How To Live With A Dysfunctional Family

Updated September 04, 2018


When you think of a dysfunctional family, you may imagine a sitcom, where the family goes through all sorts of problems, only to have them resolved within the 20-minute time frame of the episode. The dysfunctional family trope came as a response to the fact that other sitcoms at the time depicted the family as wholesome and always together. In reality, the family is going to have all sorts of problems, and in real life, they always don't get resolved.

It can be exhausting to grow up with your entire family being dysfunctional, and you may wonder what the signs of a dysfunctional family are, and what you can do to cope. In this post, we'll explain all there is to know about the dysfunctional family.

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

Every family is going to have its share of problems or obstacles, so what is the exact line that must be crossed for the family to go from functional to dysfunctional? It does seem like a subjective definition. Some would look at a family that bickers every once in a while as dysfunctional, while others may believe there needs to be more conflict.

The definition of a dysfunctional family is a family that has a multitude of conflicts, both internal and external. Internal would be like a sibling rivalry, while an external would be drug abuse.

There are going to be different levels of dysfunctionality. Some families may be strong but have minor levels of dysfunction. For example, the siblings may fight on occasion, or the parent overreacts to a situation. Then there are severe examples, where one is an alcoholic, the other is a cheater, and the siblings are down each other's throats all the time.

What Can Cause A Family To Be Dysfunctional?

If you're in a dysfunctional family, you may wonder why it's like that. By figuring out the reason, you may be on your first step to resolving the conflict. Here are a few reasons why a family can be dysfunctional.

A Cycle

Many times, a family is dysfunctional because it always has been that way. Your parents had parents who were dysfunctional, and they learned from them. Any cycle is hard to break. No matter how often the childrenswear they're not going to grow up to be their parents, they may do so.


Mental Illnesses

Mental illness can cause a family to be dysfunctional, especially if it runs in the family and is undiagnosed. Anger issues can cause conflict and abuse. Depression can make the family lose all motivation to get better. Bipolar disorder means that the family doesn't know how they'll feel that day. This is especially present in poorer families, who may not have the means to seek treatment for their illnesses.

Other Illnesses

Any illness can cause a conflict in the family. For example, if one parent becomes disabled, it can affect the income and the structure of the family. The parent has to stay home all the time, and perhaps the children start to think that they don't have any privacy. The parent may become angrier over being disabled, and the anger boils to a climax.


Mom unwinding the day with a glass of wine and dad having a beer after a hard day of work isn't a bad thing. However, if that alcohol consumption becomes excessive, it can lead to dysfunction. Addiction can be expensive and alter the mood of the parents, making them abusive or neglectful.

Another Situation

Sometimes, a life situation can cause a family to be dysfunctional. If one parent has a great job, and then loses the job, the income lost can make the family stop working properly. If the family moves, the children may become dysfunctional over having to cope with being in a new place and losing all their old friends. Sometimes, a situation can make the family temporarily dysfunctional. When the children adjust to their new home, then the family may settle down again.

Traits Of Dysfunctional Families

If you're still unsure whether or not your family is dysfunctional, then here are some traits you should look for.


  • There is extreme conflict. It's okay for family members to disagree, but when there is always fighting and yelling, there is a problem.
  • There is unequal treatment going on in the family. One sibling may be treated well, while the other may be ignored.
  • A dysfunctional family may not have much empathy towards one another, or be empathetic towards just one family member, carrying on with the trait of unequal treatment.
  • Boundaries are always being crossed, and rules are always being broken.
  • No one will apologize or admit that their behavior is making the family dysfunctional.
  • There is jealousy going on, usually between spouses.
  • The family does not spend any time bonding or doing any recreational activities.
  • There is child abuse going on, including physical, emotional, or extreme punishment.

Impact Of Living With A Dysfunctional Family

As most can imagine, living with a dysfunctional family is not healthy for a child's well-being. Some can move on from their family and start their own lives, but others may be troubled by their pasts. They may grow up to raise dysfunctional families themselves or end up with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or a slew of other mental disorders.

It's a cycle for many. You may swear that you're not going to grow up like your family, but the seeds they've planted in you are hard to stop, and you may have traits of your own that make your own family dysfunctional, whether you're aware of them or not.

How To Live With A Dysfunctional Family

If you're in the middle of a dysfunctional family, you may not know what to do. You are a teenager who just wants their family to get along but doesn't know how to. Here are some ways you can cope.

Observe Your Family And Take Note

Sometimes, your family may be dysfunctional but not even know it. In a stressful time, few have the self-awareness to evaluate what they are doing and take measures to stop it. One way you may be able to help is by pointing out their toxic behaviors. Record them, be it through video, writing, or any other way. Once you have enough, talk with them.

Don't Sound Accusatory

One way that you can win people over is with honey rather than vinegar. If you start accusing them of their negative actions, even if you're in the right, they may become defensive. What you need to do is use "I" language. Explain how their actions make you feel rather than always accusing them. You will be surprised at how often people will listen when you just change the language around while not changing the point.

Realize That Some People Won't Change

Say your parents are dysfunctional. In the perfect world, you could talk to them about their problems, they would realize their faults, and everything would be happy. However, this is not how the world works. If your family members have a problem, they may not admit they have one and may become aggressive when confronted. This is especially the case if they have a mental disorder, or if they have an addiction.

Find A Healthy Way To Cope

Some people cope in an unhealthy manner, such as taking on drugs or making dangerous decisions. This can lead you to continue the dysfunctional family cycle, which is what no one wants to happen. Instead, find other ways to cope. For example, try making some art to express yourself. Write a story on your computer. Paint some pictures. Express your feelings online. Find a friend who you can relate to. Just don't do anything that may be dangerous.


Seek Counseling!

Sometimes, the dysfunctional family can be tamed through an intervention. When everyone is at odds with each other, a cool head who knows how the family works can help them realize their faults, take responsibility and begin the heal. If you have a dysfunctional family, consider looking into family therapy.

A therapist can set the family down, be it individually or all at once, and talk to the family. If you talk to the family members yourselves, they may be aggressive and defensive, no matter how calmly you present your case. A therapist can get in the heads of your family and know how to get past their defenses. A counselor can be the cheerleader who encourages your family to repair themselves and will help the family make a plan to succeed.

Alternatively, if you had a dysfunctional family in the past, and they still haunt you, a therapist can help you gather the strength you need to carry on. While it's hard to get over the family trauma, a therapist knows how to make people conquer their pasts and look forward to the future.

Previous Article

How To Cope With A Death In The Family

Next Article

Two Ways To Make Family Planning Easy & Successful
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Counselor Today
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.