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What Is A Dysfunctional Family & How To Break The Cycle

What Is A Dysfunctional Family | Examples | Types | Signs | Family roles | Effects on children | Effects on adult children | How to break the cycle

If you’ve ever seen TV shows like Modern Family or movies like Daddy’s Home, you’ve seen a dysfunctional family in action. The only problem is that Hollywood often trivializes these types of families and makes light of the situation. 

In real life, a dysfunctional family is no laughing matter. Families caught in the cycle of dysfunction often face serious abusive issues like alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. 

This type of environment can be toxic to children, and unfortunately, it never ends there. 

Children of dysfunctional families tend to carry on the cycle of dysfunction into their own lives and into their own families. 

parents fighting in front of kids in a dysfunctional family

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

A dysfunctional family is one that is mired in conflict, chaos, a lack of structure, or indifference so that the child’s physical and emotional needs cannot be met. Factors that can impair a family’s functioning include poor parenting, distressed or abusive environments, substance abuse, mental illness, chronic physical illness, and poor communication.

Life in a dysfunctional family is emotionally tumultuous. Relationships are typically tense. Abuse, neglect, and secrecy are common, and yelling or screaming are often the only means of communication. 

A healthy functional family, on the other hand, is one where family members nurture and support each other. Family members are close and have a sense of emotional well-being. 

Examples Of Dysfunctional Families

The term “dysfunctional family” is often tossed around when healthy families have a few missteps. 

For example, when parents sleep through the alarm, setting off a chain reaction that affects everyone in the house. This is not dysfunction—it’s just a bad day. True dysfunction is where chaos, abuse, and neglect are standard operating procedures. 

Some examples of dysfunctional families are:

  • In a two-parent household, the dad has a drinking problem. When he comes home drunk, he physically abuses anyone and everyone who gets in his way. The next morning, he reminds the family that what happens in their house stays in their house, and they should never tell anyone what goes on there. 
  • Both parents are addicted to drugs. The oldest child must routinely step up to help with the little ones. That child cleans the house, makes dinner for her siblings, and makes sure they do their homework every night.
  • A single mother treats her oldest child like a best friend and a confidant. The mother relies on this child for her emotional needs, and she doesn’t like it when the child goes out with and socializes with her own friends. 

Types Of Dysfunctional Families

All family dysfunctions are fueled differently. But researchers and psychologists have identified five types of dysfunctional families that do not permit healthy emotional and personality development in children​1​.

The Pathological Family

In pathological families, one or both parents abuse drugs or alcohol or suffer from mental illness, leaving them impaired and dysfunctional. A child of an addicted parent or abusive parent tends not to have their basic physical needs met, let alone their emotional needs. 

The family roles in these households are usually reversed. Children are more in charge of their own daily lives when their dysfunctional parents are unable to do so​2​

The Dominant-Submissive Family

Also known as an “authoritarian family”, a dominant-submissive family is ruled by a dictator parent, with no regard to the wishes or feelings of the other family members​3,4​.

The dominant parent is demanding but gives very little back in terms of love, support, and positive reinforcement. The children’s mistakes and shortcomings often have severe consequences, including yelling and spanking

In this type of home, it’s the parent’s way or the highway; there are no in-betweens.

The Chronic Conflict Family

In a chronically conflicted family, arguments and disputes are the norms. 

Families argue in harmful ways that leave wounds festering and result in extreme hostility in the family environment. 

Communication problems and the inability to resolve issues lead to feuds, fighting, resentment, and stress, causing havoc in the home.

The Chaotic Family 

In a chaotic family, also known as a severely-disturbed family, children are poorly looked after or protected because the parents are busy, non-present, or abusive. 

In these households, inconsistency is the only constant. Family rules and expectations are unclear, and parents frequently come and go (moving in and moving out of the home, or are incarcerated). 

When they are around, their parenting skills are sub-par or they are the ones harming the children. Children often experience abuse, neglect, or both​5​.

The Emotionally Detached Family

In an emotionally detached family, children are not privy to shows of affection and warmth from their parents. These are families that don’t talk about feelings. 

Typically parents are cold, distant, and emotionally unavailable. The kids learn to repress their own emotions. 

