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Dysfunctional Family Examples, Roles, Types, Signs & Effects

A dysfunctional family is characterized by persistently negative, unhealthy, or abusive interactions that impair members’ well-being, often stemming from parental challenges like addiction or mental health issues. Dysfunctional family examples include constant conflict, addiction, abuse, mental disorders, and abandonment.

Six types of dysfunctional families are chaotic, conflict-driven, abusive, pathological, emotionally neglectful, and overprotective families, each with unique harmful dynamics. Members often adopt dysfunctional family roles like the scapegoat, golden child, lost child, mascot, enabler, or mastermind, perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction.

Adult children of dysfunctional families often experience low self-esteem, mental health issues, social withdrawal, and trust issues, and may perpetuate chaos in their own future families. Family dysfunction signs include conflict, emotional abuse, rigid rules, aggression, poor communication, and lack of empathy, among others.

Dysfunctional parents and their parenting styles are the primary cause, with types ranging from abusive and narcissistic to neglectful and emotionally immature. To overcome such upbringing, strategies include learning about dysfunctional dynamics, setting boundaries, building support systems, seeking therapy, and practicing self-care.

girl covers ears, parents fighting, examples dysfunctional family

What is a dysfunctional family?

A dysfunctional family is one in which the relationships and interactions among members are persistently negative, unhealthy, or abusive, leading to a toxic environment that impairs the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of its members. Conflict, misconduct, abuse, or neglect are typical dysfunctional family dynamics due to one or both parents. These parents cannot fulfill their family responsibilities due to inconsistent, unresponsive, or overly critical parenting or because of challenges such as addiction, mental health issues, or chronic physical illness.​1​

What are dysfunctional family examples?

Family dysfunction manifests in a wide variety of forms. Here are 5 dysfunctional family examples.

  1. Conflict: Constant family fighting between parents, between parents and children, or among siblings.
  2. Addiction: Parent addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, work, or being perfect.
  3. Abuse and neglect: Physical abuse or neglect, incest or sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect, or domestic violence.
  4. Mental disorders: Mentally ill parents.
  5. Abandonment: Parent abandoning the family.

What are dysfunctional family roles?

Dysfunction in families often occurs in a seemingly endless toxic family cycle, and everyone has a role to play. 

Parents and children in a problematic family often adopt one of the following 6 roles that keep the cycle of dysfunction going.​10​

  1. Scapegoat: The family’s black sheep is often blamed for the problems within the family. In behavior akin to bullying, parents will often single out, leave out, and blame the scapegoat as the problem child, making them feel like they don’t belong.
  2. Golden child: The good child is favored or idealized by one of both parents, often to an unhealthy degree. The golden child can do no wrong in the parents’ eyes and receives preferential treatment, less criticism, and more approval and validation than their siblings.
  3. Lost Child: The quiet child spends most of their time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunction. The lost child often makes a conscious effort to avoid causing trouble. They fade into the background, which unfortunately leads to their needs being unmet and ignored.
  4. Mascot child: The comic relief or the family clown uses humor and mischief to alleviate tension or divert attention away from the family dysfunction.
  5. Enabler: The enabler or caregiver protects troubled family members, covers up dysfunctional behavior, and assumes responsibility so that the family maintains the look of normalcy instead of a full-blown crisis day after day. The enabler allows the dysfunctional member to worsen to keep the family peace. Usually, an enabler is a parent, but it can also be a child. Parentification occurs when the child is the enabler and takes on parental duties, such as household chores, cooking, or caring for younger siblings.
  6. Mastermind: the opportunist gets what they want by using the family dysfunction to their advantage.
a family of 4 fighting, 6 types of dysfunction around them

What are the types of dysfunctional families?

There are 6 types of dysfunctional families.

Chaotic family

A chaotic family is a disturbed family in which children are poorly looked after or protected because the parents are busy or non-present. 

In a 2020 study conducted at the University of Auckland, researchers found that chaotic families had a high level of disorganization and confusion. Family chaos includes a lack of structure, order, and predictability in day-to-day activities and interactions.​2​

7 categories of adverse outcomes were identified in children and parents of chaotic households.

