Many issues that arise later in life may originate from childhood experiences in a dysfunctional family. One in seven children faces trauma, such as emotional abuse or abnormal sexual behavior, which can impact their emotional well-being into adulthood. Dysfunctional family members and common dysfunctional parental behavior contribute to creating an unhealthy environment. Begin by examining the characteristics of a family's dysfunction and the long-term effects of growing up in such families.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any form of abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline immediately by visiting their website, calling 800-799-7233, or texting START to 88788.
What Is A Dysfunctional Family?
Dysfunctional families may appear diverse, as family dynamics can be intricate. The McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine defines a dysfunctional family as “a family with multiple internal or external conflicts that affect the basic needs of the family unit.” For instance, this may involve:
- Sibling rivalries
- Parent-child conflicts
- Domestic violence or sexual abuse
- Physical or mental illness
- Single parenthood or one parent households
- Alcohol, drug use, or an addicted parent
- Extramarital affairs
- Gambling addiction
- Unemployment influences
- Financial concerns
- Other traumatic family occurrences, such as unfair treatment
Some families have minor dysfunction, while others have deeply rooted issues leading to serious problems. Numerous factors can contribute to dysfunctional family life, with each occurring to varying degrees.
*If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat. The Hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of relationship abuse and domestic violence so they can live their lives free of abuse.
What Are The Factors Of A Dysfunctional Family?
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you might have faced concerns since childhood, affecting you even as an adult. Dysfunctional families, involving other family members, tend to be unstable or conflict-ridden. The caregiver/s might be so preoccupied with their worries and needs that they fail to meet those of the children, leading to neglect, abuse, or conflict.
Such children may feel lonely, developing low self-esteem and self-worth. They might experience physical or mental health problems and adopt survival mechanisms or unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result. Kids raised in these toxic environments often carry survival mechanisms with them for years.
The following factors may indicate family dysfunction. You might also take the ACES test, as providers often use it to determine if someone experienced trauma as a child.
Family History Of Dysfunction
Dysfunctional family patterns may repeat themselves within such families. For example, people may learn their parenting styles from their own parents or caregivers. If one or both caregivers abused them, they might abuse their children or struggle to model healthy relationships.
In some cases, parents may try to avoid abusing their children as they were abused, by being lenient or neglectful. Spouses might partake in conflict if their parents did, not understanding how to exhibit healthy behaviors.
Those who grew up in dysfunctional households can learn healthier techniques for parenting. They may address the negative emotions they carry as adults and learn how to love, appreciate, respect, and treat others healthily.
A willingness to work on overcoming these issues can help end a dysfunctional family environment. For example, trauma therapy can be effective in treating adults who were sexually abused. Additionally, your attachment style can change over time.
Physical illness alone may not cause family dysfunction. However, it may have impacts on the family unit, involving other family members. Parents might rely on their children, including younger siblings, to care for their health, which can cause anxiety and depression. Additionally, if one family member is ill and is not cared for, this may cause the children to grow up invalidating their illnesses.
You may not have had any control over the illness that strained your family, but you can control your actions, learn to use the resources available, such as a support group, and meet your children's needs.
Biology may play a role in many mental illnesses. However, behavioral issues that can accompany them may make family life much more challenging, especially without treatment.
People with untreated mental illnesses like trauma disorders, anxiety, or depression may act unhealthily toward their families. With treatment, people with mental illness may start to contribute positively.
Stress is often an unavoidable part of life. While low levels of stress can positively impact people and push them to achieve their goals, excessive stress may jeopardize a family's safety and well-being, even in a two parent household.
High levels of stress could lead to hostility within a family, affecting both the other parent and other members. Learning to manage life's stressors healthily can be essential to the happiness and well-being of the individual and the family. When you model healthy coping strategies to your children, including a rebellious child, they may learn how to regulate their emotions.
Substance addiction, gambling, or psychological addictions may lead to codependency, with caretakers spending excessive amounts of time, energy, and other resources on the individual who’s addicted. Certain family roles in addiction are adopted by the family members to cope with the situation. At times, children fill the role of caretaker. When an addiction is severe, it may drain a family’s financial and emotional resources, including the emotional resources of children living with a parent who’s addicted. A parent living with an untreated substance use disorder or other addiction may be emotionally unavailable to their children.
While addiction can cause problems within a family, addictive behaviors may also develop due to dysfunctional family dynamics. Those living in a family that doesn’t meet their needs may turn to substances, food, or gambling for temporary relief.
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 or visit the website to receive support and resources.
Parents who are perfectionistic may put pressure on their partners and children not just to do their best but to accomplish the impossible. Perfectionism may lead to unrealistic expectations and be detrimental to family life.
