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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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3][need quotation to verify]

Dysfunctional families pervade all strata of society regardless of social, financial or intellectual status.[citation needed] 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.[4][failed verification][5][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.[6]

Common features

Nearly universal

Some features are common to most dysfunctional families:

Not universal

Though not universal among dysfunctional families, and by no means exclusive to them, the following features are typical of dysfunctional families:

Specific examples

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.

Laundry List

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.[8]


Unhealthy signs

Unhealthy parenting signs, which could lead to a family becoming dysfunctional include:[9]

Dysfunctional styles


"Children as pawns"

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.

List of other dysfunctional styles


Coalitions are subsystems within families with more rigid boundaries and are thought to be a sign of family dysfunction.[14]


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:[15][16]

Effects on children

Children of dysfunctional families, either at the time, or as they grow older, may also:[15]

Positive Outcomes

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.[citation needed] 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.

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ Masteller, James; Stoop, David (1991). "The Blame Game". Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (revised and updated ed.). (published 2011). p. 222. ISBN 9781459622937. Retrieved 20 October 2019. People who grew up in dysfunctional families often feel that everything that goes wrong in the world is their fault.
  2. ^ Xiang, Shiyuan; Liu, Yan; Lu, Yitian; Bai, Lu; Xu, Shenghan (February 2020). "Exploring the family origins of adolescent dysfunctional separation–individuation". Journal of Child and Family Studies. 29 (2): 382–391. doi:10.1007/s10826-019-01644-w. ISSN 1062-1024. S2CID 210539668.
  3. ^ Kerr, Michael E.; Bowen, Murray (1988-10-17). Family Evaluation: an approach based on Bowen theory. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393700565.
  4. ^ Millett, Kate (1998). "The Theory of Sexual Politics". In Marsh, Ian; Campbell, Rosie; Keating, Mike (eds.). Classic and Contemporary Readings in Sociology. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315840154. ISBN 978-0582320239. Archived from the original on 2015-05-19. Retrieved 2015-01-25.
  5. ^ Napier, Nancy J. (April 1990). Recreating Your Self: Help for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. ISBN 978-0393028423.
  6. ^ Kaslow, Florence W. (January 1996). Handbook of Relational Diagnosis and Dysfunctional Family Patterns. Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 978-0471080787.
  7. ^ Italy), International Conference on Information Processing and Management of Uncertainty in Knowledge-Based Systems (14th : 2012 : Catania (2012). Advances in computational intelligence : 14th International Conference on Information Processing and Management of Uncertainty in Knowledge-Based Systems, IPMU 2012, Catania, Italy, July 9-13, 2012. Proceedings. Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-31709-5. OCLC 802337663.
  8. ^ Italy), International Conference on Information Processing and Management of Uncertainty in Knowledge-Based Systems (14th : 2012 : Catania (2012). Advances in computational intelligence : 14th International Conference on Information Processing and Management of Uncertainty in Knowledge-Based Systems, IPMU 2012, Catania, Italy, July 9-13, 2012. Proceedings. Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-31709-5. OCLC 802337663.
  9. ^ Blair, Justice; Blair, Rita (April 1990). The Abusing Family (Revised ed.). Insight Books. ISBN 978-0306434419.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Neuharth, Dan (1999). If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. Diane Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0788193835.
  11. ^ "Praise, encouragement and rewards". Raising Children Network. 2011-04-10. Archived from the original on 2019-03-28.
  12. ^ [9]
  13. ^ Kagan, Richard; Schlosberg, Shirley (1989-03-17). Families in Perpetual Crisis. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393700664.
  14. ^ Whiteman, S. D.; McHale, S. M.; Soli, A. (2011). "Theoretical Perspectives on Sibling Relationships". Journal of Family Theory & Review. 3 (2): 124–139. doi:10.1111/j.1756-2589.2011.00087.x. PMC 3127252. PMID 21731581.
  15. ^ a b Forgiving Our Parents: For Adult Children from Dysfunctional Families by Dwight Lee Wolter c. 1995.[full citation needed] Except where individually noted
  16. ^ Polson, Beth; Newton, Miller (1984). Not My Kid: A Family's Guide to Kids and Drugs. Arbor Books / Kids of North Jersey Nurses. ISBN 978-0877956334.
  17. ^ Polson and Newton, pp. 81–84
  18. ^ [Polson and Newton, pp. 84–85]
  19. ^ Polson and Newton, pp. 86–90
  20. ^ Polson and Newton, pp. 85–86
  21. ^ "Good parents 'buffer' their kids' minds". The Sydney Morning Herald. AAP. 2010-09-21. Archived from the original on 2018-03-24. Retrieved 2012-06-13.
  22. ^ Glasser, M.; Kolvin, I.; Campbell, D.; Glasser, A.; Leitch, I.; Farrelly, S. (December 2001). "Cycle of child sexual abuse: Links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator". The British Journal of Psychiatry. 179 (6): 482–494. doi:10.1192/bjp.179.6.482. PMID 11731348.
  23. ^ "Child Abuse". Long Beach Fire Department Training Center. 2009-09-19. Archived from the original on 2010-01-31.

References Cont.

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,

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

Further reading