Dysfunctional family

Dysfunctional family

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often abuse on the part of individual members occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal. Dysfunctional families are primarily a result of co-dependent adults, and may also be affected by addictions, such as substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc.). Other origins include untreated mental illness, and parents emulating or over-correcting their own dysfunctional parents. In some cases, a "child-like" parent will allow the dominant parent to abuse their children.[1]



A common misperception of dysfunctional families is the mistaken belief that the parents are on the verge of separation and divorce. While this is true in a few cases, often the marriage bond is very strong as the parents' faults actually complement each other. In short, they have nowhere else to go. However, this does not necessarily mean the family's situation is stable. Any major stressor, such as relocation, unemployment/underemployment, illness, natural disaster, etc. can cause existing conflicts affecting the children to become much worse.[2]

Dysfunctional families have no social, financial or intellectual bounds. Nevertheless, until recent decades, the concept of a dysfunctional family was not taken seriously by professionals (therapists, social workers, teachers, counselors, clergy, etc.), especially among the middle and upper classes. Any intervention would have been seen as violating the sanctity of marriage and increasing the probability of divorce (which was socially unacceptable at the time). Children were expected to obey their parents (ultimately the father), and cope with the situation alone.[3]


Dysfunctional family members have common features and behavior patterns as a result of their experiences within the family structure. This tends to reinforce the dysfunctional behavior, either through enabling or perpetuation. The family unit can be affected by a variety of factors.[4]

Common features

These features occur in most dysfunctional families:

  • Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy towards one or more members (or even pets) who have real or perceived "special needs." In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than he or she deserves, while another is marginalized.
  • Denial (a refusal to acknowledge abusive behavior; also known as the "elephant in the room")
  • Inadequate or missing boundaries for self (e.g., tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment, tolerance of physical, emotional or sexual abuse)
  • Disrespect of others' boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises without just cause; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed)
  • Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient arguing between family members)
  • Unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their gender, age, birth order, family role (mother, etc.), abilities, race, caste, etc. (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven enforcement of rules).

Though not universal among dysfunctional families, and by no means exclusive to them, the following features are typical of dysfunctional families:

  • Abnormally high levels of jealousy or other controlling behaviors
  • Conflict influenced by marital status:
    • between divorced or separated parents, usually related to, or arising from their breakup
    • conflict between parents who remain married, often for the "perceived" sake of the children, but whose separation or divorce would, in fact, remove a detrimental influence on those children (must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as breakup often harms children[citation needed])
    • parents who wish to divorce, but cannot due to financial, societal (including religious), or legal reasons
  • Children afraid to talk (within or outside the family) about what is happening at home, or are otherwise fearful of their parents
  • Abnormal sexual behavior such as adultery, promiscuity, incest, or conversely, asexuality
  • Lack of time spent together, especially in recreational activities and social events ("We never do anything as a family")
  • Family members (including children) who disown each other, and/or refuse to be seen together in public (either unilaterally or bilaterally)

Specific examples

In many cases, the following would cause a family to be dysfunctional:

  • Families with older parents or immigrant parents who cannot cope with changing times or a different culture
  • A parent of the same sex never intercedes in father–daughter/mother–son relations on behalf of the child
  • Children who have no contact with the extended family of their mother or father due to disharmony, disagreement, prejudice, feuding, etc.
  • Going beyond mere disagreement, an intense schism between family members regarding religion and/or ideology (for example: parents support their country being at war, while children do not)


Unhealthy parenting signs

List of unhealthy parenting signs which could lead to a family becoming dysfunctional:[5]

