Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family
Some of the characteristics that make a family register high on their dysfunctional seismograph.
Sexual assault, physical beatings, or verbal lashings are all active types of abuse. These are extremely serious.
These families typically get caught up in a loop that makes it seem as though the abuse is “normal”. It’s not uncommon for children who grow up in these environments to continue the abusive behavior into their adulthood.
2. Emotional Abuse
This type of abuse is considered inactive.
For example, a mother who ignores her child, who doesn’t hold it; a parent who shows absolutely no interest in their offspring, or withholds love when the child doesn’t do what they want.
Neglect leaves the child always begging for attention, always looking for ways to receive validation. Some severe forms of emotional abuse include constant criticism, shaming, guilt-tripping, bullying, threats, gaslighting, and controlling behavior, to name but a few.
A man I once treated presented with a constant need for attention from men and women alike. If he didn’t receive it, he would get very depressed and think something was wrong with him.
He constantly berated himself for not being good enough. Some probing into his family background revealed what I already suspected – the man’s father had been absent from his son’s life. And when he was around, he ignored his son, paying more attention to his friends and activities.
Without realizing it, as an adult, my client was on a continual quest to get the approval and attention from strangers that he never received from his father.
3. Conditional Love
In families where love is conditional, there is always an extreme disappointment.
A member of this family is constantly striving to be perfect. They know that if they’re not – that if they don’t do what is expected of them – the “love” will be withdrawn. These members feel like they’re walking on a tightrope. One slip and it’s all over.
In these families, there’s no safety net. Children often grow up to become people-pleasers who do whatever it takes to get the love they so desperately want and need.
4. No Boundaries
A typical scenario in this type of family is a parent who is controlling, invades your privacy, and has no consideration for your opinion or desires. Maybe they open your mail or throw it away if they don’t want you to see it. You may want to express yourself but are discouraged if you do.
Without boundaries, family roles are fuzzy. As an older child, you might become parentified, obliged to act as parent to your younger siblings or your parents.
Living with no boundaries is like throwing five different types of food into a blender. Once they are blended, it’s impossible to separate any of the ingredients.
A home with no boundaries is like that. You don’t have your own space or your own identity. There’s an overall lack of respect for individual rights and privacy.
5. No Intimacy
In this household, there is no closeness between the family members. Signs of love are non-existent.
The kids in this home don’t feel supported in any way. Emotionally, the parents are unavailable. It is likely that a grown adult from this type of family is cut off from their emotions or will choose someone who is unavailable themselves, replicating their family of origin.
In this type of dysfunction, the family members can’t or won’t confide in each other. “Communication” happens by “triangulating” another family member into their drama.
Let’s say, for instance, that Mom is angry at Dad. Instead of talking to Dad about the situation, she calls Timmy over and starts complaining to him about Dad, “Can you believe what he did? He’s a mess. I can’t even stand him. You can tell him I said so.”
Imagine how Timmy feels stuck between both parents. In this household, a third person is always drawn in and made the substitute for direct communication.
Any family who has one or more members addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., is gravely dysfunctional. Any kind of addict is not – cannot – be a good, responsible parent. They may be physically present, but not emotionally.
Addicts are unpredictable. The members of this family grow up being hypervigilant – always looking for clues as to what’s going to happen next.
In families with addictions, there may be a lot of yelling, violence, or the reverse, non-involvement. All of these features cause acute pain.
Some Causes of Dysfunction in a Family
Now that you have a picture of the pieces that go into the dysfunctional family construct, you may want to know the causes.
Many things can be at play. For instance, there could be a history of mental illness, health issues, or physical or verbal abuse. Maybe the parent grew up in a violent home, and now they’ve created one themselves.
Sometimes, however, the dysfunction is created by unpredictable life challenges. Maybe high stress due to the loss of a job, which leads to frustration, depression, and maybe even domestic abuse.
While I was working with Worker’s Compensation patients, the stress caused by their detrimental injuries and subsequent job loss was unbearable for some of my clients. Often they became depressed, abusive, suicidal, and sometimes even homicidal.
The loss of identity changes the family dynamics, and a situation that didn’t previously exist becomes prevalent. Roles change, thereby creating a great deal of havoc within the family.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave many scars. Those scars may appear as:
Difficulty starting and maintaining relationships
Difficulty communicating feelings
Lack of self-worth
Chronic anxiety or depression
Ways You Can Heal From a Dysfunctional Family
If you grew up in a dysfunctional household, you may feel a sense of hopelessness. But all is not lost. There are many things you can do to heal and live a balanced and productive life.
Here are some suggestions to get you on your way:
Get some therapy. A good therapist can help you look at those old, internal wounds, and work with you to help heal them.
Understand that as a child, you didn’t have a voice, but as an adult, you do.
Realize that no matter what you were told, you are worthy of love. You matter!
Learn to express your feelings. They’re in there.
Stay away from the toxic environment as much as possible.
Stop repeating the cycle you lived in. It is necessary to find a new normal.
Understand that your past does not define you. As an adult, you can make different choices.
Stop blaming your past. Do things differently; that’s the best way to move forward.
Give up any unbecoming role/s you played. What role did you play? Is it something that works for you? Or something you need to discard?
You are not a victim anymore unless you allow yourself to be.
Know that you can’t change people. You can only change yourself. By virtue of that, you change the behavior of others.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can be brutal. It’s an ongoing war that leaves multiple battle scars.
As an adult, you don’t have to keep fighting the war. You can end it. And while you might always have flashbacks, don’t let them dictate your present life.
You can make different choices. Initially, you may have to do things that go against the grain of who you believe you are. But by doing these things over and over again, things can change.
The cycle of dysfunction can be broken. A new and improved cycle can be built, and you can be the one to do it!