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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 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.
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.
Dysfunctional families pervade all strata of society regardless of social, financial or intellectual status. 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.
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.
Some features are common to most dysfunctional families:
- Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy or appeasement towards one or more members who have real or perceived "special needs". In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than they deserve, while another is marginalized.
- Denial (refusal to acknowledge abusive behavior, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the "elephant in the room".)
- Inadequate or missing boundaries for self (e.g. tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment, tolerance of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.)
- Disrespect of others' boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises without just cause; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed.)
- Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient peaceful arguing between family members.)
- Unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role (mother, etc.), abilities, race, caste, etc. (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven/inconsistent enforcement of rules.)
Though not universal among dysfunctional families, and by no means exclusive to them, the following features are typical of dysfunctional families:
- Abnormally high levels of jealousy or other controlling behaviors.
- Conflict influenced by marital status:
- Between separated or divorced parents, usually related to, or arising from their breakup.
- Conflict between parents who remain married, often for the perceived "sake" of the children, but whose separation or divorce would in fact remove a detrimental influence on those children (must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as a breakup may harm children.)
- Parents who wish to divorce, but cannot due to financial, societal (including religious), or legal reasons.
- Children afraid to talk (within or outside the family) about what is happening at home, or are otherwise fearful of their parents.
- Abnormal sexual behavior such as adultery, promiscuity, or incest.
- Lack of time spent together, especially in recreational activities and social events ("We never do anything as a family.")
- Parents insist that they treat their children fairly and equitably when that is not the case.
- Family members (including children) who disown each other, or refuse to be seen together in public (either unilaterally or bilaterally.)
In many cases, the following would cause a family to be dysfunctional:
- Families with older parents or immigrant parents who cannot cope with changing times or a different culture.
- A parent of the same sex never intercedes in father–daughter/mother–son relations on behalf of the child.
- Children who have no contact with the extended family of their mother or father due to disharmony, disagreement, prejudice, feuding, etc.
- A family with one or more rebellious children at whom parents are chronically angry, wherein non-rebellious children have to "walk on eggshells" to avoid spillover effects of the parents' anger.
- An intense rift, extending beyond mere disagreement of opinion to personal animosity between family members regarding ideology (e.g. children's disagreement with their parents' religious beliefs; a family member having an abortion while other members sharply object; parents who support their country being at war, while children do not.)
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:
- We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
- We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
- We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
- We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
- 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.
- We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
- We became addicted to excitement.
- We confuse love and pity and tend to "love" people we can "pity" and "rescue."
- 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).
- We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
- 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.
- 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.
- Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.
Unhealthy parenting signs, which could lead to a family becoming dysfunctional include:
- Unrealistic expectations
- Conditional love
- Disrespect; especially contempt.
- Emotional intolerance (family members not allowed to express the "wrong" emotions.)
- Social dysfunction or isolation (for example, parents unwilling to reach out to other families—especially those with children of the same gender and approximate age, or do nothing to help their "friendless" child.)
- Stifled speech (children not allowed to dissent or question authority.)
- Denial of an "inner life" (children are not allowed to develop their own value systems.)
- Being under- or over-protective
- Apathy ("I don't care!")
- Belittling ("You can't do anything right!")
- Shame ("Shame on you!")
- Bitterness (regardless of what is said, using a bitter tone of voice.)
- Hypocrisy ("Do as I say, not as I do.")
- Lack of forgiveness for minor misdeeds or accidents
- Judgmental statements or demonization ("You are a liar!")
- Being overly critical and withholding proper praise. (experts say 80–90% praise, and 10–20% constructive criticism is the most healthy.)
- Double standards or giving "mixed messages" by having a dual system of values (i.e. one set for the outside world, another when in private, or teaching divergent values to each child.)
- The absentee parent (seldom available for their child due to work overload, alcohol/drug abuse, gambling, or other addictions.)
- Unfulfilled projects, activities, and promises affecting children ("We'll do it later.")
- Giving to one child what rightly belongs to another
- Gender prejudice (treats one gender of children fairly; the other unfairly.)
- Discussion and exposure to sexuality: either too much, too soon or too little, too late
- Faulty discipline based more on emotions or family politics than on established rules (e.g., punishment by "surprise".)
- Having an unpredictable emotional state due to substance abuse, personality disorder(s), or stress
- Parents always (or never) take their children's side when others report acts of misbehavior, or teachers report problems at school
- Scapegoating (knowingly or recklessly blaming one child for the misdeeds of another)
- "Tunnel vision" diagnosis of children's problems (for example, a parent may think their child is either lazy or has learning disabilities after he falls behind in school despite recent absence due to illness.)
