Every family has problems, experiences interpersonal conflict, and goes through rough patches. But, for some families, these issues are so overwhelming that they have difficulty meeting their basic needs and live with turmoil and dysfunction.

Signs of Family Dysfunction

Family dysfunction stems from relational issues including parent-child issues, sibling rivalries, and marital problems; mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse; and external problems like unemployment, poverty, and lack of community resources. [1] [2] Five telltale signs of family dysfunction are marital strife, parenting issues, poor communication, role confusion, and inability to solve problems.

1.    Marital Strife

Conflict among couples is normal, but intense and ongoing conflict strains and damages the entire family. Parental conflict is expressed in many ways including the following:[3] 

·       Aggression

·       Disrespect

·       Domestic abuse

·       Emotional control

·       Lack of resolution

·       Silence

2.    Parenting Issues

Many problems contribute to parenting issues including chronic stress, financial pressures, lack of time, marital issues, physical and mental health problems, inadequate parenting abilities, and work-related problems. Parents who’re overwhelmed or lack good parenting skills harm their children in many ways including failing to give them emotional support, exerting too much control over them, and abusing them.

Failing to Provide Emotional Support

Emotionally neglectful parents fail to notice, accurately interpret, and respond appropriately to their children’s feelings.[4] This lack of emotional support impedes their children development, causes them to withdraw, and diminishes their self-esteem.

Exerting too Much Control

Parents must exert a certain amount of control over their children to protect them, help them mature, and teach them important skills. Some parents, however, use the authoritarian style of parenting. These parents are cold, distant, condescending, mean, mistrustful, and vindictive.[5] They expect their children to abide by numerous rules—some of which are unspoken. They have extremely high expectations for their children but provide little nurturing and feedback. They severely punish their children for making mistakes, don’t give them options, and rarely let them make their own choices. Authoritarian parents are also impatient with their children and extremely critical of them, and they use shame to get them to follow their rules and orders.[6]

Abusing and Enacting Violence

Parents in dysfunctional families abuse their children emotionally, physically, sexually and/or mentally to maintain control over them, demoralize them, and get their inappropriate needs met.[7] Abuse and violence are the quickest ways for these parents to discipline their children or stop their children from doing or saying things that irritate them.

3.    Poor Communication

Effective communication involves assertiveness, active listening, openness, respect, and understanding. But communication in dysfunctional families consists of poor listening, verbal abuse, yelling, blaming, shaming, and discouraging self-expression. [8] [9] Children learn to squelch their thoughts and feelings out of fear of being ignored; dismissed; or accused of being bad, dumb, lazy, selfish, or weak. [10] Poor communication can cause family members to make false assumptions, jump to conclusions, or feel they can read each others’ minds; actions that worsen family dysfunction. [11]

4.    Role Confusion

Role confusion/parentification occurs when a parent is irresponsible or physically or emotionally absent, so one of their children undertakes their duties or becomes the other parent’s confidante. This can happen after a divorce or in intact families when parents lack intimacy in their relationships. Role confusion psychologically damages children because it (a) forces them to behave like adults, (b) may cause them to feel like they’re betraying the other parent, or (c) causes them to repress their feelings and needs.[12]

5.    Inability to Solve Problems

Dysfunction makes it hard, if not impossible, for families to solve their problems. Repeatedly blaming members for the same thing, lack of empathy, constant arguing, mistrust, and resentment make it hard for families to identify problems, figure out solutions, and implement those solutions. Instead, problems go unresolved, things get worse, and resentment grows, which makes it even harder to solve problems. [13] 

How Well Is Your Family Functioning? 

The following questions can help you evaluate how well your family functions, determine its strengths, and identify areas in need of improvement.[14] [15] 

1. Does your family have clearly stated rules that are evenly applied?

2. Are family rules adjusted in response to changes and new situations?

3. Are expectations for each family member reasonable, mutually agreed upon, and usually met?

4. Does your family have established routines?

5. Are family members’ needs successfully addressed?

6. Do family members achieve their individual goals?

7. Is self-expression among family members encouraged and respected?

8.Do family members listen to each other and communicate in an assertive, open, and understanding manner?