Loved ones of perfectionistic individuals might feel they’re walking on eggshells. Children with perfectionist parents may lose their innate lighthearted spirit and find learning difficult. These children may lack self-esteem or feel at fault for their parent’s behavior.
Poor communication may be a characteristic of a dysfunctional family. Problems might be managed with open, honest, and healthy communication.
Dysfunctional families may struggle to listen to each other, and indirect communication could cause bitterness or passive-aggressive behavior. Teaching children active listening skills and learning them yourself may avoid this.
Lack Of Empathy
When caregivers lack empathy, their children may feel that a parent’s love is conditional. When a parent shows empathy, they model this trait to the child, which may help children become compassionate, empathetic adults. Empathy is a skill that can be learned.
In healthy families, caregivers are often intent on helping their children make good decisions and learn from their mistakes rather than belittling them or instilling shame.
Excessive Attempts To Control
Dysfunctional families are often characterized by a caregiver's excessive need to control their children or partner. When parents fail to help children develop a healthy sense of autonomy, children may not feel self-confident and struggle to form relationships with their own friends.
Taking a more relaxed, accepting approach encourages kids to do their best in every situation rather than living to appease the controlling parent. Regarding parenting styles, studies show that authoritative parenting is often the most beneficial.
Lack Of Seclusion And Independence
Parents in dysfunctional families may lack trust in their children and invade their comfort and seclusion. While there are times when parents may need to know what’s going on with their children, parents in a functional family may utilize honest communication and questions instead of forcing their child to open up.
Criticism may run rampant in a dysfunctional family. At times, the criticism could be blatant, with parents chastising everything the child says or does. Other times, parents take a more subtle approach by using sarcasm, insults, or teasing. When criticism involves attempts to frighten, control, or isolate, it may signify emotional abuse.
Dysfunctional Family Roles
There are five to six common roles in a dysfunctional family:
- Enabler or caretaker: The individual may attempt to keep the family going despite the presence of addiction or other dysfunctions in the family.
- Scapegoat or troublemaker: Scapegoating exists in a dysfunctional family. The scapegoat or troublemaker may become sick, weak, angry, or rebellious in response to their treatment. They may receive the majority of abuse or maltreatment.
- Lost child: The lost child may spend most of their time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunctional ways.
- Mascot: This individual may try to alleviate tension within the family by utilizing humor or mischief in everyday life. The mascot may be labeled the family clown.
- The hero or golden child: This person may be idolized or pressured by their caregiver. They may receive less abuse or neglect but may feel pressure to excel, to please their parents, and to be “perfect.”
Immediate Effects Of Living In A Dysfunctional Family
When a child is living in a dysfunctional family, they may experience immediate effects, including:
- Social isolation or loneliness
- Development of mental health conditions
- Childhood PTSD
- Feeling extremely self-critical
- Low self-esteem
- Behavioral issues
- Difficulty expressing thoughts or feelings
When you live in a dysfunctional family as a child, your brain may respond to stressors in unhealthy ways. Your fight or flight response in your nervous system could remain activated long after you have left your family dynamic.
What Is It Like To Grow Up In A Healthy Family?
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you might get the impression that there is no such thing as a healthy, functional family life. It may feel hard to believe that functional families can be a reality.
However, healthy families do exist. So, what does a healthy family look like? There are a few characteristics of a healthy family environment:
- People communicate freely and openly but compassionately
- Everyone’s basic physical and emotional needs are met, including water, food, shelter, social belonging, and bladder/digestive needs
- Caregivers show unconditional love for each child, even when they disapprove of specific behaviors
- Through their words and actions, parents may support children’s emotional growth
- Children feel open to bringing up concerns or questions to their caregivers
Counseling For Support
Adult children of caregivers who displayed dysfunctional behavior may benefit from working with a therapist. To overcome a childhood affected by a dysfunctional family, healing internal wounds can be a decisive step.
Studies show that many adults feel most comfortable at home, which can make in-person therapy feel daunting. If you relate, you may enjoy trying therapy from home in the form of online counseling.
Online therapy can effectively treat various mental health conditions and heal certain kinds of trauma. While many problems often arise from adverse childhood experiences, your mental health can be affected at any life stage.
One study showed how internet-delivered therapy successfully reduced the severity of PTSD symptoms in participants. The same group also saw a reduction in co-morbid depression and anxiety, proving the efficacy of online therapy for these concerns.
Talking with family about your experience could worsen existing issues. Speaking with a therapist allows you to express your feelings about what happened in a safe environment. If you’re ready to try counseling, consider signing up through an online platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples.
Your past may not necessarily predict your future. Although you may have gone through traumatic or dysfunctional experiences in childhood, there are ways to find support and healing. If you’re looking for professional help, consider reaching out to a counselor to get started.
