This blog is special because Jeremy called me to ask if I could share his story so as to help any person struggling with dysfunctional relationships to find themselves, heal their own pain and raise children who will attract healthier people so that they stop generational relationship dysfunctions.

This is his story. Jeremy was raised by a stay at home mother and a father who was well accomplished career-wise. They were raised in a privileged setup where they enjoyed much more than what children in their neighborhood could afford. They also could afford holidays away from home and this provided more exposure to them as children.

The mother was a peacemaker who avoided conflicts with the father and also with the children. Instead of urguing, she chose silence. She always taught her children that they needed to learn how to make peace with the world and when things got tough, silence was wisdom. This is a dysfunctional part of his relationship he inherited from the mother.

The father on the other hand was vocal, a functional alcoholic and controlling. He insisted that things be done his way. This was made easy because he financed everything in the home and also made decisions for the family. Later, when Jeremy was 15 years and a first born of four, his dads alcohol intake got worse and Jeremy took up the fathers’ role of making decisions – only that he still depended on the father on the financial part.

As the father’s addiction progressed, he also started being both physically and verbally abusive.  At times when he abused the Mother or Children in public, they would make excuses for him. They learnt to tell the people around that it was the alcohol that made him aggressive because without it he was an amazing dad and husband.

By the time he was 20 years, he learnt to protect the mother from the father who had increasingly become abusive. He would ask that the father stops making noise to the family members when he came home drunk. For strange reasons the father would heed when Jeremy spoke to him.

When he was 26years and he wanted to start his own family, he considered marrying a woman who was busy working and building a career because he imagined that such would not be passive like the mother was. He indeed found one who was already a manager at the time, a go getter, one who was able to express herself well and these are traits that Jeremy admired.

As they began their family, they both rose to managing director and chief executive officer consecutively. They earned almost similar salaries with Jeremy earning slightly more. For many years, Jeremy felt like the father had resurrected in the wife because he experienced the wife the same way he had experienced the father in his first 10 years of life.

He later told his friends never to marry an accomplished woman because they would turn into being controlling. What he experienced was his parents’ relationship dysfunctions that was triggered by the wife. He had imagined the reason why she had been that way is because she had been a boss for so long that she did not know how to behave else way even at home.


She was constantly away and was emotionally unavailable both for Jeremy and the children. When she was home, she blamed Jeremy for everything that went wrong and purely depended on Jeremy for her happiness. He learnt to be silent in order to create a peaceful environment for the children. What he did not know at the time is, that he still created a model for relationship dysfunction just the same way his parents had modelled for him as a child.


When their first born was 8years, he asked the dad why he didn’t protect him against the mother because he felt the mother was very brutal to him. That is the time Jeremy realized that he had become what his mother was (passive) and his child had become him (helpless) when he was below 10 years. The wife on the other hand felt that if Jeremy had treated her well, she would have been a better mother.


Since he wanted better for his children, he began his journey of healing.  It begun when he understood that the issue was not just his wife but himself too, because he had behaved in a way that empowered his wife’s behavior to continue. At the time he shared his story with me, they had already had couple therapy and each had healed from their individual pain.  Their relationship at this point was more functional and the children felt more heard, loved and cared for.


This is a typical scenario for many marriages. Each member of the marriage blames the other for the challenges in their marriage without learning that functionality or dysfunctionality of the marriage is contributed by both partners and mostly because individuals attract each other at the level of their dysfunction. No highly functional individual attracts a highly dysfunctional person.


So what causes relationship dysfunction?


Rose Rosenberg puts it this way, all parents whether healthy or unhealthy provide their children with experiences and memories that will ultimately result in automatic relationship guide for their adult children relationships.


In his book “Love is a choice”, Dr. Hemfelt looks at each individual as one who has a love tank filled to some level. Each individual love tank was originally filled by the parents. Parents who are individually functional also have a more functional relationship – their love tanks are more filled and so they pour more to their children’s love tanks.


Dysfunctional individuals on the other hand attract other dysfunctional people, their relationship is dysfunctional and their love tanks are low. The children raised by these parents have very little on their love tanks and so they seem to attract people who can fill their love tanks.


