When I was growing up, my household looked different from the idyllic families that were portrayed on the television shows I enjoyed.
I often wondered if my dysfunctional family was the only one that had so much tension, anger, and unhappiness.
As a highly sensitive child, I often believed it was my fault. If I could just be easier, funnier, more pleasing to my family, then everything would be okay.
These feelings, along with the stress I was experiencing at home, wreaked havoc on my mental health and self-esteem.
If this is something you can relate to, I am here to tell you that you are not alone.
Living in a dysfunctional family, no matter what that looks like for you, will have a long-term effect on your life — even years after you’ve grown up and live in a healthier environment.
If you’re still in a dysfunctional family, it’s important to you see your situation for what it is and take the steps to change it — or leave it.
What Is a dysfunctional family?
A family is dysfunctional if they regularly experience conflict, misbehavior, or abuse in a way that causes some family members to accommodate such inappropriate actions.
Are all families dysfunctional? According to Terence T. Gorski, M.A., N.C.A.C., author of Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy, “In fact, in the United States today, more people come from dysfunctional families than healthy families. It is estimated that approximately 70 to 80 percent come from dysfunctional families.”
What are the causes of a dysfunctional family? Here are some to consider:
- Dysfunctional families are often the result of one overtly abusive parent and one codependent parent who turns a blind eye to the misbehavior.
- Dysfunctional parents may learn their behavior from their own parents and replay their past experiences in their new families.
- In some cases, when one parent does not object to the dominant parent’s abuse, the children are led to believe the dysfunction is their own fault. Sometimes children grow up in these families believing the situation is normal and acceptable.
- Although single-parent families and blended families aren’t dysfunctional by nature, these situations do increase the chances of dysfunction occurring.
Dysfunctional Family Characteristics
What are the characteristics of a dysfunctional family? Although dysfunctional families are all different, they often share some principal aspects. Some defining traits in a dysfunctional family include:
- Lack of empathy
- Poor communication
- Emotional or physical abuse
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Fear and unpredictability
- Disrespect of boundaries
- Excessive criticism
Dysfunctional Family Roles
Each member of a dysfunctional family has a role that keeps the cycle going.
- The enabler (or caretaker) protects and takes care of the problem parent in order to keep the family going. He or she takes on the burden and responsibilities of the problem parent to prevent them from going into a crisis.
- The hero takes on the role of making the family look good. This over-achieving person is good at making everything on the outside look normal.
- The scapegoat is often the child who exhibits negative behaviors that take the attention off of the main problem in the family.
- The lost child is the quiet one who tries to escape the situation. This child often avoids interactions with other family members, leading to a lack of social development in the long run.
- The mascot works to lighten the mood and break up the tension within the family. They often use humor to distract from their problems instead of facing them.
If you are living in a dysfunctional family, you can probably identify the people who are in these roles in your household.
Here are some common unhealthy signs of a dysfunctional family.
39 Unhealthy Signs of a Dysfunctional Family
Look at these examples of dysfunctional families to see if any of these are going on in your family:
1. Vacations are very stressful.
Vacations should be a relaxed time for your family to make memories together and enjoy some free time outside of your normal routine.
If you find traveling to be extremely stressful when you are with your family, this may be a sign of a dysfunctional family .
2. You think about how you will do things differently.
If you already know as a child that you will parent children one day differently than the way you are being parented, this is a red flag.
Children should not be spending time noticing things in their household that they would never want to be repeated.
3. Your parents have separate rooms.
Sometimes it is normal for parents to sleep in different beds, especially if their schedules differ and they don’t want to disturb the other one while he or she is sleeping.
However, if your parents never spend (or spent) time in the same room together, they might have a toxic relationship.
4. Your family lives in silence.
Silence is dysfunctional when it is used as a punishment. It disregards the worth of other people.
A milder form of the silent treatment is demanding that other people guess what’s wrong with you.
The problem here is not placing value on your relationship with the other person enough to actually talk about your troubles.
5. You experience triangulation.
Triangulation occurs when one family member confides in another about a third family member.
An example of this would be a mother and father talking “through” their child by asking the child to ask the other parent for updates on a personal or adult matter.
This puts the burden of adult issues on a child and is an unhealthy alternative to direct communication.
6. You give or get double messages.
Double messages occur when someone says one thing and does another. This could be as serious as an abusive parent saying, “I love you” or “I’m so sorry,” after hitting a child.
This confuses the recipient and blurs the meaning of the spoken words.
