Dysfunctional Family - Roles, Signs & Characteristics

Dysfunctional Family – Roles, Signs & Characteristics

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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 they grow up, have a direct impact on how they function as an individual. If the family is caught up in the cycle of dysfunction, they often face serious abusive issues like alcohol abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse, and emotional abuse. This environment is quite toxic for children, and the children of these families tend to carry on the cycle of dysfunction into their own lives and further into their own families.

In this article, we have covered some tips to overcome the negative effects of a dysfunctional family. Let’s read!

What Is a Dysfunctional Family?

Let’s take a look at dysfunctional families meaning.  

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.

Dysfunctional Families Example

Let’s read about examples of some dysfunctional families. It includes chaos, abuse, and neglect among family members.

  • If there is a one-parent drinking problem in the house and that parent comes home drunk and physically abuses any member of the family. The next day, that parent says that whatever happened yesterday should stay between them and anyone should not know about it.
  • Suppose one or both parents are addicted to drugs. In such cases, the eldest child takes responsibility for the younger ones and tries to make things better at home.
  • A single mother treats her eldest child like a best friend and a confidant. The mother relies on the eldest child for her emotional needs and doesn’t like it when the child goes out and socialises with their friends.

What Are the Types Of Dysfunctional Families?

Here are the types of dysfunctional families:

1. The Pathological Family

In this type of dysfunctional family, one or both parents abuse drugs or alcohol or suffer from mental illness, leaving the family dysfunctional. A child’s pathological family tends not to have their basic physical or emotional needs met. These family members generally have reversed roles.

The family roles in these households are usually reversed, i.e. the children are more in charge of their own daily lives, as their dysfunctional parents are unable to do so.

2. The Dominant Submissive Family

A family of a dictator parent, where there is no regard for the wishes or feelings of the other family members. The dominant parent in this type of family is demanding but gives little back in terms of support, love, and positive reinforcement.

3. The Chronic Conflict Family

In this type of family, arguments and disputes are the norms. The family members argue in harmful ways that leave wounds festering and result in bitterness in the family environment. Generally, communication problems lead to feuds, fighting, resentment, and stress, causing havoc in the home.

4. The Chaotic Family

In a chaotic family, the children are poorly looked after or protected because the parents are busy, non-present, or abusive. Inconsistency is constant in such households. The parents frequently come and go out of the home or are incarcerated.

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.

6. Medical Problems

If a parent is physically ill, they might rely on their children to care for them and their health. This can cause anxiety and depression in children. Additionally, if one of the children is ill and is not cared for, it may cause that child to grow up to invalidate their illnesses.

7. Mental Illness

If a family member is not mentally sound and experiencing trauma disorders, anxiety, or depression, they may act unhealthily toward their family.

8. Addiction

If a parent or any other member of the family has a substance addiction, gambling, or psychological addiction, this may lead to co-dependency, with caretakers spending excessive amounts of time, energy, and other resources on the person who’s addicted. At times, children have to take up the role of a caretaker.

9. Excessive Control Attempt

If the caregiver has an excessive need to control their kids or partner, they fail to help children develop a healthy sense of autonomy. Resulting in children not feeling self-confident.

10. Constant Criticism

Criticism may run rampant in a dysfunctional family, with parents chastising everything the child says or does. Sometimes, parents may even take a more subtle approach by using sarcasm, insults, or teasing their children, which results in emotional abuse.

Mom scolding her daughter

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 of a dysfunctional family for you:

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.

child sitting alone and depressed

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.

Prone to Addiction

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.

mom and daughter having a conversation

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.

11. Unpredictability and Fear

When children are not sure how their parents are going to respond, or there is uncertainty or fear, they constantly anticipate conflict and can’t express themselves honestly.

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Let’s take a look at the family roles in dysfunctional families.

1. Golden Child

The golden child of the family is the obedient, high achiever who the parents always revere and brag about. The problematic parent thinks of them as wonderful person because of their golden child. But the child chooses the role as an escape path and uses their success to shield them from abuse and criticism. The golden children are generally racked with anxiety and depression and can even suffer severe nervous breakdowns at least once or develop eating disorders.

2. Black Sheep

This is the child upon whom all the blame for family problems falls. They may act out or show disobedience and even simply be the effect of illness, mental health issues, or other “abnormal” features that draw attention. These types of behaviours are seen as the source of problems in the family.

3. Lost Child

When the attention of the family is taken up by the golden child or black sheep, the lost child receives less attention and often feels left behind. This leaves the lost child with strong feelings of loneliness and cravings for love and attention. They learn to take care of themselves and do not need or want anything from anyone.

4. Peacemaker

The peacemaker can be found in the middle of arguments. This child may get pulled into taking sides between opposing parents, like in the case of a divorce. The role of a peacemaker requires them not to have personal needs or become confrontational themselves but instead to always be “reading the room” to identify how others are feeling and adjust accordingly.

5. Mascot

The mascot of the family is the one who lightens the mood when things start getting tense. They’re funny and make jokes. In adult years, the mascot may face difficulty connecting with negative emotions or conflict, instead deflecting with humour.

6. Caretaker

They are the ones who take on the responsibilities of others in the family and try to save them from the consequences they might face. Usually, their desire is well-intentioned, but it causes more harm, as the child is unable to face the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes.

7. Doer

This member of the family acts and gets things done. As adults, the doers struggle to rest and are constantly exhausted. They may become angry or resentful because they struggle to say no.

Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family

Growing up in a dysfunctional family affects 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 an adult, you are surviving the effects of being brought up in such an environment. So, the question of how to overcome growing up in a dysfunctional family might arise. 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.

father and son hugging each other

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.

6. Family Therapy

Family counselling can be beneficial in breaking dysfunctional patterns and rebuilding functional families.

7. Educate Yourself About Dysfunctional Family

We all know that education about any topic is the real key to progress. You can get better chances of understanding your family’s dysfunction, and your place in it.


1. Is Dysfunctional Family Toxic?

Yes, a dysfunctional family can be toxic for children as these families are often caught in the cycle of dysfunction and face serious abusive issues like alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse.

2. What Are Some Effective Ways to Break the Dysfunctional Family?

Family or individual counselling from a professional therapist can be helpful in identifying dysfunctional family patterns. The therapist can help with some ways to break the dysfunctional family.

3. Do Dysfunctional Families Change?

Dysfunctional families can be fixed with some love, cooperation and responsibility.

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.


1. Basem Abbas Al Ubaidi; Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family; http://clinmedjournals.org/; http://clinmedjournals.org/articles/jfmdp/journal-of-family-medicine-and-disease-prevention-jfmdp-3-059.php?jid=jfmdp; July 2017

2. Dealing with Difficult Family Relationships; helpguide.org; https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/dealing-with-difficult-family-relationships.htm

3. Treating Adults from Dysfunctional Families; dhss.delaware.gov; https://www.dhss.delaware.gov/dsamh/files/si09_1317_txadultsfromdysfunctfamilies.pdf

4. Is my family dysfunctional?; screening.mhanational.org; https://screening.mhanational.org/content/my-family-dysfunctional/?layout=actions_e

5. The Dysfunctional Family; ashleytreatment.org; https://www.ashleytreatment.org/rehab-blog/the-dysfunctional-family/

Also Read:

Impacts of Parents Fighting on Child
Is Living in Joint Family Good for your Child?
Why Role of Family is Important in Child’s Development?

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