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Dysfunctional Family – Characteristics and Effects

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Rashmi Prakash (Psychologist/Psychotherapist)
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Every person who grows up in a family knows that each one has its own dynamics. The formative years of a child’s life, and the environment in which he grows up, has a direct impact on how he functions as an individual.


What Is a Dysfunctional Family?

A family is dysfunctional when conflict, neglect, and misbehaviour are constant and everlasting. Modern psychology defines dysfunctional families as those with anxious systems within them. There is a tremendous amount of emotional disturbance within the family members, and it sometimes means that it is coupled with child neglect and abuse. Children from dysfunctional families assume that this situation is normal, as they are exposed to that environment regularly, and do not know the different aspects of dealing with a dysfunctional family.

A functional family, on the other hand, encourages all family members to attain optimal growth, and provides a safe space for emotional well-being.


Relationships Between Dysfunctional Family Members

In a dysfunctional family, there is often apathy, child abuse, and neglect involved to some degree. Children who come from dysfunctional families often have low self-confidence or low self-esteem, and grow up thinking that such behaviour is normal. Dysfunctional families have adverse effects on child development.


In a functional family, there is mutual respect between family members, and everyone has each other’s back. In dysfunctional families, there is tension and mistrust among the parents and children. Also, the authority of the parents in the family is often misguided and without accountability. Even among adults, there is a certain level of mistrust and resentment. The family members do not create a safe surrounding for a child to grow. There is underlying fear and hurt constantly while growing up. Also, dysfunctional families do not value apologies, and do not allow for emotions to be expressed reasonably.


Reasons for Dysfunctionality in a Family

No family is perfect, and you do not get to choose the family you are born into or are raised in. There are many reasons, both external and internal, that lead to dysfunctional families. Here are some traits of a dysfunctional family:


1. Finances

If a family is undergoing or has been in exceptionally poor financial situations, then it puts extra pressure on the mental health of the adults. This pressure could easily turn into toxic stress, which leads to more dysfunctional behaviour within the family members. As soon as the family is facing money issues, the parents get anxious, and it leads to cracks in the family structure, thereby leading to fights and disharmony.


2. Family History of Dysfunction

If, for many generations, there has been a history of family dysfunction, and at least one parent’s dynamics with their own parents is also dysfunctional, then the cycle remains unbroken. All the family members exhibit characteristics of someone raised in a dysfunctional family.

3. Violence

A history of violence – either physical, emotional, or sexual – leads to fear, destructive behaviour, and violence between the parents and towards the children.


4. Overly Religious Belief Systems

If a family has strong religious beliefs, with no room for conversation, debate, or explanations, it can lead to the parents trying to enforce the same set of beliefs on their children. Parents might become strict without reason or purely on the basis of their fundamental opinion, and this can lead to dysfunctionality.

5. Authority

A reason for a dysfunctional family could be parents getting pushy, aggressively authoritative, and tyrannical in their behaviour; this leads to over possessiveness and dislike amongst members.


Signs You Were Raised in a Dysfunctional Family

Often, it may become difficult to deduce if you come from a dysfunctional family, but here are some signs you can check for the same:

1. You are a people-pleaser.

If you find yourself constantly trying to say yes to people and do anything in your power to please them, then it could be a sign that you are from a dysfunctional family. If you are nice for the sake of being nice, and sacrifice personal needs to make others happy, it may be a sign. This is because as a child, you might have been made to believe that you will be abandoned.


2. You are a Type A person.

If you crave perfection in everything you do, it may be because you are afraid of failure, which may be a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family.

3. You are constantly guilty.

As an adult, if you feel guilty for other people’s situations or behaviour, neither of which are under your control, then it may be a sign. You feel guilty when people feel upset, even if you are in no way responsible for it.


4. You lack communication skills.

If you do not know how to communicate emotions in a healthy way with friends and family, and you tend to shut down and not address them, then chances are, you have been in a dysfunctional family.

5. You feel responsible for others.

When others make their own decisions, and you are not accountable for them, you still feel a sense of responsibility for what has transpired, especially when the situation is bad.


6. You are hard on yourself.

No matter what you do or achieve, you are your harshest critic, and you always criticise yourself first. You think that anything that goes wrong is inevitably your fault in some way.

7. You have high levels of anxiety.

Even when it’s all smooth sailing, you are always worried that something will go wrong, leading to a high level of anxiety. Consequently, you are never able to enjoy yourself.


8. You feel isolated and empty.

As a result of constant isolation or lack of emotional support as a child, you feel unfulfilled and empty. You constantly seek affection, and you are afraid to be alone.

9. You are frustrated.

No matter how good your life is, you can always pinpoint something that is wrong, and you are dissatisfied. You feel like your efforts go unappreciated all the time.

10. You feel anguish.

A feeling of hopelessness and anguish exists in your everyday life, despite no dire circumstances. You have negative thoughts, and look at life from a pessimistic perspective.

Common Characteristics of Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional families have several characteristics in common, which showcase the unfortunate dynamics between family members, and their attitude towards each other.


