What Is a Dysfunctional Family?

Mother consoles daughter during therapy session at workshop

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Dysfunctional families are fertile ground for neglect, abuse, secrecy, addiction, or denial. In these family systems, children’s emotional needs go unmet because the parents’ needs take precedence.

One or both parents might be suffering from a substance use disorder, personality disorder, or mood disorder. Sometimes, the adults in these families have authoritarian “my way or the highway” parenting styles or have a toxic and abusive relationship with each other.

In other cases, parents are emotionally immature or unavailable—caught up in workaholism, shopaholism, gambling, overeating, adulterous affairs, or other pursuits. 

No parent is perfect, but in dysfunctional families, the problems in the household are ignored or denied. Children who dare to raise these issues may be shamed or punished, leading them to deny their own perceptions of reality and suffer from low self-worth.

Often, the parents in these families expressly forbid children from sharing these problems with outsiders such as friends, teachers, coaches, counselors, or clergy members. They might even scapegoat one child to divert attention away from the troubles in the household. 

The source of dysfunction in any particular family may vary, but the common thread is that the children who belong to these families suffer. Deprived of parents who nourish their emotional needs, provide stability, and acknowledge problems, they struggle to grow into secure adults with high self-esteem and healthy coping skills.

Unsure of how to nurture their relationships with themselves or to foster healthy relationships with others, they may go on to create a dysfunctional family of their own when they have children. 

It is possible, however, to break the cycle. Gain a better understanding of dysfunctional families by reviewing common types of these families, a list of telltale signs, and steps one can take to heal.

Examples of Dysfunctional Families

There are many reasons why a family might be dysfunctional. Let's take a look at some of the reason why dysfunction occurs in families.

Emotionally Unavailable

In some families, parents or caregivers are emotionally unavailable. They might be cold and withhold physical affection or encouraging words because they grew up in a similar environment. They may have an authoritarian parenting style and believe the adage that “children should be seen and not heard.”

Sometimes, parents might be emotionally unavailable because they’re depleted. They might spend most of their time working long hours, struggling to pay for food and shelter, navigating a toxic or abusive romantic relationship, or taking care of several children. These circumstances don’t leave parents much energy to nourish their children’s unique emotional needs.

Parents in the throes of addiction are also emotionally unavailable. They may be physically present, but emotionally absent because they’re high or chasing their next fix.

Addicts and Enablers

In many families, parents or caretakers have addictions that they struggle to manage or are attempting to hide. A parent’s addiction might be an open secret or extremely obvious because it prevents the individual from keeping a job, fulfilling their parental duties, or being a steady and stable presence in the home.

The other parent might be a codependent who covers for the addict, gets the addict out of jams, or constantly begs the addict to stop using. In essence, the codependent parent spends more time on the partner’s addiction than on raising children.

Neither the sober parent nor the addicted parent is available to the minors in the home. The children in this environment learn that it’s okay for a parent’s addiction to take priority over their needs. This may set the child up for addictions as they age or lead them to seek out partners with addictive personalities.

High-Conflict and Abusive Families

In high-conflict and violent families, arguments, criticism, and abuse are regular occurrences. Simply put, the parents in these families are out of control. They may be rageaholics who take out their personal problems on their children and each other.

They may view their families as possessions rather than as human beings with their own needs. Regarding their children as property makes it easy for them to rationalize abusing them mentally, verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually.

Children in these families experience the ultimate betrayal. They can’t count on their caretakers to love, protect, and respect them. They grow up feeling scared, ashamed, unworthy, and lonely. As adults, they may develop anxiety, depression, substance use, personality, or post-traumatic stress disorders.  

How to Tell If Your Family Was Dysfunctional

Many people have no trouble realizing that their family was dysfunctional, especially if the family problems were overt and they had the opportunity to spend time with more functional families. But others might find the level of dysfunction they endured growing up difficult to gauge. After all, every family has problems.

