What is a dysfunctional family?

  Sunday, December 5, 2021
Contributed by Dr. Carrie Jackson

People grow up in all different types of families. From the outside looking in, it can be hard to really understand what is going on within a family, what their challenges are, and the good things about being in that family. You might have the idea that some of your friends, family, or coworkers have a perfect family life and grew up in a perfect family. In reality, most people have some type of dysfunction within their family. For some families, it may be more clear from the outside that there is the dysfunction there. For others, it may be more hidden where others can’t tell it is going on. 

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, it likely had an effect on how you grew up and your current relationships. Children are able to flourish when they grow up in stable, loving environments. Growing up in the opposite type of environment, one that is filled with dysfunction, can lead to instability, a need for validation, and other long standing challenges. Although growing up in a dysfunctional family can lead to issues, this doesn’t mean that you can’t come out of that relationship strong and resilient.

Within this article, you’ll find information on what it means to grow up in a dysfunctional family. Although there are similar signs between dysfunctional families, dysfunction can look different and present in many ways. And growing up in a dysfunctional family can have lasting effects on how you feel. But even if you did grow up in a dysfunctional family, that doesn’t mean that your past will always follow you. In reality, there are ways to recover from the life that you grew up with. The first step is just to become more aware of what the family you grew up in was like. By reading this article, you’ll be able to understand even more about your family and how you were raised.

What does it mean to be in a dysfunctional family?

A dysfunctional family quite literally means a family in which there is dysfunction, or where it is not functioning properly in the way that it should be. Thinking about the function of a family, we have families because they are there to support us and protect us from a variety of things. Functional families should support the growth and development of kids and teenagers. When a family is no longer having that as the function and is no longer supporting kids in their development, it becomes dysfunctional. A family that is dysfunctional does the exact opposite of what a family is functioning to do. A dysfunctional family is one that hinders the growth and development of kids and teenagers, often leading to changes that impact both the emotional and physical health of all involved.

Although dysfunctional families often have similar effects on those who are involved, there are many types of dysfunction that can lead to these outcomes. Sometimes the dysfunction is much more outwardly present, whereas in other cases it is hidden from those on the outside. Even when dysfunction is hidden, it can cause lasting impacts on each family member. Within the next section, you’ll learn about different types of dysfunction within families that can affect those within the family.

Types of Dysfunction

Addiction

All types of addiction (e.g., alcohol, gambling, drugs) can be a form of dysfunction within a family. As a child, you may not have realized that one of your family members was struggling with addiction because they were able to hide it from you so well. Instead, you may have seen some of the other consequences of addiction, such as an unavailable family member or one who seems absent. You may also have seen your family member change in their appearance quickly if they have been struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. 

When the problems with addiction are apparent, issues with trusting family members often develop. You may be unsure of if you can trust them if you find out that they have relapsed. And families in which addiction is present often develop into codependent relationships. The family member who isn’t struggling with addiction often feels that they are responsible for the health, wellbeing, and safety of the family member who is struggling with addiction. On the other hand, the family member that is struggling with addiction may feel dependent on the other person for their safety and sobriety. 

Altogether, these relationships can create a strong level of dysfunction for all who are involved. The lasting results can mean that family members often do not trust or rely on each other, while at the same time switching to becoming codependent at times of significant need. Kids who view their families struggling with addiction may also attribute much of their family members addiction to themselves. Kids often place the blame on themselves for how their parents are doing and what they are struggling with. This sense of guilt with kids can be very challenging and difficult to overcome.

Serious Mental Illness

Serious mental illness includes mental health disorders or illness that seriously debilitate someone’s functioning. Although many types of mental illness can lead to serious impacts on your functioning, most commonly, mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other personality disorders can have the most dire impacts on functioning. This is not to say that if someone has a mental health concern within their family, it automatically means that the family is dysfunctional. A serious mental illness can cause dysfunction within a family when it is not treated, or it continues to affect others within the family. For example, a parent with significant mood swings as a result of bipolar disorder may not be able to effectively care for their kids and their basic needs. Although serious mental illness can cause significant challenges within a family, they don’t have to go untreated. When you receive support for mental health concerns, it can lead to lasting positive impacts on you and your family. If you are curious about how to find a therapist or other types of support that may be helpful to you, here is how you can get started with finding a therapist. 

