Tag Archives: Dysfunctional Families

Signs of Dysfunctional Families



Is Your Family Dysfunctional?



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 behaviours. 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. EXPOITATION : This occurs when the parents primary interest is to take advantage of the child and only treat him or her well when s/he fulfils their needs. These needs may be emotional in nature (see my previously published article :’Were You Your Parent’s Emotional Caretaker?’)or financial  (such as may occur if, for example, the child is very talented and earning money as an actor etc. – for more on this, see my article entitled : Childhood Fame ; The Downside.

    16. INFANTALIZATION : This occurs when a parent treats the child as much younger than s/he really is, thus encouraging depenedency and restricting the child’s ability to learn how ro take care of, and be responsible, for him / herself. Often , the parent who infantalizes 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.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Highly Dysfunctional Families and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

borderline personality disorder and dysfunctional families

Those who go on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) almost invariably grew up as children in highly dysfunctional families in which the parent/s was/were emotionally unstable.

dysfunctional families and borderline personality disorder

I have written about BPD extensively in other articles on this site (to access them, simply type ‘BPD’ into the site’s search box) so I will only briefly recap upon some of the main symptoms from which the individual with BPD suffers :

– inability to control powerful emotions

– extremely chaotic interpersonal relationships

– extremely poor impulse control

– very poor sense of own identity (also sometimes referred to as ‘identity confusion’)

– sees others in terms of being either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ with no middle ground (this is also sometimes referred to as ‘black and white’ thinking or ‘dichotomous thinking)

– hypersensitivity, especiallly a tendency to interpret neutral, innocuous comments of others as personal slights

Overwhelmingly, the most important risk factors leading the child to go on to develop BPD are child abuse and child neglect. Indeed, these two risk factors easily outweigh the influence of biological and social factors.


The child who goes on to develop BPD as an adult is very likely to have grown up in a household in which he received ‘double messages’ from his/her parent/s – in other words, the child’s parent/s are very likely to have both felt and expressed EXTREME AMBIVALENCE towards the child. I describe how this ambivalence towards the child generally manifests itself below :


It is theorized that the parent holds, simultaneously, 2 attitudes towards being a parent which are contradictory and in direct opposition to each other. It is thought the 2 conflicting attitudes are :

ATTITUDE 1 : the parent/s believe their role as a parent is of great importance and central to their lives

ATTITUDE 2 (in direct opposition to the above but simultaneously held) the parent/s deeply resent having to fulfill a parental role and regard the child as an IRRITATING OBSTACLE PREVENTING THEM FROM PURSUING THINGS THAT WOULD LEAD TO THEIR PERSONAL FULFILLMENT.

Not infrequently, such ambivalent feelings will focus upon just one child, leaving his/her siblings relatively emotionally undamaged.


Unconsciously, the child has a deep need to keep the ambivalent parent/s as emotionally stable as possible (in Darwinian terms, this is clearly in the interests of his/her survival). The dilemma is, therefore, as follows :

On the one hand, s/he needs to remain of great importance to the ambivalent parent/s (in order to support attitude 1 (above)). On the other hand, however, s/he needs to allow them to justify, in their own minds, their hostility, anger and resentment towards him/her (in order to support attitude 2 (above)).

But how can this possibly be achieved?

Building upon an original idea of Melanie Kline, it has been theorized that, in order to maintain his/her parent’s/parents’ psychological equilibrium, the child must adopt what has been termed spoiler behaviour (this is NOT a conscious decision of the child’s – it is driven by unconscious forces).

‘Spoilier behaviour’ involves :

– in effect, refusing to grow up

– remaining dependent on the parent/s (as not able to function competently as an adult)

– rebelling against and severely denigrating the parent/s

Without therapy, such ‘spoiler behaviour’ may be maintained deep into the formerly abused child’s adulthood. Such behaviour is a way of INVALIDATING THE PARENT/S IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY AS THEY INVALIDATED HIM/HER AS A CHILD. In essence, s/he is ‘giving back as good as s/he got.’

The now adult child will continue to try to keep his parent/s emotionally stable by (and I repeat, unconsciously) desperately trying to regulate their ambivalent emotions towards him/her :

– if they begin to feel too guilty (due to attitude 1, above), he will make them angry. However :

– if they become too angry (due to attitude 2, above) s/he will make them feel guilty

This is, I think, a very ingenious theory; however, it is very difficult to prove theories which are based in part upon ideas relating to unconscious mental processes.

If I could briefly indulge myself by suggesting a theory of my own : IF A CHILD KNOWS S/HE IS ESSENTIALLY DISLIKED BY HIS/HER PARENTS, IS IT NOT EASIER TO TOLERATE IF S/HE ACTS IN SUCH A WAY THAT HELPS THE PARENTS, IN THEIR OWN MINDS, TO JUSIFY THEIR DISLIKE, RATHER THAN TO TRY HARD TO GET ON WITH THE PARENTS, AND OBTAIN THEIR ADMIRATION, AND YET STILL BE DISLIKED? In the former case, the child can almost convince him/herself s/he wants to be disliked, and is only disliked due to his/her behaviour. Whereas, to be disliked whilst trying desperately to be liked by one’s parents could, potentially,  be psychologically catastrophic.