9. Does your family work together to solve problems?

10. Is there fun and humour in your family, despite the demands of daily living?

11. Is your family able to grow and change without members getting upset?

12. Are mistakes allowed, understood, and forgiven?

13. Do you treat each child like he/she is an individual?

14. Do you attend to your children’s feelings, concerns, and needs?

15. Do you allow your children to make age-appropriate decisions?

16. Do you correct your children’s behaviour and discipline them in healthy ways?

17. Are your children allowed to be kids and not made to behave like “little adults”?

18. Do you and your children genuinely respect each other and express love, compassion, and trust even during disagreements?

19. Are you taking care of yourself?

20. Do you take social and moral responsibility for your life?

21. Do you acknowledge your shortcomings?Do you and your spouse/partner agree on how to raise your children?

22. Do you and your spouse/partner have a loving, collaborative, mutually respectful relationship?  

Building Stronger Family Relationships

A family whose relationships harm the physical and psychological well-being of its members is experiencing serious dysfunction.[16] But there are many ways to build stronger relationships including learning to communicate in positive ways, spending time together, working as a team, admitting that problems exist, and seeking help from a family therapist or counsellor.

1.    Learning to Communicate in Positive Ways

Positive communication involves listening without judging and expressing your feelings and thoughts respectfully. This helps everyone feel respected, understood, and valued, which can strengthen your relationships. Taking the following actions will help your family communicate more effectively. 

·       When your children or spouse/partner need to talk, stop what you’re doing and listen intently to them. Also, give them the necessary time to express their thoughts and feelings.

·       Remain open to discussing difficult topics (such as mistakes) and a variety of emotions including anger, anxiety, fear, frustration, joy, and sadness. Before talking, wait until you’ve settled down from intense emotions (like anger) to create a calm atmosphere in which to talk.

·       Prepare for difficult discussions—such as academic issues, alcohol, drugs, money, and sex—to increase your comfort level. Thinking about your feelings and values before these topics are discussed will help you approach the conversation with more clarity, confidence, and openness.

·       Let everyone know how much you love and appreciate them to strengthen your bond.[17]

2.    Spending Time Together

Spending quality time together can help family members connect, build trust, reduce stress, and have fun. The following tips can help your family get the most out of its time together. 

·       Talk when going about your daily routine such as at mealtime or during car travel.

·       Turn off electronic devices and put them away during family interactions to help everyone stay focused on what you’re doing or talking about.

·       Have one-on-one conversations with family members so you can learn about each other and strengthen your connections.

·       Find time to spend with your spouse/partner to nurture your relationship, stay connected, and create wonderful memories.

·       Do fun things as a family regularly such as going to the park, playing board games, riding bikes, or taking a road trip.[18]

3.    Working as a Team

Working as a team helps family members feel supported, promotes togetherness, and gives everyone a chance to contribute to the family’s success. These ideas can help your family work as a team: 

·       Work together to create rules that clearly state how your family wants to support and treat each other.

·       Share household chores to create a sense of belonging, teach children important life skills, and create a home everyone can feel good about.

·       Allow your children to make some decisions for themselves—according to their maturity levels and abilities.

·       Include every member of the family—even young children—in decision-making about holidays and family activities.

·       Work as a family to solve problems. This entails listening to each other, thinking rationally, considering the options, respecting everyone’s opinions, working on compromising, choosing an option and implementing it, and revisiting the problem if the solution doesn’t work. [19]

4.    Admitting that Problems Exist

Families in distress may deny or ignore their problems as a way of coping with them. But this could make things worse; lead to negative situations; and fuel harmful behaviour such as aggressive arguing, rage, substance abuse, and violence. Acknowledging problems is the first step to solving them or developing effective coping strategies.[20]

