Much has been written about dysfunctional families. At times it may seem that every family has its unhealthy elements. To understand what is actually family dysfunction, we need to examine it on a scale of 0 (no family dysfunction) – 10 (horribly sick). At times all families may experience some dysfunction, but this does not mean the family is unhealthy. 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 Neglect

This is the most significant problem demonstrated by sick family systems, either by abuse or by 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/Secrets/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. Addictions

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.

6. Poor Communication Including Ridicule, Criticism, Conflict, Mixed messages

Making fun of a family member isn’t humorous; it’s abusive. Also, dysfunctional families 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.

7. Lack of 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. Closed Family System

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. 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 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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