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Ridicule[6]
  • Conditional love[6]
  • Disrespect;[6] especially contempt
  • Emotional intolerance (family members not allowed to express the "wrong" emotions)[6]
  • Social dysfunction or isolation[6] (for example, parents unwilling to reach out to other families—especially those with children of the same gender and approximate age, or do nothing to help their "friendless" child)
  • Stifled speech (children not allowed to dissent or question authority)[6]
  • Denial of an "inner life" (children are not allowed to develop their own value systems)[6]
  • Being under- or over-protective
  • Apathy "I don't care!"
  • Belittling "You can't do anything right!"
  • Shame "Shame on you!"
  • Bitterness (regardless of what is said, using a bitter tone of voice)
  • Hypocrisy "Do as I say, not as I do"
  • Unforgiving "Saying sorry doesn't help anything!"
  • Judgmental statements or demonization "You are a liar!"
  • Either no or excessive criticism (experts say 80–90% praise and 10–20% constructive criticism is the most healthy[7][8][9])
  • Giving "mixed messages" by having a dual system of values (i.e. one set for the outside world, another when in private, or teaching divergent values to each child)
  • The absentee parent (seldom available for their child due to work overload, alcohol/drug abuse, gambling or other addictions)
  • Unfulfilled projects, activities, and promises affecting children "We'll do it later"
  • Giving to one child what rightly belongs to another
  • Gender prejudice (treats one gender of children fairly; the other unfairly)
  • Discussion and exposure to sexuality: either too much, too soon or too little, too late
  • Faulty discipline (i.e. punishment by "surprise") based more on emotions or family politics than established rules
  • Having an unpredictable emotional state due to substance abuse, personality disorder(s), or stress
  • Scapegoating (knowingly or recklessly blaming one child for the misdeeds of another)
  • "Tunnel vision" diagnosis of children's problems (for example, a parent may think their child is either lazy or has learning disabilities after he falls behind in school despite recent absence due to illness)
  • Older siblings given either no or excessive authority over younger siblings with respect to their age difference and level of maturity
  • Frequent withholding of consent ("blessing") for culturally common, lawful, and age-appropriate activities a child wants to take part in
  • The "know-it-all" (has no need to obtain child's side of the story when accusing, or listen to child's opinions on matters which greatly impact them)
  • Regularly forcing children to attend activities for which they are extremely over- or under-qualified (e.g. using a preschool to babysit a typical nine-year-old boy, taking a young child to poker games, etc.)
  • Either being a miser ("scrooge") in totality or selectively allowing children's needs to go unmet (e.g. father will not buy a bicycle for his son because he wants to save money for retirement or "something important")
  • Nature vs. nurture (parents, often non-biological, blame common problems on child's heredity, whereas faulty parenting may be the actual cause)

Dysfunctional parenting styles


"Kids as pawns"

This occurs when a parent manipulates a child to achieve some negative result in the other parent, rather than communicating with them directly. Examples include verbal manipulation, gossip, trying to obtain information through the child (spying), or causing the child to dislike the other parent. There is no concern whatsoever for the damaging effects it has on children. While such manipulation is often prevalent in shared custody situations (due to separation or divorce), it can also take place in intact families, and is known as triangulation.

List of other dysfunctional parenting styles

  • Using (destructively narcissistic parents with rule by fear and conditional love)
  • Abusing (parents who use physical violence, or emotionally, or sexually abuse their children)
  • Perfectionist (fixating on order, prestige, power, and/or perfect appearances, while preventing their child from failing at anything)
  • Dogmatic or cult-like (harsh and inflexible discipline with children not allowed, within reason, to dissent, question authority, or develop their own value system)
  • Inequitable parenting (going to extremes for one child while continually ignoring the needs of another)
  • Deprivation (control or neglect by withholding love, support, necessities, sympathy, praise, attention, encouragement, supervision, or otherwise putting their children's well-being at risk)
  • Abandonment (a parent who willfully separates from their children, not wishing any further contact, and in some cases without locating alternative, long-term parenting arrangements, leaving them as orphans)
  • Appeasement (parents who reward bad behavior—even by their own standards—and inevitability punish another child's good behavior in order to maintain the peace and avoid temper tantrums "Peace at any price")
  • Loyalty manipulation (giving unearned rewards and lavish attention trying to ensure a favored, yet rebellious child will be the one most loyal and well-behaved, while subtly ignoring the wants and needs of their most loyal child currently)
  • "Helicopter parenting" (parents who micro-manage their children's lives and/or relationships among siblings—especially minor conflicts)
  • "The deceivers" (well-regarded parents in the community, likely to be involved in some charitable/non-profit works, who abuse or mistreat one or more of their children)
  • "Public image manager" (sometimes related to above, children warned to not disclose what fights, abuse, or damage happens at home, or face severe punishment "Don't tell anyone what goes on in this family")
  • "The paranoid parent" (a parent having persistent and irrational fear accompanied by anger and false accusations that their child is up to no good or others are plotting harm)
  • "No friends allowed" (parents discourage, prohibit, or interfere with their child from making friends of the same age and gender)
  • Role reversal (parents who expect their minor children to take care of them instead)
  • "Not your business" (children continuously told that a particular brother or sister who is often causing problems is none of their concern)
  • Ultra-egalitarianism (either a much younger child is permitted to do whatever an older child may, or an older child must wait years until a younger child is mature enough)
  • "The guard dog" (a parent who blindly attacks family members perceived as causing the slightest upset to their esteemed spouse, partner, or child)
  • "My baby forever" (a parent who will not allow one or more of their young children to grow up and begin taking care of themselves)
  • "The cheerleader" (one parent "cheers on" the other parent who is abusing their child)
  • "Along for the ride" (a reluctant de facto, step, foster, or adoptive parent who does not truly care about their non-biological child, but must co-exist in the same home for the sake of their spouse or partner) See also: Cinderella effect
  • "The politician" (a parent who repeatedly makes or agrees to children's promises while having little to no intention of keeping them)
  • "It's taboo" (parents rebuff any questions children may have about sexuality, pregnancy, romance, puberty, certain areas of human anatomy, nudity, etc.)
  • "The identified patient" (one child, usually selected by the mother, who is forced into going to therapy while the family's overall dysfunction is kept hidden)
  • Münchausen syndrome by proxy (a much more extreme situation than above, where the child is intentionally made ill by a parent seeking attention from physicians and other professionals)


