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Characteristics of Dysfunctional Families


It’s sad when clients don’t know they’re in or grew up in dysfunctional families. It’s often in therapy or through self-help books that they learn how seriously dysfunctional their families are or have been. Here are some characteristics, though I likely left some out. 

  • Addiction kills relationships—alcohol, drugs (recreational or prescription), shopping, pornography, work, etc. When addiction comes first, it leaves family behind and some of these behaviors can change parents’ personalities for the worse.
  • It’s unhealthy when there’s triangulation in a family which involves one member pulling in another member to discuss an issue that’s really between them and someone else. When Dad tells you to tell Mom to clean the house, he’s avoiding conflict by not telling her directly.
  • Keeping secrets is debilitating to a family because children sense there’s something wrong but are told nothing is. I know a family in which an uncle took his own life, but the “story” was that he died of an illness in the hospital.
  • Untreated or poorly treated parental mental health conditions like depression or anxiety disorders and personality disorders will always cause family dysfunction.
  • Yelling and arguing is common in dysfunctional families. Little gets resolved and children’s nervous system is set on edge because of constant heightened anxiety.
  • Obviously, sexual or physical abuse is dysfunctional.
  • Emotional abuse is damaging not only when you’re the object of it, but when someone you love is, as when Mom berates your brother for getting poor grades.
  • It’s unhealthy when a family has too many rules and they are rigidly enforced. If there are no exceptions, children grow up feeling a need to be perfect—or else.
  • It’s also unhealthy when a family has too few rules or the ones they have aren’t reinforced or are done so sporadically. In this case, children become confused about what’s expected of them.
  • It’s harmful to children when they’re not treated age-appropriately and too much is asked of them too soon.
  • When parents are too busy and can’t forge a deep positive attachment with or give enough attention to children, they grow up not having their emotional needs met and feel neglected, aka unimportant and undeserving.
  • When parents don’t talk about their feelings or prevent others from talking about them, it makes it impossible for children to explore their own emotions.
  • If parents don’t take care of you, each other or model healthy self-care, you don’t learn to take care of yourself. Of if they take care of others and not themselves, you learn co-dependence.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth book on the subject of dysfunctional families, try An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s “Normal” which is an old classic and an easy read.