  1. Poorer cognitive and academic performance
  2. More behavioral, emotional, and social problems
  3. Delays in language and communication skills
  4. Reduced parenting, family, and household functioning
  5. Altered cortisol levels, heart rate variability, and higher inflammation
  6. Poor physical health, including increased weight, poor sleep quality, unhealthy diets, and developmental issues.
  7. Poor parent outcomes, including Impaired executive functioning, emotional eating, sleep problems, and higher depression.

Conflict-driven family

In a conflict-driven family, persistent and significant conflict is at the core of most interactions. This dysfunctional household is often marked by heated arguments, disputes, and potentially long-standing feuds. Family members tend to engage in behavior that exacerbates tensions, such as provoking each other or creating discord intentionally, creating a stressful atmosphere.​3​

A 2015 research published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology was a 3-wave longitudinal study with 295 participating families. The study revealed that frequent family conflicts were associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, conduct problems, and peer problems in teenagers by elevating their emotional insecurity about the family system.​4​

Abusive family

An abusive family is an environment where members, particularly children, are subjected to a pattern of abusive behaviors, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect.

In abusive family dynamics, there’s usually a dominant family member who uses an authoritarian parenting style and controls everyone else with no regard for the wishes or feelings of the other family members. The dominant parent is demanding but gives little back regarding love, support, and positive reinforcement. The children’s mistakes and shortcomings often have severe consequences, including yelling and spanking. It’s the parent’s way or the highway, leading to a submissive family situation where hiding abuse and keeping secrets is common.

A 2015 study published in Child Abuse & Neglect indicated that unhealthy family dynamics could lead to delinquency and psychological disorders, such as depression in children.​5​

Pathological family

A pathological family, or parentified family, is one where the roles of children and parents are reversed, and a child takes on the role of a caregiver for their parents or siblings. This situation often arises when a parent cannot fulfill their responsibilities due to sickness, mental health issues, or substance abuse. Children sacrifice their needs for nurturance, guidance, and protection to hold the family together.

In 2010,  a study using the Parentification questionnaire was published in Contemporary Family Therapy. This study found that parentification was associated with mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.​6​

Also See: Enmeshed Family

Emotionally neglectful family

In an emotionally neglectful family, parents are emotionally distant, unavailable, detached, and cold. They ignore the emotional needs of the children. These are families that don’t talk about feelings.

A 2013 meta-analysis study at Leiden University involving 59,406 participants found that emotional neglect was prevalent (18.4%).​7​

Emotionally neglected children are more likely to have depression and feelings of shame, according to a 2007 study by the Seattle Pacific University.​8​

Overprotective family

In an overprotective or helicopter family, parents are overly focused on their children’s lives, often micromanaging their affairs in excessive detail. Children are not allowed any independence or privacy.

A 2018 study at the University of Florence revealed that helicopter parenting was associated with difficulties in emotion regulation in children.​9​

What are the signs of a dysfunctional family?

Here are 15 signs of a dysfunctional family.

  1. Conflict and hostility
  2. Emotional abuse and blaming
  3. Rigid rules
  4. Stifled emotions and different opinions
  5. Aggression or physical violence
  6. Poor communication
  7. Lack of empathy and respect
  8. Failure to respect boundaries 
  9. Role reversal (parentification)
  10. Restricted friendships and isolation
  11. A closed system where family members are afraid to speak up or seek help from outside sources
  12. Denial and secrecy
  13. Unrealistic expectations of children
  14. Conditional love or love withdrawal
  15. Using children for revenge

What are the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family?

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have varying negative effects depending on the specific type of dysfunction. Here are 15 common effects in adult children of dysfunctional families (ACDF).​11​

  1. Low self-esteem
  2. Feelings of shame or unworthiness
  3. Emotional dysregulation
  4. Delayed development, especially in language and cognition
  5. Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD
  6. Personality disorders, such as narcissistic, antisocial, and borderline personality disorders
  7. Aggression and behavioral disorder
  8. Social withdrawal and isolation
  9. Lack of decision-making skills
  10. Trust issues
  11. People pleaser
  12. Missing out on “being a kid”
  13. Substance use
  14. Difficulty forming healthy relationships
  15. Becoming a dysfunctional parent when they have children

What disorder can a dysfunctional family cause?

