Tag Archives: Effects Of Dysfunctional Families On Children

Dysfunctional Families: Types And Effects

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

A dysfunctional family is one that has at its core destructive and harmful parenting and a lack of concern for the child. The harmful effects on the child may go completely unacknowledged or be minimized. Often, little or nothing is done to rectify the situation nor to alleviate its adverse effects upon the child.

If the distress caused to the child is severe and long-lasting s/he may develop a psychiatric condition such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which, if not properly treated, may seriously adversely affect the rest of his/her life.



Above: Family members are often unconsciously assigned particular roles.

Types Of Dysfunctional Family :

1) A family in which the mother and/or father are addicted to drugs or alcohol (or who have another psychological addiction).

This may lead to the parent passing out, going missing for extended periods of time, behaving unpredictably, getting out of control or causing the family severe financial hardship.

Children who grow up in such families tend to grow up into distrustful adults who see others as being essentially unreliable.

2) A family in which violence and volatility predominates. Children from such families are at risk of becoming violent and volatile themselves, not least as a result of learned behavior.

3) A family in which the child is forcibly removed from the parents’ care (eg due to bring taken into care or being sentenced to a period of juvenile detention).

4) A family in which the child is used as a ‘pawn’ (eg divorcing parents each trying to turn the child against the other parent). This may include speaking ill of the other parent, limiting the child’s contact with the other parent, preventing the child from seeing the other parent at all or coercing them into rejecting a parent when this is not in the child’s interest.

5) A family in which a parent has a mental illness that adversely impinges upon the child’s own emotional development

6) A family in which the child is overly controlled and a parent makes excessive use of their power.

Adverse Effects Upon The Child :

Apart from the adverse effects upon the child already mentioned, children brought up in such dysfunctional families are also at risk of developing many other problems and difficulties, including depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational self-blame and self-hatred, alcohol and/or drug dependency, an impaired, or even ruined, ability to both give and receive love.

Furthermore, the child may become rebellious and start to behave in anti-social ways eg. getting into fights, vandalizing property, indulging in petty theft,  committing arson, bullying others, dropping out of school.

They may also start behaving self-destructively, self-harm, develop life-long problems with interpersonal relationships, have an elevated risk of attempting suicide as well as lower life expectancy. Also, if they become parents themselves, they may develop their own parenting problems, thus perpetuating the dysfunctional family cycle.

Dysfunctional families which lead to the child having to take on the role of carer (eg before I was a teenager I cared for my mentally unstable mother after the divorce of my parents) can put the child under extreme stress as s/he does not have the emotional maturity to cope. Such children, in effect, have their childhoods ‘stolen’ from them. For more on this, see my article about parentification‘.

Children may also attempt to cope with the enormous stress of growing up in a dysfunctional family by becoming withdrawn.

Compounding this problem, very sadly, they may become the victims of bullies at school due to their vulnerability.

As a result of this, they may grow up to be ‘loners.’

Some children who grow up in abusive households may be at higher risk than average of becoming abusive themselves as adults without the intervention of effective therapy.

eBook :

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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.



KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY – further information about dysfunctional families (CLICK HERE).



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Above  eBook available for immediate download on Amazon. $4.99 . CLICK HERE.


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