Most never speak about it, but isolation is a very common tradition of dysfunctional families. We all know the fairytale where the heroine is locked away in a tower with nothing but birds and mice to talk with, but often isolation is so subtle neighbors, teachers and church members might not recognize it as such. Here are three ways children suffer from isolation in dysfunctional families:
1. Isolation from Society
This is an obvious issue in enmeshed families who homeschool their children. I know people who do great homeschooling because they have weekly and monthly meetups with other homeschoolers. This lessens the loneliness for the homeschooled child, but many homeschoolers are not so lucky.
As an isolated teenager, I spent years trying to figure out how normal people lived. I wondered how people got up, made breakfast and kept on a schedule–something my family had never done.
Sometimes homeschooling is simply a way to control the kids in the family and keep them from outside influences and hide the family secrets. If no one outside the family can see the bruises, if no one else realizes there are no school books, if no relatives realize the rage of an angry father beating a child, the abuse might continue for years. For those who suffer from molestation, part of the equation is always isolation. Isolation keeps parents from being accountable to anyone but themselves.
There are parents who reject authority, might not pay taxes, won’t work for someone else and basically ignore laws. If they won’t work, they end up with financial problems and this in turn results in more law breaking like not having insurance on their cars or fudging on taxes or ignoring their children’s needs for an education. The isolated family is an island to itself and no one but the people who live in it realize the insanity.
Controlling parents isolate their family from relatives or anyone they disagree with and owe money to and this in turn creates an unstable environment for their children. When I was a child, more than once a pastor or grandparent tried to stand up for our rights to settle down and go to school, but my parents only saw this as interfering and moved us farther away.
Society isolation leaves children vulnerable to the parent’s whims and choices. If the parents decide to move into the wilderness, the kids might have no choice to but to live without insulation and running water. If the parents have a mental illness they might not even think about how their decisions will affect their children.
2. Isolation by Scapegoating
This second form of isolation happens when people are ostracized because they are the designated scapegoat. Most scapegoats realize how much it hurts to have an entire family turn against you–especially when you didn’t deserve it. Once family members buy into the group delusion of scapegoating, there’s really very little you can do but find new family. Yes, the isolation can be painful, but consider how it feels to be disrespected and abused to your face. It’s sad to say it, but such isolation can actually be a blessing in disguise. There is a saying among scapegoats, hooray for the scapegoat because they are not the black sheep, but rather the lucky one who got away.
3. Isolation by Shame
Of all forms of isolation, shame is the worst and it’s the one we do to ourselves. After my family scapegoated me, I went into a self-imposed isolation from society. I didn’t call my friends or go to church or hang out with other people because I felt awful about myself. I had loved and given and been used and abused and then to be shunned, it seemed like I must’ve done something to deserve it. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but I spent weeks wondering and wandering in depression and isolation.
One day a woman from my church came over to my house and when I didn’t open the door, she called my number from her car and left a message saying she would sit in my driveway until I opened the door. Well, she was nearly eighty and I felt worried for her sitting out there so I threw on some clothes and splashed water on my face and opened the door. She immediately threw her arms around me, then opened up all my windows to let the sunshine in. While she was pulling back the blinds, she began telling me her stories. Stories about her own pain and rejection. She described how her first husband left her with six little children under seven. The shame she felt over her weight and how she wanted to be liked by everyone but not everyone liked her. Before we were through talking, I realized I was no longer alone. It was her vulnerability and her persistence that facilitated my healing.
My friend showed what it’s like to live in honest community with other people. It’s challenging to live in community when we have rarely experienced it because we grew up with a family that chose isolation. In some families there are so many wounds that when they get together they don’t know how to love each other so they end up wounding each other even more and go even further into isolation.
When God created Adam, he said it wasn’t good for him to be alone, so He made Eve. Thi need for community is about more than marriage, it’s about living as a human being in proximity to other human beings and finding ways to give and take with them. We were all designed to live in community.
Even Jesus, who went into the wilderness alone, had a circle of close friends. When we notice the conversations Jesus has with people like Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman, we see they were isolated from others by their pasts which included some of their own choices. But Jesus didn’t ignore their past. Before they met Jesus, they were hiding themselves from others, but after Jesus, they both became social. Zaccheus got in touch with everyone he stole money from and gave back more than he took and the Samaritan woman called her entire neighborhood to come out to meet Jesus.
Jesus created us for community and he brings us into community. We all need community to understand where we belong and who we are. Community is where we learn to be accountable for the ways we treat each other. The best part about knowing Jesus is that he never leaves us alone. He gave us an example of how to live life in community with others and that is part of our healing.
Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath.
Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy;
share tears when they’re down.
Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up.
Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.
If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.
Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do.
“I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”