It can be argued that to some extent, all families are dysfunctional. All families tend to argue, disagree, and run into some degree of conflict from time to time. In fact, the occasional family dispute is not only normal and expected – but healthy. The idyllic, clash-free family (such as the one that was so commonly portrayed in 1950s sitcoms), simply does not exist. Teenagers are innately rebellious, parents can be overbearing and unsympathetic from time-to-time, and we all, as individuals, grapple with our own issues on occasion. Yet while all families are arguably dysfunctional to some degree, most familial problems will resolve on their own over time, or be resolved through effective communication and the employment of healthy coping mechanisms. The overall quality of these vital interpersonal relationships will survive small skirmishes and the inevitable intermittent personality clash.
In some cases, however, family dysfunction can leave result in lasting negative consequences, and issues can persist through the generations unless they are adequately addressed and treated. Below are 8 common characteristics of dysfunctional families. A family with one of these characteristics does not automatically qualify as severely dysfunctional, of course – true dysfunction will depend on the severity of the problem and the way in which it effects or instigates other potential problems. Take a look at these characteristics, as well as detailed examples of each – and decide for yourself whether family recovery is necessary.
8 Common Characteristics of Dysfunctional Families
One of the most common characteristics of a dysfunctional family is addiction, which will affect one or more of its members. In some cases, this addiction does not directly involve drugs or alcohol – however, it will often always make it difficult for the family to communicate, and will put a huge strain on interpersonal relationships. While addiction most typically affects the adults in the households, teenagers and young adults may also be afflicted with various forms of addiction.
Perhaps the husband in a household struggles with sex addiction, which manifests itself in a propensity towards picking up and sleeping with prostitutes. His wife works late nights as a nurse, and he uses this time to engage in his sexual compulsion. The wife remains unaware, and they eventually have a child together. The husband (now father) tries to control and repress his urges, but finds that he cannot, and begins to bring the child with him on his late night romps. His addiction will inevitably have a major impact on his family as a whole – emotionally, psychologically, and financially.
- Fear and Unpredictability
In many cases, unpredictability will instigate a sense of fear. This unpredictability may be caused by a mental disorder in one or more family members, a constant state of financial instability, or the way one member of the family reacts to novel or challenging situations or circumstances. This role is typically played by an adult.
For example, the mother in a household may have long-since grappled with severe anger issues, and may be extremely emotionally volatile. When something sets her off, she may react in a physically abusive way. Her sporadic bursts of violent outrage may lead the children in the household to feel afraid and unsafe. Her husband may be too afraid to address the issue for fear of setting her off. The fear and unpredictability that surround this situation lead to an immense amount of familial dysfunction.
Control is another hallmark characteristic of a dysfunctional family unit. In most cases, one member of the family (usually the head of the household) will exert his or her control over the rest of the family members. In some cases, the control will be exerted specifically over the spouse or the children. The result of this dysfunction is known as ‘stunting’, and often results in making the other individuals in the household feel as if they are not entitled to their own opinions – or autonomous lives. Control is either exerted in an overt way, or through passive aggressive manipulation.
For example, a husband may overtly forbid his wife to spend time with any male friends or coworkers outside of a professional setting. Or, he may emotionally manipulate her into feeling guilty every time she does join her coworkers for happy hour, until she unwittingly agrees to stop going altogether. She will not have agreed to stop going because she wanted to stop going, but because she was hoping to avoid conflict and the feelings of guilt that arose when she did go.
Perfectionism in the Family Unit
This may not seem like the characteristic of a dysfunctional family, but it certainly is one – and a very common one, at that. Within perfectionistic families, there is often a heavy emphasis placed on the meeting of unrealistic expectations. When expectations are not met, feelings of inadequacy tend to arise. Perfectionism may be displayed by one or more family members. Perfectionistic households tend to produce children with low self-esteem, which may be self-perpetuating. This is a common pattern seeing as perfectionism tends to occur in parents, and be directed towards their offspring.
A father and mother may expect their son and daughter to get straight A’s in school, commit to at least two extracurricular activities, and volunteer their time to a local charity every week. The daughter fulfills these expectations, though she develops an eating disorder, feeling out of control of her own life. The son feels completely overwhelmed by expectation and rebels against his parents, and drops out of hockey. His parents say things to him like, “You should be more like your sister,” and, “Your sister can do it all, why can’t you?” He is eventually shamed and pressured into rejoining the team.
- Lack of Diversity
When speaking about family functioning, diversity mainly refers to a healthy difference in interests, hobbies, and beliefs between all family members. If all members of a household strictly hold the same beliefs and engage in the same activities, it is likely that one member of the family is exerting control over the others.
For instance, there may be three children in a household in which the father is a highly respected and renowned pediatrician. The three children may all strive to be pediatricians as well, feeling obligated to follow in their father’s footsteps and dedicating years of their lives to their studies. They may even all attend the same university their father graduated from. It is likely that the father in this scenario influenced his children in some way; manipulated them into believing they would only make him proud if they followed in his footsteps.
Abuse, either emotional or physical, is a predominant characteristic of dysfunctional families. Abuse will typically occur from one spouse to the other, or from a parent to a child. In some cases, however, children will abuse one another. The ways in which abuse affect a family are relatively obvious. The abused family member or members will be diminished through repeated punishment. Anger, hostility, and resentment will arise, along with fear and a persistent sense of instability.
The head of a household may physically abuse his son, hitting him occasionally when he has had too much to drink. His son will begin to feel unsafe, and will adopt violence as a normal and expected part of life. The son may get in trouble at school for picking fights with his classmates. Rather than teaching his son that violence is never the answer, the father abuses his son further for getting in trouble at school. A vicious cycle of dysfunction is set into motion.
There is bound to be some degree of conflict within every household. However, the constant presence of heated conflict is abnormal, and a good indicator of familial dysfunction. If lasting and violent arguments erupt over seemingly small issues on a regular basis, there is a good chance that there is a high level of dysfunction occurring within the family unit. Conflict might also occur in a passive-aggressive way, increasing resentment and tension amongst family members.
For example, one family may spend all of its time arguing – fighting over what to have for dinner, which movie to see, where to go on vacation, etc. The members of this family may break out into screaming matches on a regular basis. Even if this family never fights in public, they are in a constant state of disagreement.
Communication is Key
- Poor Communication
In a dysfunctional family, communication may be ineffective, strained, or entirely nonexistent. It may be difficult for some family members to communicate their personal requirements to other members of the family, which can hinder self-expression and lead to misunderstanding and resentment. In most instances, poor communication will occur throughout the entire family unit.
Ineffective methods of communication are typically passed down through the generations. For example, it may be common in one family to keep feelings and emotional upsets private – to always put on a brave face in public, and never express what one is truly going through. Children who grow up in an emotionally anesthetized environment will often not know how to adequately process or express their emotions, and will pass this lack of communication onto their own children (and so on and so forth).
Healing from Familial Dysfunction
If you believe your family to be dysfunctional, there are several steps that you can take towards restoring harmony within the household, and emotional and psychological health amongst your family members. In order for the family unit to comprehensively heal, of course, all members of the family must be willing to undergo treatment. This is true even if one member of the family in particular is dealing with a specific issue. For example – even if only the head of the household (the father) is struggling with alcoholism, his wife and children will still need to undergo their own processes of therapeutic healing. When one family member deals with an issue or disorder, all members of the family will inevitably suffer consequences of some kind – emotional, mental, or spiritual.
We at Next Chapter focus on the role of the family in all of the disorders we treat, and work to provide each individual family member with his or her own program of treatment and recovery. For more information on our comprehensive and family-oriented program of recovery, please contact us today, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.