Is Your Family Dysfunctional?


Do You Have a Dysfunctional FamilyDo you have a dysfunctional family? Probably, and you’re in the majority. The term “dysfunctional family,” once used only by professionals, has become popular jargon in America where dysfunctional families are the norm due to cultural values, a high divorce rate, and widespread addictions – from prescription drugs to exercising, working, and shopping.

A healthy family is a safe haven – a place of sustenance and nurturing – that has an air of openness, spontaneity, and playfulness, and allows for freedom of expression.  There may be occasional arguments and expressions of anger, but peace returns, and individuals feel loved and respected. It functions smoothly like a well-run company. The executives – the parents – jointly make rules that are consistent and reasonable.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric transformed a company that had a closed, inward-focused mentality, an unresponsive bureaucracy, and uncommunicative employees.

He realized the importance of making each employee feel like a valued participant whose voice mattered and prided himself on having an “open door” policy that encouraged freedom of expression. Welch democratized the company, giving thousands of employees regular opportunities to challenge their supervisors and share their ideas in decision-making.

This empowerment style resulted in surged performance and employee satisfaction. They felt part of a team and that their voice mattered. He abhorred secrecy and denial and wanted problems faced and solved. He wanted employees who were free thinkers and outspoken about their ideas and beliefs, even when uncomfortable – when it “might sting.” Employees were given direct feedback – positive and negative – and they, in turn, evaluated their bosses. He organized debates and problem-solving training. G.E. was a model of an open system both inside and out. It looked worldwide for new ideas from other companies and shared the knowledge it gained, which motivated its suppliers.

Of course, a family shouldn’t function to maximize production and profit, but you can readily see that Welch’s ideas of openness, direct communication, and egalitarianism enhanced employee self-esteem, which happens in healthy families.

Symptoms of Dysfunctional Families

In dysfunctional families, members have lower self-esteem and tend to be codependent. Some of the symptoms are described below, but not all are necessary to create dysfunction.


Denial is a way to ignore or pretend that a painful reality doesn’t exist. Parents try to act normal amidst family problems and crises – such as a parent’s absence, illness, or alcoholism. It never gets talked about, nor the problem solved. This makes children doubt their perceptions and sends a message that they can’t talk about something strange and frightening – even to each other.

A Closed System

A closed family, unlike G.E., won’t allow differing or new ideas to be discussed among members or with outsiders. Members aren’t allowed to talk about the family to others, and might not allow guests from another race or religion. Some families are isolated and don’t interact with the community. Others do, but appearances are everything, and the truth about the family isn’t shared. At the bottom are fears of dissimilar ideas and shame.


Some secrets are kept for generations about a family shame – whether addiction, violence, criminal activity, sexual issues, or mental illness. The shame is felt by children – even when they don’t know the secret.

Dysfunctional Communication

This can take many forms – from an absence of communication to verbal abuse. Talking is not the same as functional communication, which involves listening, respect, assertiveness, and understanding. In dysfunctional families, communication is neither assertive nor open. People don’t listen and verbal abuse predominates. (See my blogs “Six Keys to Assertive Communication” and “Emotional Abuse – Beneath Your Radar.”) Children are afraid to express their thoughts and feelings and are often blamed, shamed, or scolded for self-expression. They are told directly or indirectly not to feel what they feel and may be labeled a sissy, bad, dumb, lazy, or selfish. They learn not to question their parents and not to trust their perceptions and feelings.

Rigid Rules

In some families where there is physical or mental illness, parents are too lax or irresponsible, children lack guidance and don’t feel safe and cared for. Generally, however, there are restrictive and sometimes arbitrary rules. Many are unspoken. There’s no room for mistakes. Some parents take over decisions that children should make and control their hobbies, school courses, friends, and dress. Natural independence is seen as disloyalty and abandonment. They prohibit talking about things deemed “inappropriate,” such as sex, death, the holocaust, grandpa’s limp, or that father was married before. Some families have rules restricting the expression of anger, exuberance, or crying. When feelings can’t be expressed, children learn self-control and become overly controlled or controlling adults, all contributing to low self-esteem.

Arbitrariness and Inconsistency

What are worse than rigid rules are arbitrary and inconsistent rules. Children never know when they’ll be punished. Rules that don’t make sense are unjust. This is cruel and breeds learned helplessness and rage that can never be expressed. Children are in constant fear, walk on eggshells, and feel hopeless and resentful because of the unpredictability and unfairness. Their sense of worth and dignity is violated. They lose respect and trust in their parents and authority in general. Because they’re forced to comply, some act-out with rebellious or delinquent behavior, by doing poorly in school, or by using drugs.

Role Confusion

This happens when a parent is emotionally or physically absent or is irresponsible and a child takes on parental responsibilities or becomes a companion or confidante to the other parent. This is frequently the case after a divorce, but also happens in intact families where parents lack intimacy. This is age-inappropriate and damaging to the child psychologically, who must now act like a little adult, repress his or her needs and feelings, and may feel that he or she is betraying the other parent.


People feel safe when family life is predictable. If children never know what mood Mom or Dad will be in, they can’t be spontaneous and are always anxious. Even worse is chaos, where the family is in constant crisis, often due to addiction, mental illness, or sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Instead of a safe haven, the family becomes a war zone to escape. Children may develop somatic complaints, like headaches and stomach aches.

Inability to Problem-Solve

Resolving problems and conflicts is key to a smooth-running organization. But in dysfunctional families, children and parents are blamed repeatedly for the same thing and there are constant arguments or silent walls of resentment. Nothing gets resolved.

Healthy Families

In contrast, healthy families are safe because open self-expression is encouraged without judgment or retaliation. Love is shown not only in words, but in empathic, nurturing, and supportive behavior.(See “7 Parenting Essentials.“)

Each member, down to the youngest, is treated as a valued, respected member. Feedback is allowed, and there’s a sense of equality, even if parents have the final veto. Parents act responsibly and are accountable for their commitments and hold children accountable for theirs. They correct and punish misbehavior, but don’t blame their children or attack their character. Mistakes are allowed and forgiven, and parents acknowledge their own shortcomings. They encourage and guide their children and respect their privacy and physical and emotional boundaries. These ingredients build self-esteem, trust, and integrity.

Today companies, young families, and nations are becoming more open and egalitarian – a hopeful sign for the future.

© Darlene Lancer, MFT 2011


Do You Have a Dysfunctional Family by Darlene Lancer, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, CA, and author of Codependency for Dummies


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8 months ago

68 y.o. Scapegoat here. Outcasted and removed as executor of the will because I didn’t compete with golden sibling to fawn over Narcissistic mother. From everything (much) that I read, this all fit like a glove. I went through a very bad adolescence (I was the identified patient), but luckily was guided by outside acquaintances into a good career, from which I retired. Out of 4 siblings, I miraculously made out the best.

An older brother was institutionalized with Schizophrenia and was one of the big family secrets. He was even kept a secret from another remote brother, until I spilled the beans. After he died, I reached out to what remaining extended family there is. I learned that my mother’s family believed that he was the love child of an affair that she had when she married my father. I’ll never know – all DNA is gone. Given mother’s selfish and immature ways, it is a possibility. My father, whom I loved dearly, was an alcoholic. Responsible in so many ways, but nonetheless…his sister just told me that they tried to get him into AA years ago. Many secrets in this family.

5 years ago

Thanks for the article. Appreciate having those realities acknowledged.

6 years ago

You are absolutely right i also came from such a family . where we all had roles to play I was the scapegoat . there was a prompt communication on my wrongs and mistakes but not my good deeds. Followed by frequent episodes of silent treatment , double standard teatment , projection and gaslighting. All of this i went through for the past 26 years , I realised a year ago that all was not well and the the hell was where home was and i was the empath ,the odd one out. My bro he was the G.C ,he could do no wrong , a true heir to inherit the gift of disfunction . after extensive R&D on NPD and CPTSD , I tried to correct the family problem .

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
6 years ago
Reply to  Hellspawn

You cannot correct the family problem or NPD, but you can heal yourself!

