How to recognize a dysfunctional family?

A family should ideally be a space where we feel good, valued, appreciated, respected, and where we can feel "at home." It should represent an environment where we feel safe both physically and emotionally, where there is respect for each member's privacy and boundaries, and where we can express ourselves and our emotions without being criticized or punished for it.

A family should be a space where we feel free to develop and grow, make changes if we want, without being labeled or feeling pressured to conform to others. It should be normal to treat our close ones with the utmost care, sharing affection, care, attention, and love. However, in many cases, the opposite happens.

A functional family is not a perfect family but offers the premises for healthy coexistence and harmonious development. Partners do not hide from each other, communicate their needs, desires, and feelings, feel safe expressing their emotions, do not run from problems, do not hide "dirt" under the carpet, and show responsibility and accountability. Children are encouraged to develop autonomy and independence, to explore, and to think with their own minds. They are respected and valued for who they are and are not assigned specific roles.

In a dysfunctional family, relationships between parents and children are often tense, with an atmosphere of insecurity and fear. Parents can be either too rigid and inflexible or too indifferent and neglectful. We may encounter abuse (physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, economic), constant criticism, neglect, lack of emotional support and empathy, addictions, severe mental illness, control, deprivation of freedom, dependency, codependency, etc.

A dysfunctional family is, therefore, one where the normal functioning of its members is affected by a series of negative behaviors and problems as mentioned above. Below, we will talk about the characteristics of a dysfunctional family.

Unrealistic expectations - parents have unrealistic expectations regarding their children, wanting them to achieve what they could not or imposing a certain path (a specific school, career); they pressure them to achieve the highest results or simply do not accept mistakes. No matter how much children try to please their parents, it feels like they will never be satisfied; no matter how hard they try to make them happy, it seems it is never enough.

Possessiveness and control - some parents treat their children as private property, not as independent beings with their own aspirations, desires, or thoughts. They are disturbed by many of the relationships their children have or if they prefer to spend time with friends. Possessiveness, control, and jealousy become problematic when directed towards a partner as well, because children learn about love and relationships primarily from their parents.

Lack of support - in a dysfunctional family, parents do not provide the support children need. They feel deprived of affection, understanding, withdraw into their shell, or become isolated. They feel alone and become fearful.

Abuse - there is emotional, physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or economic abuse towards children or a partner.

Insecurity and fear - in a dysfunctional family, the atmosphere is oppressive, and insecurity and fear prevail. Parents can have all sorts of outbursts or nervous crises, can be unpredictable, changeable, and react completely differently to the same type of situation. Children fear what might happen next, fear their parents' reactions because they can never be sure how they will respond to them and their behaviors, and fear for their safety (or one parent's safety when the other behaves aggressively).

Lack of boundaries - parents want to know what is happening in their children's lives, but in a dysfunctional family, as the child grows, they feel their personal space increasingly invaded. The parent feels entitled to know everything, more than necessary, to control and monitor every move. Children have the right to their privacy, especially as they grow. This invasion of boundaries also occurs between partners, with spying, bugging, phone checking, asking for email or Facebook passwords, etc. The partner who invades the other's privacy will say, "If you have nothing to hide, you'll tell me, you'll show me..." The problem is wrongly set from the start - "If you trust me, you will not monitor my every move. I have the right to privacy, and I have the right, for example, for conversations with close ones to remain between us. I have the right to meet with a friend or colleagues without being accused of infidelity or hidden intentions..." Other examples of boundary violations are: refusing to do something the other wants, but they insist, pressure, make you feel guilty, or simply do not accept a refusal; saying you need a certain amount of time for yourself, but the other does not respect your decision to spend those hours as you wish - suddenly unforeseen situations arise, plans involving you are made without consulting you, they pester you with various needs or demands, they get upset if you do not comply; not wanting to talk about a certain topic at that moment, but the other insists or even starts a scandal because of it.

Poor communication - in a dysfunctional family, people do not say what they need to say, refuse communication, do not truly listen to what others have to say, but rather wait to latch onto something to reproach or turn the situation to their advantage, do not confront problems but complain to others and become passive-aggressive and vengeful, insult each other, blame each other, do not seek solutions but rather fight out of pride, manipulate and emotionally blackmail each other.

Types of dysfunctional families

Families where conflicts and scandals are daily occurrences - parents argue with each other, there is physical or emotional abuse, children are aggressed, rigid rules are imposed, they are abusively punished, live in fear, and comply out of fear, developing anxiety, depression, losing self-confidence, and self-devaluing.

Families where one or both parents suffer from an addiction (alcohol, drugs, gambling) or a severe physical or mental illness - in this case, children end up taking on their parents' responsibilities, tasks that overburden and make them vulnerable because they lack the maturity to take on the role of parents to their own parents.

Families with no rules, where children are left to their own devices or are neglected - older siblings often have to take care of the younger ones, parents are too busy, unavailable, or indifferent. Children have difficulty respecting boundaries and limits of others and setting their own, being disciplined and organized.

