Defining Family Dysfunction
About the Guest
When it comes to your home, is God in charge? Author Michelle Anthony tells how her and her husband's fairy tale began to unravel on their honeymoon. Children then added a new layer of difficulty. How then does a family become spiritually and emotionally strong? Anthony reminds us that being healthy doesn't mean being perfect, but rather means letting God be the Lord of our hearts and homes.
Michelle AnthonyDr. Michelle Anthony is the vice president of Learning Resources at David C Cook and the author of Spiritual Parenting, Dreaming of More for the Next Generation, A Theology of Family Ministry and The Big God Story. Anthony has graduate degrees in Christian education, theology and leadership and more than 25 years of church ministry experience as a children’s and family pastor. She has written more than a dozen Christian education and family/youth ministry resources, includin...more
When it comes to your home, is God in charge? Author Michelle Anthony reminds us that being healthy doesn’t mean being perfect, but rather means letting God be the Lord of our hearts and homes.
Defining Family Dysfunction
Bob: Michelle Anthony remembers the day her four-year-old daughter got the best of her.
Michelle: We were having a battle of the wills. She was about four years old. She basically told me she didn’t have to obey me. I sat there, and I asked her—“Why is it that you feel like you don’t have to obey your mommy?” She said, “Well, you’re only third in charge,”—this is a four-year-old. She said, “First, God is in charge—then, Daddy; then, you.” I went to my room, and I—if I could have resigned as a mom, I probably would have because I didn’t know how I was going to handle it.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, August 20th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Have you ever been ready to resign, as a mom or as a dad? Well, hang in there. We’ve got some help for you today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I remember—this was probably—
—I don’t know—20 years ago, when I was sitting down with my mom one night. She’d been watching afternoon television—talk shows on TV. She said to me, “What’s all this talk about dysfunctional families?” [Laughter] She said, “Aren’t all families dysfunctional families?” [Laughter] I said, “You know, I think at some level, you are probably right, Mom.”
Dennis: Yes, no doubt about it. You know, it’s interesting, Bob, that you should mention that. I was just looking at Psalm 128, and it’s really talking about your wife being like a fruitful vine and your children like olive shoots around your table. It’s a picture of growing—almost like an olive tree that’s growing and being fruitful. I think families were designed—even in the midst of their dysfunction—to produce fruit. And yet, all of us get married with certain bags we have to unpack. Marriage provides a great place of sanctification where two very broken people can become real.
And I know our guest today—Michelle Anthony—agrees with us because she’s written a book called Becoming a Spiritually Healthy Family. Welcome to the broadcast, Michelle.
Michelle: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Dennis: You agree with Bob’s mom about how all of us are broken; right?
Michelle: Right. It’s been said that when there are two or more people in a family, there is dysfunction. So, you’re absolutely right.
Bob: Well, I think if you just added one, there is probably some dysfunction there.
Michelle: That’s true. [Laughter]
Dennis: You and your husband Michael have been married 27 years. You have two adult children. You, now, live in Colorado Springs. When you guys met, did you have any idea of this dysfunction that you both were bringing into this most intimate of all relationships?
Michelle: Absolutely not. You know, you’re in that starry-eyed: “He’s wonderful. He’s perfect,”-state of mind. No, we had no idea. I think we thought we were pretty together. I think we thought we were relatively healthy.
We were believers—we were strong believers—we were doing ministry. So, how bad could it get; really?
Bob: And I think most couples think that if that foundation is secure, then, there won’t be problems. I would say: “If that foundation is secure, it gives you a basis from which to deal with the problems that are going to come.
Michelle: That’s right.
Bob: “But there are going to be problems that are going to emerge.”
Dennis: Yes. In fact, when did it first show up in your marriage, from a brokenness standpoint, as you were raising kids?—because I’d have to say—for Barbara and me: “It was as we added children that we faced our humanity, our selfishness, and our brokenness in probably the most real ways.”
Michelle: I think having children exploits the things that are already there. I like to say that children are that life-sized mirror in front of you / in front of your marriage. They command that you look at them because your children are now emulating you.
