What is a dysfunctional family and what is it like growing up in one?

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Have you ever heard the phrase ‘it’s just the way I was raised’? As adults, many people comment on the effects of growing up in a ‘dysfunctional family’, ‘broken homes’ or having ‘bad parenting’. It’s not uncommon for people to blame current problems and predicaments on the way they were raised. But when do squabbling siblings and teenage rebellion become a family dynamic that has simply stopped functioning? And what can you do about it?

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What is a dysfunctional family?

The term dysfunctional family is very personal and subjective to each individual’s emotions. Everyone has their own personal opinion of what functioning looks like. The term ‘Dysfunctional Family’ has become commonplace in many cultures and is used to describe everything from single-parent households to physical and sexual abuse. 

The American Psychological Association defines a dysfunctional family as a family in which relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression. Whilst all families can experience periods of unrest, and we’ve all felt like screaming at our siblings from time to time, dysfunctional family units will experience several types of conflicts for a sustained period of time. These can include sexual or physical abuse, behavioural problems, major personality disorders, emotional abuse, alcohol and drug addictions, and violence.  

Signs of a dysfunctional family

Dysfunction in families can manifest in various forms. Here are some of the most common characteristics of dysfunctional families. 

  • Inadequate communication

Poor communication skills is one of the signs of a dysfunctional family. Communication is a crucial aspect of healthy relationships. Inadequate communication leads to misunderstandings and resentment. Dysfunctional family members rarely communicate with their own family members. There might be a lot of yelling and shouting and no real conversation. Dysfunctional family members tend to be full of blame and criticism, which often leads to arguments

  • Lack of intimacy and emotional connection

Members of dysfunctional families don’t show any signs of closeness or emotional connections among close family members. Parents of dysfunctional families are usually emotionally unavailable. One or both parents might appear cold, distant or withhold love and affection as a form of punishment. 

  • Abuse

Abuse is a significant problem demonstrated in dysfunctional families. There may be signs of emotional, verbal, physical or sexual abuse. The abuse could occur between parents, parents and child or siblings. Dysfunctional families tend to normalise the harmful treatment. 

  • Lack of empathy and emotional support

Lack of empathy and emotional support are other signs that show a family dynamic is not the healthiest. Children of dysfunctional families usually find no safe space to talk about any mistakes without being yelled at or being understood from their point of view. In most cases, one or both parents fail to provide the emotional support needed for the children. 

  • Blurred boundaries

Boundaries are important in every relationship. In dysfunctional families boundaries of family members aren’t respected and might be constantly invaded. A controlling parent might be making every decision at home or invading the child’s privacy. An avoidant parent might push the eldest child to take the parent role. 

Causes of a dysfunctional family

There are a variety of reasons for a family to become dysfunctional. Every family member plays an active role in continuing the dysfunction, with children being at the receiving end.

Parents play a crucial role in building a functional and healthy family. No parent is perfect but parents in dysfunctional families fail to provide a safe space for their children. Parents being abusive, controlling or emotionally unavailable will impact the family dynamics leading to a dysfunctional family. 

  • Parents struggling with substance use or personality disorder or severe mental health problems might not be able to create a healthy atmosphere at home.
  • Domestic violence at home impacts family functioning and creates an unpredictable and toxic environment which can also be a reason for families to be dysfunctional. 
  • Unfortunate or critical life events such as divorce or death of a parent or a huge financial loss can create a stressful environment causing dysfunctionality.
  • A family history of dysfunction can also be a cause of a dysfunctional family. Parents who have learned unhealthy parenting styles from their parents or from dysfunctional family setups continue the toxic cycle. 

a couple fighting

Impact of growing up in a dysfunctional family

Children growing up in a dysfunctional family are innocent and have absolutely little to no control over their toxic life environment; they generally grow up with emotional scarring caused by repeated trauma through their parent’s behaviours. Children will end up carrying dysfunctional behaviour traits and dysfunctional patterns into their adult lives.

