Dysfunctional Family

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continually and regularly, 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 primarily a result of co-dependent adults, and may also be affected by addictions, such as substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc.), or sometimes an untreated mental illness. Dysfunctional parents may emulate or over-correct from their own dysfunctional parents. In some cases, a ‘child-like’ parent will allow the dominant parent to abuse their children.

A common misperception of dysfunctional families is the mistaken belief that the parents are on the verge of separation and divorce. While this is true in a few cases, often the marriage bond is very strong as the parents’ faults actually complement each other. In short, they have nowhere else to go. However, this does not necessarily mean the family’s situation is stable. Any major stressor, such as relocation, unemployment/underemployment, physical or mental illness, natural disaster, etc. can cause existing conflicts affecting the children to become much worse.

Dysfunctional families have no social, financial or intellectual bounds. Nevertheless, until recent decades the concept of a dysfunctional family was not taken seriously by professionals (therapists, social workers, teachers, counselors, clergy, etc.), especially among the middle and upper classes. Any intervention would have been seen as violating the sanctity of marriage and increasing the probability of divorce, which was socially unacceptable at the time. Historically, children of dysfunctional families were expected to obey their parents (ultimately the father), and cope with the situation alone.

Dysfunctional family members have common features and behavior patterns as a result of their experiences within the family structure. This tends to reinforce the dysfunctional behavior, either through enabling or perpetuation. Common features include: Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy towards one or more members (or even pets) who have real or perceived ‘special needs.’ In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than he or she deserves, while another is marginalized.

Other common features include: Denial (refusal to acknowledge abusive behavior, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the ‘elephant in the room’); Inadequate or missing boundaries for self (e.g., tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment, tolerance of physical, emotional or sexual abuse); Disrespect of others’ boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises without just cause; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed); Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient peaceful arguing between family members); and Unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role (mother, etc.), abilities, race, caste, etc. (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven enforcement of rules).

Less common features include: Abnormally high levels of jealousy or other controlling behaviors; Conflict between divorced or separated parents, usually related to, or arising from their breakup; conflict between parents who remain married, often for the ‘perceived’ sake of the children, but whose separation or divorce would in fact remove a detrimental influence on those children; parents who wish to divorce, but cannot due to financial, societal (including religious), or legal reasons; Children afraid to talk (within or outside the family) about what is happening at home, or are otherwise fearful of their parents; Abnormal sexual behavior such as adultery, promiscuity, or incest; Lack of time spent together, especially in recreational activities and social events (‘We never do anything as a family’); and Family members (including children) who disown each other, and/or refuse to be seen together in public (either unilaterally or bilaterally).

Familial dysfunction also arises in a number of other situations such as in: Families with older parents or immigrant parents who cannot cope with changing times or a different culture; A parent of the same sex never intercedes in father–daughter/mother–son relations on behalf of the child; Children who have no contact with the extended family of their mother or father due to disharmony, disagreement, prejudice, feuding, etc.; and an intense schism between family members regarding religion and/or ideology (for example: parents support their country being at war, while children do not).

There are several signs of unhealthy parenting: Unrealistic expectations; Ridicule; Conditional love; Disrespect (especially contempt); Emotional intolerance (family members not allowed to express the ‘wrong’ emotions); Social dysfunction or isolation (for example, parents unwilling to reach out to other families—especially those with children of the same gender and approximate age, or do nothing to help their ‘friendless’ child); Stifled speech (children not allowed to dissent or question authority); Denial of an ‘inner life’ (children are not allowed to develop their own value systems); Being under- or over-protective; Apathy; Hypocrisy; Either no or excessive criticism (experts say 80–90% praise, and 10–20% constructive criticism is the most healthy); Giving ‘mixed messages’ by having a dual system of values (i.e. one set for the outside world, another when in private, or teaching divergent values to each child); The absentee parent (seldom available for their child due to work overload, alcohol/drug abuse, gambling or other addictions); Unfulfilled projects, activities, and promises affecting children; Giving to one child what rightly belongs to another, Gender prejudice (treats one gender of children fairly; the other unfairly); Discussion and exposure to sexuality: either too much, too soon or too little, too late; Faulty discipline (i.e. punishment by ‘surprise’) based more on emotions or family politics than established rules, Having an unpredictable emotional state due to substance abuse, personality disorder(s), or stress; Parents always (or never) take their children’s side when others report acts of misbehavior, or teachers report problems at school; Scapegoating (knowingly or recklessly blaming one child for the misdeeds of another); ‘Tunnel vision’ diagnosis of children’s problems (for example, a parent may think their child is either lazy or has learning disabilities after he falls behind in school despite recent absence due to illness); Older siblings given either no or excessive authority over younger siblings with respect to their age difference and level of maturity; Frequent withholding of consent (‘blessing’) for culturally common, lawful, and age-appropriate activities a child wants to take part in; The ‘know-it-all’ (has no need to obtain child’s side of the story when accusing, or listen to child’s opinions on matters which greatly impact them); Regularly forcing children to attend activities for which they are extremely over- or under-qualified (e.g. using a preschool to babysit a typical nine-year-old boy, taking a young child to poker games, etc.); Either being a miser in totality or selectively allowing children’s needs to go unmet (e.g. father will not buy a bicycle for his son because he wants to save money for retirement or ‘something important’); and Nature vs. nurture (parents, often non-biological, blame common problems on child’s heredity, whereas faulty parenting may be the actual cause).

There a number of harmful parenting styles that treat children as ‘pawns.’ This may occur when a parent manipulates a child to achieve some negative result in the other parent, rather than communicating with them directly. Examples include verbal manipulation, gossip, trying to obtain information through the child (spying), or causing the child to dislike the other parent. It is especially alarming when there is no concern whatsoever for the damaging effects it has on children. While such manipulation is often prevalent in shared custody situations (due to separation or divorce), it can also take place in intact families, and is known as triangulation (a situation in which one family member will not communicate directly with another family member, but will communicate with a third family member).

Other dysfunctional parenting styles include: Using (destructively narcissistic parents who rule by fear and conditional love); Abusing (parents who use physical violence, or emotionally, or sexually abuse their children); Perfectionist (fixating on order, prestige, power, and/or perfect appearances, while preventing their child from failing at anything); Dogmatic or cult-like (harsh and inflexible discipline, with children not allowed, within reason, to dissent, question authority, or develop their own value system); Inequitable parenting (going to extremes for one child while continually ignoring the needs of another); Deprivation (control or neglect by withholding love, support, necessities, sympathy, praise, attention, encouragement, supervision, or otherwise putting their children’s well-being at risk); Abuse among siblings (parents fail to intervene when an older sibling physically or sexually abuses a younger sibling); Abandonment (a parent who willfully separates from their children, not wishing any further contact, and in some cases without locating alternative, long-term parenting arrangements, leaving them as orphans); Appeasement (parents who reward bad behavior—even by their own standards—and inevitability punish another child’s good behavior in order to maintain the peace and avoid temper tantrums); Loyalty manipulation (giving unearned rewards and lavish attention trying to ensure a favored, yet rebellious child will be the one most loyal and well-behaved, while subtly ignoring the wants and needs of their most loyal child currently); ‘Helicopter parenting’ (parents who micro-manage their children’s lives and/or relationships among siblings—especially minor conflicts); The Deceivers (well-regarded parents in the community, likely to be involved in some charitable/non-profit works, who abuse or mistreat one or more of their children); Public image manager (children warned to not disclose what fights, abuse, or damage happens at home, or face severe punishment); The paranoid parent (a parent having persistent and irrational fear accompanied by anger and false accusations that their child is up to no good or others are plotting harm); No friends allowed (parents discourage, prohibit, or interfere with their child from making friends of the same age and gender); Role reversal (parents who expect their minor children to take care of them instead); ‘My baby forever’ (a parent who will not allow one or more of their young children to grow up and begin taking care of themselves); ‘Along for the ride’ (a reluctant de facto, step, foster, or adoptive parent who does not truly care about their non-biological child, but must co-exist in the same home for the sake of their spouse or partner); and The politician (a parent who repeatedly makes or agrees to children’s promises while having little to no intention of keeping them).

There are a number of family dynamics that can form such as: The isolated family member (either a parent or child up against the rest of the otherwise united family); Parent vs. parent (frequent fights among adults, whether married, divorced, or separated, conducted away from the children); The polarized family (a parent and one or more children on each side of the conflict); Parents vs. kids (generation gap or culture shock dysfunction); The balkanized family (named after the three-way war in the Balkans where alliances shift back and forth); and Free-for-all (a family that fights in a free-for-all style, though may become polarized when range of possible choices is limited).

Unlike divorce, and to a lesser extent, separation, there is often no record of an ‘intact’ family being dysfunctional. As a result, friends, relatives, and teachers of such children may be completely unaware of the situation. In addition, a child may be unfairly blamed for the family’s dysfunction, and placed under even greater stress than those whose parents separate. Children growing up in a dysfunctional family have been known to adopt one or more of these six basic roles: The Good Child (also known as the Hero, a child who assumes the parental role); The Problem Child or Rebel (also known as the Scapegoat, the child who is blamed for most problems related to the family’s dysfunction, 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 usually ignored or hidden); The Mascot (uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system); and The Mastermind (the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members’ faults in order to get whatever he or she wants — often the object of appeasement by grown-ups).

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