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, 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, but who is also trapped in their 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.

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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 with considerate, understanding people 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 supportive 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.

–Margaret

Comments and stories encouraged. Please rate this article.

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2 Replies to “The dysfunctional family and the “Black Hole” child”

  1. Hi Margaret! Once again, your insights and advice are inspirational. And an eye-opener for me. I have a teen son, but he’s not a “troubled” one, thank goodness. But this is so helpful coz you know I fell like I am the “Fixer” and the “Rulemaker” in one. I like reading articles like this because there really is no manual for parenting teens but blogs and sites like these help. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment Nena, especially the one about this blog being a “manual for parenting teens.” My goal is to write what I wish someone had told me back when I was struggling. I made a mistake focusing my attention fully on my troubled daughter, and starving myself and the rest of my family of love and caring. The result? My child’s sibling, The Helper, left home for college. I watched in horror as my happy, sunshine, cheerleader Helper became really angry at her sister and me. I realized it was PTSD from growing up in chaos, giving and giving, and losing part of her childhood.

      The main lesson for anyone reading this: the family as a whole must be the center of your attention as much as possible. Your child will make this impossible at times, but never forget that you, your spouse or partner, siblings, or even a divorced biological parent must be supported and work together as a team. This is too much for one person to handle.

      And it’s true what you implied, one does not need to have a child with a diagnosable mental illness or addiction to understand how stress forces people into roles that aren’t helping. At times, any child can create chaos and stress for parents.

      Take care,

      Margaret

Thanks for your reply. Your story help others.

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