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.
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:
Though not universal among dysfunctional families, and by no means exclusive to them, the following features are typical of dysfunctional families:
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:
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.
Coalitions are subsystems within families with more rigid boundaries and are thought to be a sign of family dysfunction.
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.
Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt or be assigned one or more of the following six basic roles:
Children that are a product of dysfunctional families, either at the time or as they grow older, may exhibit behavior that is inappropriate for their expected stage of development due to psychological distress. Children of dysfunctional families may also behave in a manner that is relatively immature when compared to their peers. Conversely, other children may appear to emotionally "grow up too fast"; or be in a mixed mode (e.g. well-behaved, but unable to care for themselves.) Children from dysfunctional environments also have a tendency to demonstrate learned unhealthy attachments due to intergenerational dysfunctional parenting.
The effects of a disordered upbringing may induce an array of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. A disordered family environment unfortunately places these young individuals at a higher risk of engaging in more severe actions of self-harm and problematic conduct. This troubled environment can also subject the youth to a significantly higher risk of becoming addicted to drugs or developing alcoholism, especially if parents or close peers have a history of substance use. Numerous studies have determined that deviant peer associations are generally associated with substance use and that parental use can account for one-half to two-thirds of future instances of chemical dependency. There is also an increased risk of the young individual developing behavioral addictions in the forms of gambling, pornography addictions, or engaging in other future detrimental activities such as compulsive spending.
Children who are raised in dysfunctional environments are also at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder as an emotional coping method due to psychological distress.
These young individuals may also have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships within their peer group, due to social apprehensions, possible personality disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorders. A child may also demonstrate oppositional defiant characteristics by rebelling against parental authority, and non-family adults, or conversely, upholding their family's values in the face of peer pressure. Children of disordered environments may also demonstrate a lack of self-discipline when their parents are not around, or develop procrastinating tendencies that can have detrimental effects on their educational/occupational obligations.
Additionally, children may demonstrate social inadequacies by spending an inordinate amount of time engaging in activities that lack in-person social interaction. This disordered upbringing can also promote the child to project aggressive behaviors on their peers by bullying or harassing others or becoming a victim of bullying. Both of these roles often lead to an elevated risk of the child having low self-esteem issues, increased prevalence of isolation, and difficulties expressing emotions, a common effect related to emotional and physical abuse.
A lack of parental structure and positive peer influences can lead young individuals to seek alternative forms of peer alliances, including peer groups that engage in juvenile delinquency and those who perform acts that are knowingly illegal or demonstrate symptoms of an oppositional defiant disorder. This habitual behavior and environmental factors can also lead the troubled youth to a life of crime, or to become involved in gang activity.
This lack of socially normative structure and defiant behavior is also notable in cases where sexual abuse was prevalent. Early sexual experiences can lead to sexually inappropriate behavior that could lead to future interest in pedophilia, or facing charges that can result in the individual becoming a sex offender. A 1999 study determined that children who had experienced abusive sexual experiences, "as compared to those without, were more likely to be victims of physical family violence, to have run away, to be substance abusers, and to have family members with drug or alcohol problems" (Kellogg et al, 1999). Additionally, the young individual may be at an elevated risk of becoming poor or homeless, even in cases where the child's environment consisted of an average/above-average socioeconomic standing.
Further socialization problems can be demonstrated by children of dysfunctional families, including habitual or sudden academic performance problems. This notion can be more apparent as the child may exhibit a severe lack of organizational skills in their day-to-day lives. These individuals are also at an elevated inability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, which often includes distrusting others or even demonstrating paranoid behaviors that can be indicative of childhood trauma-induced psychosis and schizophrenia. There is also a higher probability of the youth engaging in future unstable empathetical relationships, with higher tendencies to engage in more risky behavior, including sex with multiple partners, becoming pregnant, or becoming a parent of illegitimate children.
Further dysfunctional behaviors can be perpetuated in other future relationships. An individual that was raised in a dysfunctional home environment may also pass this learned behavior on to their offspring, including their substance use habits, conflict resolution methods, and learned social boundaries. These social inadequacies can result in individuals demonstrating self-protective behaviors, to compensate for the difference in their childhoods, as they may have the inability to practice positive self-care and effective emotional coping strategies.
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 thefe, 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.
People who grew up in dysfunctional families often feel that everything that goes wrong in the world is their fault.
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/