They are little yous; you know?
Michelle: And they have these things they exploit. You can either blame your child / blame your spouse—or that’s an opportunity, as James says—to look in the mirror and, then, not walk away, having done nothing; but actually, bring those broken places to the Lord and say, “I need some help with this.”
Bob: Your goal, as a couple—and I think a lot of our listeners have the same goal—you wanted to have a spiritually-vibrant, spiritually-healthy, spiritually-strong family. If you were helping a young couple today figure out—“Okay, what should that mean? What should that look like?”—how do you define what a spiritually-healthy family is?
Michelle: For me, I probably would have said, “I wanted a spiritual family.” And to me, spiritual could mean so many things; but it really meant, in my distorted thinking, perfect. I wanted a perfect family. I think I thought of the word, spiritual, meaning we’re going to be perfectly pursuing Jesus.
We’re going to do life the way that He wanted us. That was a huge burden.
It’s one of the reasons I call this spiritually healthy because spiritual health is this ongoing process—
Michelle: —just like your physical health would be. I like to use a metaphor instead of a long list of to-do’s and to-don’ts. A spiritually-healthy family metaphor would be to consider a director’s chair sitting in your home, somewhere prominent. Then—at any given moment, any given day, any given situation—to ask yourself: “Who is sitting in that chair? Am I sitting in that chair? Am I trying to dictate my spouse, my kids, and my life? Am I calling the shots? Am I writing the scenes? Or is God sitting in that director’s chair? Am I giving Him the ability to be first in charge of everyone and everything?”
So, to me, when we sit in that chair, dysfunction is imminent.
When we allow God to sit in that chair, we begin to function the way that He wants us to; and that becomes spiritual health.
Dennis: I think what you described in terms of the pressure you were feeling to make your family perfect—I think that’s really a malady that comes with your first-born. You think this is just going to be the ideal situation; and then, you start getting in touch with—that this little creature you’ve given life to is like you and is selfish. That selfishness encroaches on your selfishness.
Michelle: That’s right.
Dennis: And that’s where the chair illustration really is a good one: “Are you going to run the show, or are you going to yield to Christ and become the parent God wants you to be?”
In your book, you talk about, really, several different descriptions of dysfunctional families. I’d like you to just take the first one you talk about—the double-minded parent—and how this can undermine a parent’s effectiveness and keep a family from growing spiritually the way they need to.
Michelle: Yes, the double-minded parent is somebody who wants the Jesus-plus version of Christianity: “I love Jesus. I want to follow God. I want to know His Word. Plus, I sure like a lot of the things that the world has to offer. I want the esteem that the world has to offer. I want the stuff. I want more, and I want better—but—oh, no—I definitely want Jesus.”
What happens is that we are pursuing two different things at the same time, which is the definition of anxiety—really—to have two things that are fractured going in different directions. That is why our families are experiencing so much anxiety. Never before have we had more moms and dads and, now, even children being medicated for anxiety as early as ages 11 and 12.
Dennis: You talk about kissing the world goodbye. You’re really trying to call a double-minded parent from being distracted.
Michelle: Yes. Well, it’s impossible to please two opposing forces.
If they were compatible, perhaps, but these are opposing forces. The things that the world says we should have or do are in opposition to what God says we should have or do. You can’t please both—you will constantly be in that pressure /in that tension. We have to choose. God requires us to choose. He says in the book of Joshua—Joshua commissions the people and says, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” If you choose the world, then, you are basically choosing death. If you choose God, you choose life. We have to choose.
Dennis: You tell a story about your son, Brendan—is that right?—
Dennis: —who was—I think, at the time, he was—what?—a toddler,—
Dennis: —who was evidently misbehaving.
Dennis: You used some tools to curb his behavior. Explain that.
Michelle: Well, you know, I think, as parents, we know that people are watching us. So, when we are trying to please our parents, our in-laws, the people in our church, and the Lord, we get confused.
I think I was confused, as a young mom, about discipline.
