A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse and sometimes even all of the above on the part of individual parents occur continuously and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such a situation is normal. Dysfunctional families are primarily a result of two adults, one typically overtly abusive and the other codependent, and may also be affected by substance abuse or other forms of addiction, or sometimes by an untreated mental illness. Parents having grown up in a dysfunctional family may over-correct or emulate their own parents. In some cases, the dominant parent will abuse or neglect their children and the other parent will not object, misleading a child to assume blame.
Perceptions and historical context
A common misperception of dysfunctional families is the mistaken belief that the parents are on the verge of separation and divorce. While this is true in a few cases, often the marital satisfaction is very strong as the parents' faults actually complement each other. In short, they have nowhere else to go. However, this does not necessarily mean the family's situation is stable. Any major stressor, such as relocation, unemployment/underemployment, physical or mental illness, natural disaster, etc., can cause existing difficulties affecting the children to become much worse.[need quotation to verify]
Dysfunctional families pervade all strata of society regardless of social, financial or intellectual status. Nevertheless, until recent decades,[timeframe?] professionals (therapists, social workers, teachers, counselors, clergy, etc.) did not take the concept of a dysfunctional family seriously, especially not with reference to the middle and upper classes. Any intervention would have been seen[by whom?] as violating the sanctity of marriage and increasing the probability of divorce, which was socially unacceptable at the time.[when?] Historically, society expected the children of dysfunctional families to obey their parents (ultimately the father), and to cope with the situation alone.[failed verification][need quotation to verify]
Dysfunctional family members have common features and behavior patterns as a result of their 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.
Some features are common to most dysfunctional families:
Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy or appeasement towards one or more members who have real or perceived "special needs". In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than they deserve, while another is marginalized.
Denial (refusal to acknowledge abusive behavior, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the "elephant in the room".)
Inadequate or missing boundaries for self (e.g. tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment, tolerance of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.)
Disrespect of others' boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises without just cause; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed.)
Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient peaceful arguing between family members.)
Unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role (mother, etc.), abilities, race, caste, etc. (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven/inconsistent enforcement of rules.)
Though not universal among dysfunctional families, and by no means exclusive to them, the following features are typical of dysfunctional families:
Between separated or divorced parents, usually related to, or arising from their breakup.
Conflict between parents who remain married, often for the perceived "sake" of the children, but whose separation or divorce would in fact remove a detrimental influence on those children (must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as a breakup may harm children.)
Parents who wish to divorce, but cannot due to financial, societal (including religious), or legal reasons.
Children afraid to talk (within or outside the family) about what is happening at home, or are otherwise fearful of their parents.
Lack of time spent together, especially in recreational activities and social events ("We never do anything as a family.")
Parents insist that they treat their children fairly and equitably when that is not the case.
Family members (including children) who disown each other, or refuse to be seen together in public (either unilaterally or bilaterally.)
Children of parents who are experiencing a substance use disorder or who engage in binge drinking have an increased tendency to adopt substance use disorders later in life.
There are certain times where families can become dysfunctional due to specific situational examples. Some of these include difficulty integrating into a new culture, strain in the relationship between nuclear and extended family members, children in a rebellion phase, and ideological differences in belief systems.
The program "Adult Children of Alcoholics" includes something labeled as a "Laundry List". The Laundry List is core literature of the program Adult Children of Alcoholics. This list has 14 different statements that relate to being an adult child of a parent with an alcohol addiction. These statements provide commentary on how children have been affected by the trauma of having alcoholic parents. Some highlights of the statements include, "confusing love and pity", "having low self-esteem", and having a "loss of identity". The Laundry list is a helpful tool in group therapy in order to show families that they are not alone in their struggles. Female children whose parents were alcoholics have an increased risk of developing depression. Male children of alcoholics are at a significantly higher risk for developing a substance use disorder.
Unhealthy parenting signs, which could lead to a family becoming dysfunctional include:
Social dysfunction or isolation (for example, parents unwilling to reach out to other families—especially those with children of the same gender and approximate age, or do nothing to help their "friendless" child.)
Stifled speech (children not allowed to dissent or question authority.)
Denial of an "inner life" (children are not allowed to develop their own value systems.)
"Tunnel vision" diagnosis of children's problems (for example, a parent may think their child is either lazy or has learning disabilities after he falls behind in school despite recent absence due to illness.)
Older siblings given either no or excessive authority over younger siblings with respect to their age difference and level of maturity.