These messages also confuse one’s intuition. For example, if a mother tells a child, “Your father does not have a drinking problem, he just likes to have a few drinks after a long workday,” then this contradicts the evidence the child has seen.
7. There is enmeshment.
If one member of a family spends an extreme amount of time dealing with the problems of another family member, or they take personal responsibility for another family member’s emotions, this is enmeshment.
Boundaries exist in healthy families where everyone is responsible for dealing with their own problems.
This doesn’t mean people don’t ask for help, but it also doesn’t mean family members blame each other for their personal problems.
It does mean that a family member doesn’t feel personally responsible for the solution.
8. You rarely bring friends home.
This happens because of the fighting, the condition of the house, substance abuse, or the fear that someone in your family will embarrass you.
This isolation also occurs when the parents of your friends don’t allow them to visit you because of the environment of your home or the behavior of your parents.
9. You never stand up for yourself.
If you find yourself in situations that are clearly not your fault but default to thinking that you could have done something differently, it may be a sign that you are living in a dysfunctional family.
For example, let’s say there’s a big fight at the family dinner table between your parents or a parent and a sibling.
While a healthy reaction to this would be to know you didn’t cause the fight, you may assume it was your fault for not preventing it.
10. You fear abandonment.
If you were abandoned as a child, either physically or emotionally, you might carry this fear for the rest of your life.
11. You are a people pleaser.
This is a survival trait that can develop as a result of being abandoned or experiencing neglect on a regular basis.
Pleasing other people is an attempt to win them over when you fear their criticism. You hold onto the belief that if you’re nice enough, this person will not abandon you.
You probably developed this trait to be able to detect the mood of the adults around you so you could respond appropriately.
12. You experience or witness abuse.
While your parents may not be abusing you directly, exposure to other people’s fights can be just as damaging.
Any kind of abuse leaves family members in need of emotional care.
Physical and sexual abuse leave obvious scars and can be easily understood by others.
Emotional abuse can be much more subtle, easier to deny or hide, and harder for others to understand.
Some of the signs of emotional abuse include the following behaviors (some of which are explained in more detail below):
- Constant ridicule and criticism
- Controlling behaviors
- Shaming and guilt-trips
- Withholding love, affection, or sex
- Narcissistic behaviors
- Unpredictable emotional outbursts
- Verbal abuse
- Sarcasm used to wound
- Intense anger
- Lack of respect
- Selfish, childish behaviors (from adults)
- Extreme jealousy and suspicion
- Turns others against you
- Regularly invalidates others in the family
- Plays mind games
13. There is little or no discipline.
Neglect refers to a lack of basic needs but also to a lack of any discipline and structure.
If no one takes on the role of being in charge due to substance abuse or emotional distress, then children are left to fend for themselves.
14. The holidays are not joyful.
No matter what types of holidays your family celebrates, there are sure to be times where the whole family gets together to try to enjoy a special meal or exchange gifts.
If you dread these occasions and never find joy in them, it may be due to a dysfunctional family situation.
Holidays tend to add stress and unmet expectations for everyone, but a dysfunctional family can be thrown into a tailspin as a result.
15. You wish you were in someone else’s family.
Maybe you go to a friend’s house and find it peaceful, or you see your neighbors next door always having fun playing in the yard.
If you wish you could be a part of their family instead of your own, it could be your way of wishing you could escape.
16. You think you’re the only normal person in your family.
Everyone else seems to have some kind of issue, and you can’t find an ally in any of your siblings or either of your parents.
Their craziness and dysfunction makes you feel isolated and lonely.
17. They are controlling.
Families who use money, threats, guilt, or even some type of reward to control other people in the family is an unhealthy and harmful behavior that is one of the signs of emotional abuse mentioned earlier
Those who control try to create a power dynamic in order to get what they want at the expense of the other person’s mental, emotional or physical well-being.
18. They are quick to place blame.
Accountability requires stating clear boundaries and allowing natural consequences to happen when the boundaries are crossed.
Placing blame on other people is a dangerous habit that typically occurs with victimization.
Families who blame each other for their feelings or experiences are failing to take personal responsibility for their own roles in situations and are setting themselves up for codependency.
19. Punishment is used instead of discipline.
Discipline and punishment are not the same things. Discipline involves training and teaching while punishing is just enforcing a penalty.
If you have a family that only practices punishment, it is usually in the form of emotional or psychological punishment.
For example, if you do something that is unacceptable to your family, they may give you the silent treatment for an extended period of time, which is psychological punishment and is toxic.
20. They use threatening tactics.
There are definitely some families who use threats to maintain control. For example, a family may threaten to disown a child if they make certain choices.
