How To Live With A Dysfunctional Family

Updated October 22, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Chante’ Gamby, LCSW

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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 other sitcoms depicting the family as wholesome and always together. In reality, the family will have all sorts of problems, and in real life, they don't always get resolved.

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

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

It is common for families to undergo their share of problems or obstacles. That being said, what is the line between functional and dysfunctional families? Some would look at a family that bickers every once in a while as dysfunctional. In contrast, others may believe there would need to be more persistent difficulties to be classified as dysfunctional.

According to the American Psychological Association, a dysfunctional family is "a family in which relationships or communication are impaired, and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression." In a dysfunctional family, there may be persistent patterns of conflict or instability.

It is important to acknowledge that there are 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 extreme examples where a parent may have untreated mental illness or a substance use disorder that significantly affects the dynamic of the family unit.

What Can Cause A Family To Be Dysfunctional?

Let's look at a few reasons why a family may be dysfunctional.

A Cycle

Many times, a family is dysfunctional because it always has been that way. Your parents may have had dysfunctional parents, and they learned from them. These cycles can be difficult to break. No matter how often the childrenswear they're not going to grow up to be like their parents, they may do so.

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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 may experience many emotional highs and lows. This is especially present in poorer families, who may not have the means to seek their illnesses.

Other Illnesses

Any illness can cause a conflict in the family. For example, if one parent becomes disabled, it can affect their family's income and structure. 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.

Addiction

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 stress the family. If the family moves, the children may become dysfunctional over coping with being in a new place and losing 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.

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  • There is extreme conflict and hostility present. It's okay for family members to disagree, but it may signal a larger problem when there is always fighting and yelling.
  • There is unequal treatment going on in the family. One sibling may be treated well, while the other may be ignored.
  • There is a lack of boundaries, or boundaries are not respected.
  • There is a lack of empathy among family members.
  • There is an emphasis on perfectionism and insistence on unrealistic expectations.
  • There is physical and emotional abuse present.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and resources.

Impact Of Living With A Dysfunctional Family

As most can imagine, living with a dysfunctional family can be harmful to 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.

For many, the dysfunctional family becomes a cycle. You may swear that you're not going to grow up like your family, but the cycle may be difficult to break, 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 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 gaining awareness of 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, they may become defensive even if you're in the right. Instead, focus on using "I" messages. Explain to your family how their actions make you feel. You may be surprised at how often people will listen when you 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 put in the work to change. 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 defensive when confronted.

Acceptance

One thing that can help you to heal is acceptance. If you endured trauma within your family, it's okay to accept that you were hurt and how it has impacted you. A large part of the healing process is validating your emotions and experiences. Working with a therapist can help you process the trauma you experienced and begin to heal.

Self Compassion

If you were a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family, it is not your fault. You may blame yourself for the tension in the family, but it is crucial to acknowledge that you didn't cause it. Use self-compassion to work through your trauma. It's essential to forgive yourself, especially if you feel that you contributed to the dysfunction somehow. If you were a child in that environment, your parents had an obligation to protect you and raise you. Parents in dysfunctional families may avoid their roles. They may become so self-involved that they're not focusing on caring for their kids. If you were a child in this environment and you're hurting as an adult, that's natural. It's okay to validate your emotional pain. Try your best to be kind to yourself in this process.

Find Healthy Ways To Cope

Some people cope in an unhealthy manner, such as using drugs/alcohol or making self-destructive decisions. Instead, focus on healthier forms of coping. 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 to who you can relate. These strategies can help you manage the difficult emotions you may be experiencing without doing something harmful to you or others.

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Seek Counseling

If you believe you may have a dysfunctional family, consider looking into family therapy.

A therapist can sit the family down, be it individually or all at once, and provide a safe space for addressing concerns within 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 bring outside perspective, providing guidance and tools for your family to move towards reparation and healing.

Alternatively, if you had a dysfunctional family in the past, negative impacts on health or relationships, a therapist can help you process these challenges. Connecting with a therapist can be beneficial for working through past pain and looking forward to the future.


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