Family Conflict

Although all families have conflict, the ways in which families work through their conflict can be healthy or dysfunctional. Forms of unhealthy conflict involve verbal aggression (e.g., yelling, screaming) and physical aggression (e.g., hitting, kicking, physical intimidation tactics). Even arguing when it is significant and frequent can be unhealthy if kids witness it often. These types of conflict are unhealthy for so many reasons. First, when kids see this type of conflict, they learn that this is the way in which conflict and disagreements are handled. They learn that conflict is best handled by being aggressive towards each other, either verbally or physically. Additionally, although it often starts out as kids just viewing the conflict between their parents, it can lead to kids becoming involved in their parent’s disagreements and fights. 

Early exposure to significant family conflict, whether or not it includes physical aggression, can make children feel very unsafe and neglected. Children may develop feelings of guilt, lack of self-esteem, and a general belief that they lack worth within their family and without family. This type of dysfunction can also lead to the development of unhealthy attachment patterns in childhood that further go into adulthood. 

Lack of Emotional Connection

Families who handle emotions in a challenging way can lead to dysfunction in the form of excessive conflict. At the other end of the spectrum are families who do not have or show any emotions. In families where there is a lack of emotional connection, they often hide their emotions from each other and make it clear that emotions are not allowed within the family. In these circumstances also, parents may not show their emotions outwardly to their children, sending the signal that emotions are not okay to talk about. Parents may shut down their children’s emotions or avoid difficult discussions about emotions and challenges. This type of lack of emotional connection has been described in some circumstances as those with an avoidant attachment. People with avoidant attachments value their independence and prefer it over close relationships with emotional intimacy. Relationships in which someone has an avoidant attachment can feel like you are walking on eggshells. When you do bring up concerns, your concerns may be dismissed or looked down upon.

Because of this type of dynamic, it can lead to a lot of passive aggressive conflict within the family. This passive aggressiveness may look like withholding love and affection, avoiding discussing important topics, or stonewalling within relationships. Stonewalling has been described by relationship expert Dr. John Gottman as one of the most dangerous ways of communicating within a relationship because it can lead to such dire consequences and the ending of relationships. To learn even more about stonewalling and how it can affect relationships, look into this article here.

Abuse and Neglect

Families in which there is abuse (e.g., physical, sexual) or neglect is another type of dysfunctional family. Although abuse may occur outside of family relationships, it is most common for abuse and neglect to be perpetrated by a family member or someone that knows the child. Because of this, unfortunately many kids may grow up believing that this type of behavior is normal. When experiencing physical abuse or neglect, children learn that they may have to accept this type of behavior in other relationships as well, such as adult relationships or relationships with romantic partners. 

Abuse and neglectful relationships are dysfunctional for many reasons. It is common that abuse is used as a parent or caregiver’s response to a child’s behavior or something that an adult does not agree with. That being said, there is never an okay reason for adults to use abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, abuse and neglect is a common reality for many children growing up. In fact, as many as 1 in 7 children will experience some type of abuse or neglect throughout their life. Abuse and neglect can lead to lasting traumatic effects in how children react and respond. Traumatic stress reactions can include fear of attachment or family figure, anxiety in response to feared situations, and hyper vigilance in certain situations.

Overly Strict Parents

While most people know or have experienced strict parents, there are others who have lived in a dysfunctional family with parents who were overly strict and controlling. Parents are there to be able to help kids develop and to provide some space for them to make their own decisions. However, some parents may be overly strict in the way that they parent to the point that it becomes controlling. When controlling behavior, parents may use either psychological control of behavioral control to take control of their kids. Psychological control refers to using shame, control, and guilt in order to change how your children feel or behave. Behavioral control refers to monitoring and physically controlling each aspect of your child’s life. While it is expected that most parents will control some parts of their kids lives, control should never be used to the point where it is restrictive and impairing a child’s normal and healthy development. 

Signs of a Dysfunctional Family

Although many families may have some level of dysfunction within them, it is important to be able to spot the warning signs which may lead to even worse dysfunction down the road. Aside from clear signs of dysfunctional families such as addiction and abuse and neglect, there are some other common warning signs that may signal dysfunction is occurring within the family. These types of warning signs can be helpful to identify in order to help yourself or others realize the true extent of the dysfunction they’re experiencing. 

