Articles on dysfunctional families

Dysfunctional Families and Their Psychological Effects

When the lockdown protocols were enforced earlier this year, our freedom, routine and responsibilities within households were disrupted. Along with this, increased uncertainty, financial stress and burden of care have lowered our window of tolerance. For many, it has opened old wounds and led to persistent conflict at home. Children are forced to experience strained family interactions, day in and day out, without the solace of distraction and distance.

There is a great degree of variability in how interactions and behaviors occur within homes, and the pattern of these interactions form the core of our family dynamic (Harkonen, 2017). Families have a unique set of dynamics that affect the way each member thinks and relates to themselves, others and the world around them. Several factors including the nature of parent’s relationship, personality of family members, events (divorce, death, unemployment), culture and ethnicity (including beliefs about gender roles), influence these dynamics. The list is endless, and it is no surprise that growing up in an open, supportive environment is the exception, rather than the norm.

It’s important to disclaim that the idea of a perfect parent/family is a myth. Parents are human, flawed and experiencing their own concerns. Most children can deal with an occasional angry outburst, as long as there is love and understanding to counter it. In “functional” families, parents strive to create an environment in which everyone feels safe, heard, loved and respected. Households are often characterized by low conflict, high levels of support and open communication (Shaw, 2014). This helps children navigate physical, emotional and social difficulties when they are young, and has lasting impacts as they transition into adulthood.

Alternatively, growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave children emotionally scarred, and affect them throughout their lives. Hurtful family environments may include the following (Hall, 2017):

  • Aggression: Behaviors typified by belittlement, domination, lies and control.
  • Limited affection: The absence of physical or verbal affirmations of love, empathy and time spent together.
  • Neglect: No attention paid to another and discomfort around family members.
  • Addiction: Parents having compulsions relating to work, drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling.
  • Violence: Threat and use of physical and sexual abuse.

For children, families constitute their entire reality. When they are young, parents are godlike; without them they would be unloved, unprotected, unhoused and unfed, living in a constant state of terror, knowing they will be unable to survive alone. Children are forced to accommodate and enable chaotic, unstable/unpredictable and unhealthy behaviors of parents (Nelson, 2019).

Unfortunately, children don’t have the sophistication to understand and verbalize their experiences, discriminate between healthy and unhealthy behaviors and make sense of it all. They may interpret the situation to fit the belief of normalcy, further perpetuating the dysfunction (e. g., “No, I wasn’t beaten. I was just spanked” or “My father isn’t violent; it’s just his way”). They may even accept responsibility for violence, to fit their reality. The more they do this, the greater is their likelihood of misinterpreting themselves and developing negative self-concepts (e.g., “I had it coming. I was not a good kid”).

During their younger years, children form certain beliefs and carry them, unchallenged, into adulthood. These beliefs are influenced by their parents’ actions and statements and are often internalized, for instance, “children should respect their parents no matter what,” “it’s my way or no way” or “children should be seen, not heard.” This forms the soil from which toxic behavior grows and may be communicated directly or disguised as words of advice, expressed in terms of “shoulds”, “oughts” and “supposed tos.”

Spoken beliefs are tangible but can be wrestled with. For instance, a parental belief that divorce is wrong, might keep a daughter in a loveless marriage, however, this can be challenged. Unspoken beliefs are more complicated; they exist below our level of awareness and dictate basic assumptions of life (Gowman, 2018). They may be implied by childhood experiences, for example, how your father treated your mother or how they treated you, encouraging you to believe ideas such as “women are inferior to men” or “children should sacrifice themselves for their parents.”

As with beliefs there are unspoken rules, pulling invisible strings and demanding blind obedience, e.g., “don’t lead your own life,” “don’t be more successful than your father,” “don’t be happier than your mother” or “don’t abandon me.” Loyalty to our family binds us to these beliefs and rules. There may be a marked gap between parents’ expectations/demands and what children want for themselves. Unfortunately, our unconscious pressure to obey almost always overshadows our conscious needs and desires, and leads to self-destructive and defeating behaviors (Forward, 1989).

