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A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior and even abuse on the part of individual members of the family occur continually, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal. Dysfunctional families are most often a result of the alcoholism, substance abuse, or other addictions of parents, parents' untreated mental illnesses/defects or personality disorders, or the parents emulating their own dysfunctional parents and dysfunctional family experiences.

Dysfunctional family members have common symptoms and behavior patterns as a result of their common experiences within the family structure. This tends to reinforce the dysfunctional behavior, either through enabling or perpetuation. The family unit can be affected by a variety of factors.

The table below shows the symptoms of family dysfunction according to three sources (two taken from the same expert). Symptoms that are roughly equivalent are shown in the same row:

Examples of a dysfunctional family

Symptoms of family dysfunction Dr. Dan Neuharth - 8 signs of unhealthy parenting Dr. Dan Neuharth - 8 parenting styles which cause family dysfunction
Inconsistency and Unpredictability "Dogmatic or chaotic parenting" (harsh and inflexible discipline) Chaotic (unstable parents who behave in a wildly inconsistent manner with their children)
Role reversals ("parentifying" children) Childlike (parents who "parentify" their children. They tend to be needy and incompetent. Usually allow the other parent to abuse children.)
Conditional love Depriving (parents who control by withholding love, money, praise, attention, or anything else their child needs or wants.)
"Closed family system" (a socially isolated family that discourages relationships with outsiders) Social dysfunction or isolation
Stifled speech (children not allowed to dissent or question authority) Cultlike (parents who feel uncertain and "raise their children according to rigid rules and roles".)
"Denial of an Inner Life" (children are not allowed to develop their own value system) Smothering (parents do not allow their children to maintain a separate identity)
Steven Farmer also lists these symptoms:
  • Denial (i.e. a refusal to acknowledge the alcoholism of a parent or child/teenager; ignoring complaints of sexual abuse)
  • Lack of empathy toward family members
  • Lack of clear boundaries (i.e. throwing away personal possessions that belong to others, inappropriate touching, etc.)
  • Mixed Messages
  • Extremes in conflict (either too much or too little fighting between family members)
Neuharth also includes these signs of unhealthy parenting: Neuharth also includes these dysfunctional parenting styles:
  • Using (destructively narcissistic parents)
  • Abusing (parents who use physical, verbal, or sexual violence to dominate their children)
  • Perfectionist (parents who "fixate on order, prestige, power, and/or perfect appearances".)

Steven Farmer is the author of Adult Children of Abusive Parents, [1].

Dr. Dan Neuharth is the author of If You Had Controlling Parents and uses the terms "controlling parents", "unhealthy control" and "over control" throughout his book. [2]


Effects on children

Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt one or more of six basic roles:[4]

  • "The Good Child" – a child who assumes the parental role.
  • "The Problem Child" – the child who is blamed for most problems, in spite of often being the only emotionally stable one in the family.
  • "The Caretaker" – the one who takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family.
  • "The Lost Child" – the inconspicuous, quiet one, whose needs are often ignored or hidden.
  • "The Mascot" – uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.
  • "The Mastermind" – the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members' faults in order to get whatever he/she wants.

They may also:

  • think only of themselves to make up the difference of their childhoods. They're still learning the balance of self-love
  • distrust others
  • have difficulty expressing emotions
  • have low self-esteem or have a poor self image
  • have difficulty forming healthy relationships with others
  • feel angry, anxious, depressed, isolated from others, or unlovable
  • perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors in their other relationships (especially their children)
  • lack the ability to be playful, or childlike, and may "grow up too fast"
  • may be unpatriotic to their hometown, state, province, or country, and often learn to live far away from their families.

See also


  1. Farmer, S.: "Adult Children of Abusive Parents", pp. 19-34. Ballantine Books, 1989,
  2. Neuharth, D.: "If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place In the World", pp. 4-5 Quill Books, 2002
  3. Neuharth, D.: "If You Had Controlling Parents: Making Peace With Your Past and Taking Your Place In the World", pp. 14-15, Quill Books, 2002

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