Dysfunctional Family: What It Is And What It’s Like To Grow Up In One
By: Kelly Spears
Updated May 06, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,
It seems almost everyone claims to be from a dysfunctional family. Sometimes, we blame our current problems on the family we grew up into the extent that we don't take responsibility for our actions. Other times, our past experiences with dysfunctional families can affect our behavior today. How do you know whether family dysfunction is a serious problem for you? You can start exploring this issue by learning more about dysfunction in families and the effects of growing up in the turmoil of a family that doesn't work.
What Is a Dysfunctional Family?
A good way to begin your journey of self-discovery is to learn the definition. How is a dysfunctional family defined? If you were or are a part of a dysfunctional family, define it in your terms first. Then, look to other definitions. The McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine defines the term 'dysfunctional family' as "a family with multiple 'internal' conflicts, e.g. sibling rivalries, parent-child conflicts, domestic violence, mental illness, single parenthood, or 'external' conflicts, e.g. alcohol or drug abuse, extramarital affairs, gambling, unemployment-influences that affect the basic needs of the family unit."
The main thing to remember about this definition is that there are multiple negative influences, and they affect basic needs. This is what separates families with minor dysfunction from those where family dysfunction is a serious problem. Below we'll discuss the most common influences that lead to family dysfunction.
Family History of Dysfunction
People tend to learn their parenting styles from their parents or other caregivers. If their parents abused them, they may abuse their children. Or, they may go overboard the other direction, being unnecessarily lenient. They may manipulate each other and their children as their parents did. They may not truly understand how to teach their children in healthy ways.
The good news for people who grew up in a dysfunctional family is that they can learn better ways of parenting. They can deal with the issues they still carry as adults and learn how to love, appreciate, respect, and deal with each other in a less emotional, erratic way. All they need is the willingness to do the work it takes to overcome those issues and find someone to teach them better ways to parent.
Physical illness alone does not cause family dysfunction. However, it can make life much harder for everyone concerned. Parents sometimes rely on their children to do things they would ordinarily do for themselves, causing them intense anxiety and sometimes depression. If one child is ill, the other children may feel neglected as you focus all your energy on helping that one child.
You may not have had any control over the illness that puts such strain on your family, but you can control your actions, learn to use the resources available to you, and meet your children's needs. Medical problems present a tremendous challenge, but with the right help, you can keep your family functioning well.
Biology plays a major role in many mental illnesses, but the behavior problems that are usually a part of psychological problems make family life much more challenging. People with untreated mental illness can cause discord in a family that would otherwise be highly functional. With treatment, people with mental illness can be great parents. They can contribute positively to their families and children.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. While low levels of stress can have a positive impact on people and push them to achieve their goals, excessive stress can jeopardize a family's security and wellbeing.
High levels of stress can lead to hostility within a family. Learning to deal with life's stressors in a healthy manner is essential to the happiness and wellbeing of the individual, as well as the family. When you model healthy coping strategies to your children, they learn how to function well even in dire circumstances.
Drug, alcohol, gambling, and other addictions can lead to codependency, with caretakers spending excessive amounts of time, energy, and other resources on the addicted individual. When an addiction is severe, it can drain a family's financial and emotional resources. Individuals with even the slightest mental health issues tend to become sicker when there is addiction present in the family-but even mentally healthy people have difficulty dealing with family addictions. While addiction can cause problems within a family, addictive behaviors are also used in an attempt to cope with dysfunctional family dynamics. People in a family that doesn't meet their needs may turn to alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling for temporary relief.
Perfectionist parents often put incredible pressure on their partners and children, not just to do their best, but to accomplish the impossible. Perfectionism is unrealistic and can be toxic to family life. Perfectionists' loved ones often feel like they're walking on eggshells. Children with perfectionist parents may lose their innate lighthearted spirit and find it difficult to learn. These children may lack self-esteem and feel incompetent, worthless, or generally inadequate.
Poor communication may be the single most telling characteristic of a dysfunctional family. Virtually any problem can be managed with open, honest, healthy communication. One common theme in dysfunctional families is the inability or unwillingness to listen to one another. In many cases, an individual will avoid direct communication with the person who has caused a problem, instead confiding in other family members in an effort to evade confrontation. Indirect communication can cause bitterness and passive-aggressive behavior. It can also result in a lack of trust within a family unit.
Lack of Empathy
When a parent lacks empathy, his or her children may feel that the parent's love is conditional. When a parent shows empathy, however, he or she models this trait to the child, which can help children become compassionate, empathetic adults. The unconditional love, empathy, and open communication present in healthy families helps parents work with their children in a constructive manner, even when the child makes a mistake or poor decision. In healthy families, parents are 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 parent's excessive need to control their children and/or the other parent. Taking a more relaxed, accepting approach encourages kids to do their best in every situation, rather than living to appease the controlling parent.
