A dysfunctional family is one that has problematic interactions that the family is attempting to ignore or mask. Each family member ends up playing an active role in continuing the dysfunction. Left unchecked, these patterns can impact the children in the family throughout their lives, including one day having their own dysfunctional families.
What Is a Dysfunctional Family?
According to the American Psychological Association, a dysfunctional family is “a family in which relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression.”1 This means that dysfunctional families include interactions that impact healthy communication, emotional safety, and sometimes physical safety. The classic example is family members being difficult around the holidays, but it can take more sinister forms involving frequent parent-child conflicts, rivalry, emotional abuse, and/or sibling abuse.
There are a variety of reasons that a family can become dysfunctional, but everyone in the family unit is negatively impacted by this dysfunction. However, the dysfunction particularly affects the children in the family because it negatively influences their understanding of healthy relationships and healthy families, which can result in children becoming emotionally neglected. This can ultimately lead to them growing up and having their own dysfunctional families.
Signs of a Dysfunctional Family
Dysfunctional families are caused by – and are the responsibility of – the parents, because they are the ones that hold the power and authority within the family. While this can sometimes be due to toxic parenting, sometimes the cause is more complicated and nuanced.
Here are several signs of a dysfunctional family:
Addiction is when a person struggles with alcohol or drug use. Addiction increases the chances of abuse, neglect, intimate partner violence, among other problematic interactions. Due to shame, stigma, functional impairment, or legal ramifications, this can create an environment of secrecy to cover up for the addict, which is a core component of dysfunctional families.
Abuse & Neglect
Abusive relationships are common in dysfunctional families. Abuse can look like one person intentionally harming another person, and neglect is when a person fails to adequately meet the needs of someone in their care. Similar to addiction, the shame, stigma, and legal ramifications of abuse also create an atmosphere of secrecy to keep this contained within the family.
Personality disorders are severe and long-term mental health diagnoses that impact behavior and functioning. This could include narcissistic parents, borderline parents, and OCPD parents, among others. The family system will tend to try to compensate for the negative impacts of the disorder, which often leads to dysfunctional family dynamics.
Emotional incest is when a parent heavily relies on a child for their emotional support, which is too large of a burden for a child to bear. This extreme dependence from the parent impacts all family members negatively, and the family will either stay in this place of being negatively affected or attempt to shift things to compensate – which often ends up being dysfunctional in a different way.
Toxic parenting can include various aspects, including unhealthy discipline, relational dynamics, and lack of clear parent-child boundaries. Because parents hold the authority and power within the family, toxic parenting can play a major contributing role in the development of dysfunctional family dynamics.
High-Conflict Home Environment
A high-conflict home environment includes frequent and intense arguments between parents or children, which may or may not include physical violence. This dynamic is dysfunctional within its own right. However, this tension can create a different form of dysfunction when a family replaces the fighting with dysfunctional dynamics instead.
Emotional manipulation is when one person sways another’s emotions in a way that only benefits the manipulator. This can take the form of gaslighting, triangulation<, and using guilt trips. Emotional manipulation contributes to dysfunction because it doesn’t allow space for each person’s needs, which can leave family members fighting to get their emotional needs recognized and met.
Roles in a Dysfunctional Family
Families operate like a system or a machine, which means that each family member plays a specific role that keeps the machine running. All of the roles have their own “script” to follow, and people adhering to these roles end up continuing the dysfunctional patterns.
Here are the most common roles that people can fall into in a dysfunctional family:
- Role 1, The Scapegoat: The person in the “scapegoat” role is the identified “problem” and is usually blamed for all the family’s issues, whether they are actually the problem or not. This role is typically (although not always) held by one of the children.
- Role 2, The Hero: This person is high-functioning enough that the family uses them to convince themselves there is “no issue” within the family. This person justifies the presence of “the scapegoat”, and carries the burden of presenting the facade of the family being functional.
- Role 3, The Mascot: This person plays the role of emotional “referee” by stepping in with humor and positivity to diffuse or distract from serious issues.
- Role 4, The Caretaker: This individual attempts to keep everyone in the family as calm and happy as possible, even if it covers up deeper issues and dysfunction. While this helps the family to operate on a daily basis, it ends up preventing the family from healing and functioning in a healthier way.