Families where one parent (usually the father) is the dominant one - these are dominating, aggressive men who usually choose weak, dependent partners who must not disobey them and must satisfy all their whims. They show the same dominating, aggressive, or even indifferent attitude towards children - not involved in their upbringing but usually have unrealistic expectations and demands; children are seen as extensions of themselves - their successes become reasons for pride in front of others, but if the child "fails" or does not meet their expectations, they are ruthlessly rejected: "You embarrassed me," "This is not how I raised you," etc.

"Perfect" families - those who do everything to maintain appearances, posing as happy and perfect families, but behind closed doors, they behave like strangers, emotionally distant from each other. Partners who are extremely affectionate in public to prevent the world from seeing how much they have come to hate each other, who are particularly attentive and patient with their children (also in public) to mask the lack of emotional involvement. From the outside, they seem like the happiest people, and it would be hard for anyone to suspect the coldness and lack of support, empathy, or acceptance characterizing their family dynamics.

Families where parents fail to meet the primary needs of children - do not provide adequate food or care, do not attend to their education, do not offer emotional support, neglect or maltreat them. This category includes parents who exploit their children, do not allow them to go to school to send them to work, or use them to satisfy their own needs (a less dramatic but equally harmful example is treating children as if their purpose is to protect/cheer them up, console them when worried - exposing them to adult problems and even expecting solutions from them or expecting them to cater to their needs, when normally it should be the other way around, as a child does not have the maturity to handle adult problems and resolve them and it is not normal for roles to reverse).

Children growing up in dysfunctional families can lose trust in themselves and others, develop various psychosomatic and emotional disorders, believe their needs are unimportant or that expressing needs, desires, or dissatisfaction is wrong, form a negative self-image, feeling "defective" or worthless; they can become abusers or "saviors" who feel responsible for others, ignoring their own needs and devaluing themselves; they can develop feelings of shame or neurotic guilt, become perfectionists, make great sacrifices to please others out of fear of rejection or abandonment, develop a sense of "inner void" leading them to toxic relationships because they long for affection and are very afraid of loneliness. Other effects can be: avoiding confrontations, fear of change, new experiences, developing dependencies, punitive inner critic, confused sense of identity.

To cope with the toxic family environment, children may adopt certain roles as defense mechanisms. Such roles include:

“The responsible child” - a child who, to compensate for his parents' lack of responsibility, learns early to manage on their own. They are more mature than other children of the same age, ambitious, persevering, trying to behave completely differently from their parents. They are overly responsible and, even if they seem to manage everything wonderfully, they suffer inside but do not let it show.

“The black sheep” - a child who rebels, refuses to conform, "acts out" or even exhibits antisocial behavior as an attempt to attract attention, vent accumulated anger and sadness. Later, they might choose an "unorthodox" path starting with running away from home, dropping out of school, dangerous behaviors, antisocial acts.

“The dreamer” - a child who sinks into reverie and dreams, creating their own world, spending much time in solitude, timid and introverted, appearing well-behaved and quiet. For others, it might be hard to realize the difficulties they face in their family.

“The invisible child” - similar to the "dreamer," a child who withdraws from reality and, to protect themselves, tries to go unnoticed in their family. Does not respond, does not confront, does not express themselves, has no opinions. It's as if by ignoring and being ignored, the problems disappear, and they can finally live in peace.

“The clown” - a child who tries to be funny in the hope that this will calm the waters, relieve tension, and end arguments. They make jokes and pranks to cheer up or console parents, but behind this apparent cheerfulness are often anxiety and sadness. Uses humor or jokes to distract others from problems or to protect themselves.

 What can be done?

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you might still be dealing with its effects. Even now, you might have difficulties in the relationships with your parents and feel they still treat you like a child who must obey them. In the healing and change process, it is important to remember that you can't change the past and can't change your parents - it is very likely they have remained the same, and the dysfunctionality persists. What you can do is to relate to them and what happened from an adult perspective, not seeing them through the eyes of a scared child but as an adult who now has all the power that was probably missing in childhood.

Sometimes the wisest thing is to maintain a certain distance from those who hurt you because some relationships can't be repaired. If you have tried this and nothing has changed, it might be time to redirect that energy towards your wellbeing and build healthy and satisfying relationships with people who respect, appreciate, and love you.

We must not accept and allow anything just because someone is part of our family. It is our duty to set interaction boundaries and limits. If we manage to forgive those who wronged us, we will do this primarily for ourselves because this way we will accept and free ourselves from the past, but that does not mean we will allow them to continue treating us the same way.

Instead of remaining stuck in the past and tormenting ourselves over what happened, or spending our energy accepting toxic people into our lives, it is better to focus on our present and future and try to build the life of our dreams.

We came into this world to enjoy life and all it has to offer, so the best way of healing and evolution can be to realize that happiness and success now depend on us, to allow ourselves to dream, set goals and plans, and follow them confidently.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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