Dysfunctional Family: What It Is And What It’s Like To Grow Up


15 min read

Almost everyone I know, at some point or another, has used the phrase ‘it is just the way I was raised’. As adults, many people comment on the effect of ‘dysfunctional family’, ‘broken homes’ or ‘bad parenting’. And it’s not uncommon for people to blame current problems and predicaments on the way they were brought up. But when do squabbling siblings and teenage rebellion become a family dynamic that has simply stopped functioning?

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. 

However, in modern psychology, the term dysfunctional family is described as a family where their interpersonal relationships are distracting or damaging the emotional well-being and physical health of its members. 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, behavioral problems, emotional abuse, alcohol and drug addictions, and violence in children.  

It is a term we mainly use when approaching a mental health diagnosis from a systemic point of view. Here we look at how all of the different interactions within the family are contributing to and sustaining the difficulty that person has sought help for. 

What can it be like growing up in a dysfunctional family?

Dysfunctional Family: What It Is And What It’s Like To Grow Up

Victimized children growing up in a dysfunctional family are innocent and have absolutely no control over their toxic life environment; they grew up with multiple emotional scarring caused by repeated trauma and pain from their parents’ actions, words, and attitudes. Ultimately, they will have different growth and nurture of their individual self.

There are many reasons for a family to become dysfunctional including physical or mental health problems, negative life experiences such as loss of loved ones or financial problems, substance abuse or addiction, etc. But just because a family’s functioning is impaired it does not mean there is no love there, although it may mean it is being expressed in unhealthy ways. 

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.

Common difficulties faced by children in the dysfunctional family:

Low Self Esteem

A drive for perfectionism is a constant negative influence we see in dysfunctional families. 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. 

Behavioral 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 behavioral problems. Most often children 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. Because they had experienced 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. 


Growing up in an environment of constant criticism, control and poor communication can result in intense anxieties. These can include conditions such as OCD as well as generalized 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-isolating, addictions, and self-harm


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. 

So what on earth can you do about it?

When a person has grown up with difficult relationships it can often feel like they will never experience a healthy family, indeed if you believe the media and online quotes, there is no such thing as a functioning family. However, this is simply not the case. Many Families, regardless of how they are set up, function very well. People communicate openly and freely, they listen to each other and resolve conflicts without holding a grudge. They show unconditional love for each other and everyone’s basic physical and emotional needs are met. 

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 WYSA, which will help boost your self-esteem, your confidence and learn those communication strategies 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 your 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 decide. Try Wysa to manage anxiety, depression or any loneliness that you might be experiencing. We are here for you.

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