Defining a Dysfunctional Family

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
August 8, 2018

Throughout the years, numerous television shows have attempted to accurately portray the antics and nuances of dysfunctional families.  “All in the Family”, “Married with Children”, and “The Simpsons” are three examples of long-running sitcoms that depicted malfunctioning marriages, faulty parenting, and dysfunctional families.  These shows became wildly popular, as audiences could easily relate to the conflict and chaos that illuminated their screens on a weekly basis.  The vast majority of individuals can identify with at least some degree of dysfunction within their family systems.

dysfunctional family

Dysfunctional families are often categorized by turmoil, conflict, abuse, neglect, or faulty communication, which serves to negatively impact healthy functioning.  There are both internal and external factors that can negatively impact the optimal performance of family members.  Internal factors, such as sibling conflict, spousal discord, parent-child clashes, mental or physical illness, and addiction can all be destructive to the family unit.  Similarly, external factors, such as unemployment, financial stresses, extramarital affairs, or natural disasters can also be harmful to structure and functioning.  When these factors occur, the emotional and physical needs of family members become jeopardized and verbal expression becomes stunted.

There are several characteristics that are indicative of dysfunctional families, including communication difficulties, inadequate boundaries, excessive criticism and control, disrespect and mistrust, and inequitable treatment of members.  Poor communication is a hallmark of dysfunctional families, as individuals do not listen to each other, cannot handle conflict assertively, and fail to effectively verbalize thoughts and feelings.  Furthermore, imperfect communication leads to misinterpretation, confusion, and distrust.  Dysfunctional families have poor boundaries, as they are tolerant of mistreatment or abuse, cannot discern between acceptable or objectionable behaviors, and knowingly violate boundaries.  Dysfunctional families can display a lack of empathy and denial, resulting in overall disapproval and contempt towards others.  Finally, there is often unfair treatment between family members, as evident by sporadic implementation of rules or favoritism based on birth order, gender, or ability.

Flawed or unsuccessful parenting can lead to significant dysfunction within the family.  Parents can be controlling, intrusive, and overprotective, resulting in children feeling angry, incapable, and insufficient.  Physical, emotional, or verbal abuse can be utilized by a parent towards their child, or between spouses, causing children to feel anxious, vulnerable, and timid.  Parents can foster an environment of unpredictability and trepidation, causing children to live in a constant state of apprehension.  Parents can be distant, uninvolved, and fail to provide emotional support, causing children to feel abandoned and isolated.  Parents can have idealistic and unreasonable expectations, inevitably setting their children up for failure.  Furthermore, parents can show preferential treatment and favoritism, thus fostering conflict and jealousy amongst siblings along with feelings of inadequacy and hurt.

Children that are raised in dysfunctional families have a tendency to assume various roles or personality characteristics in an effort to accommodate fluctuations within the larger system.  Children can become high achieving in attempts to escape their environments, or can become “parentified” by assuming adult responsibilities.  Children can act out behaviorally, attempt to manipulate situations in their favor, or can become introverted and passive in response to the chaos and unpredictability of their lives.  Additionally, children may develop depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem, have difficulty maintaining healthy socialization patterns, or perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors into future relationships.

Unfortunately, individuals cannot choose the families that they are born into, or have the power and control to eliminate the level of dysfunction within them.  However, people can be empowered to heal from and learn how to effectively manage the dysfunction so that they can engage in healthy relationships and assume happy lifestyles.  If the Bunkers, Bundys, and Simpsons could successfully overcome their dysfunction, there is definitely hope for the rest of us.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

More For You