A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehaviour and even abuse on the part of individual members of the family occur continually, 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 often a result of the alcoholism, substance abuse, or other addictions of parents, parents’ untreated mental illnesses/defects or personality disorders, or the parents emulating their own dysfunctional parents and dysfunctional family experiences.
Dysfunctional family members have common symptoms and behavior patterns as a result of their common 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.
According to Steven Farmer, the author of Adult Children of Abusive Parents, there are several symptoms of family dysfunction:
- Denial (i.e. a refusal to acknowledge the alcoholism of a parent; ignoring complaints of sexual abuse)
- Inconsistency and Unpredictability
- Lack of Empathy toward family members
- Lack of clear boundaries (i.e. throwing away personal possessions that belong to others, inappropriate touching, etc.)
- Role reversals ("parentifying" children)
- "Closed family system" (a socially isolated family that discourages relationships with outsiders)
- Mixed Messages
- Extremes in Conflict (either too much or too little fighting between family members)
Dr. Dan Neuharth, author of If You Had Controlling Parents also expounds on dysfunctional families. (He uses the terms "controlling parents", "unhealthy control" and "over control" throughout his book.) He cites eight signs of unhealthy parenting:
- Conditional love
- Stifled speech (children not allowed to dissent or question authority)
- Emotional intolerance (family members not allowed to express the "wrong" emotions)
- "Dogmatic or chaotic parenting" (harsh and inflexible discipline)
- "Denial of an Inner Life (children are not allowed to develop their own value system)
- Social dysfunction or isolation
Neuharth also lists eight different parenting styles which cause family dysfunction:
- Smothering (parents do not allow their children to maintain a separate identity)
- Using (destructively narcissistic parents)
- Abusing (parents who use physical, verbal, or sexual violence to dominate their children)
- Chaotic (unstable parents who behave in a wildly inconsistent manner with their kids)
- Perfectionist( parents who "fixate on order, prestige, power, and/or perfect appearances".)
- Cultlike (parents who feel uncertain and "raise their children according to rigid rules and roles".)
- Depriving (parents who control by withholding love, money, praise, attention, or anything else their child needs or wants.)
- Childlike (parents who parentify their children. They tend to be needy and incompetent. Usually allow the other parent to abuse children.)
Effects on Children
Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt one or more of five basic roles:
- "The Good Child" – often the family hero who assumes the parental role.
- "The Problem Child" – the family scapegoat, who is blamed for most problems.
- "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 often ignored or hidden.
- "The Mastermind" – the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members’ faults in order to get whatever he/she wants.
They may also:
- distrust others
- have difficulty expressing emotions
- have low self-esteem or have a poor self-image
- have difficulty forming healthy relationships with others
- feel angry, anxious, depressed, isolated from others, or unlovable
- perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors in their other relationships (especially their children)