I was adopting the wooden spoon methodology at the time. My son, Brendan, has a very tender heart. So, I rarely, if ever, actually had to use the wooden spoon. The mere sight of it would correct his course; but there was this one night we had friends over from the church. He was getting up and down, out of bed, quite a bit. I was beginning to see the raised eyebrows of the people from our church about my parenting and my inability to discipline my son.
So, with that, I marched into the kitchen to find the wooden spoon; but I could not find the wooden spoon. The spoon had come in a companion pack with other utensils. So, I picked up the wooden meat tenderizer—
Michelle: —instead because my son was just a toddler. I thought, “If I hide the mallet in my hand and I just simply walk in his room and show him the wooden dowel, this will be fine. It will be a good substitute.” I walked in the room. I hid the mallet as planned—I showed him the wooden dowel.
I said, “Brendan, I need you to obey your mommy and get back in bed right now. I don’t want you to get out of bed again.” So, lickety-split, he was back in bed. I never heard from him again the whole evening. That was the last we heard of it until the next morning when we were at church.
I was the director of children’s ministries at the time. I dropped him off in his little three-year-old classroom. When I picked him up afterward, the volunteer came to me and she said, “Michelle, can I speak to you privately for a moment?” I said, “Of course.” She said, “I’m concerned because, during prayer request time, Brendan prayed that his mommy wouldn’t hit him with the hammer.” [Laughter] To which, of course, I said, “No, it wasn’t a hammer—it was meat tenderizer.” [Laughter]
Bob: Yes, that makes it all fine.
Michelle: Because it made it better, somehow, in my mind.
Dennis: Yes, sure.
Michelle: But you know, for me, it really illustrates that we’re sometimes just doing the best we can. We don’t have all the answers. That is why God’s grace is so important to fill in those gaps. But I look back, and I never really asked God, “God, how is it that you want us to discipline, Brendan?” I was listening to every other voice in the world, but I never really just asked First-in-charge and who was sitting in the director’s chair to help me understand how He crafted my son.
Bob: And when the church group is over, and they are watching your son misbehave, the pressure that you feel, as a mom / as a dad—it’s there. It’s real; isn’t it?
Michelle: Yes. And I think we have to get that straight. Who are we trying to please? If we are going to try to please everyone else, it’s a crazy-maker;—
Michelle: —and it doesn’t always have the right ramifications. You know, God is First-in-charge. I learned that phrase from my daughter, actually, during a different argument. We were having a battle of the wills—she and I—very strong-willed child.
She was about four years old. She basically told me she didn’t have to obey me. I probably should have just physically taken her to a room; but I sat there, and I asked her, “Why is it that you feel like you don’t have to obey your mommy?” She said, “Well, you’re only third in charge,”—this is a four-year-old. She said, “First, God is in charge—then, Daddy; then, you.”
I wondered if she had been sent off to military preschool or something. [Laughter] But I lost it that day; you know? I wept. I went to my room, and I—if I could have resigned, as a mom, I probably would have because I knew that that was going to happen again—that battle of the wills. I didn’t know how I was going to handle it until her snotty, little words rang in my ear. I thought: “I am. I am not first in charge. God is first in charge.” I started speaking to Him, that day, as if He really was.
Dennis: At that point, if you know God is in charge, and you’ve got the Bible and you are following it, and—as you just mentioned earlier, asking Him, “How do You want me to handle this situation?”—you’re not going to be a double-minded parent. But if you are listening to all the culture and what your friends are doing—because, even within the church, you are going to find a lot of different approaches to raising children, and especially, discipline.
Bob: Even, here on FamilyLife Today, you might here some things.
Dennis: I think so!
Bob: And rather than listening to what we say and saying, “Okay, that’s what I should do,” you really have to say, “Lord, is that the direction You want our family to go?”
Dennis: Yes, and go to the Book.
Michelle: For my child—nobody else has raised my child—ever. They never will. Only God has entrusted that to me. I love James 1: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him go to God who gives generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
Bob: There are some parents who, instead of being double-minded, their Achilles’ heel is they just have a hard time saying, “No.”