Everyone desires harmony and love in relationships, However, people sabotage themselves by choosing a partner who they are initially attracted to but finally resent. This is because depending on anyone to fill your love tank is not sustainable. It results to relationship dysfunctions such as abuse.


How does dysfunction attract dysfunction?


Initially, parties in a relationship attract what they seem to lack in themselves or said differently, people attract those who have qualities they feel they are lacking in themselves. For example:


Passive people who find it difficult to self-start and self-motivate get attracted to those who are self-motivated, risk takers who are very directional. While initially this brings a balance, eventually the passive person ends up feeling controlled and resentful and yet they may feel the need to follow.

This creates a dysfunctional relationship and both need healing. This is clear in Jeremys story.


People who struggle with self-worth and self-confidence may initially attract people who have high sense of importance, self-driven who identify with power. While this may look admirable in the beginning, they end up feeling that their relationship partners only think of themselves and the levels of self-worth nose dive. To increase relationship functioning, both need healing.


Adult children who were raised being responsible for their parent’s emotions (a good example is Jeremy who learnt to protect the mother from being hurt by dad) end up attracting people who are emotionally unavailable or those they have to constantly fix them emotionally.  Jeremy attracted a wife who felt it was Jeremys responsibility to fix her emotions, make her happy. This is how dysfunctional relationships are maintained.


Children who lack parental love/are not able to bond emotionally with their parents later on in their lives attract partners who are over nurturing or over responsible. They continue to have unrealistic expectations on their partners expecting them to take both roles- that of spouse and the other of a parent. This causes role overload, resentment and lack of fulfilment increasing relationship dysfunction.


Children who felt unprotected by their parents may grow up to be dysfunctional adults who learn to overprotect and over shelter their spouses. These adults attract partners who have victim mentality. The dysfunctional relationship ends up picking many battles with the world that they end up losing important relationships that would have benefited them.


Whatever level of dysfunction that we have learnt from the family of origin needs to be acknowledged, unlearnt and new behavior relearnt. Without this, we will continue to attract dysfunctional partners who fit into our own dysfunctions. Until healing happens, safe feels unsafe and unsafe feels normal. The best gift one can offer themselves is personal healing.


By Joan Kirera – Family Therapist. For more visit www.joankirera.com: Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera













Supporting Grieving Children

One day I walked into a school compound, I had some business to do in that school. The children were on lunch break and I could see so many children carrying their plates out of the serving area to the dining hall.

On one corner was Steph who was seated alone, looking lost. I walked into that corner and engaged the young girl; she was 6 years. When I asked what she was doing alone, she told me she remembered her mother’s conversations about being a good girl, not giving teachers a hard time and eating her lunch well and she felt that she had disappointed her. That is why she was sitting alone.

I took Steph and walked her to her class teacher as we conversed. While with the class teacher, I wanted to understand what had happened to the mother. Since the class teacher knew I work with children, she told Steph that I was a good person who works with children and I would help her if she told me what happened to her mother. That is when she narrated her story.

Her daddy and many other people buried her mother. The last she had seen the mother; she was in hospital. One-day daddy talked to her and let her know that her mother is no longer in hospital and that she had gone to heaven. while they told her that her mother went to heaven, Steph could not understand why they put her in a casket and buried her.

Her questions were; if my mother went to heaven, when will she come back? Where did they get the person they covered with soil? When did they get her from heaven? Was mom angry with her for playing in class while she expected her to not give the teacher a hard time?

These questions and concerns are very common among grieving children. The sense of belonging in children is very connected to the family – the parent and especially the mother. Loss of a parent, other family member or close friend then causes changes in the child’s daily routine and instability in the child’s life.

If grief is difficult to an adult, then it is even more complex to the child. Most adults who have gone through a grieving season will tell that they did not get enough support. Grieving children get even less support. Steph’s case is not different from the very many others that I have encountered in child therapy and adolescent counseling.

