like a chronic disconnect between adult and child, a chronic lack of respect for the kids in the home and a chronic need to meet adult needs over kid needs.
These are little lost souls that float through their years, looking for an anchor or a soft spot to land. They aren’t the big behaviour problem kids that you see and often, they don’t have the same access to resources. Dating violence and you’re a teenager? Stop making your boyfriend angry. Stop dating him. Stop hanging around those kids. Stop seeing him. Just stop. Without any understanding of why this teenager is dating controlling abusive partners in the first place. Just because someone looks like an adult on the outside doesn’t mean they have the same coping strategies, skills or knowledge that an adult has. Our expectations are often not realistic.
Sexually assaulted and you’re a teenager? Stop hanging out with those friends. Stop drinking. Stop doing drugs. Stop dressing like a little slut. Just stop. Without any understanding of what this might do to this victim and why it actually isn’t their fault.
Statistics and research consistently show that dating and sexual violence starts in the teen years for the vast majority of victims. I fully support the efforts to make changes in our adult lives but really, wouldn’t we be smart to start focusing more on how to correct this or intervene or prevent or support people when and where it starts?
This Friday we are presenting our Youth Program to the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre’s yearly US symposium and I couldn’t be more proud. All the hard work and dedication and commitment from everyone in our community that helped to get this off the ground has paid off. For more information about youth homelessness, please visit Covenant House