What Is A Dysfunctional Family, And What Is It Like To Grow Up In One?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: The following article contains topics such as domestic violence, abuse, trauma, and other potentially triggering subjects. Read with discretion. 

Many issues that present themselves later in life may stem from childhood. One in seven children experiences trauma, which can have impacts into adulthood. Difficult or traumatizing experiences related to family dynamics can mean you grew up in a dysfunctional family. Start by exploring the traits of dysfunction and the effects of growing up in an unhealthy environment. 

Did You Grow Up In A Dysfunctional Family?

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

Dysfunctional families may look different from one another, as family dynamics can be complex. 

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 example, this may include:

  • Sibling rivalries 

  • Parent-child conflicts 

  • Domestic violence or abuse*  

  • Mental illness 

  • Single parenthood 

  • Alcohol or drug abuse

  • Extramarital affairs

  • Gambling addiction

  • Unemployment influences 

  • Financial concerns 

  • Other traumatic family occurrences 

Some families have minor dysfunction, while others have deeply rooted issues that become serious problems. Many factors can lead to dysfunctional family life, and each can occur 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 you were a child. These problems may have worsened as you aged and could still affect you in adulthood. 

Dysfunctional families tend to be unstable or have conflicts. The caregiver/s might be so focused on their worries and needs that they fail to meet those of the children. This behavior may lead to neglect, abuse, or conflict. 

Some children may feel lonely and develop low self-esteem and self-worth. They might experience physical or mental health problems as a result. Kids who grow up in these toxic environments often pick up survival mechanisms that they carry with them for years to come. 

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. For example, people may learn their parenting styles from their parents or caregivers. If one or both caregivers abuse them, they may abuse their children. 

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. They may not understand how to model healthy behaviors. 

Those who grew up in dysfunctional households can learn healthier techniques for parenting. They may deal with the issues they carry as adults and learn how to love, appreciate, respect, and treat others healthily. 

A willingness to do the work it takes to overcome those 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. 

Medical Problems

Physical illness alone may not cause family dysfunction. However, it may have impacts on the family unit. Parents might rely on their children to care for their health, which can cause anxiety and depression in their children. Additionally, if one child is ill and is not cared for, this may cause the children to grow up to invalidate their illnesses. 

You may not have had any control over the illness that put a strain on your family, but you can control your actions, learn to use the resources available to you, and meet your children’s needs. 

Mental Illness

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. 

Life Circumstances

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. 

High levels of stress could lead to hostility within a family. Learning to deal with 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, 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. 

Ineffective Communication

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. 

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.

Constant Criticism

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:

  1. Enabler or Caretaker: The individual may attempt to keep the family going despite the presence of addiction or other dysfunctions in the family.

  2. 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. 

  3. Lost Child: The lost child may spend most of their time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunctional ways. 

  4. 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.

  5. 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. 

Did You Grow Up In A Dysfunctional Family?

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.

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