Is Your Home Emotionally Unhealthy? 5 Signs: David Thomas
If your home was emotionally unhealthy, would you know it? Counselor David Thomas offers 5 ways to identify dysfunction in your own home—and constructive responses to choose instead for a lifetime of better relationships.
Research tells us that in the face of failure boys are more likely to point the finger outward and blame someone else [and] girls are more likely to blame themselves. I see evidence of that, not just with kids, but with adults. I can’t tell you how often I sit with moms in my office whose kids are struggling in some way who will say, “Tell me what I’m doing wrong.” -- David Thomas
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If your home was emotionally unhealthy, would you know? Counselor David Thomas offers 5 ways to identify dysfunction in your own home—and healthy ways out.
Is Your Home Emotionally Unhealthy? 5 Signs: David Thomas
David: Research tells us that in the face of failure boys are more likely to point the finger outward and blame someone else [and] girls are more likely to blame themselves. I see evidence of that, not just with kids, but with adults. I can’t tell you how often I sit with moms in my office whose kids are struggling in some way who will say, “Tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson.
You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I’ll never forget the day sitting in seminary, and the teacher came in and said, “Here are the kind of men that go into ministry.” He reads this report, this study, this research had been done over decades. It basically said, “the most insecure, unhealthy emotionally men go into ministry,” because ministry provides significance, the spotlight’s on you. You’re in the front of the room. Everybody’s listening to what you’re saying.
I remember thinking, “Wow! These are loser-type guys.” [Laughter] I don’t know if you remember it, but I came home depressed. But I also said, “Man, I’m so glad I’m not that guy.”
Dave: It wasn’t for years until I realized I was that guy. [Laughter] I couldn’t see it. I had a lot of unhealthy emotions that I could not process.
With that as an introduction I thought, “Let’s talk about a home that’s unhealthy. We brought the wisest counselor I can think of, David Thomas, back in.
Ann: We love David.
Dave: Man, you are so wise.
Ann: So good.
David: I’m so happy to be back with you all.
Dave: You spent the last 25 years at Daystar Counselling in Nashville counseling families/counseling kids. You’re still doing that. We’ve been talking about your book, Raising Emotionally Strong Boys, and the one before that, Wild Things.
You see a lot of health and unhealth in homes. We thought today could be “Let’s Ask David to list the top five signs of an unhealthy home.” You don’t have to do all five. You can get three or four and we’ll chime in. But as you think of signs we should be looking for that say, “This is unhealthy. The emotional health in this home is not good,” What is the first one that comes to your mind.
I talk in the book about what I call the Three Rs, which I’ll name them and then we’ll talk about where they fit within your question. It’s “Recognize, Regulate, and Repair.”
Recognize: If I were just going to give a quick definition to each, recognize is like the dashboard on the car where it will signal you if your tires low or the tank if empty. I talk about how the dashboard on the car is the same as our bodies. Our bodies will signal us when we are carrying more stress than we need to be carrying for extended periods of time and how if I’m carrying high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, that may show up in some ways such as headaches or migraines or digestive issues or I carry a lot of tension in my back and neck, my body is going to cue me in the way my car will cue me.
If I pay attention to those signs and signals and do what the car needs, the car keeps running. If I ignore those, I’m going to end up on the side of the road. The first benchmark of an unhealthy home would be you don’t pay attention to what you are feeling or what the people around you are feeling. We dismiss; we disconnect.
There are all different directions that I think we move, and I think, even back to our earlier conversations, that happened for generations and generations. We didn’t name the hard things that were happening in families believing “If we don’t talk about it, it’s not really reality,” when in reality it made it worse because we didn’t give it a name.
What we know happens with kids in those moments is if no one names what’s going on, kids internalize that and often move toward a sense of responsibility, which is why often the case of addiction, for example kids will work hard when no one names the problem of addiction to believe “I need to be “fill in the blank”: a better student, more compliant, less loud.” All the directions that kids go to try to keep a parent who is medicating with a substance from taking hold of the substance.
I’ve even known kids who set alarms in the middle of the night and go into the refrigerator and dump out alcohol believing that would stop it. You see that sense of responsibility because we aren’t naming what’s going on, which starts with that first R - recognizing.
Ann: I’m thinking, Dave, of you when you were seven and your little brother died; who was five and a half, so [you] were a year and a half apart. He died around Halloween. Let’s just say this: Your family never talked about it.
Dave: Oh, never.
Ann: Never talked about it. You just ignored everything. Because your family, your mom and your dad were both alcoholics, you never talked about anything. But I remember your mom saying every single Halloween after Craig died, you got sick. It’s like—
Dave: Literally got sick.
