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’ behavior is normal, so the first step is to break the cycle.
Understand how dysfunctional behavior affects you
If you recognize some of the signs of dysfunctional family behavior listed above, you may already recognize their effects on you. However, it can be a long process for some to see these signs.
When you grow up around unhealthy behaviors, it is normal to believe that this is just how families are and that you are destined to continue on this path. Two important steps to processing your emotions around your family and making better choices for your own mental wellness are:
1. Being able to notice/label dysfunctional behavior, and
2. Recognizing the stress, anxiety or other symptoms that behavior causes you.
As we have discussed, it’s common for these traits to repeat themselves throughout generations. That means your parents have picked up on cues from their parents, which their parents picked up from their family.
Do not despair: It is possible to break this cycle. The most powerful tool for breaking dysfunctional patterns is your own awareness and willingness to self-examine.
Remember your needs are your own
Family members sometimes do not see their own dysfunction and the burden it causes others. In these cases, some find it easier to accept toxic behavior in order to keep the family peace.
For example, a sibling might try to guilt you into visiting your aging parents, even if those parents were abusive to you. Your sibling may have also been abused, but views visiting as a duty — even if it causes them stress, anxiety and emotional pain.
You, on the other hand, might push against this. You know white-knuckling a family gathering helps nobody. And you see it’s not worth enduring the emotional pain.
Remember you’re not wrong, and resist the guilt. Different people have different value systems and ideas of family expectations. It is not your responsibility to live up to someone else’s ideals, especially when those ideals cause you direct emotional distress.
Setting boundaries with dysfunctional family
Once you see that a family member’s guilt and anxiety is their own, it is easier to separate yourself from their expectations and just do what feels right to you. Setting your own boundaries becomes easier when you recognize that everyone’s boundaries can be different.
It may be one of the most used sayings in the book, but it remains true: You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you do not take steps to ensure your own physical and mental wellbeing, you cannot adequately take care of others, no matter how much pressure is being put on you to do so.
What does it look like to set boundaries?
The lauded researcher and expert on shame and vulnerability, Brené Brown, defines boundaries as “simply our lists of what’s okay and what’s not okay.”
Within a family setting, this might look like:
- saying no to spending time with family members who make you uncomfortable
- asking a substance-abusing relative to not use around you or your children, or
- asking to finish speaking without being interrupted.
To be effective, boundaries must come with clear consequences. Let your family member know what the consequence will be if your boundary is crossed (i.e. if you drink at my party, I will ask you to leave). And follow through if they do cross your boundary.
Setting boundaries is vital to help avoid feelings of resentment, but being honest with family is sometimes easier said than done. Here are some tips to help create boundaries with dysfunctional family:
Ways to create boundaries with dysfunctional family
Take a break.
Just like cutting out possible allergens from your diet, spending time away from certain family members can help you identify where your stress is coming from and what you need to adjust in that relationship going forward.
Write it out.
Journaling can be an extremely effective tool for processing your emotions, identifying patterns and planning your next steps. Allow yourself to think about what you want from that person in your life and your relationship.
If you have to interact with a family member who causes you stress, it may help to write a letter saying everything you want to say to them. You do not have to send it. Just writing it all down can be cathartic. It can also help you plan what to want to say if you choose to have a serious conversation with them in the future.
If you have made a decision to create boundaries with a family member but are afraid to take the next step, ask a trusted friend to play the role of the other party so you can rehearse your words. Rehearsing can reduce stress and discomfort when you are in the real situation, give an opportunity to plan what you will say and prepare for their reactions.
Use “I” statements.
Focus on how their actions make you feel, rather than the other person being wrong. This can help keep communication lines open and lessen the chance of the other person becoming defensive.
Share with others who understand.
Friends can be a wonderful resource for venting and getting advice, but they will not always be able to identify with your struggle. Consider seeking advice from organizations devoted to specific issues, like Alanon, a volunteer-led group therapy option for friends and family of alcoholics.
You can also seek out help from peers going through the same issue at Supportiv. Their supportive chats are instant, anonymous, and available 24/7.
Seek professional help.
Try going to family or individual counseling. A professional therapist can help you identify dysfunctional family patterns you might not yet see and help you to create tools to set boundaries and lift yourself out of the situation at hand.
Most of all, 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. Try to maintain healthy and thriving relationships outside of your problematic family members. Find people you can trust and express yourself with.
Your family’s problems do not have to bring down your future.
— Elisabeth Anter and Christina Beck