Dysfunctional Behavior and Family Patterns

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The term dysfunctional is defined as "abnormal or impaired functioning" on the part of an individual person, between people in any sort of relationship, or amongst members of a family. Poor functioning refers to both behavior and relationships that aren't working and have one or more negative, unhealthy aspects to them, such as poor communication or frequent conflict.

This is a term used often by mental health professionals for interactions between people and is often used to describe any relationship in which there are significant problems or struggles. Dysfunctional relationships or situations are often the impetus for getting help in psychotherapy.

Examples of Dysfunctional Behavior

Many families develop dysfunctional aspects when trying to cope with a troubled teen, for example, because family members are forced to adapt to the teen's emotional or behavioral problems that impact them on a daily basis.

Other examples of dysfunctional behavior include:

  • A family in which a parent is drinking daily and family members are afraid to talk about what's happening
  • A teenage couple that deals with conflict by not speaking to each other
  • A teenager with a dual-diagnosis who uses drugs to deal with their symptoms rather than get treatment for the cause
  • A troubled teen who expresses anger by hitting others

Dysfunctional Family Patterns

In dysfunctional families, a variety of patterns can occur. One sign of a dysfunctional family is when parents or teens abuse alcohol and/or drugs.

If one or both parents have compulsive behaviors, such as gambling or overworking, this may lead to difficulties for the rest of the family. Violence is another factor in dysfunction that can occur when one or both parents threaten or actually carry out violence that may or may not involve the children. Parental neglect can also play a role, either emotional, physical, or financial.

On the other end of the spectrum, overly controlling parents who treat the children as possessions and as if the children are only around for the parents' own personal needs or satisfaction are dysfunctional. If parents treat children as possessions to the point of not giving their children autonomy and exerting tight control over their lives, then it's not a healthy relationship.

Many families have times when these patterns occur, but it is when they start to become the norm that dysfunction occurs.

The Effects of Dysfunction on Children

When dysfunctional 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 are:

  • Actions of parents not matching their words, which causes a distorted reality
  • Feeling like they have to be the adult in the situation
  • Having to take sides in a parental conflict
  • Parents that are either way too involved and overly protective or parents who are uninvolved and disinterested
  • Physical abuse
  • Rejection or favoritism
  • Ridicule or being ignored when sharing thoughts or feelings
  • Rigid controls on who their friends are and how they dress

How Family Therapy Can Help

If your family is experiencing dysfunction for any reason, seeking out family therapy may be a good option. Family therapy has been shown to be extremely effective in learning new ways to communicate, solving problems between family members, and becoming sources of support and strength for each other.

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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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