Most members of unhealthy family models oscillate between extremes of behavior choosing, mostly unconsciously, whichever behavior promises the greatest chance of surviving the moment. You may see many of the following extremes in youth in your ministries. It’s important to understand that these behaviors are functional and serve a purpose for these kids. Understanding that will help you know what they need from us most.
High Intensity vs. Shutdown: Alternating between feeling overwhelmed with emotional vs. physiological responses and shutting down.
Overfunctioning vs. Underfunctioning: Alternating between working overtime to fill in what is missing vs. falling apart or barely holding it together.
Enmeshment vs. Disengagement: Alternating between being overclose or fused in identities vs. avoidance, or cutting off leading to disengagement.
Impulsivity vs. Rigidity: Alternating between behavior that leads to chaos vs. rigid, controlling behavior.
Grandiosity vs. Low Self-Worth: Alternating between grandiose ideas and fantasies vs. feelings of low self-worth.
Denial vs. Despair: Alternating between a state in which reality is denied or rewritten vs. despair, helplessness (or rage at having life as we know it slip away).
Abuser vs. Victim: Alternating between the role of victim vs. the role of perpetrator.
Caretaking vs. Neglect: Alternating between over concern leading toward enmeshment vs. underconcern leading toward disengagement.
Living with dysfunction is traumatizing to the body as well as the mind. And living in this kind of system can lead to the kind of emotional deregulation that makes us want to turn to high-risk behaviors (substance use, unsafe sexual behavior, self-injury or violence towards others) to regain a sense of calm and regulation that dysfunction undermines. The kids in our ministries are not typically “bad kids” making immoral choices because they lack long-term consequential thought processes. Often the behaviors we see in our kids is simply their best attempt to manage life and survive in a world where most of the adults have left them to fend for themselves.