- Older siblings given either no or excessive authority over younger siblings with respect to their age difference and level of maturity.
- Frequent withholding of consent ("blessing") for culturally common, lawful, and age-appropriate activities a child wants to take part in
- The "know-it-all" (has no need to obtain child's side of the story when accusing, or listen to child's opinions on matters which greatly impact them.)
- Regularly forcing children to attend activities for which they are extremely over- or under-qualified (e.g. using a preschool to babysit a typical nine-year-old boy, taking a young child to poker games, etc.)
- Either being a miser ("scrooge") in totality or selectively allowing children's needs to go unmet (e.g. a father will not buy a bicycle for his son because he wants to save money for retirement or "something important".)
- Disagreements about nature and nurture (parents, often non-biological, blame common problems on child's heredity, when faulty parenting may be the actual cause.)
"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
- "Using" (destructively narcissistic parents who rule by fear and conditional love.)
- Abusing (parents who use physical violence, or emotionally, or sexually abuse their children.)
- Perfectionist (fixating on order, prestige, power, or perfect appearances, while preventing their child from failing at anything.)
- Dogmatic or cult-like (harsh and inflexible discipline, with children not allowed, within reason, to dissent, question authority, or develop their own value system.)
- Inequitable parenting (going to extremes for one child while continually ignoring the needs of another.)
- Deprivation (control or neglect by withholding love, support, necessities, sympathy, praise, attention, encouragement, supervision, or otherwise putting their children's well-being at risk.)
- Abuse among siblings (parents fail to intervene when a sibling physically or sexually abuses another sibling.)
- Abandonment (a parent who willfully separates from their children, not wishing any further contact, and in some cases without locating alternative, long-term parenting arrangements, leaving them as orphans.)
- Appeasement (parents who reward bad behavior—even by their own standards—and inevitably punish another child's good behavior in order to maintain the peace and avoid temper tantrums. "Peace at any price.")
- Loyalty manipulation (giving unearned rewards and lavish attention trying to ensure a favored, yet rebellious child will be the one most loyal and well-behaved, while subtly ignoring the wants and needs of their most loyal child currently.)
- "Helicopter parenting" (parents who micro-manage their children's lives or relationships among siblings—especially minor conflicts.)
- "The deceivers" (well-regarded parents in the community, likely to be involved in some charitable/non-profit works, who abuse or mistreat one or more of their children.)
- "Public image manager" (sometimes related to above, children warned to not disclose what fights, abuse, or damage happens at home, or face severe punishment "Don't tell anyone what goes on in this family".)
- "The paranoid parent" (a parent having persistent and irrational fear accompanied by anger and false accusations that their child is up to no good or others are plotting harm.)
- "No friends allowed" (parents discourage, prohibit, or interfere with their child from making friends of the same age and gender.)
- Role reversal (parents who expect their minor children to take care of them instead.)
- "Not your business" (children continuously told that a particular brother or sister who is often causing problems is none of their concern.)
- Ultra-egalitarianism (either a much younger child is permitted to do whatever an older child may, or an older child must wait years until a younger child is mature enough.)
- "The guard dog" (a parent who blindly attacks family members perceived as causing the slightest upset to their esteemed spouse, partner, or child.)
- "My baby forever" (a parent who will not allow one or more of their young children to grow up and begin taking care of themselves.)
- "The cheerleader" (one parent "cheers on" the other parent who is simultaneously abusing their child.)
- "Along for the ride" (a reluctant de facto, step, foster, or adoptive parent who does not truly care about their non-biological child, but must co-exist in the same home for the sake of their spouse or partner) (See also: Cinderella effect).
- "The politician" (a parent who repeatedly makes or agrees to children's promises while having little to no intention of keeping them.)
- "It's taboo" (parents rebuff any questions children may have about sexuality, pregnancy, romance, puberty, certain areas of human anatomy, nudity, etc.)
- Identified patient (one child, usually selected by the mother, who is forced into going to therapy while the family's overall dysfunction is kept hidden.)
- Münchausen syndrome by proxy (a much more extreme situation than above, where the child is intentionally made ill by a parent seeking attention from physicians and other professionals.)
Coalitions are subsystems within families with more rigid boundaries and are thought to be a sign of family dysfunction.
- The isolated family member (either a parent or child up against the rest of the otherwise united family.)
- Parent vs. parent (frequent fights amongst adults, whether married, divorced, or separated, conducted away from the children.)
