A version of this article was originally published by Supportiv.
A dysfunctional family is characterized by “conflict, misbehavior, or abuse” . Relationships between family members are tense and can be filled with neglect, yelling, and screaming. You might feel forced to happily accept negative treatment.
There’s no open space to express your thoughts and feelings freely. You aren’t able to thrive and feel safe within your own family.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Signs of a Dysfunctional Family
No family acts the same—and all families experience some level of dysfunction. But there are some clear signs you can look for to indicate bigger problems:
Addiction can lead to so many different unhealthy relationships among family members. ’12-Step’ programs, and even government-funded research studies, now recognize the effects addiction can have on the emotional health of a family – even from generation to generation .
Expectations of perfection are wholly unrealistic—they just damage relationships. Families set themselves up for failure and anger by always expecting their kids or relatives to get everything right.
Expecting everything to be perfect puts a lot of pressure on everyone involved. Living with the knowledge you’ll never be good enough for your family’s jacked-up expectations can damage your emotional health in the long-term.
Abuse or neglect
Abuse indicates active harm like verbal, physical, or violence. Neglect is inactive harm, either physical or emotional: not feeding your child, or withholding love, interest, or attention.
Both abuse and neglect are extremely problematic. Families can get caught in cycles that normalize harmful treatment. Those who grow up in these families then go on to exhibit the same behaviors to their kids, causing a cycle of neglect or abuse .
Unpredictability and fear
It’s hard to establish trusting relationships when you live in constant uncertainty or fear.
If you’re never sure how your parents are going to respond, you’re constantly anticipating conflict and can’t express yourself honestly. Instead, you’re just waiting for their next criticisms.
You might even want to avoid things that should be enjoyable, like vacations or holidays.
Dysfunctional family members may be incredibly manipulative with their affection, giving love only when they want something out of you.
Withholding love makes you want to constantly please them, and doesn’t give you the chance to relax and be yourself.
Lack of boundaries
Examples of a lack of boundaries within the family include:
- A controlling parent, who makes life decisions for you and ignores your opinions
- An intimidating parent, who actively discourages you asserting yourself or even just speaking your mind
- An older child taking on the role as parent.
No one has their own space. Nobody respects each others’ autonomy. Living like this can lead to unhealthy, codependent relationships later in your life.
Lack of intimacy
Your family doesn’t show many signs of closeness. There is no honest emotional support. Your relations are superficial, rather than emotionally available.
Relationships like these make it hard for you to be close with anyone, since you haven’t practiced doing so before.
There’s no sense of understanding between you and your family members, so you can’t voice your opinions. There’s always tension, and you don’t feel safe communicating with them.
No one talks about their problems and instead, everyone just sweeps issues under the rug .
And when it comes to planning, nobody respects each others’ time and preferences. There are no open lines of communication.
Understand how dysfunctional behavior affects you
If you recognize some of the signs of dysfunctional family behavior listed above, you may already recognize their effects on you. However, it can be a long process for some to see these signs.
Having low self-confidence or low self-esteem are examples of how your family can disrupt your life. Social anxiety and unexplained aches and pains can even be part of it.
It’s common for these traits to repeat themselves throughout generations. Your parents may have picked up on cues from their parents, which their parents picked up from their family. Many of us even grow up thinking that our dysfunctional families’ behavior is normal.
Do not despair: It is possible to break this cycle. The most powerful tool for breaking dysfunctional patterns is your own awareness and willingness to self-examine.
Dealing with a dysfunctional family
There are so many reasons for family members to act problematically—from finances, all the way to their past and how their family members treated them. It’s common for these traits to repeat themselves throughout generations. Your parents may have picked up on cues from their parents, which their parents picked up from their family. While none of this is your fault, you might still feel a personal burden.
It’s not your job to change your family. You can only take responsibility for yourself and your own actions.
Dysfunctional families follow certain patterns that suck you in and make it hard to move on. Setting boundaries with your family is one of the most important steps you can take to escape the negative effects. It also helps to find support outside your family.
Take a mental health test to see if you are experiencing mental health effects that may need to be addressed.
- Arora & Prakesh. (2018). Dysfunctional Family – Characteristics and Effects. Firstcry Parenting. Retrieved from https://parenting.firstcry.com/articles/dysfunctional-family-characteristics-and-tips-to-overcome-its-effects/?amp
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2004). Impact of Substance Abuse on Families. In Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64258/
- Jaffee et al. (2013). Safe, Stable, Nurturing Relationships Break the Intergenerational Cycle of Abuse: A Prospective Nationally Representative Cohort of Children in the United Kingdom. Journal of Adolescent Health 53(4 0), S4-10. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4212819/