Dysfunctional families come in all shapes and sizes. From divorce and single-parent families to addictions and abuse and everything in between, no two families struggle in exactly the same way.
Some families appear, by all external indications, to be perfectly normal and healthy while hiding pain and turmoil within the home.
Dysfunction in other families is evident to everyone who comes in contact with them and often leads to concerned friends, families, or teachers intervening, public confrontations, and possibly even legal action being taken.
What Is A Dysfunctional Family?
A dysfunctional family is described by the Dictionary of Modern Medicine as,
“A family with multiple ‘internal’ – eg sibling rivalries, parent-child conflicts, domestic violence, mental illness, single parenthood, or ‘external’ – eg alcohol or drug abuse, extramarital affairs, gambling, unemployment – influences that affect the basic needs of the family unit”dysfunctional family. (n.d.) McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. (2002). Retrieved August 15 2019 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/dysfunctional+family
We see in scripture how God intended the family to look. The family was designed to support and love one another, to be each others’ help in times of trouble and to defend and protect.
But when dysfunction enters the picture, this vision of health and unity gets distorted. We see families fall apart as God’s perfect plan for them is destroyed by sin.
The Roles Of A Dysfunctional Family
In each dysfunctional family, there are typically six family roles at play regardless of the type or severity of dysfunction. These roles are basically the same across the board and include the dependent, the caretaker, the scapegoat, the hero, the mascot, and the lost child.
In families with fewer than six people, each member will likely fit into multiple roles. If a family has more than six people, it’s likely that some roles will be shared by multiple family members.
Occasionally, you will see family roles shift as life circumstances change. For instance, if the oldest child leaves home, the next oldest child may fill that family role in their sibling’s absence.
This person is the centerpiece of the dysfunction. They may be battling an addiction, struggle with mental health, or are struggling with something else that makes it difficult for the family to function normally.
On the surface, the dependent may seem selfish and will put their own needs and desires ahead of everyone else’s. They will do almost anything to feed their addiction or problem.
However, underneath it all, they may feel shame, guilt, pain, and so much more – their struggle may even be a way for them to numb their feelings.
The dependent is usually unwilling to admit they have a problem and therefore is not receiving the help they need that could change their family dynamic for the better.
Also known as the enabler, this is the person who will cover for the dependent’s problems and perhaps even perpetuate the problem by providing the means for the addiction or struggle to continue.
Most often the partner of the dependent, he or she usually continues to feed the addictions or behaviors in order to appease the dependent and keep them happy.
The caretaker is co-dependent and will do whatever they have to in order to maintain the relationship, even at the expense of their own well-being. They will always cover for the dependent’s problems and will make excuses or justify poor behavior.
This person may also be called the problem child and is the one who is always getting into trouble. They are defiant and hostile as they are trying to divert attention away from the dependent.
The scapegoat will often find themselves in trouble at school, at home, and maybe even with the law. They dislike authority and rules and will rebel at every opportunity.
Often you will find them choosing to do the opposite of what everyone wants them to do.
They are often wrongfully blamed for the problems at home but they don’t show a lot of emotions. They tend to be very in control of themselves and can seem quite stoic.
Also known as the golden child, this person is very responsible and highly self-sufficient. Their main goal is to make it look like everything is great – to keep up appearances.
They may care for younger siblings in the absence of responsible parents.
The hero usually gets good grades and performs well in activities. They’ll also be the family member who seems to “have it all together.” They often have perfectionistic tendencies and are people pleasers, always striving to make their parents proud and make everyone happy.
They always wear a mask that makes it seem, to the outside world, like everything and everyone is ok.
This person may also be referred to as the clown and prefers to use humor to distract from the dependent’s problems and to cope with the dysfunction.
They are typically the one trying to lighten the mood and ease stress.
They tell jokes and act silly to divert attention away from problems and often hide their true emotions behind a happy and funny character. This will be the family member that’s always trying to cheer others up and doesn’t want anyone to feel pain.
The Lost Child
The one who is quiet and rarely noticed, they keep to themselves and try to maintain a low profile. This person rarely gets noticed and almost appears invisible at times.
The loner of the family, the lost child is quiet and avoids doing anything that will draw attention to themselves. They refuse to get involved in family drama and do not express their opinions or take sides.
Often, they will claim ignorance rather than get wrapped up in a problem within the family.
The Rules Of A Dysfunctional Family
Dysfunctional families operate with three basic rules that are most often unspoken but understood by every member of the family.