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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Emotional Torture? When Parents Put Kids in a Psychological Double-Bind.

I first came across the phrase ‘double-bind’ at university whilst studying for my first degree in psychology ; it struck a chord immediately.

In its most simple terms, the child who is placed in a psychological double-bind, by parent/s or carers, finds him/herself in a ‘no win’ and ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ situation.

As a child, I experienced this myself and found it emotionally excruciating. The double-bind involves profound, deeply contradictory and confusing communication problems within the family. It is common in highly dysfunctional and disturbed families, such as the one I grew up in (or, perhaps to put it rather more accurately, failed to grow up in).

The concept of the double-bind was illuminated by the psychologist Bateson. He explains it in terms of having six key elements which I have tried to summarize below :


1) It involves two or more people. One of these people is usually the mother, but could be the father or another person responsible for the care of the child. The second person is the child himself. If a third person is involved, it is usually another parent.

2) The experience of being placed in the double-bind is ongoing throughout a significant period of the individual’s childhood. In other words, the double-bind does not refer to a single event, but is a recurrent, repeated and pervasive element of the person’s childhood. To employ a simple analogy, if he were a fish, the experience of the double-bind would be the water in which he swam.

3) It involves a primary injunction. The primary injunction can take two forms :


a) An injunction not to do something, for example, ‘don’t do this or I will punish you.’


b) An injunction to do something, for example, ‘if you don’t do this, I will punish you.’

4) It also involves a secondary injunction. This is a much more subtle injunction and is NOT explicitly stated but is tacit  (non-linguistic) as so much of human communication is (for example, an expression, intonation etc), This makes it pretty much impossible for the child to precisely identify, let alone explain, the nature of the interaction and why it causes him so much distress. Also, because it is so subtle, it is very easy for the parents or carers to deny.

The secondary injunction, also enforced by threat of punishment (including of course psychological punishment, the most damaging kind), and, this is the KEY POINT, DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS THE PRIMARY INJUNCTION, thus putting the child in an impossible situation.

If more than 2 people are involved, the double-bind may be that if a child obeys one of his parents, this necessarily involves disobeying the other.

But the plot thickens :

5) There is also an injunction preventing escape. As if the above were not confusing enough already, there is also a tertiary injunction which closes off any escape route from the double-bind explained above. Essentially, this third injunction is that if the child evades the double-bind choice, he will be punished for that too.

6) Learned Perception. Bateson also made the CRUCIAL point that once the child has learned to perceive (often, on an unconscious level as the whole disturbed interaction process is so complex and subtle)  their dealings with their family in terms of being perpetually placed in a double-bind, ANY SMALL SUB-PART OF THE BEWILDERING DOUBLE-BIND INTERACTION PATTERN EXPLAINED ABOVE WILL BE SUFFICIENT TO PRODUCE EMOTIONAL DISTURBANCE WITHIN THE CHILD. This will most frequently take the form of EXTREME, FRUSTRATED RAGE or PANIC.


In its simplest terms, the double-bind can be illustrated as shown below :

a) the child is presented with a choice (derived from the primary and secondary injunctions). The choice is between A and B.

b) if the child complies with the first injunction (choice A), he is punished. However, if s/he complies with the secondary injunction (choice B) he is also punished.

c)  if the child evades the choice between A and B, he is punished as well.


Having been thrown out by my mother at age 13, I had to go and live with my father and step-mother, both of whom did not want me there, but they were just about prepared to grudgingly tolerate me. I was treated like a stranger but with an icy politeness in an attempt to conceal, I suppose, their fundamental distaste for me.

In retrospect, although I could not articulate, or even properly understand, this at the time, I now perceive the double-bind in which I was placed to be as follows:

CHOICE A : be warm and friendly towards my step-mother and father. However, if I did this the punishment was to be rejected, pushed away and rebuffed,

CHOICE B: withdraw and become non-communicative. When I did this the punishment was that I was scathingly told I was ‘morose’, ‘sullen’, ‘hostile’, ‘difficult’, was ‘moping around with a self-pitying expression’ and that I was ungrateful to them for ‘taking me on’ ; after all. I was being done a great favour, wasn’t I?

And, as described in Bateson’s model above, the escape routes were all closed off. For example, had I suggested, say, family therapy, the idea would have been dismissed. After all, the problems were all in my paranoid imagination, weren’t they? I would be told I was being melodramatic, making mountains out of mole hills, being generally difficult, silly and looking to create problems which simply did not exist.

Obviously, that example is grossly over-simplified, but I hope it conveys the gist of what I was attempting to explain.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Childhood Trauma Recovery