What are some examples of a dysfunctional family?
Dysfunctional families are families that have some form of unhealthy dynamic, such as frequent conflict, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, poor communication, and other challenges.
A dysfunctional family can be one in which one parent has a substance use disorder and is unable to care for the child or children, or offers them alcohol or other substances.
It may also be a family in which parents rely on their child for financial or emotional support.
Another example is when a parent is physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive toward a child or children, while the other parent defends and protects the abuser.
Finally, a dysfunctional family may be one in which a parent or parent neglects the wellbeing and development of their children to focus on their own life and problems. This can include things like forgetting to feed their kids, not offering emotional support to them, or even leaving them alone in dangerous situations.
What causes a dysfunctional family?
There can be a number of causes for dysfunction in a family. Some of the most common are things like:
- Untreated mental health conditions
- Childhood trauma for a parent or parents
- Substance use
- Socioeconomic status
- A lack of boundaries
- Conditional love
- Lack of intimacy
- A dominant parent
- Abusive behavior
How does a dysfunctional family affect a child?
There can be a number of effects on a child from a dysfunctional family. They may become depressed or anxious, have anger issues, demonstrate behavioral problems, mimic the problematic behavior (including substance abuse or physical abuse), and have ongoing identity issues. Often growing up in a dysfunctional family leads to a perpetuation of dysfunction in their own family.
How do you overcome a dysfunctional family?
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may experience feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or shame. One of the first steps in overcoming your past is to recognize patterns of abuse, and decide to take responsibility for your own life and actions. You may not be able to change your family or your upbringing, but you can work on yourself.
You may have to set boundaries with your family, some may even do this to the point of cutting them out of their life completely. In addition, it can be a good idea to meet with a therapist to identify any negative patterns of thought or behavior, and to learn positive coping skills and stress management techniques.
What are the side effects of a dysfunctional family?
Having a dysfunctional family can be harmful in a number of ways, and have a negative impact on the lives of the children. Some side effects of family dysfunction include:
- Low self-esteem
- Substance use
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Anger issues
- Difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships
- Personality disorders
- A belief that they do not deserve good things in life
How do you deal with a dysfunctional family?
Breaking dysfunctional patterns is possible. Family therapy can help to navigate some of the issues that underly family dysfunction. In cases of substance use, substance abuse treatment can be helpful in addressing the underlying issues that dysfunctional households may experience. In cases of physical violence or other forms of abuse, the best option is to get away from the abuser. In all of these cases, however, there needs to be both a recognition of dysfunction, and a willingness for change in someone with power. In some cases, children are unable to get away until they are older.
How do dysfunctional families start?
Dysfunction patterns can be self-perpetuating. Dysfunctional families very often grow out of other dysfunctional families. When a child grows up without the opportunity to become well-equipped with healthy coping mechanisms and has experienced unpredictability and fear during developmental years, they often contribute to dysfunction in their own children. Or in cases of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, in some cases (especially in those where they have never received help) a victim can go on to develop the tendency to visit this type of abuse on others.
Other factors may contribute, including substance use, poverty, medical need, mental health conditions, and any other number of challenges.
What happens when you grow up in a dysfunctional family?
Growing up in a dysfunctional household can be difficult, but there is no common answer to this question. It can depend on the individual, and on the types of emotional support they receive from others. There are a number of family roles that are filled by people who grow up in these situations, and these roles can have different effects. Most dysfunctional families experience at least one of the following:
- The black sheep or scapegoat. This is often a child who identifies problems within the family and speaks out. The other children or family members may distance themselves and play the blame game with this person, especially if they are in denial of any problems in their own family.
- The parentified child. They take on a caretaker role, or a spousal role in the family. They will often struggle with unhealthy relationship dynamics in adulthood, and often base their self-worth on the approval of others.
- The golden child. This is often the older child or the youngest child, and is considered to be the one who can do no wrong. They often grow up with attachment issues.
- The lost child. This child spends their life trying to go undetected, staying under the radar. This can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of invisibility as an adult.
- The enabler. This child will often attempt to maintain an appearance of normalcy within the family (although sometimes this person is the spouse). They support and affirm unhealthy behaviors. As an adult they may feel a strong responsibility to “fix” or help others.
What makes a dysfunctional family different from a healthy family?
A dysfunctional family is defined by a lack of healthy patterns and dynamics, while other families demonstrate more positive behaviors. Some general indicators of dysfunctional vs healthy families:
- Poor communication
- Neglect or overinvolvement
- Fear and uncertainty
- Open and appropriate communication
- A balanced sense of involvement
- A safe, stable environment
- Unconditional love
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