There is variability in dysfunctional familial interactions — and in the kinds, severity and regularity of their dysfunction. Children may experience the following:

  • Being forced to take sides during parental conflict.
  • Experiencing “reality shifting” (what is said contradicts what is happening).
  • Being criticized or ignored for their feelings and thoughts.
  • Having parents who are inappropriately intrusive/involved or distant/uninvolved.
  • Having excessive demands placed on their time, friends or behaviors — or, conversely, receive no guidelines or structure.
  • Experiencing rejection or preferential treatment.
  • Being encouraged to use alcohol/drugs.
  • Being physically beating.

Abuse and neglect affect the child’s ability to trust the world, others and themselves. Additionally, they grow up without a frame of reference for what is normal and healthy. They may develop traits that they struggle with throughout their adult lives, and the effects are many. They may not know how to live without chaos and conflict (this becomes a lifestyle pattern) and get bored easily (Lechnyr, 2020). Children robbed of their childhood have to “grow up too fast.” As a result, they are disconnected from their needs and face difficulty asking for help (Cikanavicious, 2019). Children, who were constantly ridiculed, grow up to judge themselves harshly, lie and constantly seek approval and affirmation. Children may fear abandonment, believe they are unlovable/not good enough and feel lonely/misunderstood. As adults, they face difficulty with forming professional, social and romantic bonds, and are viewed as submissive, controlling, overwhelming or even detached in relationships (Ubaidi, 2016). To numb their feelings, they may abuse drugs or alcohol and engage in other risky behaviors (e.g., reckless driving, unsafe sex) (Watson et al., 2013).

Perhaps most serious of all, these individuals continue the cycle by developing their own parenting problems and reinforcing the dysfunctional dynamic (Bray, 1995). Being aware of the dysfunctional patterns of our past and how they affect how we think and act in the present is the critical first step.

  • Name painful or difficult childhood experiences.
  • Recognize you have power over your life.
  • Identify behaviors and beliefs you would like to change.
  • Be assertive, set boundaries and practice non-attachment.
  • Find a support network.
  • Seek psychological help.

For parents:

  • Heal from your own trauma.
  • Be kind, honest and open-minded — and listen.
  • Create an environment of respect, safety and privacy.
  • Model healthy behavior and practice accountability.
  • Give clear guidelines and factual information.
  • Learn how to apologize.
  • Be gentle with teasing, sarcasm, etc.
  • Allow children to change and grow.
  • Enforce rules that guide behavior but do not regulate one’s emotional and intellectual life.
  • Spend time together as a family.
  • Know when to ask for help.


  1. Härkönen, J., Bernardi, F. & Boertien, D. (2017). Family Dynamics and Child Outcomes: An Overview of Research and Open Questions. Eur J Population 33, 163–184.
  2. Shaw, A. (2014). The Family Environment and Adolescent Well-Being [blog post]. Retrieved from
  3. Dorrance Hall, E. (2017). Why Family Hurt Is So Painful Four reasons why family hurt can be more painful than hurt from others [blog post]. Retrieved from
  4. Nelson, A. (2019). Understanding Fear and Self-Blame Symptoms for Child Sexual Abuse Victims in Treatment: An Interaction of Youth Age, Perpetrator Type, and Treatment Time Period. Honors Theses, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 89.
  5. Gowman, V. (2019). When Children Believe “I Am Wrong”: The Impact Developmental Trauma Has on Belief Systems and Identity [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.vincegowmon. com/when-children-believe-i-am-wrong/
  6. Forward, S., & Buck, C. (1989). Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. NY, NY: Bantam.
  7. Cikanavicius, D. (2019). The Effects of Trauma from “Growing up Too Fast” [blog post]. Retrieved from
  8. Al Ubaidi, B.A. (2017). Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family. J Fam Med Dis Prev, 3(3): 059.
  9. Lechnyr, D. (2020). Wait, I’m not Crazy?! Adults Who Grew Up in Dysfunctional Families [blog post]. Retrieved from
  10. Al Odhayani, A., Watson, W. J., & Watson, L. (2013). Behavioural consequences of child abuse. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 59(8), 831–836.
  11. Bray, J.H. (1995). 3. Assessing Family Health And Distress: An Intergenerational-Systemic Perspective [Family Assessment]. Lincoln, NB: Buros-Nebraska Series on Measurement and Testing. Retrieved from

Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family

*Corresponding author: Basem Abbas Al Ubaidi, Consultant Family Physician, Ministry of Health; Assistant Professor, Arabian Gulf University, Kingdom of Bahrain, E-mail: [email protected]

Citation: Al Ubaidi BA (2017) Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family. J Fam Med Dis Prev 3:059.

Copyright: © 2017 Al Ubaidi BA. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

The definition of a family dynamic is the scheme of family members' relations and interactions including many prerequisite elements (family arrangements, hierarchies, rules, and patterns of family interactions). Each family is unique in its characteristics; having several helpful and unhelpful dynamics. Family dynamics will ultimately influence the way young people view themselves/others and the world. It will also impact their relationships/behaviors and their future wellbeing. The victims of dysfunctional families may have determined deprived guilty feelings.

Victimized children growing up in a dysfunctional family are innocent and have absolutely no control over their toxic life environment; they grew up with multiple emotional scarring caused by repeated trauma and pain from their parents' actions, words, and attitudes. Ultimately, they will have a different growth and nurture of their individual self. The influenced individuals will resume various parenting roles rather than enjoying their childhood, vital parts of their childhood are missing, which will eventually have a harmful effect that extends to their adult life. Victimized adults tend to attempt escaping their past pain, trauma by practicing more destructive behaviors such as increase dues of alcohol, drug abuse or forced to repeat the mistreatment that was done to them. Others had felt inner nervousness or temper and feelings without realizing the reasons behind it [1]. They frequently reported difficulties in forming and sustaining friendly relationships, keeping a positive self-esteem, struggling in trusting others, distress in control loss, and denying their own feelings/reality [2]. Frequently, healthy families tend to return to their normal functioning after the life/family crisis passes. Conversely, in a dysfunctional family, problems tend to be long-lasting because children do not get their previous needs; therefore the negative, pathological parental behavior tends to be dominant even in their adult's lives [2].

Healthy families are not always ideal or perfect. They may infrequently possess some of the characteristics of a dysfunctional family; but not all the time [3].

The dysfunctional family is an important topic in the field of sociology facing many Primary Care Physicians (PCPs), while there is little training in family therapy on how PCPs could and should deal with family conflicts [3].

1) Allow and accept emotional expressions of an individual's character and interests [3].

2) Obvious and consistent rules in the family and boundaries between individuals are honored.

3) Consistently treating members with respect and build a level of flexibility to meet the individual’s needs.

4) All family members feel safe and secure (no fear from emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse).

5) Parents provide care for their children (not expecting their children to take their parental responsibilities).

6) Responsibilities given are appropriate to their age, flexible and forgiving to a child's mistakes.

7) Perfection is unattainable, unrealistic, besides potentially dull and sterile.

"Family Systems Theory", in contrast to the "Traditional Individual Therapy", views problems in a more circular manner. This theory has a 'systemic perspective' rather than a 'linear manner', in which each individual in the family influences the others. Each family member's viewpoint is valid in their perceptions [4].

Understanding family problems requires the assessment of several patterns of family interactions in context of their family system, with an emphasis on what is happening, rather than why it’s occurring. PCPs should move away from blaming one person for the dysfunctional dynamic, and attempt to find alternative solutions [5].

PCPs should be able to identify and manage early signs of a dysfunctional family too, by focusing on families that submerged in child abuse and neglect or domestic violence. However, many families are reluctant to believe or accept that they are a part of what is classified as a dysfunctional family [6].

The Abusive Parent

One or both parents have a history of an offending (words and action) form of child abuse. The abusive behaviors are either physical (beating, slapping, punching or sexual) or non-physical (verbal and emotional abuse) [3-9].

The Strict Controlling and or Authoritarian Parent

One or both parents have a history of being a controlling parent (fails or refuses to give their children space to flourish) by not allowing them to make their own choices or decisions appropriate to their age. The parents are usually driven and motivated by unexplained horror and refute any children choices and decision for themselves.

The children will eventually feel resentful and hold inadequate power to think appropriately or make their own personal decisions.

The Soft Parent

One or both parents are intentionally or unintentionally soft parents (Unsuccessful in setting rules, regulations and boundaries in the household).

The large and Extended Families

A parent can't give attention to cover all the family’s wants and needs; correspondingly they will have conflicting guidance from extended families.

Personality Disorder in Family Members

Late diagnosed personality disorder in one or both parents will eventually affect normal family dynamics.

A chronically Sick or Disabled Child in the Family

Any sick child in a family will have a detrimental effect on all family members, and then family care automatically shifts to sick children, whereas the needs of others are ignored.

Unfortunate Life Events

Events that negatively influence family dynamics are a parent's affair, divorce, trauma, death and sudden job termination.

Family Values, Culture and Ethnicity

This usually causes negative effects on the beliefs of families in cases such as gender roles, parenting practices, and the power of each individual family member.

Insecure Nature of Family Attachments

Secure feelings have a positive effect on the family dynamic; in contrary, insecure feelings will harmfully affect family dynamics.

Dynamics of Previous Dysfunctional Generation

Previous dysfunctional families always have a toxic effect other family generations.

Systematic Stability and or Instability

Such as social, economic, political and financial factors, these factors positively or negatively influence the nature of the family dynamic.

The Deficient or Absent Parent (Parental In adequacy)

One or both parents are purposefully or in advertently deficient, parents as they fail to act appropriately or neglecting their children's physical or emotional needs (e.g. parent suffering from mental/psychological disease and not capable to provide the child’s needs) [6,10].

The children will, ultimately, take a parent' role and the responsibilities (unofficial caretaker) of their younger siblings.

Substance Abuse and or Addicted Parent

One or both are intentionally or involuntarily have a substance abuse or addiction. The family’s life is usually unpredictable and unsuccessful by addicted parents. The hazy rules of the addicted parent will weaken his ability to fulfill promises so the parent will neglect both the physical and emotional needs of their children. The affected vulnerable children from addicted parents are at high risk of either child abuse or future sexual exploitation.

"Chronic conflict family"

When every member in the family argues with the other in harmful ways that leaves wounds to fester. The causes come from corrupt parenteral style (abusive, authoritarian). Prolonged conflict can damage a child's neurochemistry (breeds stress/insecurity and loss of a child's attachment) [11].

"Pathological households"

It is one where severe psychological, mental health disorders and/or impaired parent from substance abuse/drug addiction; is present over one or both parents (having a diagnosable schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) or there is a personality disorder in the parent. The family roles are usually reversed (children are more responsible and in charge of daily functioning) because of their one or two impaired parents. Unhealthy pathology is sometimes contagious (breeds problems or social deficiencies in the children).

"The chaotic household''

It is a place where children are poorly looked after with the busy and non-present parents or parental inadequacy. It has no clear regulation/rules or expectations, and no consistency. Parents may be moving in and out of the house and their traditional caretakers are inconsistent. Older siblings often develop early parental figures; therefore family attachment and security is often severely threatened. School age group victims usually have concentration problems and discipline difficulties. Many future secondary abuse & neglect issues commonly arise in adult age group.

''The dominant-submissive household''

It is one ruled by a dictator parent, with no consideration to the wishes or feelings of the other family members. The other partner is usually depressed, with a lot of negative, angry emotions (one parent strict, controlling, the other is soft, passive). All family members are extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with life from an unhealthy relationship, but are passively obedient to the dominant adult and show little open revolt. This shows severe long-term negative consequences; as one parent tries to control others without considering their personal needs.

