What characterizes a dysfunctional family? The answer might seem simple. Movies like the Royal Tenenbaums and Knives Out showcase toxic family members duking it out with each other with clearly bad intentions. Television shows like Succession and Shameless rely on the chaotic family dynamics spurred by mental health and substance abuse to deliver drama, and even laughs. In fact, The Simpsons, the longest running television show of all time, is centered around the never ending dysfunctional ties between all the five family members, including baby Maggie.
To some, the relationships between these fictional characters may be relatable, or even mild compared to the reality of their own family. There is certainly no such thing as a perfect family, and all households have challenges and issues that manifest in a variety of different ways. But how those problems are dealt with, or whether they’re even addressed, can determine the impact they may have on family members, often for the duration of their lives. Some families fall into patterns that can manifest in destructive ways and have damaging consequences to some, or even to all, of those involved.
What Makes a Family Dysfunctional?
Some would assume that dysfunctional families project a lot of animosity, hostility and turmoil. But the reality is that it can be a lot more nuanced than that.
Catherine Richardson, MA, LPC, is a mental health counselor with Talkspace. She says dysfunctional families can look normal to an onlooker, but any extended exposure to them will uncover their unhealthy patterns.
“There is typically a lot of tension, lots of rules, and very little unconditional love,” she says.
While there aren’t physical characteristics that define a dysfunctional family, there are revealing patterns of behavior that do.
For one, strict rules are typically enforced. Some of these include: don’t ask questions, don’t feel your feelings, and don’t challenge the norm. These severe and harsh family directives can lead to a lack of emotional support or to the dismissal of important emotional needs in vulnerable members.
Patterns of a Dysfunctional Family
There are some behavioral patterns that are prevalent in dysfunctional families. These include the following:
This is a manipulation tactic where two family members team up against another. For example, a father may choose not to communicate directly with his son and use the mother to relay messages to him. There can also be cross-generational coalitions, where two family members from different generations, usually a child and their parent, align against the other parent.
Gaslighting is a psychological tactic where one member of the family manipulates another by questioning that person’s sanity or grasp of reality. They might do this by leading the person into believing that the way they remember events is inaccurate. Often the person who is gaslighting will question facts and deny the valid emotions of family members.
Stonewalling occurs when one family member is offended and refuses to engage the offender until they apologize. It’s challenging to move forward with a stonewaller because their entire tactic is to refuse to communicate or cooperate. This emotional detachment can be interpreted as a form of abandonment, with the potential to have serious consequences to the person who is being targeted.
The Impact of a Dysfunctional Family Upbringing
Children who grow up in a dysfunctional family often have trouble in their personal and professional relationships later in life.
“If you have a child who came from a home that was highly authoritarian, they may have difficulty making decisions for themselves and seek others to manage their lives for them,” says Richardson. “If a child grew up in a more permissive environment with little rules, they may have trouble following authority and empathizing with others.”
Family life could have detrimental effects in all aspects of the child’s life down the line. Growing up in a dysfunctional family unit could result in frequent job loss, poor boundaries in relationships, and difficulty launching into adulthood.
A study into the physiological trauma of children of dysfunctional families found that these types of units are usually distinguished by unharmonious parenting styles. Some examples of this are indulging and ignoring the needs of the child, immaturity of parental feelings, and projection of the parent’s own unwanted qualities on the child. The study found that these types of parents are often marked by a sense of interiority in regards to their family. In turn, children in a dysfunctional family will often experience feelings of anxiety, conflict, and hostility. These children also often suffer from a variety of fears that don’t correspond with their age, causing infantilization and a natural ageing process slowdown.
Roles in a Dysfunctional Family
There are certain archetypes that occur within dysfunctional family dynamics. Some of these include:
This role is often, but not always, taken on by the youngest child. The mascot learns that adding levity with humor to a tense or stressful moment can deescalate the situation. They then see it as their job to get everyone to laugh whenever possible.
Frequently the role of the oldest child, the golden child or “the good one” takes it upon themself to behave in a perfect way. They equate being perfect, whether in school, sports, or extracurricular activities, to being accepted by their families. The golden child is often treated differently than their siblings, with preferential treatment. As a result, the golden child works hard at maintaining this position.
The black sheep will be treated like a scapegoat. This involves being singled out of the family or left out of activities with negative treatment or blame that’s not always deserved. This manner of behavior can be likened to bullying and can have a devastating effect on self-esteem. As a result of this treatment, the black sheep of the family often feels like they don’t belong. This behavior can seep into a child’s life outside the home. One study found that bullying behavior of children who came from dysfunctional families was more prevalent than bullying of those who were from functional families.
When it comes to substance abuse, the role of the enabler is to make the addict’s life easier, rather than help them face the tough problems. The enabler in a dysfunctional family feels the weight of their family’s problems. They are the martyrs who often support the dysfunctional behavior and enforce the role everyone has taken on.