How can people tell if their family wasn’t just imperfect but downright toxic? Unfortunately, making this call can be even more confusing because dysfunctional families typically deny issues and punish the members who are willing to speak up about problems. 

The gaslighting and disregard for the truth in dysfunctional families can lead concerned members to think they’re overly sensitive or have exaggerated the household's troubles.

Moreover, children don’t have the life experience to know what’s normal or abnormal behavior for parents or caretakers. This is why some people don’t realize how troubled their family of origin was until they spend time with other families or start one of their own. At that point, they may realize they’d never treat their children as they were treated growing up.

To gain insight into how dysfunctional your family was (or is), review the following questions. Answering 'yes' to even one of these questions might indicate that your family of origin was dysfunctional. 

  • Were siblings pitted against each other in your family? Did your parents have a favorite and/or a scapegoat?
  • In a two-parent household, were you extremely close to one parent and extremely distant from the other? Did your parents seem closer to one of their children than to each other? 
  • In a single-parent household, were you your parent’s best friend and confidante? Did your parent resent you for having your own friends or social life?
  • Did your parents routinely violate your boundaries—opening bedroom and bathroom doors without knocking, rummaging through your belongings, eavesdropping on your conversations—without good cause?
  • Were you deprived of food, clothing, medical care, and other necessities even though your parents had the means to provide them for you?
  • Did abuse of any kind—verbal, emotional, physical, sexual—occur in your household, or did your parents fail to protect you from abuse that occurred elsewhere?
  • Were you told not to tell people outside of your family what happened in your household?
  • Did your parents or guardians struggle with addiction to food, drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, hoarding, shopping, etc.? Were these addictions not openly discussed, or were you and other family members encouraged to enable these addictions somehow?
  • Did your parents or guardians have an untreated or undertreated mental illness?
  • Did domestic violence occur in your household?
  • Did your parents or guardians harbor major secrets from you regarding finances, illnesses, paternity/maternity, extramarital affairs (and any children produced from these relationships), etc.?
  • Did your parents threaten to abandon you or actually abandon you? Did one parent routinely threaten to leave the other or actually do so in an abrupt manner?
  • Were you punished for expressing yourself, sharing your opinions, pursuing your hobbies, excelling in school, or another area?
  • Were you treated more like an adult than as a child as you grew up? Were you expected to raise your siblings, complete difficult household chores, or take on responsibilities more appropriate for adults?
  • Were you infantilized—treated, clothed, or disciplined like you were far younger than you actually were? 
  • Did the public personas of your parents or guardians completely differ from their private personas?

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you might feel lonely or isolated or struggle to develop healthy relationships with others.

Plus, being harshly criticized or gaslit throughout your childhood might have caused you to distrust yourself or doubt your decision-making abilities.

To cope with these negative emotions, you might engage in the same unhealthy coping mechanisms that your parents did. Examples include lashing out at others, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, overspending, or overeating. Fortunately, you can take concrete action to break the pattern of family dysfunction. 

Breaking the Cycle

Recognizing that you grew up in a dysfunctional family is an important first step, but just acknowledging this truth is not enough to stop the pattern. You can work with a licensed mental healthcare provider or join a support group to help you work through any unresolved trauma related to your upbringing.

Therapy can also teach you how to use healthy coping skills to regulate uncomfortable emotions rather than develop addictions or destructive behaviors. A mental healthcare provider can also help you set boundaries, which you will need if you are still in regular contact with your dysfunctional family members. You might need to limit contact with your relatives as you work on your recovery. 

If you’d like to become a parent, take the time to learn about child development and how to meet children’s needs at each stage. You can enroll in a course, conduct your own research, or work with a therapist on healthy parenting strategies.

Simply doing the opposite of what your caregivers did can create new and unforeseen problems for your children, so if you’d like to pursue parenthood, make sure the decision is an informed and intentional one.

By planning to become a parent, addressing your past trauma, and developing healthy coping skills, you’ll be in a much better position to form secure attachments with your children and guide them into a healthy adulthood. 

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3 Sources
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