Dysfunctional Family: Signs, Traits, Reasons And Effects

A dysfunctional family is unstable and witnesses frequent fights. Usually, parents in such families neglect or abuse their children, making their lives difficult. There could be various reasons behind such behavior of a family member. It could be alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, or abusive behavior. Children growing up in such families go through emotional traumas that take a toll on their mental health. They also show a tendency to be involved in criminal activities. If you want to know more details about a dysfunctional family, signs, how it affects the children, and how to deal with family issues and family conflicts, keep reading this post.

In This Article

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

A dysfunctional family (DF) is one where the normal healthy functioning of the family is impeded through negative behavior such as abuse, apathy, neglect, or lack of emotional support.

In DF, the relationship between the parent and child is tense and unnatural; family breakdown, neglect, or abuse of the child occur and the other family members accommodate such behavior. In some cases, children end up with low self-esteem and grow up with the belief that such behavior is normal.

Understanding Dysfunctional Family Relationships

Children should grow up in a lovable environment
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Ideally, children should grow up in an environment which helps them feel lovable and valuable. They should have the freedom to express their thoughts and desires, and as a parent, you need to fulfill them if you think they are appropriate and realistic. Such children grow up to be emotionally healthy and go on to have healthy relationships.

However, when children grow up in an environment where their needs are curbed or they are constantly criticized and face family abuse, they:

  • have low self-esteem and poor self-image.
  • feel that their needs are not important or perhaps it’s not right to articulate their needs.
  • grow up with the belief that such an arrangement is normal and accept it as a part of their life.

Individuals, who come from a dysfunctional family, have some typical characteristics. Let’s know about them in the next section.

Signs You Come From A Dysfunctional Family

Look out for these signs to know if your family is falling into the dysfunctional category. These could suggest family discord and family disharmony.

  1. You constantly please people: As a result of being abandoned, you fear disappointing people. You go to great lengths to please people. You grow with the belief that if you are nice to them, they won’t abandon you. So, you sacrifice your own needs to please others.
  1. You feel guilty: You feel guilty for no fault of yours and assume that it’s your fault when others are upset. This is due to the mistaken belief that you are responsible for their feelings. You want to do anything to make others happy even if it is at your cost.
  1. You feel empty and isolated: You are afraid of loneliness. You crave affection, and when it doesn’t come you feel isolated.
protip_icon Quick fact
Children in a troubled familial environment may also suffer from sleep issues (1).
  1. You are a perfectionist: As a child, you tried to meet the expectations of your family. You feared failure, and that can make you a perfectionist to the extent that it gets in your way of getting things done promptly or accepting people’s faults.
  1. You feel responsible for others: You take up the responsibility of others while ignoring your needs. You lose your identity as you live in a codependent relationshipiXIt is an imbalanced relationship where one person provides care, and the other exploits them .
You feel responsible for others while ignoring your needs
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  1. You are harsh on yourself: You judge yourself perhaps because you have been judged as a child.
  1. You are discontented and frustrated: When your sincere efforts are not appreciated, you get frustrated and annoyed.
  1.  You are tensed up: Even when everything is fine, you worry that something wrong is going to happen. There is no time to relax and when one problem ends, another one seems to crop up.
  1. Have poor communication skills: You think of something but end up saying something vague because you do not know how to put your thoughts into words. You may not end up saying anything at all. This could probably be the result of your parents’ negligence towards your feelings as a child.
  1. Anguish: There is no hope for a better and peaceful life. You become pessimistic and feel there is always something lacking in your life.

Having a couple of these signs does not mean that your family is dysfunctional. But if you can relate to most of these, then check if your family has the characteristics of a dysfunctional family.

Characteristics Of Dysfunctional Families

There is negativity in dysfunctional families leading to an unpleasant atmosphere. Here are some common characteristics of such families that often lead to family disunity:

  1. Controlling: One or both of the parents dominate and make decisions on behalf of their children even when it is unnecessary. They have an underlying fear of becoming useless to their children. This fear makes them feel abandoned when their children become independent. Children of controlling parents feel resentful, inadequate, and powerless — the feelings that they carry through their adulthood. They might end up being poor at decision-making.
  1.  Abuse: Abuse, whether physical, mental or emotional, is an unhealthy trait of a dysfunctional family. It is typically done by the parent to the child or by one spouse to the other. The children become insecure, feel unsafe, and accept family violence as part of life.
  1.  Violence: When parents resort to physical abuse or violence to have control over the family, the dysfunctionality becomes evident. It has a negative impact on the kids, and they become violent as they grow up. The children may try the same with their siblings and could grow up to become bullies.
protip_icon Did you know?
Older children are more likely to face severe violence, which may consequently put them at risk of developing physical injuries and psychological and behavioral problemsiXIssues with children’s behavior in response to their environment, social stressors, and developmental changes (2).
  1. Unpredictability and fear: There is an underlying fear and unpredictability of the circumstances and finances. The children live in constant fear arising from the actions of the family members.
  1. Poor communication: There is a lack of effective communication and the bare minimum that is there leads to misunderstandings, differences, and mistrust.
  1. Lack of emotional support: In a dysfunctional family, one or both the parents fail to provide the necessary emotional support to their children. This could be due to the parents being busy elsewhere or neglecting their parental responsibilities. Kids end up spending their childhood in isolation and loneliness and growing up to be emotionally vulnerable.
Parents in dysfunctional family fail to provide emotional support to kids
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  1. Perfectionism: One or both the parents have unrealistic expectations from their children. For example, they might want the child to top every exam that he writes; or win every competition that she takes part in. The expectation doesn’t end there because they put tremendous pressure on the child to perfect everything that they take up. Such attitudes make the child feel stressful, and they would carry that obsession for perfection into their adulthood.
  1. Over-possessiveness: Some parents are over-possessive of their children; they treat them like their personal possessions. They do not let the child mingle with anybody. They do not like it if the child speaks to somebody. Such possessiveness might deprive the child of social skills.

Children brought up in dysfunctional families might end up heading another dysfunctional family as adults. While perpetuation is one of the reasons, there are a few other things that result in a dysfunctional family.

Reasons For Dysfunctional Families

Here are a few other reasons for the dysfunctionality in families:

1. Addiction:

When one or both parents in the family have an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or gambling, they tend to neglect their responsibilities, including those towards their family. For people suffering with an addiction, relationships and love for their children can suffer also. Once addiction takes over, it becomes hard to show compassion and foster their relationships. They seem to be in a separate world, away from reality.

2. Violent behavior:

Violent behavior of family members can result in dysfunctional family
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The violent behavior of one or more members of the family breaks down the foundation of that family. The others live in a fear of being physically and emotionally hurt and thus keep a distance from each other. Lack of interaction creates a distance between them.

3. Financial situation:

Money is an essential requirement for having a functional family because you simply need money to survive. When parents discontinue working or are unable to meet the family’s financial requirements, it leads to instability and family tension and makes the family dysfunctional.

4. Authority:

The urge of a person to have control of the members of the family vitiates the atmosphere at home.. They might unleash tyranny and the others do not have an option but to do what the person tells them to. Such behavior curtails their freedom and makes the members dislike each other.

5. Religious fundamentalism:

When the parents have strong religious beliefs, they might develop rigidity, thus enforcing their beliefs on children. Such actions restrict the environment at home for the kids to grow up and feel accepted. The reasons and circumstances behind dysfunctionality vary from one family to another and each family might have its own set of family problems. Also, each situation might have varied effects on the child.

The reasons and circumstances behind dysfunctionality vary from one family to another. And each situation might have varied effects on the child.

Effects Of Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family

The family members of a dysfunctional family tend to accept it to be normal or deny there is a problem in the family, without realizing its damaging effects.

Living in a dysfunctional family can have lasting psychological effects that are carried into adulthood. Children who grow up in dysfunctional families:

  1. Lack of the carefree and childlike attitude because they are expected to take up responsibilities early in their life. They are expected to behave like an adult.
  2. Suffer from moderate to severe psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSDiXPosttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that may arise due to exposure to a traumatic incident .
  3. Form an addiction to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping.
  4. Have a love-hate relationship with the family members.
  5. Have difficulty forming healthy relationships
  6. Are always angry, or violent in their behaviors.
  7. Struggle to study well, and their performance at school is poor.
  8. Become irresponsible, lack of discipline can lead to procrastinating and over-spending.
  9. Become isolated
  10. Have destructive or self-damaging behavioriXActions that are harmful to one's health, both physically and mentally .
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Children (especially teenagers) who are a part of dysfunctional familial relations may experience more suicidal thoughts and display suicidal tendencies (3).

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have a long-lasting impact on an individual’s emotional, social, and psychological well-being. Sidra Mahmood, a blogger, shares her experience of growing up in an unstable Pakistani family, where her mother faced several allegations being a Hindu and her grandfather, out of dementia and mania, became physically aggressive towards her aunt. She says, “ I figured that it was my dysfunctional childhood that was impacting my interactions and choices. Hence, I had no option but to pause and reflect. Thank God, I was finally able to break free from the shackles of judgment from myself and others when I eventually decided to seek professional help and step out of my comfort zone. I now realize how much my dysfunctional childhood has affected me and those dear to me. From my depression to my brother’s anger issues to my dad’s anxiety. People just don’t understand why my wish to settle down and have a home and family has meant so much to me in the recent past. I crave the sense of family, but mainly stability because I have seen very little of it (i).”