5.    Seeking Help from a Therapist or Counsellor

Despite your family’s best efforts, you may be unable to improve your relationships and reduce dysfunction. Deeply entrenched problems, ineffective communication, lack of trust, mental health problems, and other issues might be too insurmountable for your family to tackle alone. Seeing a family therapist or counsellor can help your family improve its relationships, make sense of the dysfunction, and move forward. Family therapists and counsellors provide warm, nonjudgmental settings for family members to share their feelings, understand their experiences, better understand each other, and change harmful behaviours. [21] They help families determine the circumstances that led to their problems such as life events, mental health issues, repeating patterns, social problems, and transitions. [22] They also encourage family members to discuss their differences and frustrations, help them improve how they communicate with each other, and support them as they work to solve problems and explore/resolve conflicts. [23] 

Your Family Can Build Stronger Relationships

The relationship problems and difficulties your family is experiencing may seem impossible to get under control, but this isn’t so because every family has strengths. With the help of a therapist or counsellor, your family can build upon its strengths to create healthier and more loving relationships and improve how it functions.   At Life Counsel, we provide a safe and welcoming place for you to talk about what you’re going through and find solutions to your problems.

[1] “Dysfunctional Family,” The Free Dictionary, accessed June 20, 2021, https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/dysfunctional+family.

[2] “Dysfunctional Family,” Encyclopedia.com, accessed June 20, 2021, https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dysfunctional-family.

[3] Department for Work and Pensions, “Reducing Parental Conflict: What Is Parental Conflict?” GOV.UK, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/guidance/reducing-parental-conflict-what-is-parental-conflict.

[4] “Emotional Neglect,” All Relationships Matter, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.allrelationshipmatters.com.au/insights-healthy-relationships/emotional-neglect.

[5] Mahak Arora, “Dysfunctional Family – Characteristics and Effects,” First Cry Parenting, accessed June 18, 2021, https://parenting.firstcry.com/articles/dysfunctional-family-characteristics-and-tips-to-overcome-its-effects/.

[6] Kendra Cherry, “8 Characteristics of Authoritarian Parenting,” Very Well Mind, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-authoritarian-parenting-2794955. 

[7] Kalpana Nadimpalli, “Dysfunctional Family: What Are Its Signs and How to Overcome Its Effects,” Mom Junction, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.momjunction.com/articles/harsh-reasons-of-dysfunctional-family-relationships_00407860/.

[8] Darlene Lancer, “9 Clinical Signs Your Family Is Dysfunctional,” Thought Catalog, accessed June 18, 2021, https://thoughtcatalog.com/darlene-lancer/2019/01/9-clinical-signs-your-family-is-dysfunctional/.

[9] “The Effects of Poor Family Communication,” The Springboard Center, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.springboardcenter.org/the-effects-of-poor-family-communication/.

[10] Lancer, “9 Clinical Signs Your Family.”

[11] “The Effects of Poor Family Communication.”

[12] Lancer, “9 Clinical Signs Your Family.”

[13] Lancer, “9 Clinical Signs Your Family.”

[14] “Normal Functioning Family: Is There Any Way to Tell if My Family is Functioning Normally?” American Academy of Pediatrics, accessed June 18, 2021, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/pages/Normal-Family-Functioning.aspx.

[15] Lancer, “9 Clinical Signs Your Family.”

[16] “Dysfunctional Family,” Encyclopedia.com.

[17] “Positive Relationships for Families: How to Build Them,” Raisingchildren.net.au, accessed June 29, 2021, https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-life/routines-rituals-relationships/good-family-relationships#positive-communication-and-family-relationships-nav-title.

[18] “Positive Relationships for Families.”

[19] “Positive Relationships for Families.”

[20] Bryan Zitzman, “Family Problems | How To Solve Family Issues and Improve Relations,” FamilyToday.com, accessed June 20, 2021, https://www.familytoday.com/relationships/how-to-solve-family-problems/.

[21] “Family Therapy,” Counselling Directory, accessed June 20, 2021, https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/family-therapy.html#whatisfamilytherapy.

[22] “Family Issues,” Counselling Directory, accessed June 20, 2021, https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/family-issues.html#whatisfamilycounselling.

[23] “Family Therapy.”

Stathi Anthopoulos

Stathi Anthopoulos

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