While this may sound common, it is not acceptable and is definitely not healthy.
Families who threaten each other emotionally, physically, psychologically, or otherwise are toxic.
21. They alter the truth.
Dysfunctional families often twist their intentions, experiences, and even the memories that they recall to avoid being held accountable.
This behavior is also known as “gaslighting.”
There are a lot of ways that someone in your family can distort you, what you want, and your life experiences both with and without them.
No matter how they distort the truth, if someone is doing it, they’re a toxic person.
22. Abuse, addiction, and mental illness go untreated.
Active abuse within a family, as well as untreated addiction or mental illnesses, clearly qualify a family as being dysfunctional.
This dysfunction is exacerbated when the abuser or addict denies the problem and doesn’t seek treatment.
Children who live with abusive, addictive or emotionally unstable parents never feel secure and safe and grow up with a variety of mental health issues that can be debilitating.
23. The family is unavailable.
Dysfunctional families are emotionally unavailable. Whether or not the family is physically present doesn’t matter.
Emotional availability is an important factor in a healthy family. If someone is emotionally checked out, they are making themselves unavailable to everyone else around them.
When a family is unavailable, even if it is simply by only having superficial relationships with each other, they are likely dysfunctional.
24. They’re dismissive.
Families who fit the dysfunctional model will likely dismiss the evidence that this is true, as well as anyone who brings it up.
This is usually an effort to avoid accountability. Regardless of the reasoning, dismissing family issues is toxic and causes harm to all of the members.
25. There is unpredictability.
If parents are extremely inconsistent, meaning a child can never be sure how his or her parents will respond to their behaviors, this is a red flag.
Unpredictable behavior is often the result of drug or alcohol abuse that is intermittent.
One day mom or dad is fine, and the next day he or she is passed out on the couch.
Another unpredictable behavior is when parents are prone to outbursts of anger, making other people in the household live in a constant state of apprehension.
26. There is constant conflict.
Of course, all families have conflict sometimes, but if there is never a break from the conflict in the family, and people are always at odds with each other, this is a sign of dysfunction.
This conflict could be verbal, physical, or even silent — but with tension so thick you could cut it.
It often occurs between the parents, whether they are divorced or married, and is witnessed by the children.
27. There is a lack of empathy.
It is important in a healthy family for parents to be able to listen to their children’s feelings and try to empathize with their issues.
It is not healthy for a child if their feelings are always being dismissed, or they have no outlet to discuss the common issues that children face during their developmental years.
28. You experience role-reversal.
Role-reversal within a family is when a child takes on the responsibilities of a parent.
This happens when one parent is unable to fulfill their parenting duties due to mental illness, substance abuse, absence, or any other reason.
This forces the child to take on the role of a caretaker while their own developmental needs are not being met.
29. There is excessive control.
Excessive control can look like many things. It may be one parent controlling the other through emotional abuse, physical aggression, finances, or ultimatums.
It could also be parents controlling their children by not allowing them to do normal childhood things like play with friends or have any sense of independence.
30. There is no sense of privacy.
Of course, parents want to know what their children are doing, especially when it comes to online activities or when they are out with their friends.
However, there are certain boundaries that should not be crossed, and children should be able to have some sense of privacy, especially as the years go on.
A dysfunctional family may have parents who feel like they have the right to know more than they really do.
Whether this means secretly snooping or openly demanding that other members of the family share everything with them, it is crossing boundaries.
Perhaps this person constantly tracks your every move and then justifies it by saying “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, I should be able to look.”
This is a violation of privacy and shows there is a lack of trust. This police-like presence is damaging for a family.
31. Teasing is allowed to go too far.
Families should not have a bully. Humor and teasing can be a healthy mode of interaction in families, but the key to this is whether or not it feels loving and comfortable for everyone involved.
In dysfunctional families, emotional abuse can be disguised as “I was just kidding, don’t be so sensitive.”
This not only allows the original criticism to stand, but it also adds an additional criticism of someone displaying an “incorrect” reaction to a situation.
Also, this person is essentially being told that they don’t have the right to their own feelings, which is a classic sign of dysfunction.
32. There is unfair treatment of one or more family members.
This unfair treatment frequently occurs with one (or both) of the parents due to the child’s birth order, gender, abilities, sexuality, or any number of reasons.
It is clear to all other members of the family that one member is being singled out and treated differently — whether positively or negatively.
33. There is abnormal sexual behavior.
Sexual behavior that includes promiscuity, adultery, or incest that is witnessed or known by the children in the family is deeply dysfunctional and harmful behavior.