This is what it looks like to be in a dysfunctional family:

1. Lack of communication

Members of a dysfunctional family do not know how to openly communicate with one another, and often have serious communication problems. They sweep issues under the carpet, and never discuss them. They do not create a healthy environment for discussions, and often shout or have screaming fights. Family members do not listen to each other, and usually resort to other ways of communication.


2. Lacking Empathy

In a family which is dysfunctional, there is no empathy, or very little of it. Children will end up feeling bad about themselves. There is no unconditional love, and issues are always subjected to behaviour corrections, even when it’s not necessary or the child has made only a small mistake. There is no room for error, which creates a claustrophobic environment, which leads to a constant fear of failure in children.

3. Prone to Addiction

Children who have witnessed their parents being addicted to drugs, smoking or alcohol, often as adults end up using such substances to cope with life.


4. Mental Issues

Children who grow up watching adults around them suffering from mental illnesses and personality disorders often do not know how to cope or behave like adults. They also have a tendency to suffer from the same illnesses, due to a genetic predisposition.

5. Controlling Behaviour

Sometimes, when parents exert excessive control in their children’s lives, stifling their ability to grow, they also end up not encouraging good behaviour. This kind of control can lead to self-doubt in children when it comes to their abilities, and also creates trust issues.

6. Perfectionism

Parents often end up putting pressure on their kids to perform, and when that pressure becomes excessive, it leads to dysfunctional behaviour in them. Fear of failure is triggered, and the children inevitably grow up to be perfectionists.

7. Criticism

Children growing up in a dysfunctional family are constantly criticised for their abilities – or lack of them – and are berated for all their actions. Parents are often condescending, patronising, and mean, instilling a sense of helplessness and lack of belief in the child, leading to low self-esteem.


8. Lack of Independence and Privacy

Parents may constantly invade a child’s privacy, and smother them to ensure that they have zero independence when it comes to decisions in a dysfunctional family. They need to check at all times what the kids are doing, and do not have honest communication or rules about it.

9. No Emotional Support

There is no room for emotions or support for members of a dysfunctional family. There is no safe space provided for children to express their emotions clearly and in a positive manner. Kids often grow up lonely or isolated from their parents in this situation.

10. Violence and Abuse

Parents in a dysfunctional family may resort to abuse of the child. There may be signs of verbal, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in children who come from dysfunctional families. Children observe this as normal, and showcase the same behaviour as adults later.

Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can largely have negative effects on the children in the family. Mistrust, anxiety, despise, and other negative emotions lead to the making of a very insecure adult.

Certain common behaviour patterns can be observed in people who come from a dysfunctional family, such as:

  1. They have a bad image of themselves, and they suffer from low self-confidence and self-esteem.
  2. They find it difficult to form healthy adult relationships, and are shy or have a personality disorder.
  3. They get angry frequently and easily, and prefer to be in isolation.
  4. Their academic performance is usually poor, as they struggle to concentrate and focus.
  5. They exhibit self-harm or self-destructive behaviour.
  6. They are prone to addiction to alcohol, drugs, or smoking.
  7. They can suffer from mental health issues such as depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, paranoia, etc.
  8. They may lack discipline due to lack of a role model to look up to while growing up, and can become irresponsible or destructive.
  9. They can also lose their childlike qualities of innocence, as they have to take major responsibilities at an early age.

Tips to Overcome the Negative Effects of a Dysfunctional Family

Once you have identified if you come from a dysfunctional family, the first step is to acknowledge and recognise behaviours and habits in yourself that have grown out of being in a dysfunctional family. As adults, you are surviving the effects of being brought up in such an environment. There are many ways to deal with it, such as:

1. Take responsibility.

As adults, you have a choice to overcome your circumstances, and work towards creating a healthy emotional situation. It is important to take responsibility for your actions, and learn how to meet the expectations that are set for you by yourself and your family.

2. Seek help.

Once you recognise any behaviours or habits that are harmful, it is important to seek professional help, or help in some form, to fix them. Dealing with low self-confidence can be a difficult thing, and it always helps to have the support of family and friends.

3. Get creative.

Sometimes, conflicting situations can make way for creativity and expression. If you want to overcome the negative effects of a dysfunctional family, express yourself in a healthy way to your family and close ones. Share your thoughts, and discuss how you can rebuild relationships.

4. Build trust.

It is not easy to grow up in a place where trust is hard to come by among the adults you have seen around you. As a child, if you have seen your parents be mistrustful, that is a tendency that you will carry into your adulthood. With time and patience, learn to build trust among your closest ones.

5. Build bridges with your family.

Families that are dysfunctional are emotionally unstable, and as adults, you have the choice to build (or rebuild) a relationship that is broken. Start with baby steps, and try to forgive and support your family wherever you can.

No matter the kind of upbringing you have had, there is always an opportunity as an adult to reflect upon and improve yourself, and to have meaningful relationships with people.

Also Read: Impacts of Parents Fighting on Child

This post was last modified on February 17, 2021 2:44 pm

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