The Empowered Parenting Series Part I: Identifying Family Dysfunction

dysfunctional family

Any of you that regularly read my blog know by now that I’m very passionate about certain things. Black liberation and empowerment is my number one passion. But running a close second is the topic of good parentin/education.

Why am I so passionate about parenting? Because this is one area where we can make a solid contribution despite societal ills and external forces (although those things are still significant factors).

Furthermore, by being good parents, we help create competent, useful, and empowered generations of young adults. This leads to better communities, better organizations, and naturally, better families in the future.

I am somewhat qualified to speak with some level of authority on this issue for the following reasons:

  1. My theory, influence, and methods of parenting helped to produce bright, accomplished, and respectful daughters that would make ANY parent proud.
  2. I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life as a teacher, mentor, youth development worker, parent advocate, education activist, and school founder.
  3. I was raised by a mother and father who taught me well, helped me develop character, motivation, and self-love and who put me on the path of being empowered and accomplished.
  4. I’ve put most of these important lessons, habits, and skills into a book I wrote entitled, “Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens.”

Over the course of my life, I’ve had the pleasure of helping  working class Black and Latino students in poor neighborhoods, to navigate the equally daunting terrains of school, home life, college, and young adulthood. I’ve counselled angry, disappointed and frustrated parents, provided conflict mediation to families, helped struggling students learn empowering life management skills, taught parents how to evaluate and reform local public schools, and helped parents improve their own parenting skills.

Have these efforts been successful? I can only answer that by looking at the success of my own children, and by the countless emails, gifts, greeting cards, phone calls, Facebook messages, expressions of gratitude and testimonies of success I’ve received over the years from parents and former students regarding my intervention in their lives.

However, all of my experiences with students and families were not positive and rewarding. Some arrived with rigid spirits and closed minds. They didn’t appreciate having their methods or practices evaluated and challenged (even though they admitted that these methods and practices produced negative outcomes, and came to me for help/advice).

Others appreciated the information, but lacked the discipline and faith to apply or implement them consistently. Some highly dysfunctional families found it difficult to truly commit to releasing their dysfunctional thinking and practices. For them, yelling, fighting, issuing threats, and name-calling were the familiar tools of addressing problems and producing results. While they wanted better results, they failed to do the consistent work and readjustment necessary to produce such outcomes. Instead of directing frustration toward their issues or their causes, they directed them toward me.

This is frustrating but I don’t take such resistance personally. Both my rewarding and deeply disappointing experiences with Black families push me to continue my work.

Rewarding and productive experiences verify that my methods and information are valid and that they produce positive results (especially when folk are receptive and willing to do the necessary work.)

Disappointing and failed experiences (which are in the minority), help me to constantly refine my theory and methods, and identify when I need to detach from a situation. The sad fact is that some people will NEVER get it. Their poor parenting and poor results are acceptable to them. Ego, surrender to dysfunction, or lack of discipline, consistency and healthy priorities continue to defeat them until they learn to trust themselves and the process of re-learning.

Nevertheless, I know there are parents who want the best for their children and are willing to do what is necessary to ensure this. I know somebody reading this embraces their role as an empowering parent and might want tips and suggestions. For you, I write this Empowering Parent series providing a basic outline of parenting philosophy and best practices for empowered parenting.

As you read please remember: The objective here is not to assign blame, make you feel inadequate or insecure, or put you in a position where you feel compelled to prove how good a parent you already are or to defend your current parenting efforts and methods. To do better, you must be better and this requires you to cast ego and defensiveness aside.

The objective here is to become more empowered parents so we can produce more empowered children.

This part of the parenting series will focus on dysfunction. Highly dysfunctional families tend to produce highly dysfunctional children. In an effort to confront and overcome this, we must first understand what a “dysfunctional family” is. According to Wikipedia:

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal.

Some of the most common features of dysfunctional families include:

  • Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy towards one or more members (or even pets) who have real or perceived “special needs”. In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than he or she deserves, while another is marginalized.
  • Denial (refusal to acknowledge abusive, enabling or negligent behavior, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the “elephant in the room.”)
  • Inadequate or missing boundaries for self (e.g. tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment, tolerance of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.)
  • Disrespect of others’ boundaries (e.g. physical contact that the other person dislikes; breaking important promises without just cause; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed)
  • Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient respectful disagreement among family members).
  • Unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role (mother, etc.), abilities, race, caste, etc. (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven/inconsistent enforcement of rules).

It’s important to realize that these behaviors are not organic, but learned (usually from one’s own childhood experiences or via societal influences). It’s also important to remember that societal forces also exert influence on families. Exploitation, mistreatment and dysfunctional messages or cues from a racist, sexist, hypersexualized or materialist society impact all areas of human activity, including family life. We must examine these factors as well if we are to become more empowered parents and families.

The next article in this series will explore these forces and how they negatively impact our parenting. In the meantime, review the definition and description. Give some thought about whether your family exhibits these qualities. and if so, make a commitment to do what is necessary to change.


 Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” 

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at

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