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, 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.
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 things safe, and must be confidential. The troubled child must never ever be demonized or blamed! The goal is to ease everyone’s fears by bringing them out into the open. Each member vents their hidden feelings without attacking others. 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 clearing the air helps people move on. People can forgive, make personal changes, and start trusting each other. Parents and caregivers, start telling your family supportve things like: “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 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. Since this is really tricky, work with a family therapist.
Warning: If family teamwork improves, prepare everyone for Black Hole Child’s explosive backlash. Backlash is actually a good sign, but the potential crisis must be planned for in advance. Visualize standing shoulder-to-shoulder to keep everyone 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 increasingly severe backlash, why this is ironically a good sign(!), and how to manage them.
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 Rulemaker’s appropriate need for boundaries.
- Rulemaker steps in to help Protector as needed and gives them a break. Rulemaker and Protector work out acceptable structure and 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 supportive friends or activities they really like.
- Loner and Victim need lots of support and comfort and help to meet their needs and interests. Both may need mental health treatment–likely therapy.
- Fixer: withholds judgement and lectures, 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, and 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.
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