Dysfunctional family is a term used to refer to a wide range of family issues that create tension and stress. Often, the children or teenagers in a dysfunctional family are the ones who feel the repercussions most acutely. Because the brains and psyches of children and adolescents are still developing, family dysfunction can interrupt evolution of the self and lead to teen mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. As adults, children of dysfunctional families may struggle with low self-esteem and find it difficult to trust others.
What Is a Dysfunctional Family?
A dysfunctional family is typically defined as displaying one or several of a number of family problems that affect the relationships within the family and the mental health of the individual family members. These problems may include addiction or an untreated mental illness on the part of one or more family members; abuse of one parent by the other, or of a child by a parent; or a parent who is overly controlling of the other parent or the child. Furthermore, while some amount of conflict among family members is normal and even healthy, ongoing conflict that creates tension and resentment is a sign of dysfunction. In addition, poor communication is also characteristic of a dysfunctional family.
Another way to define family dysfunction is by looking at what’s lacking in the family dynamics and relationships. Dysfunctional families are usually missing the essential ingredients for healthy, positive interactions and relationships. These ingredients include respect, an emotionally safe environment, clear boundaries, accountability, kindness and courtesy, collaboration and a sense of unity, and the ability to withstand stress.
To address family dysfunction, therapy needs to focus on rebuilding trust and communication within the family. Family therapy gives family members tools for sharing their feelings and addressing challenges and disagreements in a healthy, safe way. For adults who grew up in a dysfunctional family, psychotherapy and support groups can help restore the trust and sense of self-worth that they were unable to form in childhood.