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Do you know the signs of a dysfunctional family?

How do people get along in your family? Is there a calm, happy vibe in your house or is it constant chaos and distress? Sometimes we get so used to how things are that we stop questioning if it’s OK. But, as we get further into recovery, it becomes more important to have a healthy family model around you.

There is a famous quote by the Russian novelist, Tolstoy, that all happy families are the same, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Characteristics of happy families include, listening to each other, respecting each other’s differences, supporting each other, being kind and not putting family members down, telling the truth. Loving families can have many problems but not be emotionally dysfunctional, and that’s what we’re talking about here.

A dysfunctional family has a pattern of destructive behaviors

When you think about a dysfunctional family, you need to think about the family system to understand the meaning of dysfunction. A family can be disorganized, or sloppy, or neglectful about some things, and not be hurtful or sick. All families have their unhealthy elements, and no family is perfect.

Your family may not be great at communication, but is there gaslighting, triangulation or malignant narcissism? At times all families may experience some dysfunction, but this does not mean the family is unhealthy. When there is a narcissist dominating the family, there is bound to be abuse. Can you recognize a narcissistic family? The following symptoms, especially if your family demonstrates a number of these characteristics, are problematic and reveal a dysfunctional system. 

1. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or emotional neglect

This is the most significant problem demonstrated by destructive family systems, either by abuse or by profound emotional and physical neglect. Abuse indicates active harm such as a parent sexually molesting a child, while neglect is inactive harm, such as not attending to a child’s needs of feeding, bathing, or giving love and attention. 

2. Denial about the truth, keeping secrets and telling lies

This category relates to such conditions as trying to hide a substance use problem, or that Dad is sexually perpetrating his daughter. This may be denial or outright lying. As is well established, “secrets keep us sick.”

3. Alcohol, substance and behavior addictions make a dysfunctional family

Addictions such as alcohol and drug addictions, as well as process addictions such as gambling or sexual addictions, are prevalent in dysfunctional families.

4. Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel

Keeping secrets and hiding from outsiders is also very prevalent in dysfunctional families (and well-noted in addictive families) – don’t talk about any problems/don’t trust anyone, especially outside of the family/don’t feel your feelings. This also relates to poor communication between family members.

5. Lack of boundaries

Poor boundaries include all of the above as well as such things as the eldest child taking the role of the parent of unhealthy parents and younger children. Knowing what are boundaries is important for healthy families.

6. Poor communication including ridicule, criticism, conflict, mixed messages

Making fun of a family member isn’t humorous; it’s abusive. Also, a dysfunctional family tend to criticize and give mixed messages that appear to say, “Come here/go away.” With these messages, the other family members don’t know what is true and how to respond (i.e., one day the parent is loving and the next day is punishing by making fun or hitting a child). These messages are inconsistent and unpredictable and cause more conflict within the family. Have you experienced this? It is common in families where there is a substance use problem.

7. A dysfunctional family lacks love, compassion, intimacy

A dysfunctional family doesn’t demonstrate healthy behaviors of attention and love. There is no closeness in the family, and love may be withheld as a form of punishment. Or there may be no compassion at all.

8. A closed family system makes a dysfunctional family

In this family, others such as extended families, friends, schools, or religious/spiritual systems are kept away in order to keep the secrets of the family. Because of this, the family members are unable to interact and learn healthy behaviors from others or to seek help from others. This keeps the family in a rigid, closed system.

9. Rigid perfectionism 

Perfectionism is another damaging trait in a dysfunctional family system. Family members may try to achieve perfectionism, something that can never happen. Perfectionism is an unhealthy way to try to gain control and mastery. Because being perfect can never happen, significant problems arise over a lifetime.

10. Denial of spiritual focus 

Not allowing family members to participate in spiritual activities is deeply harmful. This may include being prohibited from attending religious/spiritual services, meditating, and examining beliefs. This may also include enjoying nature, being creative, having time to play, pray, read spiritual information. try out new religious services, volunteer, and help with social justice activities.

As a family, working towards a healthier family system is always a goal, and it’s possible to shift the family balance. If you see yourself or your family as a product of dysfunction, look at ways to improve the health of the family. This often may include family counseling to help, or if you grew up with these rules and want help, then individual counseling or 12 step groups, like Al-anon or CODA may be valuable, for all is not lost if you choose help.



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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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