Dysfunctional Family Definition

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior and even abuse on the part of individual members of the family occur continually, 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 most often a result of the alcoholism, substance abuse, or other addictions of parents, parents’ untreated mental illnesses/defects or personality disorders, or the parents emulating their own dysfunctional parents and dysfunctional family experiences.

Dysfunctional Families: 10 Characteristics

Characteristic 1: Shame is used to control

Family members are compared to one another negatively, and controlled and coerced using shaming tactics such as name calling, impossible standards, and never being seen as good enough, sorry enough, or quiet enough.

Characteristic 2: Performance oriented

Value and acceptance are achieved by what is done, never by who you are. Family members are told they will never measure up, but to keep trying harder. There is no real sense of what constitutes value or personal worth.

Characteristic 3: Unspoken rules

Most rules only become spoken when broken; and they can change without notice. Unspoken rules are more powerful than written rules; they include: Don’t talk: There are no problems here, if you think there are, then you are (have) the problem. Everything is private and unspoken. Can’t win: double binds. Never lie, but tell the person on the phone I’m not here. Tell your parents everything, but don’t tell this to Mom, it might upset her. Don’t feel: No one cares how you feel. Feelings are messy; only performance and appearance counts; feelings become irrelevant.

Characteristic 4: Communication is always coded

Needs or feelings can never be expressed directly, and verbal statements are seldom to be taken at face value. For example, “Do me a favor” really means, “Do it now or else,” or “It would be nice if someone around here took out the trash,” means “You do it now (or else).” Messages are never direct, therefore triangulation is common. No one really talks to each other. Bizarre or inappropriate behaviors are explained, rationalized, softened (coded). Example, “You know your Dad didn’t really mean…”

Characteristic 5: Emotional numbness

In dysfunctional families, value is given for obeying the implicit, unspoken rules, don’t feel, talk, think, upset anyone, etc. True needs are never really met; maintaining family balance is the highest goal. Consequently, family members become numb to their own needs and soon can’t even identify how they truly feel or articulate what they really want. Relationships are never deep; they are enmeshed, codependent even incestuous, but never authentic, intimate, life changing or life giving.

Characteristic 6: Adult-focused

Children are expected to be miniature adults, and are controlled by oppressive rules such as, “Act your age,” “Don’t embarrass us,” “Don’t touch,” “Don’t be a pest,” “Don’t have to much fun,” “Don’t laugh too hard,” “Don’t ask for anything.” The real message is “Don’t act like a child,” because children are too spontaneous and challenge the rigidity and need to control in these families.

Characteristic 7: Preoccupation with fault and blame

It is normal to make mistakes and to be held accountable. However, dysfunctional families don’t merely hold others accountable, they indict them. Behaviors are given too much power. The message is Don’t ever make us look bad, embarrass us, bring attention to us, expose us, etc. Therefore mistakes are dealt with harshly, with tons of shame and blame. A great deal of energy is expended to find fault, or avoid fault. No one wants to take responsibility; overreaction is common. Family members can never be good enough or sorry enough. The best bet is to find someone else to blame.

Characteristic 8: Strong on “head skills”

Family members become very defensive; shame and blame hurt. To survive, family members become experts at self-protection and quickly learn to deny the existence of problems, blame others and rationalize issues away. There is constant interrogation, asking questions for which there are no answers. “What possessed you to say/do that, is your brain malfunctioning?” The only safe answer is “I don’t know.” Emotions must never be acknowledged.

Characteristic 9: Weak on “heart skills”

Feelings are not allowed; emotions must be thought, not felt. Ask an adult who grew up in a dysfunctional home how he/she feels and you will hear thoughts, not feelings. If a feeling cannot be explained, it must not exist. Experiencing feelings such as loneliness or sadness is viewed as weakness. Pressure is applied to make these feelings go away. The result is shame and emotional numbness, as well as incredibly deep, but unexpressed sadness. Messages such as, “Don’t act like a baby.” ”Don’t get a big head about this.” “Why don’t you go cry about it.” “Who do you think you are?” or, “You’re not special,” deny the humanness and identity of family members.

Characteristic 10: People appear okay, but are incredibly needy

People come away from dysfunctional families with some important inner beliefs: “I am not lovable; I am only OK when I perform; I am not capable, valuable or worthwhile; I don’t know where I fit in or belong.” Family members exist to perpetuate and support the system; it doesn’t exist to equip, nurture or affirm them. However, since everyone is so needy and empty, this rarely happens. Consequently, family members are indicted for failing and manipulated into trying harder–leading to greater despair. Shame and neediness gets passed on to future relationships. The irony is, that on the surface, individuals appear whole and OK. Underneath however, they are empty, crippled and disconnected. They long for authentic connection, but don’t know how. Their system is perpetuated. Unless something is done…