The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child
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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.
    • Loner stays under the radar for safety and manages alone.
    • Victim shows a brave face but hurts. They become depressed or addicted, or run away (mentally or physically), or act out in the community.
    • Fixer has all the answers and keeps trying to make everyone do things ‘right’.
    • 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. These families can receive specialized treatment that may help your family too, but it is a difficult path, and the family must work as a team.

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 hidden feelings without attacking others.  (The troubled child should never be demonized.) Brace yourself.  You may hear upsetting things, but once feelings are out in the open, people will genuinely feel better once things calm.

It is a relief to tell your story and have someone listen and understand.

It may only take one hour, but clearing the air helps people move on. People eventually forgive, make personal changes, and start trusting each other. Parents and caregivers, you can start telling your family supportive things like: “We’ve got your back;” “We’ll take over for you if you need a break;” “We’ve got this.”

Second:  A check-in meeting. A couple of weeks later, ask how everyone is doing. What is working well? and what needs improvement? Brainstorm solutions together.

Consider future meetings as needed.  At some point, the troubled child’s own opinions will need to be woven into new family rules.  This can be very tricky.  If you feel things will get out of control, get help from a therapist for yourself or for your family.

Warning:  Once family teamwork improves, prepare everyone for an explosive defiant backlash. This is actually a good sign, so plan for it in advance. 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 explosive defiance when limits are firmly enforced.  It is a sign you are regaining your 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 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 rules that are fair and easily enforced.
  • Helper gets a life of their own, accepts they are not responsible for everyone, and is redirected to supportive friends or activities they really like.
  • Loner and Victim need lots of support and comfort and help to meet their needs. Both may benefit from 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 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.

–Margaret

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Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens
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Marijuana’s effect on adolescents is much more serious than many realize, especially those with behavioral disorders.  This is no exaggeration; marijuana can lead to psychosis and long-term cognitive impairment for your troubled child.  Numerous recent research studies show that marijuana has a more damaging effect on the young brain than is generally understood. The THC in marijuana is psychoactive, which means it can affect your child’s unbalanced brain chemistry more than the general population. Serious depression, anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis can be triggered in children with latent psychiatric vulnerabilities. (additional marijuana research going back to 2004 are at the end of this post).

Just because marijuana is plant-based does not mean it is safe.  It has dangerous side-effects like any other psychoactive drug.

Marijuana legalization has deeply concerned pediatric psychiatrists and other providers specializing in child, adolescent, and young adult mental health treatment.  Up until the their early 20’s, young people’s brains undergo radical changes as part of normal development.  Neurons are “pruned” to reduce their number (yes indeed, one can have too much gray matter to function as an adult). Pruning occurs rapidly in teenagers–think about it, in addition to puberty, a lot of nonsensical teenage behavior can be explained by this.  The THC in marijuana, the part responsible for the high, interferes with the normal pruning process.

When marijuana is ‘medicinal,’ a doctor determines a safe dose.  And when it is ‘recreational,’ there is no such limit… teen users don’t realize there should be.

Let’s talk about “dose.”  Above a certain dose, which is different for each person, THC side effects can be intolerable to lethal (if it leads to unconsciousness or triggers suicidal thoughts).

“THC is known to relieve anxiety in smaller doses and increase it in larger; this is due to its bi-phasic effects, meaning it can have two opposite effects in high doses. Furthermore, some people are genetically predisposed to experience anxiety with cannabis as a result of brain chemistry.” —–What are the Side-Effects of High THC Cannabis. Bailey Rahn, 2016

Now let’s talk about long-term.  Our troubled children are already slipping behind their peers in important ways, which can include school; emotional maturity (certainly); and physical health (such as gut and digestive problems).   Marijuana will add to your teen’s problems by causing lethargy, impaired memory, and cognitive delays.

We can’t pretend or assume marijuana is safe anymore, regardless of its legality or medicinal uses.

I found this research result extraordinarily sad:

“Increasing levels of cannabis use at ages 14-21 resulted in lower levels of degree attainment by age 25, lower income at age 25, higher levels of welfare dependence, higher unemployment, lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and lower levels of life satisfaction.”
–Cannabis use and later life outcomes.  Fergusson DM, Boden JM, Addiction;  Pp: 969-76;  Vol: 103(6), June 2008

I worked with adolescents in residential care and in the juvenile justice system who regularly used marijuana when they could.  A young man on my caseload grew noticeably depressed after he started smoking regularly, and his anxiety, irritability, and paranoia increased.  He said that smoking helped him feel better, but he couldn’t observe what I and other social workers observed over time. Smoking marijuana, ironically, was temporarily relieving him of its own side-effects.