A dysfunctional family is associated with multiple psychiatric disorders, according to a 2013 research published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, including anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depressive disorder, and conduct or oppositional defiant disorder.​12​Other studies found a correlation between dysfunctional upbringing and PTSD.​13​

What are the 3 rules of a dysfunctional family?

The 3 rules of a dysfunctional family are “Don’t speak. Don’t feel. Don’t trust.” 

Don’t speak: In a dysfunctional family, keeping secrets is often an unwritten rule that permeates various family dynamics. Children, in particular, may face threats of abandonment or punishment if these secrets are disclosed outside the family, reinforcing a culture of silence and fear. 

Don’t feel: Family members are discouraged from acknowledging their feelings, leading to a lack of emotional awareness and expression. This suppression of emotions creates an environment where emotional needs are ignored or invalidated.

Don’t trust: Healthy relationships require trust, but dysfunctional families often betray trust in harmful ways. Family members may lie, break promises, violate boundaries, or fail to protect each other. This creates an environment where people feel unsafe opening up or relying on one another. Children from such a family often find it hard to develop a sense of trust.

What are the causes of a dysfunctional family?

Parents and their parenting styles are the primary root cause of dysfunctional families. The following are the 18 types of dysfunctional parents who can create a bad family life for children.

  1. Abusive parents
  2. Toxic parents
  3. Narcissistic parents
  4. Authoritarian or overly strict parents
  5. Controlling parents
  6. Critical parents
  7. Reactive parents
  8. Helicopter parents
  9. Overprotective parents
  10. Gaslighting parents
  11. Manipulative parents
  12. Inconsistent parenting
  13. Permissive parents
  14. Neglectful parents
  15. Codependent parents
  16. Emotionally distant parents
  17. Emotionally Immature parents
  18. Constantly fighting parents

How to overcome growing up in a dysfunctional family

To overcome growing up in a dysfunctional family, tailored strategies are available for different family dynamics. This includes learning how to recover from authoritarian parenting, deal with toxic parents, handle narcissistic parents, and manage relationships with strict parents during teenage years

Here are 10 steps to guide you through this process:

  1. Learn about dysfunctional families: Understanding dysfunctional family dynamics can bring self-awareness and help you identify and address your family role.
  2. Set personal boundaries: Set and maintain clear boundaries to protect your emotional well-being and personal space.
  3. Distance yourself: If your boundaries are not respected, creating physical or emotional distance from your unstable family will be necessary for your safety and healing. 
  4. Build a support system: Actively seek out and nurture friendships and relationships outside your family to create a support system that offers comfort and understanding. Joining a support group is another option to receive support from others who have gone through similar experiences.
  5. Overcoming toxic relationships or habits: Recognize and decisively leave harmful or abusive relationships and seek help to overcome addiction or other harmful habits.
  6. Develop self-awareness: Mindfulness practices such as meditation can help you reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and understand how your family background has shaped you.
  7. Seek mental help: A professional therapist or counselor can provide you with personalized strategies and coping mechanisms to heal from the impacts of a dysfunctional upbringing.
  8. Practice self-care: Make your physical, emotional, and mental well-being a priority through healthy lifestyle habits and nourishing activities, such as exercising, healthy eating, and getting enough sleep.
  9. Re-evaluate your parenting: If you have children, be mindful of unhealthy patterns you may unconsciously perpetuate, and get help to be the best parent you can be.
  10. Consider family therapy: Family therapy can help address dysfunctional family patterns, resolve conflicts, improve communication, and foster healthier dynamics among family members.

How to fix a dysfunctional family

To fix a dysfunctional family, all family members must acknowledge the situation and work together to change. Acknowledgment goes beyond merely blaming the parents; it involves identifying and understanding the issue at hand. The whole family’s commitment to family therapy can help everyone identify underlying issues, improve communication, resolve conflicts, and change the hostile family environment. In addition, encourage each family member to seek individual therapy so that personal problems and traumas can be dealt with effectively.

The path to breaking the toxic family cycle requires commitment from all, willingness to change attitudes and behaviors, openness to outside input, and perseverance. Progress may feel slow, but in time, family bonds can grow stronger.


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    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *