Dysfunctional Family: What It Is And What It’s Like To Grow Up In One

Updated November 22, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many issues that present themselves later in life tend to stem from childhood. Sometimes, we blame our current problems on the family we grew up in, even to the extent that we don’t take responsibility for our actions. Other times, our past experiences in a dysfunctional family can affect our behavior today. How can you tell whether your family was dysfunctional? You can 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 all look different from one another, especially because family units are so complex. 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.” Some families have minor dysfunction, while others have deeply rooted issues, and it becomes a serious problem. There are many factors that can lead to a dysfunctional family life, and each can occur to varying degrees.

What’s It Like To Grow Up In A Dysfunctional Family?

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may have faced issues since you were a child. These problems might have only worsened as you got older, and still affect you even in adulthood. Dysfunctional families tend to be unstable or have a lot of conflicts. The adults might be so focused on their own worries and needs that they fail to meet those of their children. This can lead to neglect. 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 harmful environments often pick up survival mechanisms that they carry with them for years to come. Of course, dysfunctional families can affect different people in a variety of ways and to varying degrees.

Family History Of Dysfunction

Dysfunctional family patterns may repeat themselves. For example, people tend to learn their parenting styles from their parents or other caregivers. If one or both parents abused them, they may abuse their children. Or, they may go overboard in the other direction, being unnecessarily lenient. Spouses 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 treat each other in a less emotional, erratic way. A willingness to do the work it takes to overcome those issues and find someone to teach them better ways to parent can help put an end to a dysfunctional family environment.

If you or a loved one is experiencing or has experienced relationship abuse, please seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is free and offers support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text “START” to 88788 or use the live chat option on the website at TheHotline.org. 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. 

Medical Problems

Physical illness alone does not cause family dysfunction. However, it can make life much harder for everyone. Parents sometimes rely on their children to do things they would ordinarily do for themselves, which can cause anxiety and depression. For example, if one child is ill, the other children may feel neglected as all the attention is on 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.

Mental Illness

Biology plays a major role in many mental illnesses, but the behavioral issues that can come along with them can make family life much more challenging. People with untreated mental illnesses, such as a personality disorder or depression, can cause discord in a family that would otherwise be highly functional. With treatment, people with mental illness can contribute positively to their families and children.

 

    Life Circumstances

    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 safety and well-being. 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 well-being 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.

    Addiction

    Drug, alcohol, gambling, and other addictions can lead to codependency, with caretakers spending excessive amounts of time, energy, and other resources on the individual who’s addicted. Sometimes children fill the role of caretaker. When an addiction is severe, it can drain a family’s financial and emotional resources, including the emotional resources of children living with a parent who’s addicted. A parent who is living with an untreated substance use disorder or other addiction may be emotionally unavailable to their children.

    Individuals with even the slightest mental health issues tend to become sicker when there is an addiction present in the family, but even people who are mentally healthy have difficulty coping 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. Those living in a family that doesn’t meet their needs may turn to alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling for temporary relief. However, these temporary positive feelings often only lead to more problems in the future. 

    Perfectionism

    Parents who are perfectionistic often put too much pressure on their partners and children, not just to do their best, but to accomplish the impossible. Perfectionism can lead to unrealistic expectations and be detrimental to family life. Loved ones of perfectionistic individuals 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.

    Ineffective Communication

    Poor communication may be the single most telling characteristic of a dysfunctional family. Problems can be managed with open, honest, healthy communication. One common theme in dysfunctional families is the inability or unwillingness to listen to one another. 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, their children may feel that the parent’s love is conditional. When a parent shows empathy, however, they model this trait to the child, which can help children become compassionate, empathetic adults. The unconditional love, empathy, and open communication present in healthy families help 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. When parents model empathy, children can learn, in return, ways to be empathetic towards everyone, including their parents, older and younger siblings, their own friends, and people whom they encounter as they grow into young adults.

    Excessive Attempts To Control

    Dysfunctional families are often characterized by a parent’s excessive need to control their children and/or the other parent. 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.

    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’re often expected to imitate their parents rather than develop unique personalities.

    Constant Criticism

    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. When criticism involves attempts to frighten, control, or isolate, it may be a sign of emotional abuse.

    Dysfunctional Family Roles

    There are five common roles in a dysfunctional family:

    1. Enabler or Caretaker – The individual attempts to keep the family going despite the presence of addiction and/or other dysfunctions in the family. 

    2. Scapegoat or Troublemaker – The scapegoat or troublemaker may become sick or weak, or angry and rebellious. This individual’s well-being is often sacrificed to maintain the family structure.

    3. Lost Child or Quiet One – The lost child tends to spend the majority of their time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunctional ways. 

    4. Mascot – This individual alleviates tension within the family by utilizing humor or mischief in everyday life. The mascot is the ‘fun’ one or the family clown, always on a mission to lighten the mood. 

    5. 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.” They may feel pressure to be the “golden child”—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 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 on a hopeful note, there are ways to develop healthier thoughts, feelings, and actions.

    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. After all, if that is all you’ve ever observed and are used to, it can be hard to believe that functional families can be a reality. However, healthy families do exist, and it is possible to move yourself and your loved ones closer to this reality. 

    So, what does a healthy family look like? Here are some of the characteristics of a healthy family environment:

    • People communicate freely and openly, but compassionately as well.

    • Everyone’s basic physical and emotional needs are met.

    • Parents show unconditional love for each child, even when they don’t approve of specific behaviors.

    • Through their words and actions, parents support children’s emotional growth.

    Online Therapy With BetterHelp

    Adult children of parents who displayed dysfunctional behavior can benefit from working with a therapist. To overcome a childhood affected by being in a dysfunctional family, healing those old, internal wounds can be a powerful step. You can connect with a therapist online through BetterHelp, a virtual counseling platform. 

    Talking with family constituents about your experience may only get you biased advice and could even worsen the existing issues. Speaking with a therapist allows you to express your feelings about what happened in a safe environment that’s focused on helping you become mentally healthier. You won’t have to worry about secrets being revealed or feelings being hurt. Instead, you can focus on your own healing and well-being. 

    The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

    Online therapy can be effective for treating a variety of mental health disorders and healing certain kinds of trauma. While many problems often arise from adverse childhood experiences, your mental health can be affected at any stage of life. One study showed how internet-delivered therapy successfully improved the severity of PTSD and other psychopathological symptoms. The same group of people also saw a reduction in co-morbid depression and anxiety, proving the efficacy of online therapy. 

    Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

    Counselor Reviews

    “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. 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!”

    The Takeaway

    Your past doesn’t have to predict your future. Although you may have gone through traumatic or dysfunctional experiences in childhood, with the right tools, you can heal and live a healthier life. Online therapy may help you reach your goals more quickly and productively but recovering from the past looks different for everyone. 

    For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

    Speak with a Licensed Therapist
    The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.