Making belittling comments disguised as jokes

Within a family, family members may occasionally poke fun at others within the family. However, when these jokes and comments become directly aimed at something that makes you insecure or affects your overall well being, this may be a sign of underlying abuse or neglect that may occur. If you do express that you are unhappy with how they are making these comments and you bring it up to them, it is worse if they also tell you that these comments are actually jokes and you should not be offended by them. 

Making love conditional

In a family relationship, withholding love or only sharing love with someone based on their actions is a sign of dysfunction. Similar to stonewalling, making love conditional means that certain behaviors are not acceptable and not worthy of love. When someone makes their love conditional, this means that they withdraw love when they feel like it. This is important to note that it is different than setting boundaries with someone. Even when you set boundaries with someone, you still maintain that you love them. If this is the case, it may be the sign that emotional abuse is occurring within a relationship or family.

Lack of communication

A lack of communication means that family members do not communicate clearly and directly with each other. This may look like an inability to have direct conversations or family members not being open and honest with each other. When there is a lack of communication among family members or when certain things are hidden from other family members, it may be the sign that there is something bigger going on. For example, a family member that is not always present may be hiding a drug addiction or other type of addiction. Or, if a family member is not communicating, it may be signaling emotional abuse or stonewalling.

Shaming and guilt-tripping behaviors

Shaming someone means that someone makes you feel poorly for something you have done with the intent of making you feel bad and hurting your feelings. When someone shames a behavior or makes you feel guilty for something you are doing, this may be a sign of dysfunction within a family. For example, if you get into trouble for doing something and are constantly criticized for your behavior or reminded of what you did wrong in a situation, that is considered shaming behavior. When this happens, it may feel critical and can lead to intense conflict within families.

Lacking boundaries in relationships

Boundaries are physical or emotional spaces that separate you from another person. People can use boundaries to assert what they are or aren’t comfortable with. When families do not hold any boundaries, they can become enmeshed. This means that others feel responsible for the emotions of others within the family and have trouble separating their needs from others. When this happens, it often means that there are more chances for codependency within a relationship.

It’s important to spot the warning signs of a dysfunctional family early on. When you do identify that you are in a dysfunctional family, you are better able to manage it and react to its effects. The effects of a dysfunctional family can be long lasting. In the next section, we will discuss how being in a dysfunctional family can effect your wellbeing.

Effects of a Dysfunctional Family

Being in a dysfunctional family can feel horrible at the time and it can make things harder as an adult too. Although nobody responds the same to experiencing dysfunction, there are some common outcomes that can happen for those who have been in a dysfunctional family. Some of these difficulties may present during childhood while others may not become apparent until adulthood. Within the next section, we will discuss common effects of being in a dysfunctional family. 

Difficulties forming a secure attachment to others

When you are brought up in a family in which boundaries are unclear or love is conditional, your view of relationships can become warped. As a child and an adult, this may lead you to form unhealthy relationships with others or those with insecure, anxious, or avoidant attachment styles. Having one of these attachment styles can make relationships much more challenging. If you develop an attachment style that is not secure, you may find that your relationships are volatile, unstable, and full of many changes. Having an insecure attachment style makes it hard to form lasting relationships and can make your current relationships less satisfying.

Post traumatic stress

Although not everyone who has experienced abuse and neglect goes on to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), some people can go on to develop this mental health disorder. This mental health disorder develops in response to a trauma that was experienced and involves a variety of symptoms that affect your overall day to day life. Some of the hallmarks of PTSD include feelings like you are re-experiencing the disorder, avoidance of people or reminders of trauma, and increased arousal in situations where you are reminded of the trauma. For those who experienced abuse or neglect within your family, this may mean that you avoid your family and have panic attacks when you are reminded of where the abuse took place. PTSD is a serious mental health disorder but you don’t have to struggle with it alone. Support and therapy is available if you are experiencing it.

