In pop culture, dysfunctional families always remain at least slightly reasonable. TV shows like Modern Family and Full House love to portray quirky-perfect families whose problems are simple, all solved within a thirty minute episode.
And although most families aren’t as overtly destructive as on Game of Thrones, no family is perfect.
This leads one to wonder: how can you tell if your family is actually dysfunctional?
What Does Real Dysfunction Look Like?
A dysfunctional family is formally characterized by “conflict, misbehavior, or abuse.” Relationships between family members are tense and can be filled with neglect, yelling, and screaming. You might feel forced to happily accept negative treatment.
There’s no open space to express your thoughts and feelings freely; you aren’t able to thrive and feel safe within your own family.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: even more concrete, recognizable signs exist.
Signs of a Dysfunctional Family
While no family acts the same and all families experience some level of dysfunction, there are some clear signs you can look for to indicate bigger problems:
The American Addiction Centers found that about 45% of the US population has been exposed to some form of alcoholism within their family, which translates to about 76 million people and 26 million children. There are many other forms of addiction, and addiction can lead to so many different unhealthy relationships among family members. ’12-Step’ programs, and even government-funded research studies, now recognize the effects addiction can have on the emotional health of a family – even from generation to generation.
Expectations of perfection are wholly unrealistic – they just damage relationships… as we see in many types of dysfunctional families.
Perfectionism can never happen in every situation, and families set themselves up for failure and anger by always expecting their kids or relatives to get everything right.
Furthermore, expecting everything to be perfect puts a lot of pressure on everyone involved. Living with the knowledge you’ll never be good enough for your family’s jacked-up expectations can damage your emotional health in the long-term.
Abuse or Neglect
The difference between abuse and neglect is that abuse indicates active harm like verbal, physical, or violence. On the other hand, neglect is inactive harm, either physical or emotional — not feeding your child, or withholding love, interest, or attention.
Both abuse and neglect are extremely problematic, and families can get caught in cycles that normalize harmful treatment; those who grow up in these families then go on to exhibit the same behaviors to their kids, causing a well-studied intergenerational cycle of neglect or abuse.
Unpredictability and Fear
It’s hard to establish trusting relationships when you live in constant uncertainty or fear.
If you’re never sure how your parents are going to respond, you’re constantly anticipating conflict and can’t express yourself honestly. Instead, you’re just waiting for their next criticisms.
Dysfunctional family members may be incredibly manipulative with their affection, giving love only when they want something out of you.
Conversely, withholding love when you do something they don’t like makes you want to constantly please them, and doesn’t give you the chance to relax and be yourself.
Lack of Boundaries
Examples of a lack of boundaries within the family include:
- a controlling parent, who makes life decisions for you and ignores your opinions,
- an intimidating parent who actively discourages you asserting yourself or even just speaking your mind,
- or an older child taking on the role as parent.
No one has their own space, nobody respects each others’ autonomy. Living like this can lead to unhealthy, codependent relationships later in your life.
Lack of Intimacy
Your family doesn’t show many signs of closeness. There is no honest emotional support and your relations are superficial, rather than emotionally available.
Relationships like these make it hard for you to be close with anyone, since you haven’t practiced doing so before. You might fantasize about how you will do things differently with your own kids.
There’s no sense of understanding between you and your family members, so you can’t voice your opinions. There’s always tension, and you don’t feel safe communicating with them.
No one talks about their problems and instead, everyone just sweeps issues under the rug.
And when it comes to planning, nobody respects each others’ time and preferences. There are no open lines of communication.
Dealing with a Dysfunctional Family
There are so many reasons for family members to act problematically, from finances, all the way to their past and how their family members treated them.
Our favorite wisdom to remember in a dysfunctional family: while none of this is your fault, you might still feel a personal burden.
However, it is important to take action. Dysfunctional family patterns can have long-term effects on your life.
Many of us even grow up thinking that our dysfunctional families’ behaviour is normal, so the first step is to break the cycle.
Get help if you need it. Try family counseling, going to therapy, getting support from fellow peers going through the same issues on Supportiv, looking at relatable quotes, and anything else you can, to puzzle through your upbringing.
Try to maintain healthy and thriving relationships outside of your problematic family members. Find people you can trust and express yourself with.
Remember that this isn’t forever. You can choose to do things differently with your future and your family, and you can find people to actually be open with.
Your family’s problems do not have to bring down your future.