Dysfunctional Families: The Autocratic Family
I have found it helpful to talk about families in terms of the ABCs (Attachment, Boundaries and Communication) and the 3 R’s (Rules, Roles and Resulting Relationships). The ABC’s of unhealthy, or dysfunctional, families include insecure attachment, poor boundaries (either enmeshment or disengagement), and closed communication. In the case of autocratic families, poor boundaries may be exhibited by the family head who asserts the right to enter any room of the house at any time without knocking, depriving the rest of the family of any sense of personal space or privacy.
Autocratic families may seem relatively innocuous in comparison to alcoholic or abusive families but they display similar patterns of dysfunctional rules, roles and resulting relationships. The rules in an autocratic family may include not talking back-a child may not address an adult in the same tone with which the adult addresses the child-or not talking at all, in the sense that conversation involving a democratic give-and-take of opinions is frowned upon. There may be unspoken rules against showing, or even talking about, emotions. This often means that the autocrat’s problems in dealing with emotions get passed on to the children.
Children in an autocratic family seem to display a number of distinctive roles:
The Rebel may continually confront the autocrat without ever achieving victory, often the case when the autocrat is simply too strong. The Rebel may continue, even into adult life, with the attempt to win acknowledgement, acceptance, or approval.
The Peacemaker accepts autocrat’s authority and urges others to do the same. The Peacemaker may enter adult life lacking a healthy sense of self-esteem and depending on others to make all the decisions.
The Fugitive avoids confrontation by keeping out of sight. As an adult, the Fugitive may visit as infrequently as possible and for as short a time as possible. This refusal to engage may appear on the surface as a successful escape from the autocrat’s authority, but may be accompanied by problems in forming intimate relationships.
Adult children of an autocratic family may experience difficulty expressing emotions and reading other people’s emotions. They may display low self-esteem, relying on the opinions of others to define their self-image or failing to pick up on conventional social signals. As in the case of children growing up in abusive families, the children of an autocrat, determined to avoid that distasteful trait, may instead become an excessively permissive parents. Personal or family counselling may be required to break the dysfunctional pattern that passes from one generation to the next.