Causes of a Dysfunctional Family
One study looked closely at the price paid by those growing up in a dysfunctional family identified several causes for how these dynamics manifest. Some of these causes include:
- An abusive parent: When one or both parents have a history of child abuse, whether that’s through words or actions. This can include physical, emotional, and verbal abuse in the family unit and foster a dysfunctional family environment.
- A strict/controlling and/or authoritarian parent: When one or both parents have a history of not allowing their child or children to flourish by denying them the space to make their own decisions at the appropriate age.
- A soft parent: When a one or both parents are weak at setting boundaries, rules, or regulations within the household.
- A deficient, or absent parent (parental inadequacy): When one or both parents aren’t present for their children’s emotional or physical needs, whether on purpose or inadvertently. In turn, older children will often take the parent’s role and care for the younger siblings.
- A substance abusing or addicted parent: When one or both parents have an addiction or a substance abuse issue. The result is a lot of unpredictability in the family’s life, making the parent or parents with addiction issues unable to fulfill promises. As a result, the child or children will feel physically or emotionally neglected by their parents. Future offspring are left vulnerable to child abuse or sexual exploitation.
- A large family: When there are many family members to take care of, parents will have a hard time attending to all their children’s needs.
- A personality disorder in family members: When one or both parents have an undiagnosed personality disorder or one that’s diagnosed later in life. The disorder will affect how the family functions.
- A disabled or chronically ill child: A child with special needs will have a huge impact on the family dynamic and how members relate to one another. The particular needs of such a child will sometimes bring an imbalance to the needs of the other children.
- Unfortunate life events: These can include infidelity from one or both parents, divorce, unemployment, or death within the family.
- Family values, culture, and ethnicity: These have the potential to bring about negative effects on the foundation of the family, in relations to gender roles, the hierarchy of power between family members, and parenting roles.
- Insecure family attachments: Feeling safe and secure inspires a positive effect on families and their members, while the opposite brings about harmful effects.
- Dynamics of previous dysfunctional generation: If the parents grew up in a dysfunctional family, the toxicity is likely to seep down into other family generations.
- Systematic stability and or instability: Issues related to economic, social, political and financial factors will likely have a negative effect on the dynamic of a family.
Consequences of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family
Attachment issues are the gravest problem that can result from a dysfunctional family. While not a mental health condition, attachment issues can lead to mental health problems down the line. For instance, someone who felt that their caregiver was emotionally unavailable may develop dependent personality disorder (DPD) later in life out of fear that they will be abandoned or shut out of the lives of those they love.
Most mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar, come from early childhood issues.
“When a child is unable to depend on their caregiver to help them regulate their emotions, the part of their brain that helps them make sense of their feelings doesn’t develop properly,” says Richardson. “Most mental illness emerges in adolescence and early adulthood. The earlier an individual receives therapy or mental health counseling, the better chance they have to reverse that brain chemistry.”
Problems can also carry over into relationships outside of the family. One study looked at how dysfunctional families influenced dating relationships in young adults. The study sampled 322 students from three universities, who completed self-report questionnaires that measured dysfunctional family-of-origin rules, current dating behaviors, anxiety around dating, and relationship satisfaction and commitment.
The study found that the dysfunctional family-of-origin rules had an impact on dating behaviors, which resulted in dating anxiety, impact on relationship satisfaction, and commitment in the dating relationships of young adults. The youth surveyed who had grown up in families with dysfunctional rules tended to date later and less frequently than those who were from families with more functional rules, although they dated the same amount of partners.
Healing From a Dysfunctional Family
Just because you grew up in a dysfunctional family doesn’t mean there isn’t hope to live a healthy, balanced, and fulfilling life. There are several steps a person can take to receive the emotional support needed to heal from the effects of a dysfunctional family.
Attend individual counseling
If you’ve grown up in a dysfunctional household, doing the work on yourself is ultimately the best place to start tackling the trauma. Sometimes finding the right counsellor takes some time. If you’re looking to work on the issues brought about from dysfunctional family life, you should find a counsellor who specializes in family-focused therapy and cognitive work.
If your family members are safe people to process with, share what you are learning with them. Depending on where you are with the members of your family, it might be helpful to share with them what you’re learning about through your therapy sessions. Of course, not all members will be open to hearing about it, so tread lightly.
Identify unhealthy patterns from your family of origin and how these have shown up in your adult life
Understanding detrimental patterns that have stemmed from your family life is essential to addressing the issues and how they impact your current life. This work can be done with a professional, whether through individual counselling or family counselling.
Ask your current support system how they have seen these patterns play out
Having a support system outside of your family can be incredibly helpful in addressing issues that might be hard to see for yourself. The people who love you unconditionally will help identify your patterns and how they impact your life and well-being
Ask your current support system to hold you accountable in making changes
Doing the work is one step towards change, but applying the work is where things really start to shift. Asking those close to you to hold you accountable when it comes to making changes can have a profound impact on your life, as well as the lives of those around you.
There are many variables that define a dysfunctional family. And if you come from a household that fits into this type of dynamic, know that this doesn’t have to define you. It’s possible to work through the emotional consequences and with a strong support system. Speaking with a licensed online therapist can be a great first step toward getting you to a better place.