What is a Dysfunctional Family?

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dysfunctional family

The descriptor of “dysfunctional family” is used broadly without a clear definition.  The term dysfunction suggests that something is broken or clearly not functioning properly.  While there is a continuum of severity, dysfunctional implies there is consistent conflict and instability, and often even emotional abuse or neglect.  In dysfunctional families, there are generally several negative influencing factors, which significantly impact individual needs being met in a healthy way.

There is not a “prototype” of a dysfunctional family; however, there are some common characteristics, patterns and themes:

  • Perfectionism and excessive criticism – Conditions for love and acceptance are created based upon unrealistic outcomes and achievements. It can leave children feeling like “it’s never enough.”
  • Poor boundaries – Boundaries can be too strict or too loose.  When boundaries are too loose, patterns of enmeshment can be reinforced, blurring the emotional experiences of family members. One may easily “pick up” the feelings of another, diminishing their own emotional experience. Enmeshment between a parent and a child may result in over involvement in their lives, impacting the child’s ability to act independently and responsibly.
  • Disengagement – Parents are disconnected and uninvolved in their child’s lives, sending the message that they don’t “matter.”
  • Addiction – Dysfunctional families often have someone who experiences addiction, leading to chaotic or toxic behaviors and patterns
  • Aggressive behaviors – Conflict is addressed through aggressive behavior or violence
  • Lack of responsibility and accountability – Frequent habits of blaming occur
  • Poor communication skills – Unhealthy patterns of communicating such as disregard for others’ feelings, lack of empathy, not listening or feeling heard, manipulating, lying, accusing, etc.
  • Controlling behaviors – Parents have excessive need to control behaviors of children or spouse.
  • Abuse – All families who experience verbal, emotional, or physical abuse qualify as being dysfunctional.
  • Mental Illness – Mental health symptoms can be present at varying levels of severity.

In the world of psychology, the negative impact of being in a dysfunctional family can be wide ranging and long term. Family members can experience the following in chronic or acute form:

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  • Low self esteem
  • Questioning one’s sense of reality
  • Depression, anxiety or other mental health symptoms
  • People pleasing behaviors
  • Loneliness and social isolation
  • Fear and confusion
  • Excessive self criticism
  • Blaming self for family problems
  • Shame

These effects can contribute to maladaptive patterns of relating and establishing intimacy. Individuals often face difficulties trusting others and appropriately expressing their feelings.

Dysfunctional families do not demonstrate healthy patterns of love and affection. Parents often have difficulty appropriately dealing with their emotions. Therefore, children are not taught how to recognize, appreciate, acknowledge, and attend to their own feelings, particularly when they are negative or uncomfortable.  Children often become highly attuned to how their parents are responding, and subsequently feel like they are walking on eggshells trying to navigate through the parents’ emotional turmoil or detachment.  Family members’ emotional experiences and feelings are also not consistently acknowledged or validated.  If children do not learn that their feelings matter to their parents, they often begin to believe they don’t matter. Psychologically, this often leads to low self esteem and self worth, as well as feeling unloveable.

So, what happens in a healthy functioning family?

  • Appropriate boundaries are maintained
  • Members engage in emotional self regulation
  • Members treat each other with compassion, respect, and intimacy
  • There are healthy patterns of open communication, empathy, and validation
  • Individuals are given emotional space to develop their own personalities and ways of being
  • Members are loved unconditionally, without needs to perform or achieve in a certain way
  • Individuals take accountability and make amends when conflicts occur
  • There is healthy autonomy, independence, and room for members to thrive individually
  • An emotionally safe and supportive environment is practiced and promoted
  • Parents are attuned to their children and their emotional experiences
  • Openness to share feelings is encouraged
  • Structure and predictability is created so members are clear on expectations
  • A setting is provided for members to develop, mature, feel safe and become the best versions of themselves

There is Hope for Recovery

Recovering from dysfunctional family patterns is possible. Although it may require some hard work, we can empower ourselves by taking responsibility for our healing, health and happiness. Doing so with a healthcare professional through therapy is a common way to start the healing journey.

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.