Rule #1: Don’t Talk
Act like everything is fine and make sure everyone thinks we’re a perfectly normal family. We don’t discuss the family problem with each other or with anyone else.
This rule ensures that everyone remembers their place and that the dependent’s problems do not become public knowledge. It also keeps children from sharing information that might jeopardize the family unit and cause the dependent to lose control.
This is particularly difficult for young children who may sense that something is wrong but don’t know what that something is. Because no one is allowed to talk about it, the child may internalize their feelings and begin to believe that they are the problem.
The refusal to discuss the problem simply keeps the family in denial and ensures that no help will be had.
Rule #2: Don’t Trust
Trust is a foundational piece of a child’s life that is established first in the parent-child relationship. But in a dysfunctional family, this trust is never developed and the children grow up learning that people cannot be trusted.
Their parents (who are supposed to love and protect them) let them down so many times through abuse, neglect, not showing up, exposing them to dangerous situations, or simply not protecting them, that they learn to believe that a person’s word is never to be trusted and they will always let you down.
Similar to the rule of “don’t talk,” this rule also keeps the family isolated and, therefore, unlikely to receive help.
Parents may use fear to control their children by telling them that if they trust a teacher or counselor with information about their family, that mom or dad may go to jail, the kids might be taken away, or they’ll receive some sort of extreme punishment as a result.
And so, the kids keep their mouths shut because they are afraid of disrupting the family and facing unknown circumstances. For them, the consistency and dependability of the dysfunction in their family, even if painful and difficult, is preferable to facing something unfamiliar.
Rule #3: Don’t Feel
The expression of emotions in a dysfunctional family is most often met with dismissal at best and perhaps physical or emotional abuse at worst. Family members learn quickly that getting upset, crying, or being sad is not acceptable.
Mental health issues are often dismissed as someone just trying to get attention. If you do express emotion, you may be made to feel weak and insignificant or you may be punished.
In addition, each person’s feelings are irrelevant in the grand scheme of the family. Instead, the only thing that matters in a dysfunctional family is keeping the dependent happy.
If you don’t like something, too bad. That’s just the way it is and there’s nothing you can do about it.
An example of this rule would be a child expressing dislike for their parent’s new partner and the parent responding by telling them their opinion doesn’t matter without validating the child’s feelings or digging deeper to discover that the reason for the dislike may be a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
This leaves the child feeling unimportant and unloved and pushes them to bury their feelings even further.
Signs you grew up in a dysfunctional family
The following signs of dysfunction will help you determine if your family growing up (or perhaps even your family now) was or is dysfunctional. I know that coming to this realization can be incredibly difficult and painful for many.
But acknowledging where you came from is the only way to move forward and begin to build a life you love.
My mantra is that we are all doing the best we know how with the knowledge and resources we have available to us. The same goes for our parents.
If we remember this one simple thing, it can help us begin to accept and find healing from our past hurts.
It’s important to note that having a problem in your family does not necessarily make it dysfunctional. The key difference between a healthy family and a dysfunctional family is that the healthy ones acknowledge, work through, and move past their problems while still providing for all of the physical and emotional needs of each family member.
Dysfunctional families never acknowledge or deal with their problems and therefore, continue to live in dysfunction indefinitely.
These are the signs that your family of origin (that is, the family you grew up in) may have been dysfunctional. This list is not exhaustive.
- One or more family members struggled with drug or alcohol addiction
- One or more family members struggled with addiction to sex and/or pornography
- One or more family members struggled with addiction to work or particular activities (i.e. they spend most of their time working, exercising, playing video games, on their devices – tv, computer, phone, etc. to the detriment of their family and maybe even their own wellbeing)
- One or more family members struggled with an addiction to shopping or gambling which caused financial hardship for the family
- One or more family members were spiritually obsessive and/or controlling (this is different than religious devotion – instead of being committed to their faith, a person may force their beliefs on others they have authority over at the expense of their well-being – often done under the guise of “doing God’s will” or “doing what’s best for you”)
- There was frequent conflict in your home
- There was violence in your home
- One or more family members struggled with undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues
- There were sibling rivalries in your family that affected the basic needs of the family as a whole
- There was parent-child conflict that affected the basic needs of the family as a whole
- One of your family members was solely responsible for your upbringing (single parenthood)
- One or more family members struggled with untreated impulse control disorders (intermittent explosive disorder, kleptomania, pyromania, etc)
- One or more family members engaged in extramarital affairs
- One or more family members struggled to gain or maintain adequate employment
- One or more family members physically, emotionally, or sexually abused or neglected other members of the family
- Your parents separated or divorced
- One or more family members were extremely overbearing or controlling
- Your family had secrets you weren’t allowed to share with anyone
- One or more family members often lied to cover up problems
- Verbal abuse was normal in your family
- Your family isolated themselves from others
- One or more family members insisted on perfection
- Religion or spiritual exploration was discouraged or outright banned
- Access to education and information was limited and controlled
- Your family lived in denial of their problems
- There was a lack of healthy communication in your family (no communication or communication was not safe or consistent)
- Expectations and rules in your family were extremely rigid, extremely lax, or were unclear and inconsistent
- There were blurred lines in your family concerning what roles each member played (this most often happens when one parent is emotionally or physically absent or irresponsible and a child becomes the substitute in their absence, taking on parental roles or becoming a companion to the other parent)
- Your family life was completely unpredictable
- Your family was unable to resolve problems within the family
- Your family lived below or just barely above the poverty line or was unable to adequately meet financial needs
- You weren’t allowed to have your own interests or beliefs that were different than the family’s
- Communication with “outsiders” was limited and/or extremely controlled
Again, this list is not exhaustive and there are likely many more issues that a dysfunctional family might encounter. It is also possible that your family may have faced one or more of the struggles on this list but was able to acknowledge it, work through it, and move past it.
This would indicate that your family is not dysfunctional.
If you believe your family was or is dysfunctional, know that you are not alone and there is hope for renewal, restoration, reclaiming, and redemption of your life. You don’t have to continue the same broken patterns from the past.
How Do You Make Positive Changes?
I believe there are four main areas that adult children of dysfunctional families struggle with:
1. Healthy Mindset
2. Positive Relationships
3. Life Management
4. Overcoming Past Struggles
It’s important to address each of these areas in your life in order to begin to move past the trauma or pain that affects your life today.
Renew Your Mind
Mindset is often one of the biggest challenges for children of dysfunctional families. We believe that every negative thing we’ve ever been told or experienced is our identity.
It’s so ingrained in who we are that it can be incredibly difficult to change those thought patterns. We’ve believed the lies for so long that we don’t even realize that there is a better way.
Seek to recognize dysfunction in your mental, emotional, and spiritual life so you can begin to change your thought and behavior patterns and create a positive mindset.
Restore Your Relationships
Your parents may not have set a good example in their relationship or in how they parented you. And as a result of that maybe you struggle to trust others, to manage your own emotions well, and to really let people in.
I want to address these struggles by introducing you to positive parenting techniques and showing you how to implement them in your own family in order to build positive and healthy relationships with your own children.
I want to help you learn to recognize your own personal triggers and struggles so that you can begin to build a positive connection with your children, your partner and everyone else you care about.
Reclaim Your Life
Many struggling families also have a difficult time managing their money, home, and life well. They may have a lot of debt, not be able to pay bills, don’t manage their time well, and might not know how to manage their home.
Because of that, children often grow up having no positive examples of how to live well in the adult world. To change that, you need the tools to manage your money, home, and time in a way that allows you not just to survive, but to thrive.
Redeem Your Past
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave emotional and maybe even physical scars. But you don’t have to let your past determine your future.
You have within you the ability to end the cycle of abuse, addiction, dependency, or whatever other struggles have manifested in your family in the past.
You have the power to say, “It stops here.” The truth is, our past does not define us. It is not our identity. I strive to offer support and encouragement for every mom who dreams of being the one to break the cycle.
I want to create a safe place where you can find support and encouragement on your parenting journey as you make positive changes moving forward.
In order to accomplish something you’ve never accomplished, you have to be willing to do something you’ve never done.
Change is hard. It can be painful. But if you’re willing to dig your heels in and refuse to give up even when things get tough, you absolutely can change your family for the better!
Here’s the thing, you can’t do this alone. We were never meant to live in isolation. God put us in community to help each other grow and thrive. And that’s what I’m here for!
I’ve walked the road of recovery and I’ve confronted all of my deepest, darkest hurts, fears, and shame. And I want to be here for you as you walk the same path.
My goal is to offer education, support, and encouragement to moms who are seeking to break the cycle of dysfunction in their families and create a positive environment for their children.
So, what are you waiting for?
The only person who can change your life is you!