This happens because family and friends do not know how to support grieving children. While I will focus on death, any other loss experienced by the child can lead to the same emotions. These losses include parent’s separation, one parent leaving home to work away, loss of an emotionally connective nanny, loss of friends when the family relocates, etc.

Do we prepare our children for any kind of the loses mentioned? Do we even think of it as important? Children do not grieve like adults. While adults are expressive in talking and crying, children do not express themselves in similar manner. Children grief is sometimes invisible and difficult to notice and this is partly because they do not grieve at once.

At one point, they are showing signs of grief and shortly after they seem to be doing normal things and happy. This does not mean that they are through with grief. It may be that they will come back to grieving some time later because children’s grief may take longer. Children get triggers from time to time (sometimes the triggers are not related to death) and they start to grieve all over again.   

Healthy ways of helping the grieving children

Telling the truth about death to the grieving children

Break death into a language that the child can understand to help the child start the process of grieving. Help the child understand what death is. Some language used is too complex for children to understand and therefore does not support grieving. Part of what children find difficult to understand include:

  1. We lost him/her. The child may live with the expectations of the person  being found and coming back.
  2. The deceased passed away or passed on.
  3. The person went to heaven. We see the conflicts it caused in Steph’s life.
  4. The deceased went on a long journey. The child will expect them to come back.
  5. The dead person is asleep. This may make children afraid of going to sleep lest they fail to wake up.

For the children below 5 years I have found it meaningful to talk about the little insects that die when they are hurt or crushed. These little insects die and do not appear again. For example, a child can understand about someone being crushed by a vehicle by understanding about an insect being crushed. That is a language they understand.

For those above 6 years, let them know that the heart stopped, the person did not breathe anymore. The person no longer hears, sees or even reasons. Let the children know they will never see the person again and that the person will not come back.

Letting the children know the reasons why people die

Simplify the reasons why people die. These may include illnesses, accidents, old age, etc. Avoid graphic images especially when death was very traumatizing. Just explain the reasons in ways the child will understand.

Understanding helps to start the child grieving process. My experience with adults who lost parents through death as young children is that they find closure and follow through the grieving if they know what caused their parent’s death.

Funeral preparation

Children need to be prepared for what will happens on the day of the funeral. Preparation involves the people’s reactions and emotions and the church service if any. They need to understand that the dead body is put in the casket, the casket is lowered in the grave, the casket will be covered with soil and flowers used on the grave.

Give the details of the funeral happenings. Allow children to ask all the questions and answer as genuinely as you can. While adults imagine children cannot handle that much information, the information prepares them for all the day’s activities and facilitates continuous grief in children. Facilitate for each child to have an adult during the funeral, an adult the child knows and one that they like.

Allow children to express emotions

Let children know that it is okay to express emotions. What adults do in most cases is avoiding to talk about the death around children. Adults also keep their emotions unexpressed around children and this then leaves children feeling that expressing emotions is not acceptable.

Adults also find themselves shielding the children from feeling those emotions. A big number will work at making the children happy when they get sad or making the children forget negative emotions they feel such as anger. From these adult behaviors, children learn not to express emotions related to grieving.

Listen and connect emotionally

 This is enough support for a child. Grief in children comes with overwhelming emotions and pain and as such leaves children very vulnerable. Adults feel the need to shelter children from such pain and while the adults’ intention is normal and human, it may not help the grieving child.

To connect emotionally, one needs to listen to the child, not just what they are saying but their behavior and especially what kind of play they are doing. Listen to their emotions if they need to express and do not force them to express if they do not feel like. Assure them that they will have you only if you intend to be present and connecting to them as they journey through life.

I have heard adults telling the children that they will protect them and that they will never get hurt in life. I imagine this adult’s intention is to make the child feel safe, even if that is neither logical nor possible. It is giving false hope.

Incorporate other people who closely work with your children to support them

Let the teachers, trainers, nannies and anyone else who works with your children know that there might be behavior change in your child as a result of the loss experienced. Agree on how to handle the new behavior so that the grieving child is not wounded further. This helps to enlarge the social support circle for your child.

