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Dysfunctional Families

Updated on October 3, 2015

All people had a conflict with their families at some time or another, but for some it is more of a lifetime struggle involving much confusion and emotional pain. Many people think that this change will relieve them of their family stress. Very often, however, this change only exacerbates the problem and people find themselves being pulled back into the family chaos.

Dysfunctional Families

Although this term is used casually in popular culture, health care professionals define dysfunctional family as one where the relationships among family members are not conducive to emotional and physical health. Sexual or physical abuse, alcohol and drug addictions, delinquency and behavior problems, eating disorders, and extreme aggression are some conditions commonly associated with dysfunctional family relationships.

The concept of the dysfunctional family is based on a systems approach to mental health diagnosis and treatment, where the individual's symptoms are seen in the context of relationships with other individuals and groups, rather than as problems unique to the client.

Odds are that you or someone you know grew up in a home that was far from perfect. Maybe your father drank himself to sleep every night. Or your mother flew into a rage when you dropped something on the floor. Or maybe you were raised with the sense that nothing you said mattered and no one cared to pay attention to the things that were going on in your life.

There's no such a thing as a perfect family. Every family experiences arguments, hurt feelings, anger, and sadness. But there's a difference between growing up with the occasional argument or disagreement and living with what are now known as dysfunctional families. Alan Garner said:

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the

fruits of their selfishness.”

There is no strict definition of a "dysfunctional family," and especially in popular usage the term tends to be a catchall for many different relational disorders that take place within the family system and its subsystems (parents, children). Mental health care providers and institutions increasingly recognize family and couples therapy as effective methods of treating diverse mental health disorders, especially where children are involved.

In a dysfunctional family, many tools are used against the child, forcing the child to adopt survival traits In order to cope with the conflicting messages. Melody (1989) states, "The dysfunctional survival traits that their natural characteristics are warped into become the core symptoms of codependence when the children become adults"

Some of the characteristics of dysfunctional family systems are as follows:

  • Blaming; failure to take responsibility for personal actions and feelings; and invalidation of other family members' feelings.
  • Boundaries between family members those are either too loose or too rigid. For example, the parent may depend excessively on the child for emotional support (loose boundaries) or prevent the child from developing autonomy by making all the decisions for the child (rigid boundaries).
  • Boundaries between the family as a whole and the outside world may also be too loose or too rigid.
  • A tendency for family members to enact set roles caregiver, hero, scapegoat, saint, bad girl or boy, little prince or princess that serve to restrict feelings, experience, and self-expression.
  • A tendency to have an "identified patient" one family member who is recognized as mentally unhealthy, who may or may not be in treatment, but whose symptoms are a sign of the inner family conflict. Often the identified patient's problems function to disguise the larger family issues. For example, a child may be regarded as a bully and a troublemaker in school and labeled a "problem child," when he may in fact be expressing conflicts and problems, such as abuse from home, by acting out and being "bad."

To recover from the experience of growing up in a dysfunctional family it is important to understand difficulties that may be experienced in such areas. Understanding difficulties with denial and expressing feelings is important, but it is just as necessary to understand their positive counterparts. We must provide community Support such as going to church, neighborhood enrichment programs, involvement in the school, knowing neighbors, going to single parent support groups at church etc... Therapy is another way to deal with this problem. Therapy covers individual, couples, family, and group therapy, it covers open ended and problem-focused therapy, and therapy for "traumas" and well as "normal life issues" Family therapists, like other therapists, take many different treatment approaches psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, or a combination of these therapies. They may talk to members individually, together, and in subgroups. They may ask family members to reenact situations, or to do "homework" by modifying elements of their behavior and responses. As with individual therapy, one of the goals of family counseling is to reframe problems so that family members can see specific events and behaviors more clearly in a broader systems perspective.

Why does this go on?

A. Families Teach this to Children

Sometimes this happens through one generation. One parent is grossly negligent, allows the children to be sexually abused. The children grow up angry, wild, and end up pregnant early. They don't want to be parents, leave the responsibility to their own parents, and the cycle happens again by the same abuser. Another parent is angry and physically abuses the children. They grow up, have kids, swear to be different, but are unable to handle stress, anxious, and easily "set off." they transmit their anxiety to the children, prompting acting out, and then they hit their own children. The cycle continues...

Sometimes this happens through multigenerational processes. Each generation "adds a bit more on to the pile." One mother is an angry and critical woman, who raises timid and insecure children. They partner with dominating and uncaring people, who provide little love. Their children react by picking partners like their own parents, and trying to gain the love from them they never got from their parent.

You hear people say "She married her father" or "they had an argument and he said she was just like his mother." Sometimes our families involve us in unhealthy relationships and we seem to repeat them almost on purpose. Freud called this a repetition compulsion and saw it as a sign of dysfunction. Others have seen it as an effort to fight with our weaknesses until we overcome them. Family systems theory says we do it without realizing it because it's how we learned to be close, to establish distance, and to cope with life and define ourselves.