Ann: --physically sick, but instead of recognizing that and thinking, “We should probably get help,” nothing was ever done.
Dave: Yes, that was my question when you were saying, “Unhealthy homes don’t recognize….” How do you recognize what you can’t recognize?
David: One of the questions I ask early in the book is “Who are your five people you go to - to ask for support.” I think there’s two layers to that. One, I need to know my five people and two, I need to know how to ask for help. It’s important to go back to—I love what you said in an earlier episode of “All we knew is what we knew at that point.”
I don’t want any grandparent listening to feel shame as you hear us tell that story. We believed we were helping kids when we didn’t acknowledge those things, when in reality it was hurting that we weren’t naming the hard things happening around us.
I think it really does start with the understanding of how vital that is and that, back to what we talked about earlier, that internal pain always has an external presentation. I’m fascinated by how much overachieving happens as a way of covering, and how many men I see in this world who are knocking it out of the park vocationally that I think are running from or erasing away from some pain.
Ann: That was what a counselor said to Dave. “Oh, wait. You’re the quarterback, the point guard, the short stop. You’ve won every award. You played college football. You had a scholarship.” Didn’t he say, “What are you running from?”
Dave: He—yes—we don’t need to go there. But he was literally looking at my life now and said, “Every job you had the spotlight is on you, whether it was on a stage or leading a Bible study or even….” He said, “Go home and answer this question: What are you running from?”
I laughed; I said, “What am I running from?”
I came home and Ann said, “Oh, my goodness! I’ve been saying that for 20 years.” It was that not recognizing. Okay, so that’s one sign.
Ann: I know but maybe we should even talk about take an assessment, ask your kids, think through; “How are they doing physically? Are they saying their stomachs are upset or they have headaches? Are they clenching their teeth so bad they break their teeth?”
David: That’s so often how we identify anxiety early on with kids is they’re having tummy aches. That’s one of the first ways we can usually see an indicator light going off of some kind to that first R of recognize is that their body is presenting the worry in some way that they can’t’ name.
Dave: The first sign R is “recognize.” The second one is “regulate.”
Ann: An unhealthy family would not regulate.
David: Exactly. Back to even the anger we have talked some about. It’s so present [that] it’s either under the surface boiling at all times or it’s flying all around the room or it’s showing up, back to the internal/external, through substance abuse or maybe it is a dad who is using internet pornography as a way to manage and contain the anger in some way. So, they haven’t learned healthy coping skills.
That’s my definition for regulate is employing calming and coping strategies when the nervous system goes into a heightened state of arousal. I have these signs and signals going off and I’ve got to figure out “What do I need to employ to bring myself from stressed to settled or from chaos to calm?”
Where that even connects back to kids taking responsibility is that when parents are dysregulating, kids can move into that exact same posture even if they never say it out loud that it is in some way their job to help the grownups around them feel less, “fill in the blank”: stress, anger, sadness.
Since they Nashville shooting happened, I have never had so many kids in my office talk about how their parents are doing than any other time in 25 years of doing this work. They’re so attune and aware because understandably every parent, whether you had a child in that school or just a child in another school in Nashville, parents in our city are carrying more fear, more worry right now than any other time because it’s not just a story on the news somewhere else in the world. It happened in our city.
I have had more kids say, “My mom feels really worried. My mom is not usually this sad.” When parents don’t know how to do the work of regulation, one, kids don’t get an opportunity to sit front row and see what regulation looks like on the grownups they trust the most in this world, and two, they can start to take on some responsibility around that in ways that’s not theirs to carry.
Ann: So how would we recognize that in our kids if they are taking on that responsibility? Because I’m guessing you’re busy as parents. You’ve got a lot of demands on your life with work and school and activities. How would they start looking to see if their kids are doing that?
David: I would first look for some of the physical signs. Are they reporting more tummy aches? Are they reporting more headaches? Are they having more difficulty with sleep? Or the other extreme: Are they overachieving? Are they over performing?
Even kids who I feel like when their parents are really sad will over entertain. I had a parent tell me one time that they had lost a child and they noticed their firstborn child trying to be extra funny. It was almost like, “I need to lift the heaviness by becoming a little bit of a comedian at the dinner table by making sure I make my parents laugh enough during the day.”
I would watch for some of those indicator lights of where kids might be carrying more. Because we talk a lot at my work about how all behavior is communication of some kind. Even things that kids can’t say or don’t say, often we will see evidence of what is being said through their behavior in some way. Those would see some things to watch for.
Dave: We only got two done so far. I’m thinking, “Wow!”
