In Defense of “Broken Families”

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

I have been noticing this term “broken families” pop up a lot recently in various professional writings and parent blogs. Each time I read it, I shudder. The underlying connotation is that a family that has undergone a divorce, death, adoption, abuse, etc. is somehow broken and unrepairable. It is a fatal diagnosis that leaves families without hope. I know, I know, it’s just language but words do have power. They percolate in the brain and become belief systems and self identifying references. The more we hear the word, the more we start to belive them and then we start to give up.

When someone witnesses a teenager with substance abuse issues, for example, people will comment: “You know they come from a broken family”. Everyone who goes through foster care, adoption, or experiences a divorce is going to have mental issues, right? Wrong. Many families deal with teenage substance abuse, not just nontraditional families. While it is possible that children of divorce may act out in antisocial ways, this doesn’t mean that all children of divorce will have issues in life that impair them. The same is true for adopted children or someone in a foster home or raised by a grandparent.

I am not denying that families do suffer from going through experiences like divorce or death or adoption. Loss is central to each of these things but that should not be a life-sentence resulting in mental and relational problems. Life is full of suffering. The focus here needs to be on how to help others cope. How can we learn from those who survive and thrive and teach it to everyone. I take affront at these comments and attitudes because they assume a dark, gloomy fate just because they have undergone a loss. That is just one path.

A recent national study on foster care and adoption in the child welfare system listed that 48% of children, in the system, have significant behavior problems. At first glance, that feels devastating but what about the other 52% that don’t? Who studies them? What makes them more of a survivor, better able to cope, more reselient? Let’s see those studies. Perhaps we could learn some useful tools to help us build strong families.

My challenge is too guard our language. This means we have to closely guard the thoughts that produce them too. We have to start looking at loss for what it is, a painful experience and not as destiny. To counter these negative connotations, try identifying the strengths of families and individuals in them. What have they done well that we can build upon? What new words can we use to describe them and assume their inevitable success in life?

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