Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honor thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. —Eph. 6:1-4

It’s the time of year for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and these holidays can bring to the surface all sorts of unresolved issues within families… things we might rather ignore, but ultimately can’t. So it wasn’t really surprising for someone like Janet to come into my office recently.

Janet arrived looking completely in control—hair and makeup immaculate, expensive clothes, head held high. It took about fifteen minutes for her to completely fall apart.

We started with the usual information-gathering process: thirty-two-years old, married, three children. High income family, "church-goers," active in the community. But when I attempted to direct our conversation to whatever real issues had brought her into a counseling office, her expression changed. Her confidence fell away, and the tears flowed. And it didn’t take long to uncover the real person underneath the veneer—a parent desperate for help.

"Our family just isn’t turning out like we’d planned," she sobbed. "I’ve hoped, and prayed… but marriage and family are so hard… so much harder than I thought…."

Janet is like many who come looking for help, for answers. Far too many, these days, filled with fear—fear they’ve carried with them since their own childhood, fear implanted into their hearts by abandoning parents, addicted parents, abusive parents, perfectionist parents, materialistic parents. And they come in filled with the frustration and weariness that comes from trying to parent well, even though they received little healthy parenting during their own childhood experience. Now all grown up, they come in worried that they’re scarring their own children because of their shortcomings, wondering if their dysfunctional family—and marriage—can even survive.

Isn’t Every Family Dysfunctional?

The phrase ‘dysfunctional family’ has been tossed around as part of our cultural psycho-babble for years now, much as the terms ‘codependent’ or ‘Adult Child of Alcoholics (ACOA)’. And familiarity does sometimes breed contempt; I hear lots of grumbling in my counseling office about such ‘labels.’ "Every family is dysfunctional," they’ll say, or "We’re all addicts." And in my counseling practice—as well as in my own life experience—I have come to believe these statements to be essentially true. And false.

My practice centers around addiction and its impact on both individuals and family systems. In my teachings, I do indeed paint the word addiction with a broad brush stroke. In many ways, I prefer in a more universalized sense to use the word "idolatry"— anything we use or do that steals away our attention from God, and separates us from the love of Christ. Looking at it from that perspective, then, clearly each of us struggles to some extent with being human.

Still, to minimize the impact of true chemical addiction, for instance, and its required treatment protocols is short-sighted at best. Generalizing a serious condition like alcoholism is to ignore the multi-faceted and medically specific biological, psychological, environmental, and spiritual components of what is often a fatal disease. In many ways, to disregard the dynamics that exist within a truly dysfunctional family is equally dangerous… and, from a Christian perspective, unscriptural.