Dysfunctional family

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A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal. Dysfunctional families are primarily a result of co-dependent adults,[1] and may also be affected by addictions, such as substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc.), or sometimes an untreated mental illness.[1] Dysfunctional parents may emulate or over-correct from their own dysfunctional parents. In some cases, a "child-like" parent will allow the dominant parent to abuse their children.[1]


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 marriage bond 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 conflicts affecting the children to become much worse.[2]

Dysfunctional families have no social, financial or intellectual bounds. Nevertheless, until recent decades the concept of a dysfunctional family was not taken seriously by professionals (therapists, social workers, teachers, counselors, clergy, etc.), especially among the middle and upper classes. Any intervention would have been seen as violating the sanctity of marriage and increasing the probability of divorce, which was socially unacceptable at the time. Historically, children of dysfunctional families were expected to obey their parents (ultimately the father), and cope with the situation alone.[3]


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.[4]

Common features[edit]

Near universal[edit]

Some features are common to most dysfunctional families:

Not universal[edit]

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

Specific examples[edit]

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


Unhealthy parenting signs[edit]

List of unhealthy parenting signs which could lead to a family becoming dysfunctional:[5]

Dysfunctional parenting styles[edit]


"Kids as pawns"[edit]

This occurs when a parent manipulates a child to achieve some negative result in the other parent, rather than communicating with them directly. Examples include verbal manipulation, gossip, trying to obtain information through the child (spying), or causing the child to dislike the other parent. There is no concern whatsoever for the damaging effects it has on children. While such manipulation is often prevalent in shared custody situations (due to separation or divorce), it can also take place in intact families, and is known as triangulation.

List of other dysfunctional parenting styles[edit]



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[edit]

Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt one or more of these six basic roles:[11]

Effects on children[edit]

Children of dysfunctional families, either at the time, or as they grow older, may also:[11]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c David Stoop and James Masteller (1997-02-10). Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. Regal. ISBN 978-0830734238. 
  2. ^ Michael E. Kerr and Murray Bowen (1988-10-17). Family Evaluation. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393700565. 
  3. ^ Nancy J. Napier (April 1990). Recreating Your Self: Help for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. ISBN 978-0393028423. 
  4. ^ Florence W. Kaslow (January 1996). Handbook of Relational Diagnosis and Dysfunctional Family Patterns. Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 978-0471080787. 
  5. ^ Blair & Rita Justice (April 1990). The Abusing Family. Insight Books. ISBN 978-0306434419. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Dan Neuharth (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. 
  7. ^ "Praise, encouragement and rewards". Raising Children Network. 2011-04-10. 
  8. ^ "Make sure praise balances criticism for solid self-confidence". Detroit News. 
  9. ^ The Gottman Ratio: Discipline vs. Praise at the Wayback Machine (archived July 7, 2011)
  10. ^ Richard Kagan and Shirley Schlosberg (1989-03-17). Families in Perpetual Crisis. ISBN 978-0393700664. 
  11. ^ a b Forgiving Our Parents: For Adult Children from Dysfunctional Families by Dwight Lee Wolter c. 1995.[full citation needed] Except where individually noted
  12. ^ "Good parents 'buffer' their kids' minds". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2010-09-21. Retrieved 2012-06-13. 
  13. ^ CliffsNotes.com. Stressors: Age 7–11<http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/topicArticleId-26831,articleId-26790.html>
  14. ^ "CHILD ABUSE". Long Beach Fire Department Training Center. 2009-09-19. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]