- The polarized family (a parent and one or more children on each side of the conflict.)
- Parents vs. kids (intergenerational conflict, generation gap or culture shock dysfunction.)
- The balkanized family (named after the three-way war in the Balkans where alliances shift back and forth.)
- Free-for-all (a family that fights in a "free-for-all" style, though may become polarized when range of possible choices is limited.)
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
- The Golden Child (also known as the Hero or Superkid): a child who becomes a high achiever or overachiever outside the family (e.g., in academics or athletics) as a means of escaping the dysfunctional family environment, defining themselves independently of their role in the dysfunctional family, currying favor with parents, or shielding themselves from criticism by family members.
- The Problem Child, Rebel, or Truth Teller: the child who a) causes most problems related to the family's dysfunction or b) "acts out" in response to preexisting family dysfunction, in the latter case often in an attempt to divert attention paid to another member who exhibits a pattern of similar misbehavior.
- A variant of the "problem child" role is the Scapegoat, who is unjustifiably assigned the "problem child" role by others within the family or even wrongfully blamed by other family members for those members' own individual or collective dysfunction, often despite being the only emotionally stable member of the family.
- The Caretaker: the one who takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family, often assuming a parental role; the intra-familial counterpart of the "Good Child"/"Superkid."
- The Lost Child or Passive Kid: the inconspicuous, introverted, quiet one, whose needs are usually ignored or hidden.
- The Mascot or Family Clown: uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.
- The Mastermind: the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members' faults to get whatever they want; often the object of appeasement by grown-ups.
Effects on children
Children of dysfunctional families, either at the time, or as they grow older, may also:
- Lack the ability to be playful, or childlike, and may "grow up too fast"; conversely they may grow up too slowly, or be in a mixed mode (e.g. well-behaved, but unable to care for themselves.)
- Have moderate to severe mental health issues, including possible depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
- Become addicted to drugs, including cigarettes or alcohol, especially if parents or friends have done the same.
- Developing behavioral addictions to such things like gambling, excessive spending, video games, pornography, or food; the latter often resulting in obesity or/and other physical health issues.
- Bully or harass others, or be an easy victim thereof (possibly taking a dual role in different settings.)
- Be in denial regarding the severity of the family's situation.
- Have mixed feelings of love–hate towards certain family members.
- Become a sex offender, possibly including pedophilia.
- Have difficulty forming healthy relationships within their peer group (usually due to shyness or a personality disorder.)
- Spend an inordinate amount of time alone watching television, playing video games, surfing the Internet, listening to music, going out for late night drives alone, and engaging in other activities which lack in-person social interaction.
- Feel angry, anxious, depressed, isolated from others, or unlovable.
- Have a speech disorder (related to emotional abuse.)
- Distrust others or even have paranoia.
- Become a juvenile delinquent and turn to a life of crime (with or without dropping out of school), and possibly become a gang member as well.
- Struggle academically at school or academic performance declines unexpectedly.
- Have low self-esteem or a poor self image with difficulty expressing emotions.
- Do not pay close attention to their own physical or mental health
- May be at risk of self-harm or suicide.
- Exhibits lack of organization in their day to day lives.
- Rebel against parental authority, or conversely, uphold their family's values in the face of peer pressure, or even try to take an impossible "middle ground" that pleases no one.
- Turning the tables by abusing their abusive elderly parents, upon the former reaching adulthood.
- Think only of themselves to make up the difference of their childhoods (as they are still learning the balance of self-love.)
- Have little self-discipline when parents are not around, such as compulsive spending, procrastinating too close to deadlines, etc. (unfamiliar, inchoate, and seemingly lax or avoidable real-world consequences vs. known, concrete, and rigidly imposed parental consequences.)
- Find an (often abusive) spouse or partner at a young age, or run away from home.
- Become pregnant or a parent of illegitimate children.
- Be at risk of becoming poor or homeless, even if the family is already wealthy or middle-class.
- Live a reclusive lifestyle without any spouse, partner, children, or friends.
- Have auto-destructive or potentially self-damaging behaviors.
- Join a cult to find the acceptance they never had at home, or at a minimum, have differing philosophical or religious beliefs from what they were previously taught.
- Strive (as young adults) to live far away from particular family members or the family as a whole, possibly spending much more time with extended family.
- Perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors in other relationships (especially their own children.)
In popular culture
- Category:Films about dysfunctional families
- Category:Television series about dysfunctional families
Masteller, James; Stoop, David (1991). "The Blame Game". Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (revised and updated ed.). ReadHowYouWant.com (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.
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