What Is Dysfunctional Behavior in Families?

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The term dysfunction is defined as "any impairment, disturbance, or deficiency in behavior" on the part of an individual person, between people in a relationship, or among family members. Dysfunction can manifest as poor communication, frequent conflict, emotional or physical abuse, and much more.

Dysfunctional relationships or situations often serve as motivation for people to seek help, often in the form of psychotherapy.

While the term dysfunctional has been widely used to describe unhealthy patterns and family dynamics, the term can feel stigmatizing. Because of this, some trauma-informed therapists suggest referring to these behaviors, patterns, and dynamics as unhealthy rather than dysfunctional.

Examples of Dysfunctional Behavior

Examples of unhealthy behavior within families can include situations such as when a family member, parent, or caregiver:

  • Engages in compulsive behavior such as gambling or overworking
  • Engages in emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive behavior
  • Misuses drugs or alcohol
  • Uses threats of violence
  • Allows children to drink alcohol or use drugs
  • Fails to provide children with emotional support
  • Relies on a child to provide emotional or financial support
  • Uses an authoritarian style of parenting in which there is no flexibility
  • Abuses or neglects children
  • Cannot provide basic needs such as food and shelter for children
  • Doesn't address or manage violence or inappropriate behavior

A parent or caregiver in a dysfunctional family might view their children or other family members as property or as things they can control, abuse, or use as an outlet for negative emotions.

Causes of Family Dysfunction

There are many potential causes of family dysfunction. It is often the result of a parent or caregiver not getting the emotional support they need. As a result, they are unable or don't know how to provide their children with emotional support.

Trauma

If a parent or caregiver is abusive, it's possible they themselves experienced abuse as a child—whether emotional, physical, or sexual. For instance, a child who is verbally abused may grow up confusing feelings like anger and love, so they may express themselves with yelling and aggression as an adult in their close relationships.

When people don't realize there are alternative, healthy ways of expressing their feelings, they may end up repeating the same cycle of abuse they themselves experienced.

Mental Health Conditions

If a parent or caregiver experiences severe symptoms of a mental health disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or a personality or mood disorder, and these symptoms are not appropriately treated, they may contribute to unhealthy patterns within the family dynamic.

Someone with a mental health condition may find it difficult to perform daily tasks or support their family, especially if they aren't receiving adequate treatment or if they don't have a support system of loved ones to step in and help. A child's needs may go unmet and they may experience the added stress of seeing their parent struggle and not being able to help.

One study found that severe symptoms of mental health conditions like depression can often result in a parent treating a child harshly or disengaging from the relationship with their child.

Substance Use

Substance use disorder can also contribute to family dysfunction. If a member of the family misuses drugs or alcohol, all members of the family can experience stress as a result. Coping with addiction in the family may lead to other members of the family feeling neglected.

A child's needs may become less of a priority if a parent or caregiver is living with an addiction.

A parent or family member may also struggle with other types of addiction like overeating or gambling. If, for example, a family member is spending money on the object of their addiction and are unable to pay for basic needs like rent or food, it's likely that everyone in the family will feel stressed and insecure as a result.

Socioeconomic Status

Families who are at a socioeconomic disadvantage, or those who have low income, tend to experience additional stress levels, especially in single-parent households.

A parent or caregiver might struggle to provide food and shelter; they may also work long hours in harsh conditions. Some may have multiple children or family members to support financially. These burdens can contribute to family dysfunction, particularly if the parent is not receiving any support themselves.

Low-income communities generally have less access to mental health services, which can make it even more difficult for a parent or caregiver to get the support that they need. Unfortunately, they may end up taking their negative feelings out on their children or other family members.

The Effects of Dysfunction on Children

When unhealthy patterns become the standard in a family, the detrimental effects on the children are significant and can be carried into their adult relationships. Some of the potentially damaging effects for children include:

One study found that people who endured stress during childhood as a result of a parent or caregiver's poor mental health experienced more stress into adulthood compared to people who weren't exposed to the same type of stress as children.

If a child's parents or caregivers don't provide them with adequate emotional support, they may grow up not knowing how to prioritize or express their needs or feeling that their needs are unimportant.

Children who've experienced familial dysfunction may even repeat patterns of abuse in their future relationships. They may unconsciously seek out partners who are abusive in similar ways as their parents or they themselves may abuse their partners or children.

It's important to note, however, that the circumstances of your childhood are not the only influence on the quality of your life as an adult. In other words, just because you experienced abuse doesn't mean you will be abused or abuse others in future relationships.

Acknowledging dysfunction within your family, how it's affected you, and/or how you contribute to it is the first step in healing.

Getting Help for Family Dysfunction

If your family is experiencing dysfunction for any reason, there is help available. Outside of traditional therapy, there are accessible resources to help you and your family address unhealthy patterns. Many communities have mental health centers that offer free information and counseling.

Family Therapy

Family therapy may be a good option for those experiencing the effects of dysfunction. Family therapy has been shown to be extremely effective in helping families learn new ways of communicating, solving problems, and supporting each other.

Family therapy sessions usually last 50 minutes to an hour and continue once a week for up to 12 weeks. Oftentimes, families will enter therapy looking to resolve a specific issue such as one family member's uncontrolled anger.

A therapist would work with your family as a unit to discuss how you're all communicating, how you can all respond to incidents of anger more effectively, and teach you how to set goals for productively handling future incidents.

If you have health insurance, check with your plan about coverage for mental and behavioral health services as well as providers that are in-network (which means that the provider is contracted with your insurance and your plan will likely cover more of the cost). If you don't have insurance, you can still research family therapists. Some therapists offer a sliding payment scale based on your income, so be sure to inquire about this prior to booking a session.

Individual Therapy

Whether your family seeks family therapy or not, online or in-person therapy can be a helpful option for anyone in the family. Individual therapy includes working one-on-one with a therapist who can address the underlying causes or effects of family dysfunction with the individual family member seeking help.

For example, if you have learned any negative beliefs as a result of family dysfunction, such as "I don't matter," or "My needs aren't important," a therapist who offers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can work with you to reframe these beliefs into more positive ones. If you are contributing to dysfunction within your family, CBT can help you understand the roots behind your behavior and how to replace negative actions with healthy coping mechanisms.

Support Groups

There are also online or in-person support groups that may offer support for what you're going through in your family. Some support groups are tailored for people coping with specific mental health conditions as well as their friends and family members.

Self-Help Resources

There are also mental health apps, podcasts, and books that cover specific types of family dysfunction and offer practical advice for you and your family to start addressing maladaptive patterns.

Religious Counseling

If you are part of a religious group, you may seek advice from a religious leader as well. Some religious leaders may meet with your entire family and offer words of support and encouragement as you cope with dysfunctional patterns.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares what mentally strong parents do.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you are coping with family dysfunction right now or you are dealing with the aftermath of a tumultuous childhood experience, remember that you are not alone. Therapy can be very effective in addressing the causes, effects, and trauma of family dysfunction, giving you or your family a roadmap for healing.

Be sure to prioritize your own physical and emotional safety. Family dysfunction may not change overnight, but you should do your best to ensure your own health and the health of your children as best you can.

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12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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