Professional help

Children find therapy through play and art. There are professionals trained to handle children emotional wellbeing through play and art. When a parent experiences the change of behavior and the child not improving for some time, it is only useful to seek professional help for them. Child therapy helps the child to deal with the overwhelming emotions emanating from the loss.

What to expect from the grieving children?

The child may present with any or all of these behaviors

  1. Bedwetting for children who had already stopped to bed wet
  2. Acting out/throwing tantrums/crying
  3. Isolation
  4. Clinginess
  5. Going back to a stage already passed like thumb sucking, crawling
  6. Poor concentration
  7. Sleep disturbances
  8. Self-centeredness
  9. Shame and guilt especially if the person who died was angry with the child or they had arguments in the deceased last days
  10. No interest in play
  11. Irritability
  12. Asking for help with tasks that they had already mastered


Questions about the dead or circumstances surrounding the death come up from time to time with grieving children.

Death conversations

Grieving children may get distressed by conversations surrounding the dead. In reality, the distress does not emanate from the conversations but from the painful emotions associated with grief. Adults in many occasions avoid these conversations so as not to upset the child which only teaches the child not to talk about the dead.

Grieve duration

For the children, grieving may take years. It gets easier as they grow older if proper support is given to them. With well supported children, they may come to accept the loss at adolescence or young adulthood.

For those children who received less or no support with the loss of especially parents, they may learn unhealthy methods of coping such as substance abuse, delinquency, risky sexual behaviors at adolescence and these behaviors continue to adult life. 

When these grief emotions are internalized in children, then they lead to adult behaviors such as violence, homicide or depression. These adults who did not grieve as children are at higher risks of committing suicide or developing other mental disorders. If as an adult you lost a parent at young age, it’s important to seek professional help if thinking about it brings about negative emotions or you are struggling with behavior problems.

By Joan Kirera-family therapist. For more visit www.joankirera.com: Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera



I was seated playing with children and listening to their stories. When it was Karla’s turn to tell her story, she narrated how she had fun and enjoyed the many places that her daddy had taken her to tour. She told stories of places they had visited and how she felt sad having to leave dad after staying in his house for three days- after three days she had to come home to a mother who never liked her daddy.

Karla’s parents had separated when she was 6 years and mom had refused her to see daddy because he was not paying her upkeep on time. Mom had asked Karla to tell her daddy that he was not allowed to pick her until he paid her upkeep in advance. Karla felt sorry for the dad because he was good to her yet mom shared very bad things about the dad every time Karla enquired why daddy wasn’t picking her.

Whenever Karla got home, her mother wasn’t pleased with her because she would come crying and saying she wanted to stay more with dad. The mother had to talk with Karla asking her to stop being ungrateful for the sacrifices she made by wanting to follow the father who had been out of her life for two years and had only started co-parenting when Karla was 9years.

When Karla was calm, the mother asked her so many things about her dad –Did dad have any woman coming to his house? Did he frequently talk to anyone? In all those places he took you, were there any female friends who accompanied him? It was very difficult to answer these questions because; she did not want to betray dad and also did not want to lie to mom.

Some of these experiences from Karla are typical in many single parented families where co-parenting occurs. Co-parenting is the process where two parents work together to raise children even if they do not live together.

How can two parents co-parent peacefully?

Both parents need to avail themselves for the children.

When a couple separates/divorces or have never been married, children need both parents for proper development. No parent can take the place of the other. When a residential parent has not healed from the wounds of divorce, co-parenting becomes difficult because they expect their children to understand that the ex-spouse caused them pain and so not desire them as parents- that is very unhealthy because the nonresident parent is important as you- the resident parent.

The nonresident parent may also distance themselves from the children as they get busy with their new life, working, meeting friends or simply because they feel unproductive as parents. There is a temptation to feel like they are not making any contribution in the lives of children especially when children are well kept by the resident parent.

The visits by the nonresident parent communicate stability, wellness and worthiness to the children. When a parent withdraws, children are left wondering whether they did anything wrong, if the parents love them and this keeps them in a state of loss. Continuous grief not only affects child development but also keeps them in a state of instability.

How will co parents help their children from the feeling that one parent is better than the other?