The scenario in a dysfunctional family might look bad but it is reversible. You need to identify the dysfunctionality, address the problem and find a healthy solution to lead a healthy life.

How To Overcome The Effects Of Dysfunctional Families?

It might seem challenging to overcome the effects of dysfunctional families, but it’s not impossible. All it takes is some effort and a lot of patience. Here is what you can do:

1. Get help:

Take help from friends or professional counselors
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The most common thing to happen in dysfunctional families is that the children start questioning their abilities and intuitions. They grow up with low levels of confidence and poor emotional health. A helping hand from friends or professional counselors can provide you some support.

2. Express yourself:

Share your feelings with family members, who are nice to you. Talk to the others in the family, share your thoughts and know theirs. Discuss with them how you can make amends to your relationship.

3. Be responsible:

Learn to be responsible for your family dynamic. Understand your role in it, and know what expectations the other members have of you. Before trying to change the others in the family, make an effort to change yourself and turn proactive.

4. Trust others:

When you grow up in an environment where your parents don’t trust each other, it becomes difficult for you to trust others. You need to make an effort to build trust with your genuine friends and relatives. However, you don’t have to follow anyone blindly. Once you start believing people and strike a balance between blind trust and utter distrust, you’ll find peace.

5. Mend your relationships with the family:

It’s not easy to change others in a dysfunctional family, but you can surely change yourself. You can motivate others to follow your footsteps. Things might just turn around. Do not indulge in unnecessary arguments with family.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are dysfunctional families toxic?

Dysfunctional families are sometimes toxic environments that negatively impact their members’ mental and emotional well-being. In a dysfunctional family, unhealthy patterns of behavior and communication, such as criticism, blame, emotional abuse, or neglect, create a hostile and damaging environment. This may lead to feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, as well as difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships outside of the family.

2. How do you break a dysfunctional family?

Dysfunctional family relationships can be complex and challenging, but it’s important to approach them with empathy and understanding. If you are experiencing difficulty in your family relationships, it may be helpful to seek therapy or counseling to work through these issues and develop healthier communication and coping strategies. Reaching out to trusted friends, loved ones, or community resources for support can also be beneficial.

3. Can dysfunctional families change?

Dysfunctional families can change and improve their relationships. However, this often requires significant effort and commitment from all members involved. The change process can be complex and may involve addressing deep-seated issues and patterns of behavior, but with the right support and resources, it can lead to improved relationships and a healthier family dynamic.

A dysfunctional family is not ideal for a baby. The emotional instability in such a family can hurt every member, especially the children. Abuse, apathy, or lack of emotional support are issues children experience when growing up in dysfunctional families. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family and are still experiencing repercussions of the same, consider connecting with a therapist to help you heal. If you are a parent and your family is dysfunctional, work on corrective measures and seek the necessary help to give your children the childhood they deserve.

Infographic: Characteristics Of A Dysfunctional Family

Every family has disagreements and conflicts since everyone has different personalities and opinions. But if you often feel the never-ending tension and negativity, it indicates flaws. Look at the infographic below to find out if your family is dysfunctional.

attributes of dysfunctional family (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Get the high-quality PDF version of this infographic.

Download Infographic in PDF version

Key Pointers

  • A dysfunctional family is unstable due to negative behavior, abuse, apathy, and lack of emotional support, hindering its normal healthy functioning.
  • Low self-esteem, poor self-image, and an inability to articulate their needs are common in children born into dysfunctional families.
  • Children often grow up as people-pleasers, perfectionists, discontented, and frustrated with themselves.
  • Substance abuse, financial difficulties, religion, the need for authority, and violent behavior can all contribute to the dysfunctionality of families.
  • Growing up in a dysfunctional family can result in extreme distress and PTSD-like symptoms, as well as the loss of a carefree and childlike attitude.
Dysfunctional Family_illustration

Image: Dall·E/MomJunction Design Team

Learn how to break the shame cycle and create healthy families. Watch this video to discover the secrets to healthy living and lasting relationships.

Personal Experience: Source


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
  1. Mona El-Sheikh and Ryan J. Kelly (2017); Family Functioning and Children’s Sleep.
  2. Children Exposed to Violence
  3. Martin.G et al., (1995); Adolescent suicide, depression and family dysfunction
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