Bob: And when their child says, “Mommy,”—
—they just cave.
Michelle: They cave—yes. Boy, we see this a lot in the grocery store. We see these kids everywhere; don’t we?—we look. I want to empower that parent—I just want to walk up to them and give them strength: “That ‘I can’t say no,’—that has a root issue; and all of these things that we do—they have a root issue.”
So often, we deal with our dysfunctions at that symptomatic level. We look at the symptom—we look at that mom or that dad—and we say, “Just say no more”; but that’s not really the issue. The issue isn’t just “Make your mouth say two letters.” The issue is so much deeper than that, and that is a fear of not being loved. It’s a fear of being rejected. These people often see their children as an opportunity to have close friends who will never leave them.
Bob: You know, I’m resonating a little bit with that because the times I had a hard time saying, “No,” as a dad, in my family—there was a fear in my mind—
—that: “If I draw a line here, I’m drawing a wedge between my child and me.” I don’t know if I wanted a best friend, but I sure didn’t want a child who withdrew from the family, and became a prodigal, and said, “I’m out of here.” I think I was always concerned that too much discipline would lead a child to rebellion.
Michelle: I do think too much discipline can lead a child to rebellion. I think to find the appropriate discipline for every child—that goes back to First-in-charge. We have to know because some children need more boundaries than other children / some children are so hard on themselves. We have an abundance of grace, and to know the difference is only to know the mind of the Lord of how He crafted that child.
But there are a lot of reasons why we don’t say, “No,” to our children; but it stems out of fear. You know, yours was, perhaps, the fear that they would rebel against your family, or the Lord, or you, or you would have a broken relationship—
—the fear of being abandoned / the fear of not being together with them in decision-making—whatever it is—there is a fear.
Bob: Dennis, I think the antidote for that—at least for me—I remember something that Josh McDowell said on our program, years ago, when he said, “The formula here is—rules without relationship equals rebellion.” To have discipline in place, you also have to have a strong, healthy relationship with your child. If the relationship’s there, it’s not that your child is going to go, “Oh, okay, I’ll be happy to do whatever you say”; but even, when they push back, you are not threatening rebellion, at that point.
Dennis: Yes, I think just to kind of summarize what we’re talking about here—Michelle is talking about the root issue, which is dealing with the fear of rejection. I think any parent, who has a hard time saying, “No,” and wants to spoil their children, needs to take a step back and say: “Okay, is that me? Am I trying to get something from my child I shouldn’t be trying to get from him or from her?”
Then, secondly, look beyond getting your needs met from your child to the needs of your child to help them grow up in a healthy way. I’m going to promise you something—giving your children everything they want and not saying, “No,” is not going to be healthy for them.
Michelle: No, absolutely. The world says, “No,” to our children. Our job, as parents, is to help our children enter into the world, as God-fearing individuals, who make a contribution. They won’t be able to enter into that world because God says, “No,” too. I mean, the world will say, “No”; but God says, “No.” Your boss will say, “No.” Your spouse will say, “No.” We aren’t preparing them for life.
And what’s interesting—I tell parents a lot—I say, “Say this over and over to yourself in the mirror—wherever you have to say it. I don’t need anything from my child. I don’t need anything from my child.” Now, we want to be loved / we want to have a relationship—
—but we don’t need—we are there for them. We are stewards of God’s grace / His mercy—to put Him on display in our home. But when we start needing things from our children, this sets up a dysfunctional relationship.
Bob: So, if a mom’s listening and she thinks: “I have a hard time with this. I have a hard time saying, “No.” I recognize it. How do I fix that? What’s the step to getting to a place where I can say, ‘Sweetheart, no, we’re not going to do that.’ Even when they pitch a fit, you stand firm—how do you do that?”