Frequent withholding of consent ("blessing") for culturally common, lawful, and age-appropriate activities a child wants to take part in
The "know-it-all" (has no need to obtain child's side of the story when accusing, or listen to child's opinions on matters which greatly impact them.)
Regularly forcing children to attend activities for which they are extremely over- or under-qualified (e.g. using a preschool to babysit a typical nine-year-old boy, taking a young child to poker games, etc.)
Either being a miser ("scrooge") in totality or selectively allowing children's needs to go unmet (e.g. a father will not buy a bicycle for his son because he wants to save money for retirement or "something important".)
Disagreements about nature and nurture (parents, often non-biological, blame common problems on child's heredity, when faulty parenting may be the actual cause.)
One common dysfunctional parental behavior is a parent's manipulation of a child in order to achieve some outcome adverse to the other parent's rights or interests. Examples include verbal manipulation such as spreading gossip about the other parent, communicating with the parent through the child (and in the process exposing the child to the risks of the other parent's displeasure with that communication) rather than doing so directly, trying to obtain information through the child (spying), or causing the child to dislike the other parent, with insufficient or no concern for the damaging effects of the parent's behavior on the child. While many instances of such manipulation occur in shared custody situations that have resulted from separation or divorce, it can also take place in intact families, where it is known as triangulation.
Abuse among siblings (parents fail to intervene when a sibling physically or sexually abuses another sibling.)
Abandonment (a parent who willfully separates from their children, not wishing any further contact, and in some cases without locating alternative, long-term parenting arrangements, leaving them as orphans.)
Appeasement (parents who reward bad behavior—even by their own standards—and inevitably punish another child's good behavior in order to maintain the peace and avoid temper tantrums. "Peace at any price.")
Loyalty manipulation (giving unearned rewards and lavish attention trying to ensure a favored, yet rebellious child will be the one most loyal and well-behaved, while subtly ignoring the wants and needs of their most loyal child currently.)
"The deceivers" (well-regarded parents in the community, likely to be involved in some charitable/non-profit works, who abuse or mistreat one or more of their children.)
"Public image manager" (sometimes related to above, children warned to not disclose what fights, abuse, or damage happens at home, or face severe punishment "Don't tell anyone what goes on in this family".)
"The paranoid parent" (a parent having persistent and irrational fear accompanied by anger and false accusations that their child is up to no good or others are plotting harm.)
"No friends allowed" (parents discourage, prohibit, or interfere with their child from making friends of the same age and gender.)
Role reversal (parents who expect their minor children to take care of them instead.)
"Not your business" (children continuously told that a particular brother or sister who is often causing problems is none of their concern.)
Ultra-egalitarianism (either a much younger child is permitted to do whatever an older child may, or an older child must wait years until a younger child is mature enough.)
"The guard dog" (a parent who blindly attacks family members perceived as causing the slightest upset to their esteemed spouse, partner, or child.)
"My baby forever" (a parent who will not allow one or more of their young children to grow up and begin taking care of themselves.)
"The cheerleader" (one parent "cheers on" the other parent who is simultaneously abusing their child.)
"Along for the ride" (a reluctant de facto, step, foster, or adoptive parent who does not truly care about their non-biological child, but must co-exist in the same home for the sake of their spouse or partner) (See also: Cinderella effect).
"The politician" (a parent who repeatedly makes or agrees to children's promises while having little to no intention of keeping them.)
"It's taboo" (parents rebuff any questions children may have about sexuality, pregnancy, romance, puberty, certain areas of human anatomy, nudity, etc.)
Identified patient (one child, usually selected by the mother, who is forced into going to therapy while the family's overall dysfunction is kept hidden.)
The balkanized family (named after the three-way war in the Balkans where alliances shift back and forth.)
Free-for-all (a family that fights in a "free-for-all" style, though may become polarized when range of possible choices is limited.)
Unlike divorce, and to a lesser extent, separation, there is often no record of an "intact" family being dysfunctional. As a result, friends, relatives, and teachers of such children may be completely unaware of the situation. In addition, a child may be unfairly blamed for the family's dysfunction, and placed under even greater stress than those whose parents separate.
The six basic roles
Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt or be assigned one or more of the following six basic roles:
The Golden Child (also known as the Hero or Superkid): a child who becomes a high achiever or overachiever outside the family (e.g., in academics or athletics) as a means of escaping the dysfunctional family environment, defining themselves independently of their role in the dysfunctional family, currying favor with parents, or shielding themselves from criticism by family members.