While parents cannot fully eliminate this feeling in their children, they do not need to deliberately intensify it. What co parents need to do is not to compete for the position of better parent against each other, it is to show togetherness in parenting their children into productive adults.

Sometimes, the resident parent is caught up in the feelings of being overburdened with children responsibilities and while this may be factual, it does not mean the other parent is not doing their best. It only means that children cannot be in two places at the same time. When a resident parent feels overwhelmed and over-burdened, they need to find a safe space to ventilate. Sharing with your children only makes them lost for who to be loyal to between you and the non-resident parent.

The non-resident parent may feel the need to compensate their lost time by providing more entertainment, providing more junk food and allowing children to get away with indiscipline. This is more harmful than beneficial. What children need from the non-resident parent is to be loved and to be valued and this is possible with just the parent being available to play, interact and do things both the parent and children enjoy.

To avoid extremes in parenting, let co-parents agree on the basic parenting rules such as the discipline methods to be used, sleep times, methods of entertainment and also the kind of meals to be given to children. These simple rules provide consistency to the children.

How do co parents deal with conflicts without affecting their children?

Co-parents need to bring the spousal relationship to an end and remain with only parenting relationship. This means that no parent needs to rely on the other for emotional support, or for the meals, laundry for companionship, for daily updates etc. While feelings of sexual attraction resurface from time to time, acknowledge them as normal but do not act on them.

To help make co-parenting relationship more defined, method of communication should be agreed, when and how to communicate needs to be clearly agreed too. Unannounced visitations and unexplained calls are very damaging and the source of conflicts because the one being visited feels violated in terms of their private space.

Unless in cases where reconciliation is being sought, do not spend time discussing relationship progress with your ex-spouse, the new man or woman in their life or if they are dating and preparing for marriage. While it is natural to get hurt especially if your ex-spouse is getting married, it is healthy to acknowledge that they are not the ones hurting you- it is just that such development makes you begin the journey of grieving the lost relationship all over again and this time to someone else.

Keep away from gossip that is usually passed by the people around the circles of a co-parent.  This gossip can cause bitterness and resentment and make co-parenting impossible. Make deliberate decision to handle your ex-spouse with respect, when you feel they do not deserve your respect, remind yourself that your children require healthy parents.

How do co-parents support their children to deal with loss?

Co-parents need to grieve their own losses and heal. It is only a healed parent who has capacity to support a child long term. In the initial stages when the co-parents are grieving, it is okay to open the channels of communication where you allow children know that it’s okay to feel bad about the divorce, it’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to miss the non-resident parent, it’s okay to miss their friends (incase the location has changed) and that from time to time, you too miss your ex-spouse.

It is okay to allow the children to talk and ask the questions that bother them. Answer as honestly as possible without giving adult information. An example would be, when a child asks about the other parent’s new family, just let them know Dad or mom loved someone else and therefore started new family with them. Information such as daddy had infidelity issues on mum or mum was cheating on daddy is too complex and damaging to the child.

When children volunteer to take the role of mediator during conflicts, thank them but do not allow them. Let them know that the co-parents will work around things and that they (the children) do not need to worry. Do not refuse the co-parent from visiting the child because they have delayed upkeep-your children need the stability the other parent brings and so they do not understand such details.

Do not mistake children’s tantrums, bedwetting, defiance, withdrawal as rebellion that deserves punishment. One parent leaving the life of the child is hard enough, what they need is to be listened to and supported. Ask them what is making them sad, throw tantrums etc. Let them know unless they communicate you may not know how they feel. When they share validate their feelings and assure them you are there for them. If they do not share, be patient with them.

When you feel that the behavior is persisting, calmly remind the children rules and let them know the consequences should they not follow. Do not make them feel guilty if they are happier on the days of visitation by the non-resident parent. Do not allow self-doubt on your abilities as a parent, unless you have good reasons for that. Allow the children to go through their process, their own way.

When you realize that the children are not improving and that after separation, there are significant changes, and the child is not making positive progress, have them taken through the healing process by a professional therapist.

By Joan Kirera-family therapist. For more visit www.joankirera.com: Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera