The Most Common Dysfunctional Family Characteristics, How To Spot Them, And What Can Be Done

By: Lydian Shipp

Updated March 02, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Robin Brock

For people involved in a dysfunctional family, it can be especially difficult to realize and clearly see the dysfunctional characteristics present in their family. Dysfunctions manifest in many forms and in various degrees, and this variety adds a layer of complication to being able to confidently identify dysfunctional family characteristics in one's own family. All families have problems, but some families have "dysfunctions", which can be defined as "abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior[s] or interaction[s] within a group". In this case, the group is the family.

These are Some of the Most Common Dysfunctional Family Characteristics:

  1. Abuse

Abuse is one of the easiest-to-spot dysfunctional family characteristics, and unfortunately, it's also one of the most common. Abuse can come in many forms: physical abuse, sexual abuse, and even emotional or verbal abuse. Physical, sexual, and verbal abuse is usually the most obvious. One member of the family may hit another family member (physical abuse), make undesired sexual advances (sexual abuse), or call another family member names (verbal abuse). Emotional abuse can be more difficult to see because it involves manipulation and deception that may or may not be easily detectable. The family member who is the subject of emotional abuse must consider how they're affected by the actions and words of a relative; emotional abuse may be best identified with the help of a qualified therapist.

The first thing to do when a person recognizes abuse within a family is to seek help and assistance. It can be unclear what to do in an abusive situation, so finding someone to help and provide support is vital. If the victim of the abuse believes that their life is in danger, they should make a safe plan to leave their home to go to a trusted person's home or an abused person's shelter so that they can safely get assistance. After leaving the abusive situation, the person should seek professional help from the authorities and qualified trauma specialists.

2. Fear

In a dysfunctional family, fear characterizes the relationships between family members. This fear usually stems from some kind of abuse, although it can also come from other unhealthy dysfunctional family characteristics that will be discussed below. Unpredictable behavior from one or more family members may also be the cause of fear for other family members. In healthy family relationships, no member of the family should feel truly afraid of another, so fear is an important dysfunctional family characteristic to be aware of.

To resolve this fear, it's important to first identify where the fear comes from. Does the fear originate from unpredictable abuse? Or does it originate from a lack of privacy or feelings that love may not be returned reliably? Recognizing where the fear comes from can help a person understand the dysfunction better, which can ultimately lead to the making of a final decision about what they need to do to protect themselves and how they can support their general wellbeing.

  1. Unhealthy Boundaries

Having boundaries that are too high or too low is one of the most frequently spotted dysfunctional family characteristics. This characteristic may manifest as a minor dysfunction or as a major one, but if it interferes with a person's daily functioning or ability to feel safe and comfortable in the home and with family, then the issue of unhealthy boundaries must be acknowledged and addressed.

If within a family the desire for privacy is forbidden or viewed by one or more family members as being an inconsiderate desire, then there are likely some unhealthy boundaries. Privacy and independence are normal in healthy families, and although different families may have higher or lower boundaries, conversations about the need specifically for privacy and independence (or the need for more affection and closeness) should be open. In contrast, boundaries that are too high could involve problems such as not being able to discuss certain subjects without angering one or more family members. If a family member is facing this dysfunctional characteristic, family therapy may be helpful in remedying the situation for all parties involved.

4. Conditions on Love

In terms of dysfunctional family characteristics, this one can be extremely uncomfortable and difficult to understand. Conditional love (as opposed to unconditional love) is a love that has "conditions". In other words, love only exists when certain prerequisites are met. A mother may love her son, but when he behaves badly or does something that is in direct opposition to her, she may revoke the love and respond in a negative - or even hateful - manner towards her child. This is conditional love. The son has the mother's love as long as he does exactly what she says, but if he goes against her, she behaves (and may even feel) as though she "doesn't love him anymore".

Conditional love can occur between any arrangement of family members, not just between parents and children. It can occur between siblings, spouses, and even more distant relations such as cousins. If a feeling of being unloved or unwanted arises whenever a disagreement takes place, this may be a sign of conditional love. Conditional love is frequently coupled with some form of abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, sexual, or verbal, so this is crucial to keep in mind when identifying if there are conditions on love.

The first thing to do when this dysfunctional family characteristic is identified is for the individuals to observe themselves to see if they're participating in conditional love. If they observe themselves doing conditional love behaviors, a good first step would be to identify behavioral changes that the person can make to themselves to change the outcome of different events. If the other family member agrees to it, therapy is an excellent choice for working toward a resolution.

  1. Addiction

Addiction is a necessary entry on this list of dysfunctional family characteristics because it frequently leads to other behavioral manifestations of dysfunction. Drug addiction and alcohol addiction can lead to serious dysfunctional family characteristics and are in themselves dysfunctions, but other addictions to gambling, pornography, technology, or other mediums can cause similar dysfunctions as those mentioned in this list. One (or more) family member's addiction causes stress in the family as well as increases the risk of abuse. This is why addiction is one of the most serious dysfunctional family characteristics.

If a family member has an addiction, other family members could decide to stage an intervention to encourage the addict to go to a rehabilitation center or get help in some other way. Addiction can only be broken through the will of the addict himself, but the addict must first realize that he needs help in order to overcome his addiction. If the addict does not consent to receive treatment, other family members in the role of "enabler" or "victim" (or both) must consider the possibility of not having dealings with the addicted family member in order to protect him and others. A trained therapist or interventionist can assist concerned family members with finding a suitable path.

6. Criticism and Perfectionism

Criticism and perfectionism are two dysfunctional family characteristics that are intimately intertwined. When one person in the family does or creates something that is "less than perfect" or somehow not adequate for another family member, that other family member may use harsh criticism and judgment of the person. In this way, the expectation of total perfection leads to severe judgment. The criticism may involve verbal abuse, or even different or more than one form of abuse. After or during the criticism, love withdrawal may occur if the other family member is inclined toward practicing conditional love. Thus, multiple dysfunctional family characteristics can spring out of this one root dysfunction.

The first step in managing severe criticism or ardent perfectionism is to become self-aware. The person who is the target of these must learn to understand themselves and what they're doing. Every situation is different, so focusing on oneself and one's actions and behaviors is the best place to start. Remember, abuse is not the fault of the victim. If it seems appropriate for the situation, individual or family therapy can help overcome this dysfunction.

What to Do if Your Family Exhibits Dysfunctional Family Characteristics


There are two things that a person can do if they realize that they're in the middle of a dysfunctional family dynamic. The first thing they can do is tune into themselves and their own behavior. If they notice things about themselves that they want to change (maybe they're highly judgmental of some family members, for example), the person can consider the behavior they'd like to exhibit instead (perhaps the person will decide that they want to be supportive and encouraging instead of judgmental). This will help the victim realign their own position in the family and will also help them understand the dynamic better.

The most important thing to do, however, is to get help. Dysfunction is almost always a multilayered problem, so getting the assistance of a trained family therapist can help family members discover themselves as they are, as well as encourage them to make necessary changes. Individual therapy may be the best choice at first if other family members don't wish to partake in family therapy sessions. However, no matter the situation, finding support is a crucial step toward resolving or breaking free from family dysfunctions.


Dysfunctional family characteristics can sometimes be quite visible, but other times they're deceptively hard to see. Many dysfunctions lead into others, so it's not difficult to understand why family members would need outside help to completely understand the situation and to begin the process toward resolution. Individuals outside of the family dynamic are most likely to see the issues, which is why soliciting the help of a therapist is essential for the family to find peace and health.

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