The absence of physical affection leaves children with feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem. 

This type of dysfunctional family is often associated with social or cultural background. This may be the least obvious and least studied dysfunctional type​6​.

Signs Of A Dysfunctional Family

No family is perfect; every family experiences its share of conflict, stress, and even pain from time to time. At the end of the day, however, love, respect, trust, support, and healthy communication are what get a healthy family through. 

Fighting between siblings or a spat between husband and wife is completely normal. However, if a family consistently exhibits the following signs, it could be signs of dysfunction. Here are some of the dysfunctional family characteristics.

  • Denial and secrecy
  • Poor communication 
  • A closed system (family members are afraid to speak up or seek help from outside sources) 
  • Poor/dysfunctional communication 
  • Rigid rules 
  • Restricted friendships and isolation
  • Verbal abuse or physical violence
  • Emotional abuse, blaming, or emotional neglect
  • Conflict and hostility
  • Role reversal (parentification)
  • Lack of empathy and respect
  • Unrealistic expectations of children
  • Failure to respect boundaries 
  • Stifled emotions and different opinions
  • Conditional love or love withdrawal
  • Using children for revenge
  • Lack of boundaries between parent and child

Dysfunctional Family Roles

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

Parents and children in dysfunctional families often adopt one of the following roles that keep the cycle of dysfunction going.

Enabler 

The family enabler (or caretaker) is the person who tries to keep the family going in the face of its dysfunction. The enabler protects troubled family members, covers-up dysfunctional behavior, and assumes responsibility for the problem parent so that the family doesn’t go into full-blown crisis mode day after day.

To keep the family peace, the enabler allows the dysfunctioning member to become worse. For example, the wife/mother may set up a rescue mission that allows her substance abuse husband to continue to get worse.

Usually, an enabler is a parent, but it can also be a child. Parentification takes place when the child is the enabler and takes on parental duties, such as household chores, cooking, or caring for younger siblings.

Scapegoat

The scapegoat (or troublemaker) is the child that is labeled the black sheep of the family. He or she is often blamed for the problems that occur within the family. The other children are often viewed as “the good children,” while this child is labeled as “bad” or “different.” In behavior akin to bullying, parents will often single out, leave out, and blame the child, making them feel like they don’t belong. 

The Lost Child 

Also known as the quiet one, this individual spends most of their time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunction. The quiet one often makes a conscious effort to avoid causing trouble. They fade into the background, which unfortunately leads to their needs being unmet and ignored. 

The Mascot

The mascot is essentially the comic relief or the family clown. They tend to use humor and mischief to alleviate tension or divert attention away from the family dysfunction. 

The Hero

Much like the caregiver or enabler, the family hero often assumes the responsibility for making the family look like its functioning normally. They are usually the only ones who understand what is happening in the family better than anyone else, but no matter how hard they try, the rest of the family refuses to listen.

The Mastermind

This child is the opportunist who gets what they want by using the family dysfunction to their advantage. 

Effects Of Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family

In order to thrive, children need to feel safe physically and emotionally. They need a supportive environment and caregivers who are attuned to their needs. 

In dysfunctional families, however, nothing is consistent, nothing feels safe, and children are doing anything but thriving. 

Children from dysfunctional families often go through their childhood feeling scared, unworthy, and ashamed.

As a result, they are far more likely to be withdrawn and socially isolated. They never have the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes, and they go through life with substandard decision-making skills. 

Moreover, they have a hard time trusting others; they become people pleasers (to their detriment), and they often fall short of communication and decision-making skills. 

Research has shown that dysfunctional family dynamics can cause children to miss developmental milestones and lead to learning deficits​7​.

Early childhood abuse and neglect (which are typical of dysfunctional families) can lead to structural changes in the brain, including:

  • Decreased volume in the prefrontal cortex
  • Damage to the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory
  • Overactivity in the amygdala – the brain’s fear center

As a result, those who grew up with family dysfunction tend to develop mental health issues such as:

  • Behavioral disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Borderline personality disorder

Symptoms of adults from dysfunctional families 

While growing up in a dysfunctional family certainly has immediate and sometimes severe consequences for the child, unfortunately, the fallout doesn’t end there. Children of dysfunctional families often spend their lives picking up the pieces as they grow up. 