The Problem Child, Rebel, or Truth Teller: the child who a) causes most problems related to the family's dysfunction or b) "acts out" in response to preexisting family dysfunction, in the latter case often in an attempt to divert attention paid to another member who exhibits a pattern of similar misbehavior.
A variant of the "problem child" role is the Scapegoat, who is unjustifiably assigned the "problem child" role by others within the family or even wrongfully blamed by other family members for those members' own individual or collective dysfunction, often despite being the only emotionally stable member of the family.
The Caretaker: the one who takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family, often assuming a parental role; the intra-familial counterpart of the "Good Child"/"Superkid."
The Lost Child or Passive Kid: the inconspicuous, introverted, quiet one, whose needs are usually ignored or hidden.
The Mascot or Family Clown: uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.
The Mastermind: the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members' faults to get whatever they want; often the object of appeasement by grown-ups.
Effects on children
Children of dysfunctional families, either at the time, or as they grow older, may also:
Lack the ability to be playful, or childlike, and may "grow up too fast"; conversely they may grow up too slowly, or be in a mixed mode (e.g. well-behaved, but unable to care for themselves.)
Spend an inordinate amount of time alone watching television, playing video games, surfing the Internet, listening to music, going out for late night drives alone, and engaging in other activities which lack in-person social interaction.
Exhibits lack of organization in their day-to-day lives.
Rebel against parental authority, or conversely, uphold their family's values in the face of peer pressure, or even try to take an impossible "middle ground" that pleases no one.
Turning the tables by abusing their abusive elderly parents, upon the former reaching adulthood.
Think only of themselves to make up the difference of their childhoods (as they are still learning the balance of self-love.)
Have little self-discipline when parents are not around, such as compulsive spending, procrastinating too close to deadlines, etc. (unfamiliar, inchoate, and seemingly lax or avoidable real-world consequences vs. known, concrete, and rigidly imposed parental consequences.)
Strive (as young adults) to live far away from particular family members or the family as a whole, possibly spending much more time with extended family.
Perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors in other relationships (especially their own children.)
Although there are many negative outcomes that came come from growing up in a dysfunctional household, the brain can be able to produce positive ones as well. As discussed in the article, "Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families", resilience is something that can come out of these obstacles in children's lives and make for a brighter future. Resilience is defined as something positive that is able to be brought forth from negative experiences in childhood. (Resilience in Adult Children of Alcoholics: A Nonpathological Approach to Social Work Practice). This refers to the ability for children who go through many hardships with their parents growing up to be able to take those hardships and learn from them in order to develop better coping strategies and find meaning in their futures. For example, when children find themselves in a dysfunctional family life, they may take the route of either isolating themselves, or reaching out for help. When children reach out for help, they can develop resiliency over time by fostering positive relationships with guidance counselors, or other trusted adults that will continue to stay strong after they become adults themselves.
Resilience is also something that can be strengthened through community settings and positive interactions with others. A dysfunctional family can create a large amount of trauma for children that they may carry into their adult lives. Although different families may create different types of trauma for children, the way that trauma is processed is very similar. When children are able to bond and help each other through the process of dealing with trauma, they can find comfort, which in turn promotes resiliency. What trauma tends to do is make people feel like there is something wrong with them, and they should keep themselves away from the rest of society. This is why recognizing that one is not alone in their struggles is an extremely powerful thing.
Resources and Hope
The organization Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA) serves as an extremely useful tool in providing support for people who come from a dysfunctional childhood where their caretakers suffered with alcoholism. What the ACA does that is hold a twelve step program that is designed to create emotional healing in adult children. By doing this, the program hopes to see the adult children equally as worthy of help and support as the people in their families who faced the alcoholism themselves. There are multiple kinds of meetings that the organization holds in order to bring resources to all different groups (women, men, LGBTQ+, teens, young adults). These meeting settings also have different formats, so that people can be met where they are in their individual healing journey. For example, one could view a guest speaker's presentation before they go into any formal counseling. This is a significant aspect to the resource of meetings, because some people feel too overwhelmed by certain settings to even begin the process. It is better for a person to join the organization at all, than to be too nervous to go to a full-blown meeting and be turned away forever.
23. Palmer, Nancie. (August 1997). Resilience in Adult Children of Alcoholics:A Nonpathological Approach to Social Work Practice, Health & Social Work, 22 (3) pp. 201–209, https://doi.org/10.1093/hsw/22.3.201
24. ACA Worldwide. (2022, April 14). Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families World Service Organization. Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://adultchildren.org/