8 years ago

I relate to many of the behaviors you describe as a dysfunctional family. There wasn’t addiction in my family, but one of my parents was physically ill and had emotional problems from being abandoned as a child. Can codependent behaviors come from living with a physically ill and depressed parent?

Darlene Lancer, MFT
8 years ago
Reply to  Nannette

Absolutely. And parents needn’t be ill. You can learn more about what causes codependency in childhood in specific chapters in my books.

9 years ago

Dysfunctionality is the key to where I come from. Then I am a black sheep and I built a wall where I do forgive and give back to people.

To be honest it is worth a try to teach old dogs new tricks. I feel im always blame and put down. Im always bullied and treated unkindly.

My past I was always happy go lucky, people pleasure, doormat; change of moods, hypercrit, toothface, popular, unaware of others and uneducated and naive gullible person.I am not perfect and I admit it. 2002 turn of life changed. People change and you know who your family and friends are.

I went through hell with loss of friends and the neglect of family. Living house to house, to one job to another, to been kicked out many times, to my mother neglect, to been called illiterate by many friend, to pessimist attitudes by many others and so much mire to add on list.

I always find a way to do things keep me happy and occupied. Unwanted by others became second nature to me. I learnt everything in all those experiences that I became more aware. Aware and mindful to past mistakes.

I cannot change people and though I faced many of them, I am weiry of all their feelings. The lady before who discussed ‘analyze or over analyze’. My mum says this lot to me. Posotive sign your empath is kicking to high sensitivit.
I love this feeling because that is who we are and we are open to sponeity and creativity to buolding a functional family dynamic. What the books and information, we find likeminded to us. ‘We are not alone’ and ‘others agree’.

Darlene Lancer, MFT
9 years ago
Reply to  Debbie

I think you will relate to my books, particularly my new book, Conquering Shame and Codependency.

5 years ago
Reply to  Debbie

No, we’re not alone. Thanks for sharing your experience it helped me.

9 years ago

I’ve been to many counselors trying to figure out what it is I could do better and why I always seem to be doing something wrong and I would always be told the same thing “Revonda, its your fault cause you inconsistent, you let everything get to you, your over think, you over react…” Not once has someone been able to explain to me growing up that it wasn’t just me being inconsistent, but my family as well. Everything fell on my shoulders and I carried all the burden and stress that my family chose to ignore rather then face and resolve. We don’t communicate, and when I tried to they became aggressive and non-excepting of my thoughts and ideas, maybe because I am the youngest, the baby. I’m always told I’m a very smart child, but they don’t treat me like I am. They expect so much from me, and I don’t even know what it is they really expect because they wont talk to me unless I’m doing something wrong. When I get sad or upset ot feel abandonment they think I have a mental illness or have a drug addiction and refuse to admit or understand that what they are doing is unhealthy and hurtful. I’m like the oddball in the family. I’m a very positive person, and I love to talk about my feelings, but for my entire life I’ve been scared into keeping quiet. I relate to nearly all of these cause some point in time, or majority of time I have experienced all of these. Maybe the worst part of it all, is I always feel like its my fault. Since I’m usually the one left out, I feel like maybe it my existence that made them so bitter, and so unhappy. I know for a fact this is untrue, and I’m much better now then I used to be, but if their could be one thing I could wish for, it would be able to make my family proud of me. Just once. Reading this as well as other parts of your blog really helps me keep my mind of the clouds so can clearly see that I’m not the only one who/s like this, and I’m not a bad person. Everything is emotionally programed with time in my brain and it will take time for me to reprogram myself to be more confident and happy with myself. Not only does this make me feel a little better, but I’m highly interested in the subject itself. I have been previously diagnosed with codependency, and have read a few books and blogs on it hoping to find an understanding or an escape from it, but I’ve been too impatient with myself. One day though I know I’ll free myself from this constant need to please people, especially people who don’t want or appreciate it.

Darlene Lancer, MFT
9 years ago
Reply to  Revonda

What you describe is shame, which underlies addiction. It’s sad that the only attention you got was criticism, so of course you deduced that you’re unlovable. I believe you’d find my new book on Conquering Shame and Codependency” both enlightening and very helpful in your healing process.

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