Defining the Traits of Dysfunctional Families

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A dysfunctional family is one in which conflict and instability are common. Parents might abuse or neglect their children, and other family members are often forced to accommodate and enable negative behavior. In some cases, dysfunctional families can be the result of addiction, codependency, or untreated mental illness.

No family is perfect, but it’s important to note that an argument or accidental insult does not qualify as dysfunction. In fact, dysfunction may only become evident when adverse behaviors make it difficult for individual family members to function, thrive, and grow as human beings. So while the term “dysfunctional family” might be used flippantly in popular culture, growing up in a toxic environment can have a lasting impact as children transition into adulthood.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals are uniquely able to address some of the common issues associated with dysfunctional families at the source, helping their clients to overcome issues and any resulting trauma.

Common Characteristics

The following are some of the defining traits of dysfunctional family dynamics:

Poor communication: Communication is one of the most important building blocks of good relationships. Dysfunctional families are unable to listen to one another, so individual members often feel misunderstood or like their voices aren’t heard. In addition, communication in dysfunctional families is disjointed rather than direct: “Family members talk about each other to other members of the family, but don’t confront each other directly. This creates passive-aggressive behavior, tension, and mistrust,” Psychology Today says.   

Drug or alcohol abuse: When drug or alcohol abuse exists in a family, “family rules, roles and relationships are established and organized around the alcohol and/or other substances, in an effort to … maintain the family’s homeostasis and balance,” according to subject matter expert Marni Low. Family members also tend to fall into certain well-defined roles, such as enabler and scapegoat. Enablers do whatever they can to ensure the household runs smoothly in spite of the substance abuse, while the scapegoat is usually a child in the family who acts out to deflect the negative experiences happening at home.

Perfectionism: In a dysfunctional family, one or more adults may be perfectionists. They have very high expectations for children or other family members and don’t accept failure. This has a lasting negative effect, reducing playfulness and assimilation of knowledge in children. Perfectionism creates a “steady source of negative emotions” that causes individuals to constantly feel inadequate, according to Psychology Today.

Lack of empathy: One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional family is lack of empathy. Parents do not show unconditional love, instead becoming judgmental. Rather than attempting to understand a child’s feelings and point of view, a dysfunctional parent might rely on anger or derision, making the child feel guilty or demeaned. Parents “lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids,” according to Psychology Today, causing children to internalize negative feelings.

Control: In a dysfunctional family structure, one or more parents often focus on controlling their children. They might pit children against one another and make them compete for affection, or constantly compare them. Other important elements of control are dependence and lack of privacy. “Researchers found that people who reported their parents had intruded on their privacy in childhood or encouraged dependence were more likely to have low scores in surveys of happiness and general wellbeing,” The Independent reports. When children aren’t allowed to make their own decisions, they grow up without the confidence to excel in the classroom or workplace.

Excessive criticism: Criticism and other verbal abuse are particularly difficult for children to overcome. Parents in dysfunctional families often criticize a child’s looks, intelligence, value, or abilities. Some criticism might be direct, while other forms are more subtle and relayed in the form of teasing or put-downs. Regardless of delivery, consistent criticism from parents has a negative impact on self-image and development.

The Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family

Having dysfunctional parents or a dysfunctional family dynamic can cause children to struggle later in life. According to the No Bullying campaign, “Some of the impact family dysfunction may have on children is the development of various disorders and negative behaviors. Children involved with a dysfunctional family unit could have study problems in school. They could [also] drift into drug or alcohol abuse.”

Children from dysfunctional families are also more likely to become withdrawn and socially isolated. They often feel lonely and have difficulty expressing their feelings, and they are at risk of developing depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and more. As children mature, these problems persist. Adult children of dysfunctional families “suffer internally from self-rejection and self-criticism. They can have depression, anxiety, and addictive behavior issues,” No Bullying says.

Perhaps most serious of all, these individuals can continue the cycle by developing their own parenting problems and perpetuating the dysfunctional dynamic. Psych Central notes that “Neural pathways developed from childhood traumatic experiences help shape how we respond to others and adults often find themselves repeating the same behaviors and patterns throughout their lives.”

How You Can Help: Psychology Education at King University

Psychologists and other mental health professionals work closely with children, adults, and families to help them cope with difficult life situations and find strategies to better their lives. In fact, they can play a central role in guiding dysfunctional families toward healing and long-term improvement.

Earning an online Bachelor of Science in Psychology is a common first step for those interested in mental health careers. The undergraduate degree provides a comprehensive background and foundational learning in psychology that can prepare students for the workforce or graduate study. King University’s online psychology degree is designed to prepare students with the skills they need for many mental health and social services careers.

The psychology degree program at King University teaches students key competencies in psychology, communication, research, and critical thinking. Students develop their knowledge of sociocultural diversity and psychological behavior. King University’s undergraduate coursework can be completed in as little as 16 months, preparing graduates to begin their psychology careers or continue their education with further study in the field.