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Signs of Dysfunctional Families




It has already been established in other articles that those who grow up in highly dysfunctional families are more likely than others to develop mental illness later in life (for example. borderline personality disorder. But what are the signs and characteristics of a dysfunctional family?

I list some key examples below :

  1. PARENTAL ALCOHOLISM OR DRUG ADDICTION: this puts the child at risk of various forms of abuse and increases the likelihood that he will be neglected (emotionally, physically, or both). It also increases the likelihood of conflict within the family.
  2. AN UNPREDICTABLE AND FEAR INDUCING ATMOSPHERE: for example, the parent may be inconsistent with their child, meaning the child can never be sure as to how his parents will respond to his various behaviors. Or the parent might be violent towards the child, or prone to outbursts of extreme rage. 
  3. A HIGH LEVEL OF CONFLICT WITHIN THE FAMILY:  this may be verbal or physical (although, of course, a certain amount of conflict within families is inevitable, particularly when children within the family reach adolescence). If a child is living in an atmosphere of chronic conflict it can have myriad negative effects. For example, six-month-old babies exposed to such an environment show physiological signs of distress (raised heart rate). Also, young children up to about the age of five years display various signs of distress including crying, withdrawal, acting out and freezing. Further, children aged from six to seventeen years of age display signs of emotional and behavioral distress (e.g. aggression, anxiety, depression, criminality and impaired school performance. (Harold et al., 2001).
  4. PERFECTIONISM:  for example, if one or both parents place excessive demands upon the child to constantly achieve excellence in a particular activity or activities, causing the child to experience damaging levels of stress and anxiety.
  5. ABUSE:  physical, sexual or emotional
  6. POOR COMMUNICATION: for example. the child being largely ignored by one or both parents.
  7. EXCESSIVE CONTROL:  for example, not allowing an adolescent child to ever leave the house to see friends or invite friends around to his own house.
  8. REPRESSION:  for example. a family in which it is unacceptable to show or talk about personal feelings and emotions (everyone must keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ at all times).
  9. A LACK OF EMPATHY:  for example, in a family in which the parents are never able to understand or relate to the child’s feelings about issues that are of importance to him, and are, therefore, dismissive of him.
  10.  ROLE-REVERSAL: for example, in a single-parent family in which the child cares for a clinically depressed mother whilst his own needs (emotional, physical, or both) go unmet.
  11. DENIAL:  for example, in a family in which the father is an alcoholic but this fact can never be acknowledged or spoken about, meaning the problem goes unresolved and the child is burdened with having to keep a ‘family secret’)
  12. SCAPEGOATING: for example, when the personality problems of family members are projected onto one individual.
  13. EMOTIONAL NEGLECT: Being starved of warmth and affection by cold and distant parents can lead to a number of problems in adult life including insecure attachment,  clinginess, and a dependent personality.
  15. EXPLOITATION: This occurs when the parent’s primary interest is to take advantage of the child and only treat him or her well when s/he fulfills their needs. These needs may be emotional in nature or financial  (such as may occur if, for example, the child is very talented and earning money as an actor, etc).
  16. INFANTALIZATION: This occurs when a parent treats the child as much younger than s/he really is, thus encouraging dependency and restricting the child’s ability to learn how to take care of, and be responsible, for him/herself. Often, the parent who infantilizes the child is narcissistic, views the child as an extension of him/herself, and creates an enmeshed relationship with their offspring; therefore s/he (i.e. the parent) feels threatened if the child shows signs of becoming a self-reliant, self-sufficient and autonomous individual. Children treated in this way can grow up to have a weakened sense of personal boundaries and to find it very difficult to function independently in life.


Harold, G.T. and Sellers, R. (2018), Annual Research Review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 59: 374-402. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12893


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