B. Dysfunctional environments play a role too.

Maybe your family was always poor, but maybe it wasn't. Your mom was a neglectful mother. You had to live in a cheap but poor neighborhood. You get raised around crime and violence, and are overprotective of your own children. They rebel, move out on their own, and live in poor and violent neighborhoods, get victimized because they are young and naïve, or pick dysfunctional partners because they are still childlike in their needs and feelings of separation and loss. The dysfunction continues almost despite the family's efforts.

Beth Brophy (1995), a U.S News Senior Editor, states that dysfunctional families are different from pleasant ones by the ways that they deal with the issues of control, power, and relationship closeness. Brophy believes that families can be grouped into five levels, with the first one being optimal. According to Brophy, this type of family is portrayed through television shows similar to The Cosby’s, where both parents share the power equally, the differences between family members are accepted, and each family member is able to express their feelings without a fear of rejection. With the families at the optimal level, the final power of rules lies within the parents, but the children are able to make reasonable suggestions and the parents then consider the children’s opinion when making the final decision. Even then, the rules are able to bend and change with time, as the situations needs.

Skipping a level and going to level three, the mid-range level, Brophy describes her version of ordinary people. According to Brophy, in this type of family, the rules are controlled by what one should have done, rule breakers feel guilty, and the idea of control is managed by manipulation, guilt and intimidation. Brophy claims that these families, for the most part, are able to function okay. The problem that Brophy suggests is that there are many rules for what a “good, loving person” should do. She gives examples of things including a good wife keeps the house clean or makes love to her husband when he wants, a good husband doesn’t work on the weekends, and good children listen and obey their parents. The issue that is raised at this level is, the rules tend to make people do the things because they feel they should do it. Afterwards, they are likely to feel resentful about doing it because they never wanted to do it in the first place. One could also not do what the rules say they should and then consequently feel guilty about it. This can be a very emotionally limited life ruled by rules themselves. No one can really be their self, so no one is able to get close to one another.

Brophy (1995) goes on to describe level five with these families being severely disturbed. She gives the example of the Prince of Tides, in which there is no clear figure of who is in charge, there is confusion and chaos, and the family’s problems remain unsolved because all family members avoid confronting the real problem. Brophy notes that in these families there tends to be no leadership, no idea of what is going to happen next, and absolutely no rules to break. A child can be rewarded for doing something one day, and then punished the next for doing the same thing. All sorts of double messages are given and people tend to have no sense of belonging to family. It’s a no-win situation.

According to Brophy’s research, a dysfunctional family at level five is one that most would not want to participate in. To some, the Osbournes’ family may fall into Brophy’s category of the severely disturbed. According to some sociologists, they may fall into the adequate to mid-range category. This suggests that the term “dysfunctional” and the ideas surrounding the term might just be psychobabble.

Dysfunctional means that something didn’t work. The important thing to remember is not labeling one dysfunctional, but having an idea of how to overcome it.

The families of today seemed by others to be dysfunctional may not function the way families are portrayed on television, but the problems they face that deemed them dysfunctional, may make them stronger. It may give them the strength to get up and try again. If one was to grow up in the typical, ideal family they possible could never have had any hardships to work through. People learn from the problem that they create and have to deal with. If one is good at it, they learn to get up and try again because no fall is ever hard enough to leave them broken.


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    • Laura Matkin profile image

      Laura Matkin 

      6 years ago from Laceys Spring, Alabama

      Great article! Keep your distance from the dysfunction! I am still working on that.. My folks have Masters too and my brother and I nod at Family gatherings. Silence sucks at the Holidays.

    • Sara Algoe profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Phoenix, Ariz

      Thanks secretmemoir

    • secretmemoir profile image


      8 years ago from Australia

      Excellent hub. Will link to my hub about being disowned

    • Sara Algoe profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Phoenix, Ariz

      Thanks every one for their comments.

    • Leafy Den profile image

      Leafy Den 

      8 years ago from the heart

      Wonderful hub! I have made a link to this from one of my hubs. So few people really understand this dynamic and impact of the dysfunction on the growing child.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for this article. I agree with the keeping a happy distnace. I learned the hard way. Of all the things my parents have done to me, for some reason , I kept runnign back to them like a fool, until the dysfunction actually threatened to consume everythign positive which I'd built in my , in spite of teh gross emotional abuse i suffered in their hands. I cannot think of anyone who has gotten a more rotten deal when it comes to family as I have.

      The funny thing is , on the outside my parents look normal. They hold masters and appear to be normal, but behind closed doors, I have a mother who is emotionally unavailabe and has ignored my please to honestly look at our very dysfunctional family.

      My parents have 5 children and it is so fractured. We all don't talk to each other and when I try to say something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Everyone calls me crazy and unwilling to move forward. I will move forward. I will, just not with them .

    • C.S.Alexis profile image


      9 years ago from NW Indiana

      I sure do agree that a little dysfunction can break the boredom! No boy is perfect let alone the entire family. Live and learn is my motto. Love your family anyway they are and if you flat can not deal with them then keep a happy distance. C.S.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I think a little dysfuntion can go a long way in breaking up the grind and boredom associated with the perfect family. No family is truly without dysfunction, and depending on what sort of dysfunction that is can lead to understanding and acceptance.


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