Children who grow up in dysfunctional families can have extremely varying experiences depending on the characteristics shown by their family and also the severity of the situations.

  • Low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness

A drive for perfectionism is a constant negative influence we see in dysfunctional families. Perfectionism can lead to unrealistic expectations from oneself. This undying drive for an unrealistic goal can cause children to feel that no matter how hard they try they will not be good enough. This results in an ingrained feeling of incompetence or low self-esteem. 

  • Behavioural difficulties

Communication problems are one of the most common traits in dysfunctional families. The inability or unwillingness to listen to each other can result in some problematic communication development in children. The communication gap can often result in a variety of behavioural problems. Children often learn that behaving badly or poorly is a way to communicate their needs and often a way to get their needs met. For example, if a child is feeling overwhelmed by the noise of a classroom, they might express the angst by hitting out. They learnt through experience that communicating their problems will not get them heard, but that hitting out will get them removed from the classroom, and therefore solve the noise problem that was upsetting them in the first place. 

  • Anxiety 

Dysfunctional families are often erratic and chaotic, being in such an environment for a really long time can make individuals be on guard constantly. Growing up in an environment of constant criticism, control and poor communication can result in intense anxiety. These can include conditions such as OCD as well as generalised anxiety. Living in an unhealthy environment means that children often learn unhealthy coping strategies for these feelings which can worsen the sense of anxiety. These can include self-isolation, addiction and self-harm.

  • Depression

A critical environment is not conducive to positive self-esteem and lots of children who identify as growing up in dysfunctional families report feelings of low mood and depression. This is often made worse by the fact that they haven’t often been taught ways to deal with emotional distress which can make it difficult to feel like there is a way out. 

Depression and anxiety aren’t the only mental health conditions that are common when we talk about growing up in dysfunctional families. Eating disorders are more prevalent in this group due to the critical nature and lack of control. Children are more often also exposed to the issues around addiction including drugs, alcohol, and gambling. 

⚠️If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is at hand. Please visit this list of helplines and resources for different countries.

Tips for healing from a dysfunctional family

When a person has grown up with difficult relationships it can often feel like they will never experience a healthy family. If you believe the media and online quotes, there is no such thing as a functional family. However, this is simply not the case. Many families, regardless of how they are set up, function very well. People from these backgrounds can still learn to communicate openly and freely, listen to each other and resolve conflicts without holding a grudge. In their own families, they learn from the mistakes of their upbringing and show unconditional love for each other and ensure everyone’s basic physical and emotional needs are met. 

Breaking dysfunctional patterns takes time. The healing journey starts with being aware of dysfunctional family patterns and acknowledging them and breaking the cycle of dysfunctional family dynamics. 

1. Build a support system 

Build a network of people to rely on, it could be friends or other like-minded people or people who have gone through similar experiences. Having a support group helps you open up and build a safe space for yourself. For example, Wysa has a Facebook group of users at Wysa_buddy_safe_space who share experiences like this and discuss ways to cope. It is free to join. 

2. Learn to set boundaries

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can make it hard for individuals to set boundaries without feeling guilt and shame. Prioritising your needs and mental health isn’t selfish. Learn to say no to things that you aren’t comfortable with and draw boundaries even with family members. 

3. Seek help

If you experienced a dysfunctional family setting as a child, talking about those experiences is an important part of moving forward. Therapy can be one important way of doing this, allowing you to reflect on your experiences and how they made you feel. 

There are also a lot of self-help activities you can do alongside therapy, such as those found in the mental health app Wysa, which will help boost your self-esteem and confidence, and help you learn those communication skills you weren’t shown when you were younger. 

The important thing to remember is that you are not defined by your past, nor does it set your future in stone. When you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety or low mood, and all you really want to do is hide away from a world you don’t completely trust, it can be hard to ask for help. But with the right help, you can live whichever life you choose. Try to manage anxiety, depression or any loneliness that you might be experiencing, and remember Wysa and the Wysa coaching team are here for you.

Photo by Monstera 

Photo by Yan Krukau 

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