  • The isolated family member (either a parent or child up against the rest of the otherwise united family)
  • Parent vs. parent (frequent fights amongst adults, whether married, divorced, or separated, conducted away from the children)
  • The polarized family (a parent and one or more children on each side of the conflict)
  • Parents vs. kids (generation gap or culture shock dysfunction)
  • The balkanized family (named after the three-way war in the Balkans where alliances shift back and forth)
  • Free-for-all (a family that fights in a free-for-all style, though may become polarized when range of possible choices is limited)


Unlike divorce, and to a lesser extent, separation, there is often no record of an "intact" family being dysfunctional. As a result, friends, relatives, and teachers of such children may be completely unaware of the situation. In addition, a child may be unfairly blamed for the family's dysfunction, and placed under even greater stress than those whose parents separate.

The seven basic roles

Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt one or more of these seven basic roles:[11]

  • The Good Child (also known as the Hero): a child who assumes the parental role.
  • The Problem Child (also known as the Scapegoat): the child who is blamed for most problems and may be partly responsible for the family's dysfunction, in spite of often being the only emotionally stable one in the family.
  • The Rebel (against parental authority): Somewhat similar to the problem child, however, he or she is at least part, if not all, of the cause of the family's dysfunction.
  • The Caretaker: the one who takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family.
  • The Lost Child: the inconspicuous, quiet one, whose needs are usually ignored or hidden.
  • The Mascot: uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.
  • The Mastermind: the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members' faults in order to get whatever he or she wants. Often the object of appeasement by grown-ups.

Effects on children

Children of dysfunctional families, either at the time, or as they grow older, may also:[11]

  • lack the ability to be playful, or childlike, and may "grow up too fast"; conversely they may grow up too slowly, or be in a mixed mode (e.g. well-behaved, but unable to care for themselves)
  • have moderate to severe mental health issues, including possible depression, anxiety,[12] and suicidal thoughts
  • become addicted to smoking, alcohol, and/or drugs, especially if parents or friends have done the same
  • bully or harass others, or be an easy victim thereof (possibly taking a dual role in different settings)
  • be in denial regarding the severity of the family's situation
  • have mixed feelings of love–hate towards certain family members
  • become a sex offender, possibly including pedophilia
  • have difficulty forming healthy relationships within their peer group (usually due to shyness or a personality disorder)
  • spend an inordinate amount of time alone watching television, playing video games, surfing the internet, listening to music, and other activities which lack in-person social interaction
  • feel angry, anxious, depressed, isolated from others, or unlovable
  • have a speech disorder (related to emotional abuse)[13]
  • distrust others or even have paranoia
  • become a juvenile delinquent and turn to a life of crime (with or without dropping out of school), and possibly become a gang member as well
  • struggle academically at school or academic performance declines unexpectedly
  • have low self-esteem or a poor self image with difficulty expressing emotions
  • rebel against parental authority, or conversely, uphold their family's values in the face of peer pressure, or even try to take an impossible "middle ground" that pleases no one
  • think only of themselves to make up the difference of their childhoods (as they are still learning the balance of self-love)
  • have little self-discipline when parents are not around, such as compulsive spending, procrastinating too close to deadlines, etc. (unfamiliar and seemingly lax "real-world" consequences vs. familiar parental consequences)
  • find an (often abusive) spouse or partner at a young age, and/or run away from home
  • become pregnant and/or a parent of illegitimate children
  • be at risk of becoming poor or homeless, even if the family is already wealthy or middle-class
  • have auto-destructive or potentially self-damaging behaviors
  • join a cult to find the acceptance they never had at home, or at a minimum, have differing philosophical/religious beliefs from what they were previously taught.
  • strive (as young adults) to live far away from particular family members
  • perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors in other relationships (especially their own children)

