Dysfunctional Family: What It Is And What It’s Like To Grow Up In One | BetterHelp (2023)

Content Warning: The following article contains topics such as domestic violence, abuse, trauma, and other potentially triggering subjects. Read with discretion.

Many issues that present themselves later in life may stem from childhood. One in seven children experiences trauma, which can have impacts into adulthood. Difficult or traumatizing experiences related to family dynamics can mean you grew up in a dysfunctional family. Start by exploring the traits of dysfunction and the effects of growing up in an unhealthy environment.

Did You Grow Up In A Dysfunctional Family?

Discuss Your Experience With A Therapist

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

Dysfunctional families may look different from one another, as family dynamics can be complex.

TheMcGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicinedefines a dysfunctional family as “a family with multiple internal or external conflicts that affect the basic needs of the family unit.” For example, this may include:

  • Sibling rivalries

  • Parent-child conflicts

  • Domestic violence or abuse*

  • Mental illness

  • Single parenthood

  • Alcohol or drug abuse

  • Extramarital affairs

  • Gambling addiction

  • Unemployment influences

  • Financial concerns

  • Other traumatic family occurrences

Some families have minor dysfunction, while others have deeply rooted issues that become serious problems. Many factors can lead to dysfunctional family life, and each can occur to varying degrees.

*If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat. The Hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of relationship abuse and domestic violence so they can live their lives free of abuse.

What Are The Factors Of A Dysfunctional Family?

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you might have faced concerns since you were a child. These problems may have worsened as you aged and could still affect you in adulthood.

Dysfunctional families tend to be unstable or have conflicts. The caregiver/s might be so focused on their worries and needs that they fail to meet those of the children. This behavior may lead to neglect, abuse, or conflict.

Some children may feel lonely and develop low self-esteem and self-worth. They might experience physical or mental health problems as a result. Kids who grow up in these toxic environments often pick upsurvival mechanismsthat they carry with them for years to come.

The following factors may indicate family dysfunction. You might also take the ACES test, as providers often use it to determine if someone experienced trauma as a child.

Family History Of Dysfunction

Dysfunctional family patterns may repeat themselves. For example, people may learn their parenting styles from their parents or caregivers. If one or both caregivers abuse them, they may abuse their children.

In some cases, parents may try to avoid abusing their children as they were abused by being lenient or neglectful. Spouses might partake in conflict if their parents did. They may not understand how to model healthy behaviors.

Those who grew up in dysfunctional households can learn healthier techniques for parenting. They may deal with the issues they carry as adults and learn how to love, appreciate, respect, and treat others healthily.

A willingness to do the work it takes to overcome those issues can help end a dysfunctional family environment. For example, trauma therapy can be effective in treating adults who were sexually abused. Additionally, your attachment style can change over time.

Medical Problems

Physical illness alone may not cause family dysfunction. However, it may have impacts on the family unit. Parents might rely on their children to care for their health, which can cause anxiety and depression in their children. Additionally, if one child is ill and is not cared for, this may cause the children to grow up to invalidate their illnesses.

You may not have had any control over the illness that put a strain on your family, but you can control your actions, learn to use the resources available to you, and meet your children’s needs.

Mental Illness

Biology may play a role in many mental illnesses. However, behavioral issues that can accompany them may make family life much more challenging, especially without treatment.

People with untreated mental illnesses like trauma disorders, anxiety, or depression may act unhealthily toward their families. With treatment, people with mental illness may start to contribute positively.

Life Circumstances

Stress is often an unavoidable part of life. While low levels of stress can positively impact people and push them to achieve their goals, excessive stress may jeopardize a family’s safety and well-being.

High levels of stress could lead to hostility within a family. Learning to deal with life’s stressors healthily can be essential to the happiness and well-being of the individual and the family. When you model healthy coping strategies to your children, they may learn how to regulate their emotions.


Substance addiction, gambling, or psychological addictions may lead tocodependency, with caretakers spending excessive amounts of time, energy, and other resources on the individual who’s addicted. At times, children fill the role of caretaker. When an addiction is severe, it may drain a family’s financial and emotional resources, including the emotional resources of children living with a parent who’s addicted. A parent living with an untreated substance use disorder or other addiction may be emotionally unavailable to their children.

While addiction can cause problems within a family, addictive behaviors may also develop due to dysfunctional family dynamics. Those living in a family that doesn’t meet their needs may turn to substances, food, or gambling for temporary relief.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 or visit the website to receive support and resources.


Parents who areperfectionisticmay put pressure on their partners and children not just to do their best but to accomplish the impossible. Perfectionism may lead to unrealistic expectations and be detrimental to family life.

Loved ones of perfectionistic individuals might feel they’re walking on eggshells. Children with perfectionist parents may lose their innate lighthearted spirit and find learning difficult. These children may lack self-esteem or feel at fault for their parent’s behavior.

Ineffective Communication

Poor communication may be a characteristic of a dysfunctional family. Problems might be managed with open, honest, and healthy communication.

Dysfunctional families may struggle to listen to each other, and indirect communication could cause bitterness or passive-aggressive behavior. Teaching children active listening skills and learning them yourself may avoid this.

Lack Of Empathy

When caregivers lack empathy, their children may feel that a parent’s love is conditional. When a parent shows empathy, they model this trait to the child, which may help children become compassionate, empathetic adults. Empathy is a skill that can be learned.

In healthy families, caregivers are often intent on helping their children make good decisions and learn from their mistakes rather than belittling them or instillingshame.

Excessive Attempts To Control

Dysfunctional families are often characterized by a caregiver’s excessive need to control their children or partner. When parents fail to help children develop a healthy sense of autonomy, children may not feel self-confident.

Taking a more relaxed, accepting approach encourages kids to do their best in every situation rather than living to appease the controlling parent. Regarding parenting styles, studies show that authoritative parenting is often the most beneficial.

Lack Of Privacy And Independence

Parents in dysfunctional families may lack trust in their children and invade their privacy. While there are times when parents may need to know what’s going on with their children, parents in a functional family may utilize honest communication and questions instead of forcing their child to open up.

Constant Criticism

Criticism may run rampant in a dysfunctional family. At times, the criticism could be blatant, with parents chastising everything the child says or does. Other times, parents take a more subtle approach by using sarcasm, insults, or teasing. When criticism involves attempts to frighten, control, or isolate, it may signifyemotional abuse.

Dysfunctional Family Roles

There are five to six common roles in a dysfunctional family:

  1. Enabler or Caretaker: The individual may attempt to keep the family going despite the presence of addiction or other dysfunctions in the family.

  2. Scapegoat or Troublemaker: The scapegoat or troublemaker may become sick, weak, angry, or rebellious in response to their treatment. They may receive the majority of abuse or maltreatment.

  3. Lost Child: The lost child may spend most of their time alone, avoiding the family and its dysfunctional ways.

  4. Mascot: This individual may try to alleviate tension within the family by utilizing humor or mischief in everyday life. The mascot may be labeled the family clown.

  5. The Hero or Golden Child: This person may be idolized or pressured by their caregiver. They may receive less abuse or neglect but may feel pressure to excel, to please their parents, and to be “perfect.”

Immediate Effects Of Living In A Dysfunctional Family

When a child is living in a dysfunctional family, they may experience immediate effects, including:

  • Social isolation or loneliness

  • Development of mental health conditions

  • Childhood PTSD

  • Feeling extremely self-critical

  • Low self-esteem

  • Behavioral issues

  • Difficulty expressing thoughts or feelings

When you live in a dysfunctional family as a child, your brain may respond to stressors in unhealthy ways. Your fight or flight response in your nervous system could remain activated long after you have left your family dynamic.

Did You Grow Up In A Dysfunctional Family?

Discuss Your Experience With A Therapist

What Is It Like To Grow Up In A Healthy Family?

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you might get the impression that there is no such thing as a healthy, functional family life. It may feel hard to believe that functional families can be a reality.

However, healthy families do exist. So, what does a healthy family look like? There are a few characteristics of a healthy family environment:

  • People communicate freely and openly but compassionately

  • Everyone’s basic physical and emotional needs are met, including water, food, shelter, social belonging, and bladder/digestive needs

  • Caregivers show unconditional love for each child, even when they disapprove of specific behaviors

  • Through their words and actions, parents may support children’s emotional growth

  • Children feel open to bringing up concerns or questions to their caregivers

Counseling For Support

Adult children of caregivers who displayed dysfunctional behavior may benefit from working with a therapist. To overcome a childhood affected by a dysfunctional family,healing internal woundscan be a decisive step.

Studies show that many adults feel most comfortable at home, which can make in-person therapy feel daunting. If you relate, you may enjoy trying therapy from home in the form of online counseling.

Online therapy can effectively treat various mental health conditions and heal certain kinds of trauma. While many problems often arise from adverse childhood experiences, your mental health can be affected at any life stage.

Onestudyshowed how internet-delivered therapy successfully reduced the severity of PTSD symptoms in participants. The same group also saw a reduction in co-morbid depression and anxiety, proving the efficacy of online therapy for these concerns.

Talking with family about your experience could worsen existing issues. Speaking with a therapist allows you to express your feelings about what happened in a safe environment. If you’re ready to try counseling, consider signing up through an online platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples.


Your past may not necessarily predict your future. Although you may have gone through traumatic or dysfunctional experiences in childhood, there are ways to find support and healing. If you’re looking for professional help, consider reaching out to a counselor to get started.


Dysfunctional Family: What It Is And What It’s Like To Grow Up In One | BetterHelp? ›

Growing up in a dysfunctional family unit could result in frequent job loss, poor boundaries in relationships, and difficulty launching into adulthood. A study into the physiological trauma of children of dysfunctional families found that these types of units are usually distinguished by unharmonious parenting styles.

What's it like to grow up in a dysfunctional family? ›

Growing up in a dysfunctional family unit could result in frequent job loss, poor boundaries in relationships, and difficulty launching into adulthood. A study into the physiological trauma of children of dysfunctional families found that these types of units are usually distinguished by unharmonious parenting styles.

How does growing up in a dysfunctional family affect a child? ›

Children from dysfunctional families are also more likely to become withdrawn and socially isolated. They often feel lonely and have difficulty expressing their feelings, and they are at risk of developing depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and more. As children mature, these problems persist.

What is the summary of the dysfunctional family? ›

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse and sometimes even all of the above on the part of individual parents occur continuously and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions.

What are 5 causes of dysfunctional family? ›

Factors that can impair a family's functioning include poor parenting, distressed or abusive environments, substance abuse, mental illness, chronic physical illness, and poor communication. What is this? Life in a dysfunctional family is emotionally tumultuous.

What is the pain of a dysfunctional family? ›

In dysfunctional families, adults tend to be so preoccupied with their own problems and pain that they dont give their children what they need and crave consistency, safety, unconditional love. As a result, children feel highly stressed, anxious, and unlovable.

What is a dysfunctional childhood? ›

Children in dysfunctional families often experience some form of childhood trauma physical or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, witnessing violence, homelessness, etc. Below is a list of experiences that are common among children in dysfunctional families. You may relate to some or all of them.

How do you heal from growing up in a dysfunctional family? ›

How to Deal with a Dysfunctional Family
  1. See Your History as an Adult. From your adult point of view, you can conquer the lingering emotions from life in a dysfunctional family. ...
  2. Let Go of the Past. Remember that you can't undo your family history. ...
  3. Don't Have the Victim Mentality. ...
  4. Define Your Own Person. ...
  5. Get Family Therapy.
Nov 24, 2021

Did I grew up in a toxic household? ›

Feelings of extreme anxiety, low self-esteem, worthlessness, difficulty trusting others, maintaining close relationships, or feeling worn out after a visit with your family are all signs you grew up in a toxic family.

What are the effects of growing up with an unstable parent? ›

Growing up with a parent who is mentally ill “can lead to a child feeling uncertain, anxious, and neglected,” says Talkspace therapist Kimberly Leitch, LCSW-R. Life can be unstable and unpredictable, and children may not learn proper coping skills.

How does a dysfunctional family affect? ›

Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family

A disrupted sense of trust – in yourself, in others, in the world. Difficulty dating and forming healthy relationships. Increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse. Increased risk for psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, panic, depression, among others.

What is a dysfunctional family essay? ›

A dysfunctional family is a group of people usually related by some means, not always necessarily by blood, in which conflict, misbehavior, maltreatment and neglecting create a hostile life for its members.

What is the lost child role in a dysfunctional family? ›

The Lost Child

They attempt to stay out of the dysfunctional picture as much as possible by staying quiet, on their own and fending for themselves as much as possible. Their needs are going unmet anyway. Consequently, this child will withdraw, feel alone and desperately yearn for love, approval and attention.

What are common traits of a dysfunctional family? ›

Signs of a Dysfunctional Family
  • Addiction. Addiction can lead to so many different unhealthy relationships among family members. ...
  • Perfectionism. ...
  • Abuse or neglect. ...
  • Unpredictability and fear. ...
  • Conditional love. ...
  • Lack of boundaries. ...
  • Lack of intimacy. ...
  • Poor communication.

What are the traits of a dysfunctional family? ›

Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family
  • INEFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION. Members of dysfunctional families find it challenging to listen to each other and express their feelings in a healthy way. ...
  • LACK OF BOUNDARIES. Healthy boundaries help define relationships and foster trust. ...
Aug 6, 2021

What are 4 things that cause family stress? ›

Some of the most common causes of family stress include:
  • child discipline.
  • financial challenges.
  • work-life balance.
  • overloaded schedules.
  • divorce or separation.
  • serious illness, both physical and mental.
  • death of a loved one.
  • birth of a child.
Apr 7, 2022

Who is the victim in a dysfunctional family? ›

The Victim: The Victim role is the one where instead of confronting the perpetrator directly or setting a real limit with them, the victim will call their friends and family and complain. They will stay stuck in a sad, low energy mode.

How do you heal a toxic family? ›

Here are seven ways to pursue just that — and center your own emotional well-being in the process.
  1. Get Clear. Reflect on your relationships with family. ...
  2. Take a Breather. Sometimes space is the best option. ...
  3. Negotiate New Terms. ...
  4. Boundaries are Best. ...
  5. Let Go of the Fantasy. ...
  6. Start Fresh. ...
  7. Focus on the Family You Build.
Dec 18, 2019

Can a dysfunctional family cause trauma? ›

Yes, trauma is often related to dysfunctional families. That can be true at any age. As a child, trauma is often caused by family members, either through action or neglect. And as an adult, you may be drawn to people who remind you of those who hurt you before.

What is a toxic family? ›

A toxic family doesn't respect your boundaries. They create an unhealthy family situation. They also maintain stressful or conditional interpersonal relationships and cause mental and emotional distress.

What do you call a family that is messed up? ›

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave you emotionally scarred and set you up for a lifetime of issues. Not all dysfunctional families are the same though, and each type can create specific problems that carry on into adulthood.

What is the golden child in a dysfunctional family? ›

The Golden Child is greatly valued by their narcissistic parent for a variety of reasons–these form a heavy load for the child to carry. Within the dysfunctional family, the golden child learns early on that their role is to please their parent and live out their parent's own unfulfilled ambitions.

What are the characteristics of a dysfunctional person? ›

The term dysfunction 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. 1 Dysfunction may manifest as poor communication, frequent conflict, emotional or physical abuse, and much more.

How do you know if you were raised in a dysfunctional family? ›

Eight Signs You Were Raised in a Dysfunctional Family
  • You feel guilty when you stand up for yourself. ...
  • You fear being abandoned. ...
  • You're a people pleaser. ...
  • You feel lonely and isolated. ...
  • You worry incessantly about the future. ...
  • You feel super responsible for others. ...
  • You feel like a victim. ...
  • You judge yourself mercilessly.
Sep 10, 2014

Can you change a dysfunctional family? ›

Dysfunctional families are not impossible to fix. It just takes love, cooperation and responsibility. But if you tried and those elements are not present, just choose yourself instead.

What are signs of a toxic mother? ›

Signs you might have a toxic parent include:
  • They're self-centered. They don't think about your needs or feelings.
  • They're emotional loose cannons. They overreact, or create drama.
  • They overshare. ...
  • They seek control. ...
  • They're harshly critical. ...
  • They lack boundaries.

Is my family toxic or am I overreacting? ›

Here are some common signs of toxic behavior from a family member: Their perception of you doesn't jibe with the way you see yourself. They accuse you of things that you feel aren't true. They make you feel like you're never enough or bad about yourself, or otherwise emotionally destabilized.

What does a toxic childhood look like? ›

A toxic childhood could include any of the following experiences: Your emotional needs weren't met by caretakers. Your parents were controlling, neglectful, or overprotective. You experienced abuse (e.g. physical, verbal, emotional, sexual).

What causes emotionally unstable children? ›

One of the most common causes of emotional dysregulation in children is childhood trauma. Regardless of what the “diagnosis” ends up being–depression, anxiety, PTSD, Schizoaffective Disorder, ADHD, etc–researchers have found that there's almost always trauma in the child's history.

What is considered an unstable family? ›

Family instability refers to changes in parents' residential and romantic partnerships, such as marriage, divorce, and romantic partners moving in or out of the home.

What is an unstable mother daughter relationship? ›

Dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships can come in many forms. Often it can take form in criticism, where a daughter feels like she's constantly getting negative feedback from her maternal figure. Sometimes, it can take the form of detachment. “Some women are simply not close to their mothers,” says Wernsman.

How can a person in a dysfunctional family break the cycle? ›

Cultivate The Habit Of Loving

Love is the number one ingredient you need if you wish to break the cycle of dysfunction in your family. Therefore, develop the habit of showing love to members of your family.

What are two reasons why the family can be seen to be dysfunctional? ›

Families can be dysfunctional for several reasons. It can sometimes be because one or both parents live with an addiction, a mental health condition, or a personality disorder (such as narcissistic personality disorder).

What is an example sentence for dysfunctional family? ›

The whole thing was a big dysfunctional family. Most of her neighbors wouldn't mind seeing her and her entire dysfunctional family move away and never come back. Alcoholism is one of the leading causes of a dysfunctional family. It is a comedy about a family business run by its dysfunctional family members.

What is dysfunctional family in psychology? ›

a family in which relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression. Members of a dysfunctional family often develop symptomatic behaviors, and often one individual in the family presents as the identified patient.

How is a normal family different from a dysfunctional family? ›

When the family structure functions effectively and positively nurtures individual members it is called a functional family. When parts do not work well or are not in equilibrium, it is called a dysfunctional family. Members of dysfunctional families more readily have problems forming other relationships.

How many dysfunctional family roles are there? ›

Most experts identify six dysfunctional family roles in particular. In her book, Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family, addiction and codependency expert Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse identifies the six dysfunctional family roles of the alcoholic family as follows: The Dependent. The Enabler.

Where does dysfunctional family come from? ›

If one's family of origin was dysfunctional; faced issues such as abuse, substance abuse, poor health, or poverty; did not provide children with real-world skills; or did not adequately demonstrate love, that person may experience difficulties in these areas later in life, especially if they start a family of their own ...

What are the psychological effects of a broken family? ›

The impact of the broken family on children by shaping children's attitudes, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, which are manifested by the increase in painful feelings of sadness, anxiety, confusion, fear, guilt, and the reinforcement of misconceptions and behaviors with the domination of some negative ideas that ...

How do you not let family problems affect you? ›

While there is no perfect way to manage stress, here are some tips that may work for you and your family:
  1. Know your own stress cues. ...
  2. Take time to do something that is meaningful, relaxing and fun to you and your family. ...
  3. Practice deep breathing or mindfulness. ...
  4. Get enough sleep. ...
  5. Accept your emotions and feelings.

Why does my family cause me anxiety? ›

Your anxiety could be triggered by the fear of conflict, feeling pressure or expectations from your loved ones or family members, or possibly from a fear of disappointing them… These are just a few examples as to why you might feel anxious around your family or loved ones.

What are the 6 triggers of stress? ›

There are six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. These are: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. For example, workers may say that they: are not able to cope with the demands of their jobs.

What percentage of people grow up in dysfunctional families? ›

More than 80 percent of Americans see US as a dysfunctional family: poll.

How do I know if my childhood was toxic? ›

A toxic childhood could include any of the following experiences: Your emotional needs weren't met by caretakers. Your parents were controlling, neglectful, or overprotective. You experienced abuse (e.g. physical, verbal, emotional, sexual).

Who suffers the most in a broken family? ›

1. To the children: Children are the ones who suffer most of broken family.

What is the root cause of broken family? ›

A broken family can be caused by a variety of different factors, but the most common cause is when one or more of the members divorce or separate. Other causes can include death of a family member, abuse, or neglect. Broken families have negative effects on both the individuals within the family and society as a whole.

What does a broken family feel like? ›

When you come from a broken family, it feels like you're isolated and cut-off from the rest of the world. Being so distant to a parent or a sibling often pressures you into feeling like you need to deal with it by yourself.

Who is the responsible child in dysfunctional family? ›

"Responsible Child" -"Family Hero"

This child takes over the parent role at a very young age, becoming very responsible and self-sufficient. They give the family self-worth because they look good on the outside. They are the good students, the sports stars, the prom queens.

What is toxic family dynamics? ›

Toxic family dynamics refer to unhealthy family relationships characterized by harmful behaviors, poor interactions, and ineffective conflict management. Unhealthy family dynamics include signs such as: Lack of boundaries and empathy. Lack of personal space and privacy. Constant conflicts, hostility, and aggression.


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