Ann: Those are so good.
Dave: I feel like there’s so much to work on. The third R—
David: The third R is “repair.” That is taking ownership and doing any needed relational work. I would say the sign of an unhealthy home is when you can’t take ownership; you can’t clean up your side of the street; you can't do the work of apologizing.
That’s something that I’ve heard both of you talk about doing with your adult sons at different points, which I think is necessary ingredients of all families because we are going to fumble the ball. We’re going to lose our temper. We’re not going to be present with our kids in the way that we want. We’re not going to show up as to all of who we want to be.
In those moments, we need to learn what it looks like to ask our kids for forgiveness. If we expect them to be people in relationship with their own kids who know how to do that.
Dave: It’s interesting when you were talking, I thought, “I’ve got a fourth one and it starts with the letter R,” but as you said “repair” I thought, “It the same thing.” I was going to say, “Refusal to repent.” But it’s really what you just said. And unhealthy home or an unhealthy person doesn’t apologize, doesn’t own their sin, doesn’t own their mistakes. There’s too much pride for them to ever go to their sons or daughters or their wife or their husband to say, “I was wrong.”
That’s really what you’re talking about in repair. It’s this repentant humility that’s says, “I need to do this.” Probably is it something weekly, daily. It all depends I guess. But it’s regular.
David: It’s regular.
Dave: That’s another R, I guess. [Laughter]
David: It is, and I talk about how boys do a lot of swinging between blame and shame. Blame—think about all the different ways this could show up with boys—blame could look like, “My teacher didn’t teach it the right way,” “My sister made me mad,” “My coach didn’t give me enough playing time.” Pointing the finger outward.
In fact, I’ll back up one step and say this: Research tells us that in the face of failure boys are more likely to point the finger outward and blame someone else [and] girls are more likely to blame themselves.
Ann: Wow! I see that.
Dave: That’s a male/female difference.
David: That is. I see evidence of that, not just with kids, but with adults. I can’t tell you how often I sit with moms in my office whose kids are struggling in some way who will say, “Tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
David: It’s this assumption that “If my kids are struggling in any way, it must be something I’m either doing or not doing enough of,” where it just may be your kids are needing to do more skill development and it’s not something you haven’t done or aren’t doing enough of. There just needs to be more practice.
But I think that instinct can stay in place. I think for adult men, as well. I tell a story in the book of a dad whose son caught him in infidelity. He saw a picture on his dad’s phone of his dad kissing another woman. He asked his dad about it.
Listen to the blame within his dad’s response. It’s so subtle. But it’s important. He said, “I wish you hadn’t found that.” You hear that? Not, “I wish I hadn’t done that.”
I think that tendency can carry on throughout growth and development unless we are developing that third R, and where I think it is impossible for kids to develop any of those three Rs unless they can see it in the grownups around them.
Where I think kids have to see repentance modeled in order to know how to do that and to believe how foundational it is to all their relationships.
Dave: Alright, you’ve got one?
Ann: I come from a very performance-oriented family, so I carry that into my parenting. I didn’t even know that I was doing it when our kids were really little. But I would compare them to other kids. I would say things to them out loud. It’s on video. Now they all watch it [saying], “Mom, how could you do this?”
I remember one of our sons was trying to dribble and what did I say? “Your cousin, Jess, can already dribble.” Who says that as a parent?! I already carry that myself. I compare myself because that’s just what we did as a family.
But not only comparing our kids. We are in a culture right now where we are comparing ourselves to so many people that are invisible even on social media and so often we come up short.
I don’t think I compare my kids to other kids outwardly, but I can still do that inwardly of thinking, “Why aren’t my kids progressing? Why aren’t my kids acting like these other kids? It must be me.” I always turn it inward. I don’t as much as I used to, but it’s still can be that tendency, where it feels to me like Satan whispers in my ear, “It must be you.”
God’s doing a work in all of us. I think an unhealthy family is in constant comparison with their kids, themselves, the culture and that healthy side—and I feel like we’ve learned to do that later in life—is we’re seeing the beauty and uniqueness of each one of our kids and then we’re speaking that to them.
If they’re not measuring up to anyone else, it doesn’t matter because we don’t want them to be anyone other than who God created them to be. Does that make sense?
David: It not only makes sense; it’s brilliant. [Laughter]
Ann: I love you! That’s so nice.
David: I think how often I’m saying to myself the wisdom of those words. We all know: “Comparison is the thief of joy. Comparison is the thief of joy.a’ I can feel myself getting more discontent/more sad/all of these things the more I camp out in that space.
