What is a dysfunctional family?

What is a dysfunctional family?

Dysfunctional families are usually described as parents that lack parenting skills as a result of mental illness. The sort of dysfunction we are referring to usually occurs when the following is present: neglect, violence, abandonment, shame, lack of consistency, conditional love and sexuality intolerance.

The fact is no family is perfect; we rarely see a family that isn’t a little bit dysfunctional. Many of us can identify with the characteristics above but of course, it’s all in the scale or proportions of dysfunction within the family. At the other end of the scale, some families might seem extremely dysfunctional but at the end of the day, all the family members are loved, respected and supported. Severely dysfunctional family environments can cause children to be very unhappy and uncertain of themselves.

When the caregivers of a family experience mental illness such as depression it starts taking its toll on the dynamics of the family environment. Depression has many different symptoms and effects which could lead to dysfunction in the family. Living in a dysfunctional family, no matter what that looks like for you, will have a long-term effect on your life. If you’re still in a dysfunctional family, it’s important that you see your situation for what it is and take the steps to change it.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health is described as the psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional resilience and behavioural adjustment. This includes subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, competence and self-actualization of one’s intellectual and emotional potential.

When do mental illness and family dysfunction overlap?
When a parent member of a family suffers from a mental illness the whole family is affected. It is very rare that children escape these environments unscathed, as one study shows that family environments with higher levels of anxiety and other disorders also had higher levels of conflict within the family environment.

It was found that the children were less motivated, organized and fulfilled because these families were not functioning in a way that puts the children’s needs first.

What Are the Children’s Needs?

Here’s a list of basic needs of children in order to be considered happy

  • To be fed – Basic nourishment
  • To be safe, warm sheltered and secure
  • To be touched, held and cared for
  • To be unconditionally loved
  • To be respected as a human being regardless of behaviour
  • To be able to make mistakes in order to learn and grow
  • To ask for what they need
  • To say that they do not understand
  • To express their feelings and decline responsibility for other’s problems

Dysfunctional family characteristics

Although dysfunctional families are all different, they often share some principal characteristics. Some defining traits in a dysfunctional family include:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Poor communication
  • Emotional or physical abuse
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Perfectionism
  • Fear and unpredictability
  • Denial
  • Disrespect of boundaries
  • Control
  • Excessive criticism

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Much like a car that has many components to ensure that it works, each family member has a role that keeps the cycle going. The enabler (caretaker) protects the family and takes care of the problem parent in order to keep the family going. He or she takes on the responsibilities of the problem parent to prevent a crisis.

The Hero takes on the role to ensure that the family looks good and this overachieving person is good at making everything on the outside look normal. The scapegoat is often the child who exhibits negative behaviours that take the attention off of the main problem in the family. The lost child is the quiet one who tries to escape the situation.

This child often avoids interactions with other family members, leading to a lack of social development in the long run. The mascot works to lighten the mood and break up the tension within the family. They often use humour to distract from their problems instead of facing them.

If you are living in a dysfunctional family, you probably recognize these roles within your household. Below are some unhealthy signs of dysfunctional families.

1. You constantly think about how you will do things differently

If you already know as a child how you will raise your household differently than the way you are being raised, this becomes a major red flag. Children should not be spending time noticing things in their household that they would never want to be repeated.

2. Your Parents sleep in separate rooms

It can be normal for parents to sleep in different rooms, especially if their day to day schedules are completely different from one another. However, if they never spend time together that might be a sign of a toxic relationship.

3. Your family lives in silence

When silence is used as a form of punishment it leads to dysfunctionality within the family because it disregards the worth of the family member being punished. A milder form of silent treatment is leaving other people to guess what’s wrong with you. The problem here is that you are not placing enough value on the relationship to actually open up and talk about your troubles.

4. You experience triangulation

Triangulation refers to when a family member confines in another about a third family member. An example of this would be if one parent asks their child to gather information from the other adult on a personal or adult matter. The child is then burdened by placing him/her in the middle of these adult issues and this is an unhealthy alternative to direct communication.

5. You give or get double messages

Double messages are when you say one thing but do the opposite. This could be as serious as an abusive parent saying “I won’t hurt you” after giving the child hiding. This only leads to confusion because it completely contradicts what the child has seen or heard.

6. You fear abandonment

If you were either physically or emotionally abandoned as a child, you will most likely carry this fear for the rest of your life. Children need a sense of security, when they are abandoned they lose this sense of security which leaves them to fear any form of abandonment and neglect from parents or loved ones.

7. You are a people pleaser

Pleasing other people is an emotional attempt to win them over when you fear their disapproval. You hold onto the belief that if you’re nice enough, this person will not abandon you. This is a survival trait that develops as a result of experiencing abandonment and neglect on a regular basis.

8. You experience or witness abuse

Abuse has many shapes and forms. The most common forms of abuse are physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Even if parents aren’t abusing their children directly, exposing them to abuse can be just as damaging. Any kind of abuse leaves family members in need of emotional care. Sexual and physical abuse leaves obvious scars whereas emotional abuse can occur much more subtly which makes it easier to hide and deny and harder for others to understand.

How to deal with a Dysfunctional Family

As mentioned above, the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family can be devastating and result in long term emotional pain. However, it does not have to determine your destiny or happiness forever. You can learn to heal. Here are some tips to help you.

Put on your adult thinking Hat

You can overcome leftover feelings from living in a dysfunctional household with a new adult point of view. You are no longer a helpless child who doesn’t have the skills to understand the dysfunction and see it for what it is.

Remember you CANNOT change the past

It’s very important to remember that you cannot change what has already happened in the past. You can’t change people and sometimes you need to just allow yourself to have a healthy distance. To protect your well-being and move forward by creating a healthy family dynamic of your own.

Avoid the Victim Mentality

You might feel cheated out of having a healthy balanced childhood, but do not let a victim mentality stand in your way of achieving happiness. If at all possible, try and forgive those who wronged you.

At ZwavelStream clinic, you will be met by a team of warm, dedicated and experienced professionals. We strive to provide our patients with a mixed therapeutic model of psychiatric care so that you can discover a renewed sense of wellness that extends beyond mental health. Zwavelstream Clinic is set in the Bronberg, with lush vegetation, manicured gardens, as well as spacious and tastefully furnished rooms.

Our mental health clinic was inspired by the desire to provide a psychiatric unit in an environment that “de-institutionalizes and de-stigmatizes” mental health hospitals. ZwavelStream Clinic provides a safe space for those looking for just this kind of support and guidance. So if you recognize yourself or someone you love may need help, please contact us.