Also, allowing children to become sexualized too early or allowing them to witness sex acts is also dysfunctional and confusing.
34. Family members disown each other.
A family can become dysfunctional when conflicts become so untenable that members disown one another and cut each other out of family life.
This disowning can involve a parent/child relationship, a grandparent, siblings, or members of the extended family who were once actively part of the family.
35. Children are used as pawns.
A common dysfunctional parental behavior is when one a parent manipulates a child in order to create an adverse outcome of some kind to the other parent’s.
This behavior might include gossiping about the other parent, trying to get information from the child about the other parent, or trying to get the child to dislike the other parent.
36. Only conditional love is offered.
This is emotionally abusive behavior in which love and affection are withheld unless the other family member complies with some request, need, or desire of another member.
A parent might show love and approval to a child only when he or she excels in sports or academics. A wife might withhold love and affection from her husband until he gives in and acquiesces to her demands.
37. There’s a dogmatic or cult-like environment.
This can happen in a family that is extremely religious or has cultural requirements that are strict and demanding.
Often harsh and inflexible discipline is used to keep family members “inline” so they won’t question authority or develop their own opinions.
38. There’s a lack of support from the non-dominant parent.
In dysfunctional families, one parent is often the one who will abuse or neglect the children in the family, and the other parent allows the abuse to happen without intervening.
The non-dominant parent may also be a victim of the other parent’s abuse or just may not want to rock the boat further, so he or she does nothing to protect the children.
As a result, children take on the blame for the problems in the family and assume they are “bad” because no one has stepped in to stop the abuse.
39. There’s codependency between family members.
Codependency is a condition in which one family member enables the addiction, mental illness, bad behavior, or immaturity of another member.
Sometimes the entire family is codependent when they all cover up or pretend that a family member doesn’t have a serious problem when it’s clear they do.
How To Deal With a Dysfunctional Family
The impact of growing up in a dysfunctional family can be long-lasting and painful.
However, it doesn’t have to determine your destiny or your happiness forever. You can learn to heal.
Here are some ideas to help you:
Apply Adult Thinking
You can overcome leftover feelings from living in a dysfunctional household with a new adult point of view.
You are no longer a helpless child who doesn’t have the skills to understand the dysfunction and see it for what it is.
Don’t try to make excuses for the dysfunction or enable a bad parent or sibling by sweeping it under the rug.
Don’t Try to Change the Past
It’s important to remember that you can’t change the past and the dysfunction at the core of the family will likely always exist.
You can’t change people and sometimes you need to just allow yourself to have a healthy distance.
Don’t try to make up for the past or recoup lost time by trying to salvage relationships that are past the point of repair.
Instead, protect your well-being and move forward by creating a family of your own that has healthy and thriving relationships.
Avoid the Victim Mentality
You may have been cheated out of a healthy childhood, but don’t allow this victim mentality to continue on into your adulthood.
- Don’t let your past control your present by failing to become a well-adjusted adult.
- Create a new identity that does not focus on the pain you endured in the past.
- If possible, try to find the strength to forgive.
If you are able to do this, do it on your own terms and just allow these feelings of forgiveness to help you let go of the past.
Define Who You Want To Be
Make a conscious effort to know who you want to be and work toward becoming that person. This may take some time depending on the severity of your family dysfunction.
Learn more about emotional maturity and how to communicate effectively in relationships.
Just understanding the emotional abuse and dysfunction in your primary family can help you define what you don’t want to be.
Become the parent that you wish you had had so your own children grow up in a loving and secure environment.
Become the partner or spouse you wish you’d witnessed in your parents so your relationship is strong and healthy.
If the family dysfunction is severe, you may need counseling or a support group for healing from the trauma you experienced.
You may not be able to move past the pain and enter into healthy relationships without doing the growth work required through therapy.
Find a licensed counselor who specializes in family dysfunction, abuse, and addiction (if appropriate). Make a commitment to your personal evolution by doing this life-altering work.
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Did you grow up in a dysfunctional family?
If you’re reading this post, it’s likely you experienced some of the behaviors and situations described here.
We’d like to commend you for taking action and learning more about the difficulties you experienced in your family.
Don’t allow your past to infect your current and future happiness. You can move past the pain.
Ultimately, the most effective way to heal from a dysfunctional family is to live your own fulfilling life.
You’ll always be connected to the dysfunction you have endured, but your long-term success and happiness are in your own hands.
When you understand this, you’re already on your way to healing.