I love that you mentioned social media because I think we talk all the time with kids and adolescents about “Remember it’s just a highlight reel; it’s just a highlight reel.” And we can lose that ourselves. We’re needing to say to ourselves out loud: “Whatever I’m seeing is about ten percent of what’s going on.”
David: That’s it. We forget and then we slide right into that place of comparison.
Ann: It’s a tool of the enemy because God is celebrating the uniqueness and the beauty of all of us all the time. Even as parents when we fail, He is still cheering us on. It’s the gospel; it’s grace that covers a multitude if sin.
Ann: It’s the goodness of Jesus giving us new life.
What’s yours, Dave? What’s the fifth one?
Dave: Here is one that we have mentioned that I think is definitely a sign of unhealthy home: Unhealthy families don’t talk. They hide; they stuff; they push down; they overachieve; they cope. But they don’t talk. Healthy families talk.
I don’t know what to say. It would be—if you want to use an R word—it would be release, say out loud what you’re feeling, what you’re hiding, maybe the pain that you’ve gone through.
Ann mentioned it earlier. I grew up in a home where there was physical abuse; there was emotional abuse. Dad had girlfriends, left mom. Both parents drank, and then my brother died all in about a period of about 18 months, and we move. I’m a little boy and we move from my home of origin to a whole other state because that’s where my mom’s parents were, and now she’s a single mom in the 60’s.
Again, all that to say, the day my brother died my sister told me. She said, “I came home from high school. A priest is walking out of our driveway and says to me, ‘Your brother’s dead,’ and he leaves.” Pam said—my sister—she said, “I walked in the house. Mom never mentioned it. We never talked about it.”
That’s the home that I grew up in. So, I thought it was normal that when you have pain, you stuff it away and you move on. That’s how we dealt with it.
When my dad came to visit Ann and me in our first year of marriage—this is funny—it’s tragic, but it’s funny—he sat down after dinner and Ann said to him—because she comes from a different home, a different, more healthy environment—she said, “Ralph, I never heard your side of the divorce. Let’s talk about—I’d like to hear your—” and I grabbed her under the table [as if to say],’ What are you doing?”
Ann: He was squeezing my leg.
Dave: I grabbed her [as if to say], “You can’t do that. We don’t talk about that stuff.” I was freaking out. My heart rate went over a hundred, I’m sure.” I was thinking, “Uh-Oh! Ohh!” [Laughter]
I thought, “My dad is going to be so mad. He’s going to look at her and just—” I’ll never forget my dad looked and said, “You want to hear my side? Nobody’s ever asked me.” We had this conversation and I sat there thinking, “I knew none of this.”
Again, I was being exposed to “Healthy families talk.” True?
David: So true. Can I say two things to that that I am so stuck by? To hear you name all of those ingredients that were a part of the earliest chapters of your life and to think about who you are and what you do. What a beautiful picture of “What the enemy intended for harm, God intended for good.” This should not have been your story. The redemptive rescue. That’s extraordinary to think about who you are as a man and the work you are doing in this world. That’s just incredible.
And to hear you tell that story that God would call you into relationship with this remarkable woman who that would be her instinct to ask that question in the earliest moments [and] to think about all the healing that would come through that relationship, too. I am so struck by the kindness of God when I sit with people in their stories and when I sit in my own story. There is no other explanation, no other explanation, but the kindness and the goodness and the faithfulness of God. I feel it so strongly as you were sharing that, and I want to reflect that back to you.
Dave: I would add when you say that I think there’s some listening who think,
That’s your story. It can never be my story.” Yes, it can. Even David when you say that you know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking, “But God.” This does not happen. “But that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Then we receive that, and we repent.
We already used that word when we say, “I can’t do this on my own. Jesus, I’m surrendering my life to You.” He meets you there and He turns these tragic stories into something—it isn’t just that He meets us in our pain [but] He then says, “I want to transform your pain and then I want to use you to meet others in their pain.”
Ann: I would add, Dave, if you haven’t talked to God lately, I would encourage you to tell Him the things that you struggle with, the pain that you’re feeling, the feelings that you’re having about your family or your kids. Tell Him everything, because He cares for you, He loves you; He loves your kids, and He wants to make a difference in your life. He’s right there; just talk to Him.
Shelby: Yes, hurt people, hurt people. But I’ve also found that transformed people, transform people. You could be the person God uses to transform another life right within your own home.
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with David Thomas on FamilyLife Today. Dave has written an important book called Raising Emotionally Strong Boys: Tools Your Son Can Build on for Life. You can find copies of David’s book at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call us at 800-358-6329 to request your copy. Again, the number is 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”
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On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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