Anxiety and stress

Anxiety and stress are two common reactions to growing up in a dysfunctional family. Anxiety refers to fear of uncertainty or specific situations. Anxiety can be experienced in response to many situations or only one situation. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life where they may have worries about the past or future. Anxiety and stress can become a mental health disorder when they are impacting your overall daily functioning. Even if being in a dysfunctional family doesn’t lead to a mental health disorder, it may still lead to increased anxiety and stress. For example, someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family may experience anxiety and stress when they are around their family due to past challenges with them. Additionally, someone with a dysfunctional family may experience anxiety or stress when they have to communicate with their family or express their needs. Their anxiety and stress likely is a result of past negative experiences around their family. Even if anxiety is not present when around their family, it can also cause anxiety around situations that remind them of their family.

Depression and Sadness

Feeling sad and depressed can also be effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Often, dysfunctional families can lead to people feeling lonely because they feel like those closest to them do not understand them or care for them. When this happens, you may find yourself starting to withdraw and feeling less like yourself. Some common signs of depression and sadness are feeling less motivated to do things you normally enjoy doing, losing contact with friends and family because you are retreating and isolating yourself, changes in your appetite or sleep, and feeling overwhelmingly sad or feeling nothing at all. While these changes can come on gradually, if you start to notice them, there is help available. In the next section of this article, you will learn about what you can do if you start to notice any of these signs. 

More difficulties in relationships

Even when problems with relationships start early on through your dysfunctional family, these problems can persist into adulthood. Often times, people who had dysfunctional families of origin find themselves in less satisfying relationships throughout their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. They may experience more conflict and have more difficulties expressing their needs in these relationships. The reason why people who had dysfunctional families growing up go on to have more difficulties in relationships is because they have learned a pattern for how relationships should be. Whether or not it was intentional, they have learned what to expect in relationships, how to handle conflict and disagreements, and how to present themselves in relationships. Because of this, they have an unhealthy narrative for how they should form and maintain relationships. It can be hard to break out of these patterns when they are things you have seen for much of your life. With the right type of support, you can change the patterns you are experiencing to live a happier life. 

Healing From a Dysfunctional Family

Now that you know how much of an impact growing up in a dysfunctional family can have on your emotional wellbeing and mental health, it’s important to recognize if you are ready to start healing from growing up in a dysfunctional family. If you have recognized that you grew up in a dysfunctional family based on any of the signs or types of dysfunctional family in this article, you likely have enough awareness that your family life was abnormal as a child. If you are unsure of if your family life has affected you, you may want to consider options for support in figuring out if your family life did affect you.

Therapy

Try Online Therapy with JournalOwl

Trying therapy, whether it is online or in-person, is a great way to get started with finding out whether or not your past dysfunctional family has had an effect on your mental health. A therapist can help you heal from your dysfunctional family in many ways. First, a therapist can help you with awareness surrounding your family and how it has affected you in the present moment. Once you have gained even more awareness on how your dysfunctional family has affected you, the next step is to heal from the ways in which it has affected you. Oftentimes, therapists can help you in managing the stress that has developed as a result of your dysfunctional family. Your therapist may give you coping skills or ways of responding to challenging events to help you better manage your anxiety, depression, trauma, and stress.

Speaking to a therapist can be helpful because they are a trained professional who is impartial and objective about your life. However, it can be hard to take the first leap of faith into seeing a therapist. It can feel scary to open up to someone about your past because you may have avoided talking about your past for so long. You may wonder if it will even be helpful if you start therapy with someone new because you feel like you have been doing fine so far. It is normal to have these concerns and worries that you have about starting therapy. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, nothing will really change. In the end, it’s best to try something new out with a therapist.

To get started with a therapist, you want to find someone who has experience with dysfunctional family relationships or past childhood trauma. There are so many options for seeing therapists now because of online therapy being available. Online therapy means that you can see a professional virtually anywhere within your state. In some cases, therapists are even licensed across multiple states and so you may have a greater variety of therapists to choose from with online therapy. Finding a therapist is really difficult to get started with. If you know that you are now ready to start with seeing a therapist, here is a guide we have written that shows you how to find a therapist in your area.

Developing Healthy Relationships

Given that people with dysfunctional family relationships often have trouble with developing positive friendships and romantic relationships, part of healing from a past dysfunctional family involves creating healthy relationships within your life. In order to develop healthy relationships with friends or romantic partners, the first step is to choose partners who are emotionally healthy and are not dysfunctional. How do you go about with finding a partner that is emotionally healthy? When getting to know someone, you can start to see if they have any red flags or warning signs from your own past family. Notice how you feel when you are around them. Do you typically feel happier being around them or do you feel more drained after spending time with them? Friendships and romantic relationships should be reciprocated where each person is putting in some amount of effort into the relationship. If you notice that there are any warning signs in these friendships, it’s important that you choose whether or not to invest your energy into them.

