Dysfunctional family

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 codependent 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]

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 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 to cope with the situation alone.[3][4]


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.[5]

Common features

Near 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:


Unhealthy signs

List of unhealthy parenting signs which could lead to a family becoming dysfunctional:[6]

Dysfunctional styles


"Children as pawns"

One common dysfunctional parental behavior is one 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.[11]


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:[12][13]

Effects on children

Children of dysfunctional families, either at the time, or as they grow older, may also:[12]

In popular culture

See also


  1. 1 2 3 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. =Kate Millett (1998). Classic and Contemporary Readings in Sociology: Reading 22 The Theory of Sexual Politics. ISBN 978-0582320239.
  4. =Nancy J. Napier (April 1990). Recreating Your Self: Help for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. ISBN 978-0393028423.
  5. Florence W. Kaslow (January 1996). Handbook of Relational Diagnosis and Dysfunctional Family Patterns. Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 978-0471080787.
  6. Blair & Rita Justice (April 1990). The Abusing Family. Insight Books. ISBN 978-0306434419.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 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.
  8. "Praise, encouragement and rewards". Raising Children Network. 2011-04-10.
  9. "Make sure praise balances criticism for solid self-confidence". Detroit News.
  10. Richard Kagan and Shirley Schlosberg (1989-03-17). Families in Perpetual Crisis. ISBN 978-0393700664.
  11. Whiteman, Shawn D.; McHale, Susan M.; Soli, Anna."Theoretical Perspectives on Sibling Relationships", J Fam Theory Rev., 2012 Jun 1; Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 124–139, PMCID: PMC3127252.
  12. 1 2 Forgiving Our Parents: For Adult Children from Dysfunctional Families by Dwight Lee Wolter c. 1995. Except where individually noted
  13. Beth Polson and Miller Newton, Not My Kid: A Family's Guide to Kids and Drugs, Arbor Books / Kids of North Jersey Nurses, 1984, ISBN 9780877956334, viewable at https://books.google.com/books/about/Not_my_kid.html?id=4AXAtDQ-koQC.
  14. Polson and Newton, pp. 81–84
  15. Polson and Newton, pp. 86–90
  16. Polson and Newton, pp. 85–86
  17. "Good parents 'buffer' their kids' minds". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2010-09-21. Retrieved 2012-06-13.
  18. CliffsNotes.com. Stressors: Age 7–11<http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/topicArticleId-26831,articleId-26790.html>
  19. "CHILD ABUSE". Long Beach Fire Department Training Center. 2009-09-19.

Further reading

External links

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