Not only do they miss out on “being a kid,” but in the long run, the absence of those crucial early lessons (that most kids learn under normal circumstances) can also have severe negative effects on them. Adult children of dysfunctional families (ACDF) struggle with trust (in others and themselves) and self-esteem. Understandably, these deficits often tend to bleed into all areas of their lives. Difficulty forming healthy relationships and maintaining attachments are also common issues​8​.

These adults go on to become spouses and parents themselves. If they can’t break the cycle, they’ll end up repeating it with their own version of destructive behavior.  Not surprisingly, children from dysfunctional families go on to develop PTSD, anxiety, and depression9. Substance abuse is not uncommon either. One study found that as much as 97% of crack-cocaine-dependent patients10 in the study were products of a dysfunctional family. 31% of them also suffer from personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder while 21% show symptoms of affective disorders such as major depression.

How To Heal From A Dysfunctional Family & Break The Cycle

Before we proceed, it’s important to know that you cannot change others. If you’re a parent and you think you may be falling into the same dysfunctional family patterns, then the most you can do is to change your own behaviors. You cannot change your parents or their behaviors.

Seek Therapy 

To figure out how to deal with a dysfunctional family or how to heal from one, your way forward may lie in seeking therapy as an adult. By talking to a professional, you may finally have the latitude to process your past in a safe, judgment-free space. 

Moreover, by doing so with someone who is trained to help you, you may finally be able to break the cycle of neglect, abuse, or chaos for yourself. 

Family Therapy

A combination of individual therapy and family therapy for the entire family may also be beneficial in breaking the dysfunctional patterns 

Distance Yourself From Toxic Environment

When you’re trying to move forward, toxic parents or family members will relentlessly yank you back. By distancing yourself from the family that causes you pain, you may finally be able to make some progress. 

Build A New Support System 

You’ve probably heard the saying, “friends are the family you choose.” In this case, they can also be a lifeline. Instead of staying mired in the toxic cycle of dysfunction and dwelling on the past, nurture your friendships and seek comfort in a support system of your own making. 

Educate Yourself On Dysfunctional Families 

Education is always the key to progress, so your best chance of understanding your family’s dysfunction and your place in it is to educate yourself. Perhaps the most important outcome here will be that you finally learned that you are not to blame, you are worthy of love, and there is a way forward. 


References

  1. 1.
    Ubaidi BAA. Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family. J Fam Med Dis Prev. Published online September 30, 2017. doi:10.23937/2469-5793/1510059
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    Hooper LM, Wallace SA. Evaluating the Parentification Questionnaire: Psychometric Properties and Psychopathology Correlates. Contemp Fam Ther. Published online November 10, 2009:52-68. doi:10.1007/s10591-009-9103-9
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    Thompson A, Hollis C, Richards ? D. Authoritarian parenting attitudes as a risk for conduct problems. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online April 1, 2003:84-91. doi:10.1007/s00787-003-0324-4
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    Matejevic M, Todorovic J, Jovanovic AD. Patterns of Family Functioning and Dimensions of Parenting Style. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. Published online August 2014:431-437. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.05.075
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    RODRIGUEZ N, SMITH H, ZATZ MS. “YOUTH IS ENMESHED IN A HIGHLY DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY SYSTEM”: EXPLORING THE RELATIONSHIP AMONG DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES, PARENTAL INCARCERATION, AND JUVENILE COURT DECISION MAKING. Criminology. Published online February 2009:177-208. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2009.00142.x
  6. 6.
    Sturge-Apple ML, Davies PT, Winter MA, Cummings EM, Schermerhorn A. Interparental conflict and children’s school adjustment: The explanatory role of children’s internal representations of interparental and parent-child relationships. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2008:1678-1690. doi:10.1037/a0013857
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    Leiter J, Johnsen MC. Child Maltreatment and School Performance Declines: An Event-History                Analysis. American Educational Research Journal. Published online January 1997:563-589. doi:10.3102/00028312034003563
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    Wallace BC. Crack cocaine smokers as adult children of alcoholics: The dysfunctional family link. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Published online January 1990:89-100. doi:10.1016/0740-5472(90)90004-a

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