When developing new relationships, you also want to be sure that you are expressing your needs within the relationship. People who grew up within dysfunctional relationships often begin to feel that their needs don’t matter and that they have to take care of others needs instead of their own. To express your needs, the first step is to recognize that if someone is not okay with the boundaries you are setting and needs you are expressing, this does not mean that you shouldn’t set them. Instead, it really means that they are not the best fit in a relationship with you because they are unable to meet your needs effectively. 

So how do you actually go about expressing your needs? People who have trouble with expressing their needs often fear that when they do express their needs, it will come across as very accusatory or offensive to the person the need is being expressed to. To communicate effectively, it’s helpful if you keep the focus on what you need within the relationship instead of what the other person is doing. For example, if you feel better with having communication daily from a romantic partner, you can express this to them in several ways. A less healthy way of expressing the need would be to say, “You don’t text me everyday.” A more helpful way of communicating would be to say, “It makes me feel safe and secure when I hear from you everyday.” This communication style is effective because not only does it make it clear what you need from them, but it also keeps the focus on your needs and comes across neutral.

Set Boundaries with Your Family

You get to decide how much contact you have and continue to have with your family. For some people, it may be healthiest if there is no continued contact with your past dysfunctional family. For other people, it may be most helpful if you maintain some level of contact with your family or only certain people within the family. There is no right way to decide what your ideal relationship is with your family. It is only important that you are the one who chooses what type of relationship you have with your family.

A big piece of deciding what type of relationship to have with your family may depend on how much healing both you and your family have done. Have your family members put in effort to make positive changes in how they interact with you? And have they been able to heal from the dysfunction that led to their past situation? If so, it may be worth exploring how much of a relationship with them you can have. It’s important that you set boundaries with family members for what you can and can’t allow in your relationships with them. Setting boundaries with your family may mean not seeing them or talking to them too much, not accepting certain behavior from them, or not interacting them in certain situations such as holidays.

Develop Behaviors and an Identity Along with your Values

Dysfunctional family relationships can lead to you feeling like your identity is completely tied to your family. This is especially true if you became enmeshed in your family and had a hard time separating your identity and needs from your family’s identity and needs. To develop your own identity, the first thing that you want to do is to create a list of values that are important to who you are and what fulfills you. A value is considered a core principle or way of viewing your life that is important to you. Create a list of ten values that are the most important to you as a way to understand what values in your life can guide you. After you have created a list of these values, find ways that you can live according to these values with behaviors that align with them. For example, if one of your values is nature, you may want to spend time outside two times a week doing an outdoor activity such as hiking or rock climbing. The more that you are able to develop behaviors that align with your specific values, the happier you will be and the more aligned you will be with yourself. Having good values and living according to your values will also prevent you from developing unhealthy relationships.

Healing is a Journey

Healing from a dysfunctional family is not something that can happen overnight. Patterns of behavior and the impact of your past dysfunctional family were developed throughout your childhood and adolescence and have become engrained in who you are as a person. Because they took so long to develop, they are going to take some time to recover from. Healing from anything is never a linear journey. You may have days, weeks, or even months where you are feeling great followed by other times where you are feeling worse. It’s important to know that this is normal and anytime that you are making progress in your healing is a sign of growth. Starting to read this article and taking the steps to understand yourself is the first step to starting your progress on your healing journey.

About Dr. Carrie Jackson

Dr. Carrie Jackson is a contributor of JournalOwl. Her primary interests are to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents, providing specific information to parents and individuals with ADHD.

Carrie is a graduate of West Virginia University with a doctoral degree in Psychology, and a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology. Carrie has worked as a therapist and evaluator at several children’s hospitals, providing care and treatment to clients with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety. She has also worked with children with chronic medical conditions, providing supportive mental health care to children with cancer and burn survivors. 

Although originally from South Carolina, Carrie has lived in two countries and four states. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and trying new recipes.

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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