Lack of Privacy and Independence
Parents in dysfunctional families often lack trust in their children and tend to invade their privacy. While there are times when parents need to know what's going on with their children so they can respond appropriately, parents in a functional family utilize honest communication rather than room raids and harsh interrogations. Children in dysfunctional families often aren't given the opportunity to be themselves. They may be discouraged from making their own decisions, developing preferences that are different from their parents', or having friends their parents disapprove of. They're often expected to imitate their parents rather than develop unique personalities.
Criticism runs rampant in a dysfunctional family. Sometimes, the criticism is blatant, with parents chastising everything the child says or does. Other times, parents take a more subtle approach by using sarcasm, insults, or teasing in a sneaky attempt to say something negative without making themselves seem cruel.
Dysfunctional Family Roles
There are five common roles in a dysfunctional family:
- Enabler or Caretaker - This individual attempts to keep the family going despite the presence of addiction and/or other dysfunctions in the family. The enabler or caretaker protects troubled family members from others and the consequences of their behavior.
- Scapegoat or Troublemaker - This family member tends to be a rule breaker, both in society and within the family unit. The scapegoat or troublemaker may become sick or weak, or angry and rebellious. This individual's wellbeing is often sacrificed to maintain the family structure.
- Lost Child or Quiet One - This person is seemingly calm and collected, and makes a conscious effort to avoid causing trouble. The lost child spends the majority of his or her time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunctional ways. This individual tends to struggle with social skills more so than other members of the family, likely because they rarely practice interacting with others.
- Mascot - This individual alleviates tension within the family by utilizing humor or mischief in everyday life. The mascot is the 'fun' one, always on a mission to lighten the mood. Family members in this role tend to suffer when things slow down.
- The Hero - This person has an intense desire to succeed in life, which can lead to suffering from stress-related illnesses. The hero is typically a pro at covering up dysfunction within the family and making their parents look "normal."
Immediate Effects of Living in a Dysfunctional Family
When a child is living in a dysfunctional family, he or she may experience immediate effects, including:
- Social isolation or loneliness
- Development of behavioral disorders
- Being extremely self-critical
- Low self-esteem
- Development of mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression
- Difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings
When you live in a dysfunctional family as a child, your brain becomes wired to respond to stressors in unhealthy ways, but you have the ability to make permanent changes as an adult.
What Is It Like to Grow Up in a Healthy Family?
If you focused on the dysfunctional family quotes you see on the Internet, in the media, from the entertainment industry, and even in great literature, you might get the impression that there is no such thing as a healthy, functional family life. However, some families function very well, providing every member with what they need to live a peaceful and productive life.
So, what does a healthy family look like? Here are some of the characteristics that define it:
- People communicate freely and openly, but compassionately as well.
- Everyone's basic physical and emotional needs are met.
- Family members listen to one another and appreciate differing opinions.
- Conflicts are resolved directly, and family members don't hold grudges.
- Parents show unconditional love for each child, even when they don't approve of specific behaviors.
- Family members work together to reach mutual goals.
- Each family member is encouraged to develop preferences, interests, and a unique personality.
What Can You Do about a Dysfunctional Family You Were in As a Child?
To overcome a childhood marred by being in a dysfunctional family, you must start by healing those old, internal wounds. Talking with a therapist allows you to express your feelings about what happened in a safe environment that's entirely focused on helping you become mentally healthier.
You can learn and practice the skills no one taught you when you were a child. These might include communications skills, independence, empathetic listening, and skills that make it possible for you to handle problems directly. You can learn to be more comfortable in your skin, with your mind, body, and emotions, and with your own choices. You can grow more self-confident, self-accepting, and more self-assured. You can learn to feel more trust and safety in your home environment.
You might ask, 'Yes, but how can I learn all those things at my age?' The way you learn is to read self-help books, write in a journal, and most helpful of all; you can talk to someone who has been trained to teach people how to overcome the destructive influence of a dysfunctional family. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Alisha has let me view situations in another perspective. Like the stressful times I've gone (still going) through with my family and my work. I'm really grateful for her time to listen to what's on my mind and really making me comfortable to share so much with her. Thank you, Alisha!"
"It's refreshing being able to talk to someone who can help me break down situations that bring me anxiety and giving me tools to develop an inner conversation that will eventually help me de-escalate situations on my own. Peter is really easy to talk to, and has a way to simplify my words into something less intimidating. Thank you, Peter!"
Your past doesn't have to predict your future. You've gone through pain, but with the right tools, you can truly live the life you deserve. Take the first step today.