Michelle: This is where we have to have mentors. We need mentors in our life to give us perspective because—somebody once said, “When you are raising children, the days are long; but the years are short.” That mom, who is thinking that—they are in the “days are long.” They are thinking, myopically, about this moment / this situation. But now, we need to fast-forward—we have to look at that child at 18, 25, 32—
—whatever it is—look forward—
Michelle: —“Did I create enabling behaviors in this child that they are now dysfunctional in their marriage?—that they can’t keep a job?—that they don’t have a healthy relationship with their children?—that they don’t disrespect me?”—and later in life—that I am looking toward the future, or am I just looking at today?
When you start looking at those things: “How will this person respect me later? / How will this person be healthy?”—if we love our children, then, we want to set them up for success. Then, “No,” becomes a little easier because we know it’s an investment for the future.
Dennis: And I want to make just an additional pass, Bob, at your question. I think moms need mentors outside the home that coach them—
Dennis: —an older woman, who has been there / done that, and can help them.
But here is where I would say to moms or dads: “If you are the one who struggles with saying, ‘No,’ listen to your spouse. Be accountable to them and say:
“‘The next time you sense I’m being—well, that I am—trying to spoil this child; give them a little too much, maybe; trying to create an entitlement approach to life—would you pull me aside, privately, and just point that out in a loving way and encourage me to just remember the objective?’”—which is what you just talked about.
Dennis: Remember you are raising an adult. You’ve got to get out to that point where they are independent of you and where they are dependent upon Jesus Christ.
Then, what I’d encourage you to do is just go before the Lord and say, “Lord, would You give me the ability, in the heat of the moment, when I’m feeling manipulated by this little person to get his way or get her way, and I’m about to cave in and give them what they want—it’s not going to be good—would You, by Your Holy Spirit, point that out to me and help me grow beyond that?”
Bob: And if you are a single parent, Michelle, and you don’t have an ally, who will pull you aside and say, “Hey, you are doing it again,”—what do you do?
Michelle: This is a dysfunction that single parents are vulnerable to because they are exhausted. To just finally say, “Yes,” allows the situation to go away or the discipline to stop. I would say that person needs a co-parent—that can be a grandparent, that can be an aunt/ an uncle, that can be a friend / another single parent—but start praying, today, that God would send someone who is passionate about helping you raise your child.
Bob: Well, and I think it’s going to be helpful for a single parent or for a mom and a dad to be able to identify what may be the dysfunctional parenting style that is going on in my home. Maybe, it’s two or three different dysfunctional parenting styles—but to read your book and to say, “Yes, I’m doing this.” I think that will be helpful for a lot of our listeners.
I want to encourage them—
—we’ve got copies of Michelle Anthony’s book, Becoming a Spiritually Healthy Family, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll be right there, where you can order a copy of Michelle’s book. If you would prefer to order by phone, our toll-free number is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
You know, it’s the challenges of parenting that often bring a husband and a wife together in prayer—maybe, for the first time in your marriage—but they have just never gotten into the discipline. Maybe, it’s because of the intimate, personal nature of prayer; or maybe, you just don’t know what to do or how to engage with each other. Well, FamilyLife has created a 30-day Oneness Prayer Challenge. We’re going to kick this off during the month of September. If you will sign up with us, we will send you a prayer prompt—it will coach you on how you can pray together around a particular topic each day.
Why not sign-up for the 30-day Oneness Prayer Challenge? Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER”; and then join us—during the month of September, every day—praying together with your spouse for 30 days.
And while you are on our website, can we also ask you to consider making a yearend contribution in support of FamilyLife Today? We’re listener-supported, and we are about to end our fiscal year. September starts a brand-new year for us, fiscally. We’re hoping, over the next ten days, that you would consider giving us a yearend boost with a contribution in support of this ministry. You can do that, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I CARE,” and make an online donation. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make your donation over the phone. Or you can mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR.
And our zip code is 72223.
And by the way, if you can help with a donation today, we’d like to send you a copy of a book by Dennis and Barbara Rainey called Two Hearts Praying as One. It’ll help get you ready for the 30-day prayer challenge during the month of September.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue to talk about how we cultivate spiritual health in our family. Michelle Anthony will be back with us. Hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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