A clarification about the two substances in marijuana – The plant Cannabis sativa has two chemicals of interest:

  1. Cannabidiol (CBD) – the molecule is considered safe for a variety of treatments, such as relief of pain and nausea, and it is approved by the American Medical Association;
  2. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the molecule is responsible for the high, and is the one that can produce psychotic symptoms, paranoia, depression, anxiety, and memory loss.

Your child’s future is already at-risk, why worsen it with marijuana use?

Please share this information with other parents.   All children need the same warnings we give about alcohol and street drugs to include marijuana.  Whether you live in a jurisdiction where marijuana is legal or not, teens can and will find it.  It may not be possible to completely prevent your troubled child from using, but your caring persistence can reduce or end its use.

–Margaret

 

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What’s in your troubled child’s future?

What’s in your troubled child’s future?

What’s in your troubled child’s future?
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Are you scared for your child’s future? Is he or she is falling behind in everything that is important for their future?

Will they have a future worth living? Will they manage as adults? How can we support them?

This chart is a spectrum of long-term outcomes for people with mental health disorders.  Your child will fall somewhere in one of the five columns.  No matter how ill your child is, if a network of family and friends can sustain support over the long-term, you’ll likely keep them from the worst-case scenario in the far right column.  There is research evidence for this.

However you define it, your mission is to give your child wellbeing.

Your child may be struggling in critical areas of development, and problems are adding up:

  • Friend problems:  they have inappropriate friends, or no friends, or they mistreat friends (and siblings).
  • Behavior problems:  they do or say disturbing things (swearing, hurting, breaking, manipulating, sinking in depression, attempting suicide…). Everyone is stressed.
  • School problems:  disruptive behavior; poor grades (or a sudden drop in good grades); bullying or being bullied.
  • Health problems:  physical health problems become mental health problems, and vice versa:
    • trouble with sleep
    • digestive system and gut problems
    • poor diet and lack of exercise
    • epilepsy or neurological disorders
    • hormones during puberty
    • substance abuse.

We designate legal adulthood stages at the ages 18 and 21.  That’s young.  Many normal healthy young people at this age are immature and irresponsible, but your son or daughter may lag well behind them.  Your child may need support and rescuing well into the 20’s or early 30’s–this is not unusual.

You’ll survive the marathon of tough years by pacing yourself, finding support for yourself, and setting a few boundaries.

There is reason for hope.  Your child may take many horrible directions in their teens and 20’s, and you may feel hopeless or helpless as you witness their life nosedive.  If you can hang on and marshal support for yourself, your child will find a circuitous path to recovery.  It will have sharp turns and back steps and falls, but they’ll find it… and enter stable adulthood.

Some parents and families have seen the worst.  They’ve endured violence due to their child’s addiction; sat in court when their son or daughter was convicted of a crime; or they waited in the Emergency Room when their son or daughter was admitted for psychiatric care.  They also lived to see their child achieve the sanity to finish their education, support themselves, develop good relationships, and get that future you always wanted for them.

How two parents handled a worst case scenario (yours may never get this bad):

These are true stories of mothers who stuck by their very ill adult children and provided what little they could to bring a bit of wellbeing.  These mothers found some peace by simply doing what they could.

One had a grown son with schizophrenia and a heroin addiction who lived in squalor in supported housing.  He spent all of his disability assistance money on heroin and nothing else.  Her efforts to help him met with verbal abuse and threats of violence, and she feared for her safety.  What could she do, witness his slow suicide by starvation or overdose?  She arranged to visit him once a week in the parking lot, and brought 2 sacks of groceries in the trunk of her car.  He was to come out and get the groceries while she stood at a safe distance.  This worked.  He was still verbally abusive when he got the groceries, but he got food and she stayed safe.

One had a son addicted to methamphetamine who was lost to the streets. One day, she discovered a nest of old clothes and rags in an overgrown area behind her garage, and instinctively knew it was from her son.  “Good,” she thought, “He’s alive; I can keep him safe.”  She rarely saw him come and go, but she replaced the rags with clean blankets and a sleeping bag, and put out food for him, and provided a tarp for cover.  She couldn’t free her son from addiction, but she could keep him safe from the streets and its desperate people, and fed and sheltered in a way he accepted.

–Margaret

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