Many families living with the proverbial “black hole” child will cope in unhealthy ways. Every member alters their behavior to avoid stress, frustration, pain, or anger, but it actually makes things more chaotic. It’s unintentional, but parents, siblings, extended family and friends take on psychological roles, and the resulting dynamics emotionally harms everyone. This is the dysfunctional family, and these are 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, disguising depression or addiction, running away (mentally or physically), or acting out in the community.
- Fixer has all the answers and persists in telling others what to do.
- Black Hole Child devours everyone’s energy, yet is also trapped in the 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 extreme insecurity or instability, they act out repeatedly to test if those they depend on still care. It’s a horrible disability.
Forgive yourself. If this is your family, it’s not your fault. Families living with an alcoholic or addict look similar. These families receive specialized treatment that may help your family too. But it is a difficult path that requires mutual support and cheerleading.
Helping a troubled child means helping their family first. Families need teamwork, not conflict
For a child to be well, each person around the child must be well. Focus on all the other family members first, without the “black hole” child present… now is not the time. Schedule confidential family meetings to talk feelings through without blaming the child.
First: A stress relief meeting. With a family therapist or support group to keep things safe, each member vents their hidden feelings without attacking others personally. Brace yourself. You may hear upsetting things, but once feelings are out in the open, people genuinely feel better.
Venting is healing.
It may only take one hour, but by clearing the air, people can start to move on. They can forgive, make personal changes, and join the team. Teams say things to each other like this: “We’ve got your back;” “We’ll chip in 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 better and what needs improvement? Brainstorm solutions together.
Consider future meetings as needed. At some point, the troubled child will need to understand the new family rules. Since this is really tricky, work with a family therapist.
Warning: If family teamwork improves, prepare everyone for Black Hole Child’s backlash or blow-up. Backlash is actually a good sign, but it must be withstood repeatedly. Expect to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to keep things safe while the child struggles. Stick it out. They may blow-up multiple times, but then these will fall off over time. This article explains the reasons for backlash, why increasing tantrums are ironically a good sign(!), and how to manage them.
Ultimate goal: The child’s behavior improves! 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 learn self-control.
How it might unfold:
- Protector steps back; cares for themselves; and accepts Rulemaker’s straightforward rules and boundaries.
- Rulemaker steps in when Protector can’t manage. Rulemaker sets up flexible structure and makes two to three simple rules that are fair and strictly enforced.
- Helper gets a life of their own, accepts they are not responsible for everyone, and is directed to projects or hobbies they really like.
- Loner and Victim need lots of support and comfort and help to meet their needs and interests. Victim may need mental health treatment.
- Fixer: withhold judgement and lectures! There are no simple answers. Your education or experience does not necessarily apply to this family. Ask how you can help them instead. 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, “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.
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