The term dysfunctional is defined as “any impairment, disturbance, or deficiency in behavior” on the part of an individual person, between people in a relationship, or among family members.
Dysfunction may manifest as poor communication, frequent conflict, emotional or physical abuse, and much more.
While the term dysfunctional has been widely used to describe unhealthy patterns and family dynamics, the term can feel stigmatizing. Because of this, some trauma-informed therapists suggest referring to these behaviors, patterns, and dynamics as unhealthy rather than dysfunctional.
Examples of Dysfunctional Behavior
Examples of unhealthy behavior within families may include situations wherein a family member, parent, or caregiver:
- Engages in compulsive behavior such as gambling or overworking
- Engages in emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive behavior
- Misuses drugs or alcohol
- Uses threats of violence
- Allows children to drink alcohol or use drugs
- Fails to provide children with emotional support
- Relies on a child to provide emotional or financial support
- Uses an authoritarian style of parenting in which there is no flexibility
- Abuses or neglects children
- Cannot provide basic needs such as food or shelter for children
- Doesn’t address or manage violence or inappropriate behavior
A parent or caregiver in an unhealthy family system may view their children or other family members as property or as things they can control, abuse, or use as an outlet for negative emotions.
Causes of Family Dysfunction
There are many potential causes of family dysfunction. It is often the result of a parent or caregiver not getting the emotional support they need. As a result, they are unable or don’t know how to provide their children with emotional support.
If a parent or caregiver is abusive, it’s possible they themselves experienced abuse as a child—whether emotional, physical, or sexual. For instance, a child who is verbally abused may grow up confusing feelings like anger and love, so they may express themselves with yelling and aggression as an adult in their close relationships.
Mental Health Conditions
If a parent or caregiver experiences severe symptoms of a mental health disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or a personality or mood disorder, and these symptoms are not appropriately treated, they may contribute to unhealthy patterns within the family dynamic.
Someone with a mental health condition may find it difficult to perform daily tasks or support their family, especially if they aren’t receiving adequate treatment or if they don’t have a support system of loved ones to step in and help. A child’s needs may go unmet and they may experience the added stress of seeing their parent struggle and not being able to help.
One study found that severe symptoms of mental health conditions like depression may often result in a parent treating a child harshly or disengaging from the relationship with their child.
Substance use disorder may also contribute to a dysfunctional family. If a member of the family misuses drugs or alcohol, all members of the family can experience stress as a result. Coping with addiction in the family may result in other members of the family feeling neglected.
A parent or family member may also struggle with other types of addiction like overeating or gambling. If, for example, a family member is spending money on the object of their addiction and are unable to pay for basic needs like rent or food, it’s likely that everyone in the family will feel stressed and insecure as a result.
Families who are at a socioeconomic disadvantage, or those who have low income, tend to experience additional stress levels, especially in single-parent households.
A parent or caregiver may struggle to provide food and shelter; they may also work long hours in harsh conditions. Some may have children or other family members that they support financially as well. These burdens may contribute to family dysfunction, particularly if the parent is not receiving any support themselves.
Low-income communities generally have less access to mental health services, which can make it even more difficult for a parent or caregiver to get the support that they need. When they aren’t supported in their duties, they may be more likely to project their negative emotions onto other situations or people.
The Effects of Dysfunction on Children
When unhealthy patterns become the standard in a family, the detrimental effects on the children are significant and may be carried into their adult relationships. Some of the potentially damaging effects on children could include:
- Believing they deserve bad things
- Lack of trust in themselves and others
- Low self-esteem
- Personality disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Problems with relationships, work, and identity
- Substance use
One study found that people who endured stress during childhood as a result of a parent or caregiver’s poor mental health experienced more stress into adulthood compared to people who weren’t exposed to the same type of stress as children.
If a child’s parents or caregivers don’t provide them with adequate emotional support, they may grow up not knowing how to prioritize or express their needs or feeling that their needs are unimportant.
Children who’ve experienced familial dysfunction may even repeat patterns of abuse in their future relationships. They may unconsciously seek out partners who are abusive in similar ways as their parents or they themselves may abuse their partners or children.
Getting Help for Family Dysfunction
Are you part or experiencing a dysfunctional family for any reason, there is help available. Outside of traditional therapy, there are accessible resources to help you and your family address unhealthy patterns. Many communities have mental health centers that offer free information and counseling.
Family therapy may be a good option for those experiencing the effects of dysfunction. Family therapy has been shown to be extremely effective in helping families learn new ways of communicating, solving problems, and supporting each other.
Family therapy sessions usually last 50 minutes to an hour and continue once a week for up to 12 weeks. Oftentimes, families will enter therapy looking to resolve a specific issue such as one family member’s uncontrolled anger.
A therapist would work with your family as a unit to discuss how you’re all communicating, how you can all respond to incidents of anger more effectively, and teach you how to set goals for productively handling future incidents.
Whether your family seeks family therapy or not, online or in-person therapy can be a helpful option for anyone in the family. Individual therapy includes working one-on-one with a therapist who can address the underlying causes and effects of family dysfunction with the individual family member seeking help.
There are online and in-person support groups that may offer assistance for those who wish to address family dynamics. In addition, there are support groups specifically for people coping with specific mental health conditions. Plus, there are support groups for loved ones to learn how to support a family member or friend with a mental health condition.
Whether you are coping with family dysfunction right now or you are dealing with the aftermath of a tumultuous childhood experience, remember that you are not alone. Therapy can be very effective in addressing the causes, effects, and trauma of family dysfunction, giving you or your family a roadmap for healing.
Be sure to prioritize your own physical and emotional safety. Family dysfunction may not change overnight; however, try to prioritize your own health and the health of your children.