- Role 5, The Lost Child: This family member tries to “blend into the background” in order to avoid being involved in or creating conflict. This person is usually more of a “loner” and usually struggles with self-esteem.
- Role 6, The Golden Child: This is the child that the parent(s) project all of their positive qualities onto, which often makes this child the “favorite.” This child also adopts and lives out the parents’ moral codes.
Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family
Since the family is where a person learns to understand themselves, their world, and interactions with other people, growing up in a dysfunctional family can negatively impact all aspects of a person’s life. This can impact a person’s sense of self, create a warped sense of how relationships are supposed to look, and can make it difficult to function in normal daily activities
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have consequences like:2,3,4,5
- A disrupted sense of trust – in yourself, in others, in the world
- Difficulty dating and forming healthy relationships
- Increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse
- Increased risk for psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, panic, depression, among others
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty in maintaining employment
- Struggling to set and hold boundaries
- Feeling uncomfortable experiencing and managing emotions
- Increased risk of having their own dysfunctional family in the future
How to Deal With a Dysfunctional Family
Once you recognize that you’re in a dysfunctional family, it’s critical to make sure you’re taking care of your own emotional needs. It’s important to remember that while you’re doing introspective work, your family might not be doing that same work and may stay oblivious to the patterns you now cannot unsee.
When you’re noticing yourself getting emotionally dysregulated by different interactions, set a healthy boundary or use that situation to inform yourself of the boundaries that you need to set in the future.
Remember that you are one member within your family who was playing a certain role before you were aware of it. You can now choose to disengage from that role, which will impact everyone in the family (hopefully in a positive way). Focus on how to direct all your individual relationships with family members to being more healthy relationships, including focusing on good communication, having fun shared experiences, and being authentic with each other.
When to Go No Contact
While these are good reminders, sometimes it isn’t realistic or healthy to try to change the dynamic within a family. If there was dysfunction due to a past issue that has now corrected itself, acknowledgement and healing might be what is needed to change the dynamic. If the root source of the dysfunction is still active and present (such as ongoing chronic mental health concerns, ongoing emotional and physical safety concerns), changing the family dynamic will be hard, if not impossible.
If the dynamic within the family is not fixable and it is impacting you negatively, it could be time to consider leaving the family dynamic altogether. There are many options with this, including cutting off communication with your entire family, deciding to spend time one-on-one with family members you feel safe and comfortable with, and introducing limiting factors of spending time with family (such as having your own transportation to leave situations, limiting time spent, etc.).
Regardless of the level of interaction you choose, it’s important to remember that you are only one person within the family and you are not responsible for the dynamics of the whole – be gentle with yourself as much as possible.
How to Break the Cycle
The first step in breaking the cycle is to educate yourself on the signs and roles to look out for in dysfunctional families. The second step is holding yourself accountable to showing up differently than your parents and family.
Knowing the signs, being completely honest with yourself when you’re seeing them, and holding yourself accountable to addressing them when/if they come up are critical pieces in ensuring that you don’t end up making your own family dysfunctional.
How Therapy Can Help
If you are currently in a dysfunctional family dynamic, it can be helpful to go to family therapy to change the dynamics within the family. A majority of family therapy includes all the members of the family, so that the therapist can address these interactions and help correct them in real time.
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family and are wanting to make sure that those dynamics are no longer impacting your own functioning or your own family, it can also be helpful to go to individual therapy. You and your therapist will talk through these dynamics, process your memories and your understandings of family relationships. You will then work to “re-write” these understandings into something that is more helpful and healthy. Therapy works– whether it’s in an individual or in a family-setting. To find a therapist and get started, check out our therapist directory to find the right therapist for you.
It can be difficult to realize that you have grown up in a dysfunctional family, or that you are currently in one now. Remember that this cycle of dysfunction can be broken by becoming aware of the problem, working to address the dysfunction with professional help, and by taking time to heal.
For Further Reading
- SAMHSA Tools for Parents & Families
- Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families
- Band Back Together: Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families
- Families First Parenting Resources
- Books to read:
- It Didn’t Start with You by Mark Wolynn
- Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by Jon & Linda Friel
- Surviving the Toxic Family by Marina Williams