"Emotionally distant families"

It is families with social/cultural background which don't know how to show love and affection (show little or no warmth towards each other). Children learn from their parents that feelings should be repressed (seem uncomfortable opening up to each other). It brings insecure or non-existent attachment, difficulties in child's identity and self-esteem issues. Emotionally Distant Families may be one of the least obvious dysfunctional family settings.

1) Lack of empathy, respect and boundaries towards family members [7].

2) Borrowing or destroying personal possessions without consent.

3) Invading personal privacy without permission.

4) Extreme conflict and hostility in the family environment (verbal and physical assault) between parent-child or sibling-sibling assaults against each other.

5) Role reversal or role confusion: both parent and child change their roles (early paternalism).

6) Restricted friendships and relationships with outsiders lead to family isolation.

7) Secrecy, denial, rigid rules from extremist (religious fundamentalist).

8) Perfectionism and unrealistic expectations to their children (parent's expectation beyond their child's skills, abilities and development).

9) Emotional, verbal abuse, ridicules behavior and blaming each family member.

10) Stifled speech and emotion (Not allowing their children to have own opinions and neither accepted sadness or happiness emotion).

11) Using children as weapons against each other for revenge attitude.

12) Conditional emotional love and support are always pathological.

All families have had some element of family dysfunction from time to time; this is perfectly true as no family can be perfect all the time. PCPs should become concerned when a multitude of negative signs of a dysfunctional family exists without any proper action that ultimately lead to significant harm to family members [7].

Individuals from dysfunctional families tend to have a higher incidence of behavioral disorder, so PCPs should identify the early signs and symptoms of dysfunctional family such as [12]:

1. Low self-esteem and uncompassionate judgment of others and themselves, so family members try to obscure pain by being controlling and disrespectful.

2. Isolated feelings and uneasy around authority figures.

3. Need for approval enquirers to satisfy their deficit.

4. Intimidated feelings towards any angry situation and personal criticism (feel anxious and overly sensitive).

5. Less attracted to healthy, caring people; instead they are more apt to unconsciously seek out another "dysfunctional family" (select to have relationships with emotionally detached people/attracted to other victims in their love and friendship relationships).

6. Less responsible for their own problems, so they are behaving with super-responsibility or super-irresponsibility. They tried to solve others’ problems/expected others to be responsible for their own problems.

7. Guilty feeling when devoting care to themselves; instead they are over caring for others.

8. Difficulties in expressing of their children feelings (denied, minimized or repressed feelings) and are usually unaware of the unhealthy future impact.

9. Dependent personalities/with a feeling of irrational fear of terrified rejection or abandonment; so they stay in harmful jobs/relationships and accompanied by the inability end hurtful relationships or prevent them from entering healthy and rewarding ones.

10. Hopelessness and helplessness feelings because of persistent denial, isolation, uncontrolled and misplaced guilt.

11. Difficulties in intimate relationships (insecure and lacked of trust in others, no clear boundaries and have become trapped with their partner’s needs and emotions).

12. Difficulties in following tasks from beginning to end and having a strong need to be in control (over-reacted in uncontrolled change), they tend to have impulsive action before considering alternative behaviors or possible consequences.

The good child (also known as the 'Hero'/'Peacekeepers' role)

A child who assumes the parental role or in advertent playing the role of the 'peacekeeper', to mediate and reduce tension between conflicting parents Their behavior may be reacting to their unconscious anxiety about family collapse [9,13].

The problem child or rebel (the 'Deviant' role)

A young person may be inadvertent playing a 'distracting family role' to attract attention and keep the family busy from their own relationship difficulties, thereby keeping the family altogether.

The 'Scapegoat' role

The child is seen as the black sheep who is blamed for most problems related to the family's dysfunction, while other children are seen as good children. Sometimes they may label the young child as 'mentally ill'; despite often being the only emotionally stable one in the family (with adaptive function enabling them to handle appropriately in the toxic environment).

The lost child

The inconspicuous, quiet one, whose needs are usually ignored.

The mascot/charm child

Uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.

The mastermind child

The opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members' faults to get whatever he or she wants (Table 1).