In popular culture

Movies and Television

  • Category:Films about dysfunctional families
  • Category:Television series about dysfunctional families

See also


  1. ^ Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by David Stoop and James Masteller c. 1997[Full citation needed]
  2. ^ Family Evaluation by Michael E. Kerr and Murray Bowen c. 1988[Full citation needed]
  3. ^ Recreating Your Self: Help for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Nancy J. Napier c. 1990[Full citation needed]
  4. ^ Handbook of Relational Diagnosis and Dysfunctional Family Patterns Florence W. Kaslow c. 1996[Full citation needed]
  5. ^ The Abusing Family, by Blair & Rita Justice, Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1990 (except where otherwise noted).[Full citation needed]
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Neuharth, Dan (1999). If You Had Controlling Parents. Harper Paperbacks. ISBN 0-06-092932-4.[Full citation needed]
  7. ^ http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/praise_and_encouragement.html
  8. ^ "Make sure praise balances criticism for solid self-confidence". Detroit News. http://apps.detnews.com/apps/blogs/askthechildpsychologist/index.php?blogid=36. 
  9. ^ http://www.abuse-recovery-and-marriage-counseling.com/articles/parenting/gottman.html
  10. ^ Families in Perpetual Crisis by Richard Kagan, and Shirley Schlosberg c.1989[Full citation needed]
  11. ^ a b Forgiving Our Parents: For Adult Children from Dysfunctional Families by Dwight Lee Wolter c. 1995.[Full citation needed] Except where individually noted
  12. ^ "Good parents 'buffer' their kids' minds". Sydney Morning Herald. 21 September 2010. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/lifematters/good-parents-buffer-their-kids-minds-20100921-15kcm.html. Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  13. ^ http://www.lbfdtraining.com/Pages/emt/sectiond/childabuse.html Long Beach (California) Fire Department

Further reading

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Dysfunctional Family Circus — The Dysfunctional Family Circus is the name of several long running parodies of the syndicated comic strip The Family Circus , featuring either Bil Keane s artwork with altered captions, or (less often) original artwork made to appear like the… …   Wikipedia

  • Dysfunctional Family Picnic — infobox music festival music festival name = K Rock Dysfunctional Family Picnic caption = location = New York, New York years active= 1997 2004, 2008 founders=K Rock dates = Summer genre = Rock, Metal, Punk, Hip Hop, Post Hardcore, Rap, Reggae,… …   Wikipedia

  • dysfunctional — [dis fuŋk′shə nəl] adj. 1. unable to function normally, properly, etc. 2. of or characterized by abnormal or impaired psychosocial functioning [a dysfunctional family, dysfunctional behavior] * * * See dysfunction. * * * …   Universalium

  • dysfunctional — [dis fuŋk′shə nəl] adj. 1. unable to function normally, properly, etc. 2. of or characterized by abnormal or impaired psychosocial functioning [a dysfunctional family, dysfunctional behavior] …   English World dictionary

  • Family therapy — Intervention ICD 9 CM 94.42 MeSH …   Wikipedia

  • Family Guy (season 10) — Family Guy Season 10 Country of origin United States Broadcast Original channel Fox Original run September 25, 2011 – May 2012 …   Wikipedia

  • Family division — can refer to: * Family Division of the High Court of Justice * divorce * annulment * division of property * alimony * parental responsibility (access and custody) * dysfunctional familyFor an overview, please see family and family law …   Wikipedia

  • Family Guy — Family Guy …   Wikipedia

  • family — noun 1 group of people related to each other ADJECTIVE ▪ big, large ▪ entire, whole ▪ a summer movie for the whole family ▪ close …   Collocations dictionary

  • dysfunctional — dys|func|tion|al [ dıs fʌŋkʃənl ] adjective 1. ) dysfunctional relationships do not work normally and are not happy or successful: a dysfunctional family 2. ) not working normally: dysfunctional brain cells a dysfunctional government …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English