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Affective ties and conflicts in the same family space.
Affective ties and conflicts in the same family space.

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse 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 addictions (such as substance abuse, such drugs including alcohol), or sometimes by an untreated mental illness. Dysfunctional parents may emulate or over-correct from their own dysfunctional 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

In many cases, the following would cause a family to be dysfunctional:[7]

Laundry List

The Laundry List is core literature of the program Adult Children of Alcoholics. It comprises 14 common traits of an adult child of an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family:

  1. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
  2. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
  3. We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
  4. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
  5. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc.
  6. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
  7. We became addicted to excitement.
  8. We confuse love and pity and tend to "love" people we can "pity" and "rescue."
  9. We have "stuffed" our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (denial).
  10. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
  11. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
  12. Alcoholism is a family disease, and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
  13. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.


Unhealthy signs

Unhealthy parenting signs, which could lead to a family becoming dysfunctional include:[8]

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.[13]


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:[14][15]

Effects on children

Children of dysfunctional families, either at the time, or as they grow older, may also:[14]

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.
  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. ^ Hsieh, Yi-Ping; Shen, April Chiung-Tao; Hwa, Hsiao-Lin; Wei, Hsi-Sheng; Feng, Jui-Ying; Huang, Soar Ching-Yu (January 2021). "Associations Between Child Maltreatment, Dysfunctional Family Environment, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Children's Bullying Perpetration in a National Representative Sample in Taiwan". Journal of Family Violence. 36 (1): 27–36. doi:10.1007/s10896-020-00144-6. ISSN 0885-7482.
  8. ^ Blair, Justice; Blair, Rita (April 1990). The Abusing Family (Revised ed.). Insight Books. ISBN 978-0306434419.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "Praise, encouragement and rewards". Raising Children Network. 2011-04-10. Archived from the original on 2019-03-28.
  11. ^ [9]
  12. ^ Kagan, Richard; Schlosberg, Shirley (1989-03-17). Families in Perpetual Crisis. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393700664.
  13. ^ Whiteman, Shawn D.; McHale, Susan M.; Soli, Anna."Theoretical Perspectives on Sibling Relationships" Archived 2017-11-15 at the Wayback Machine, J Fam Theory Rev., 2012 Jun 1; Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 124–139, PMC 3127252.
  14. ^ a b Forgiving Our Parents: For Adult Children from Dysfunctional Families by Dwight Lee Wolter c. 1995.[full citation needed] Except where individually noted
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Polson and Newton, pp. 81–84
  17. ^ [Polson and Newton, pp. 84–85]
  18. ^ Polson and Newton, pp. 86–90
  19. ^ Polson and Newton, pp. 85–86
  20. ^ "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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ "Child Abuse". Long Beach Fire Department Training Center. 2009-09-19. Archived from the original on 2010-01-31.

Further reading