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The Seven Secrets of Dysfunctional Families

May 8, 2009 | by Sol Herzig, Ph.D.

Happily, practicing these seven principles will transform your perfectly functioning family into a completely dysfunctional one.

It's no secret that the number of happy families is at an all time low. Most communities scarcely boast a handful, and the trend is accelerating. In fact, social scientists predict that by the year 2018 only 411 reasonably happy families will be left in the entire United States! The good news is, no longer must you watch this sweeping revolution from the sidelines.By studying and applying the seven principles below, your family too can come out of the shadows and proudly join the dysfunctional majority.


In the normal course of events, problems are not supposed to happen. If they do, someone must be blamed. Fortunately, there's no shortage of inept, spiteful, deranged suspects to choose from. If someone neglects to tighten the pickle jar lid, they must be hunted down and interrogated. Not enough hot water left for your shower? It's a sure sign of treachery that you ignore at your peril. Is a child underachieving in school? Somewhere in the picture there's an arrogant, incompetent teacher in bad need of a tongue lashing. Your roof starting to leak? It's that swindler of a contractor you hired twenty eight years ago. You get the idea. Sensitize those around you to the fact that your slightest irritation is their worst nightmare. Expect perfection from everyone but yourself, and don't settle for anything less. Everything in life has to be earned, but most especially unconditional love. Make sure your family members work their tails off for it.

Sensitize those around you to the fact that your slightest irritation is their worst nightmare.


Encouraging family members to gratify your every whim is a responsibility you need to take seriously. The best way to ensure this is through the liberal use of guilt and shame. Thankfully, there are many ways to go about this. For instance, magnifying flaws, drawing comparisons, , unearthing past mistakes, casting glances of utter disdain, wailing "you're killing me", are to mention but a few. An oft overlooked, yet surprisingly effective, method is the judicious assignment of pet names. In a society where a stable sense of identity is elusive for so many, pet names can play a very constructive role. Examples of identity-building names include "Selfish Brat", "Space Cadet", "Prima Donna", "Kvetch", "Clueless", "Klutzhead", and so on. "Shmendrik", so popular only a generation ago, is simply too imprecise and therefore not recommended.


Without being aware of it, we are constantly teaching our children as they observe our behavior. This provides opportunities for imparting wisdom. Fortunate is the child who chances upon his parent, newspaper in hand, sprawled out on the sofa wolfing down jellybeans. Is there a more powerful way of demonstrating that multi-tasking doesn't have to be hard or boring? Or better yet, picture your child coming home from school and trying to engage you in conversation. By keeping your eyes glued to the computer screen, you are teaching the importance of maintaining focus under all circumstances. Repeated glances at your wristwatch will convey the critical importance of time. The vital role sleep plays in our lives can be demonstrated by several random, colossal yawns. All this teaching in just one brief encounter! Parental disagreements, as well, make for great learning experiences. For example, long periods of icy silence clearly illustrate that communication isn't just about words. Similarly, by shouting epithets at each other such as "You're a tightwad just like your father" or "Quit yapping at me like your mother", the beauty of generational continuity can be underscored. You get the picture. Being observed by our children is a great responsibility, but also a wonderful opportunity.


Everyone knows that communication is indispensable to family functioning. The key element in communication is simply being heard. Nothing ensures this better than screaming at the top of your lungs. Speaking in a normal tone not only guarantees that you won't be taken seriously, but also runs the very real risk of your being drowned out by the washing machine. Of course, there are many variations of screaming. Most effective is turning your face beet red, while protruding the veins in your neck to just beyond your shirt collar. Finally, there is no bolder exclamation point to an extended scream than hurtling the object nearest to you against the wall. If it shatters into many little pieces, you can rest assured that you've done everything humanly possible to get your point across.

How better to prepare children for life's uncertainty than by subjecting them to it from their earliest years.


Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds". Setting aside that no one has yet uncovered what a "hobgoblin" is, the message is clear: Broadmindedness requires inconsistency. Yet the advantages of inconsistency extend much farther. How better to prepare children for life's uncertainty than by subjecting them to it from their earliest years. Say your daughter fails to finish her soup. One day, you can choose to ignore it. The next, you pour it over her head. If your son keeps popping out of bed, one night you tuck him back in with a story, the next, it's " thirty knuckle push-ups mister, and I mean now". The important thing is to always keep them guessing. This will take effort on your part, but it will be rewarded by the look of utter confusion on your children's faces.


Boundaries are for countries, not families. Can you imagine anything more sterile and stifling than a family committed to personal space, privacy, and parental authority? Where are the caring, sharing, and togetherness we all cherish? Think instead of the relaxed informality that would pervade your home if everyone was on a first name basis and shared equal authority. True, it would take a while getting accustomed to your children calling you Phil and setting your bedtime, but once you got rid of your authoritarian mindset, you'd actually find it both endearing and liberating . Parents embracing enmeshment do not have to look far for confidants and friends. They are continually surprised and pleased by the helpful insights and support their children provide for their marital and financial problems. Eradicate boundaries and you'll very soon be putting the "fun" back into dysfunctional, where it belongs!


Married children yearn for your active involvement in their lives, but are often too shy to even hint at it. A wise parent will not make them beg, but will take on the role as a given. This takes considerable commitment on your part, but your children will be forever grateful. Nothing your married children do is so unimportant that it won't benefit from your input. For example, though she will deny it under oath, your daughter- in -law actually craves your constant feedback about her housecleaning, child rearing, and dieting. Your son-in-law, likewise, laps up your jibes about his mechanical ineptitude, career choice, and receding hairline. It is important, of course, that only constructive criticism be offered. Thankfully, this can easily be assessed by simply noticing if you feel better after dispensing it.

A final note: Achieving family dysfunction takes time, so don't get discouraged. After all, Rome wasn't sacked in a day! Joining a support group can greatly accelerate the process. At the very first impulse to pamper your spouse or praise your child, you grab the phone and speed dial your sponsor. He'll be glad to talk you through it, and in no time at all you'll be back to your new nasty self.


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