How Do You Deal with a Dysfunctional Family?

Your family is supposed to be your safe place. From childhood, you need to understand that you can go home to find love, compassion, attention, respect, guidance, and care. From that you learn essential self-esteem, boundary-setting, and a sense of stability. You know that no matter what, you have a stable and welcoming place to return to with a roof, a meal, and a hug. Too often, however, life gets in the way of this ideal, and the consequences of growing up in a dysfunctional home can be devastating.

If you’re feeling unsafe, unhealthy, or unsupported at home, you may be wondering if your family is dysfunctional. Or maybe you’ve left home by now, and you’re starting to realize that maybe your family didn’t exactly set you up for success. Let’s look at how to identify signs of family dysfunction, why it happens, how it impacts you, and what you can do to move forward.

How to Handle a Dysfunction Family

Signs of a Dysfunctional Family

Every family dynamic looks different, and the same goes for dysfunctional ones. Your family may be unhealthy in one way, while your neighbor’s family is in another. The following list is not exhaustive, but it’s a good start if you’re trying to figure out where your family falls short of healthy.

Your family may be dysfunctional if:

  • Family members routinely withhold love until their expectations have been met.
  • Abuse of any kind and neglect on any level have occurred in the home, especially when that goes unaddressed.
  • Caregivers are emotionally unavailable to see to their children’s needs.
  • Anyone in the household struggles with substance abuse or addiction.
  • Anyone in the household struggles with untreated or improperly treated mental health concerns.
  • Caregivers are authoritarians who refuse to accept that anyone but them can be right.
  • Caregivers have toxic relationships with one another.
  • Caregivers have problems like workaholism, shopaholism, gambling, or eating disorders.
  • Everyone in the household is expected to or actively contributes to ignoring or denying any problems in the home.
  • Anyone in the household is enabling or excusing dysfunctional behaviors.
  • There is a high amount of conflict in the home, like screaming, yelling, fighting, physical altercations, door slamming, throwing things, etc.

Do any of these sound familiar? If you’re still not sure whether or not your family dynamic is or was dysfunctional, check out the helpful list of questions in this article from VeryWellMind.

Understand the Roots

Now that you’re coming to terms with the idea that your family isn’t exactly healthy, it’s important to understand why dysfunction like this occurs. Identifying the source of your family’s issues can help you proceed with knowledge and compassion as you address the issues and go about healing.

Usually dysfunction has a long-term history in your family system. In other words, the problem probably didn’t start with your parents. It’s often the case that dysfunctional caregivers are behaving the way they do in response to their own trauma. Perhaps they grew up in a dysfunctional home as well.

Another reason could be that they are struggling with their mental health, and they can’t or won’t get the treatment that would help them be a healthy member of the family. Substance abuse is a significant factor in dysfunctional behavior, which is often an attempt to self-medicate a mental health concern, consciously or not.

Another huge source of dysfunction that’s not to be overlooked is socioeconomic disadvantage. Your caregiver may love you and want to give you their best, but the intense stress that comes from having low income, working crazy hours to provide what little they can for the family, and lack of easy and affordable access to mental healthcare or community support is an incredibly intense and complex burden for them to bear.

Anything that results in a child’s lack of food, shelter, safety, stability, or emotional well-being is, ultimately, a dysfunction in the home. It’s helpful to know, though, that it’s not your fault that your family treats you the way they do. It’s a complicated cycle, and you’re just the latest generation.

How It Impacts You

Whatever the circumstances of your dysfunctional family, the impact it’s made on you is and will be significant. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck! Many happy, healthy people come from tough family groups–all you need is to be equipped with the knowledge and tools to navigate the circumstance. For instance, you should be aware that because of how you’ve grown up, you’re at risk for mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, PTSD/CPTSD, addiction or substance abuse issues, and other personality disorders. You may struggle to maintain a healthy self-esteem and may have trouble believing you are worthy of anything good. You may also feel shame about coming from a dysfunctional family, or shame that for whatever reason you never quite meet your caregiver’s expectations. Without stability in your home, you may have developed trust issues, grapple with feelings of isolation and loneliness, and experience difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with friends, coworkers, or romantic interests. Knowing these risks is empowering! You can get a head start on taking proper care of yourself.

If any of this sounds like you, please don’t give up. You’re not alone in this. Just because you haven’t been able to rely on your family, doesn’t mean that people don’t care about you or want you to be happy. There is hope. With some information and help, you can have a fulfilling future full of joy and healthy relationships!

How Do You Overcome a Dysfunctional Family?

Simply learning that your family’s behaviors have been legitimately dysfunctional can be a healing realization, and you may feel energized to act on this information immediately. That’s great! But focus on actions you can take for your health. Be aware that talking to your family members about the dysfunction you see and how it’s hurt you will most likely not result in you suddenly having a healthy family. While you may be able to confront them someday, understand that dysfunctional people, by nature, won’t be able to hear what you’re saying or take responsibility for their actions. For now, what is your role in the future of your family’s dysfunction? 

You may have heard phrases before like “break the pattern,” “end the cycle,” or “it ends with me.” Those can all be applied here, but it’s important to be intentional about how you do that. Learning to set healthy boundaries takes practice and won’t happen overnight. In fact, if you immediately dive headfirst into cycle-breaking by trying to do the opposite of everything your family’s done or by immediately rejecting or breaking relationship with your family, you may overcorrect and end up starting a whole new dysfunctional behavior! 

Kimberly Key says it so well, “Take responsibility for your life and feelings, and let others take responsibility for their lives and their feelings. Avoid mind-reading, blaming, scapegoating, rescuing, martyrdom, and being the target of someone else’s blaming. Employ boundaries, and respect other people’s boundaries.” Take it slow, be patient with yourself, and listen to the experts.

Two Things You Can Do Today to Start Healing

1. Get help.

It was your parents’ job to instill self-esteem, a sense of stability, and healthy coping mechanisms in you. That process would have taken years and started before you were old enough to understand. Now that you have to undo what they taught you instead, and learn a whole new emotional vocabulary, you need a good teacher. That’s where therapy and counseling comes in. Going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re crazy or weak. Therapy means you are taking responsibility for your own future and removing it from your dysfunctional family’s hands. Talk to a professional soon and often so that you can get started and find support as you process the pain you might feel along the way.

  • Down the line, you may be able to try Family therapy, a kind of therapy that you and your family members could do together. For now, though, your priority should be your own mental health.

2. Find a supportive community.

You may be familiar with the idea that “there’s the family you’re born with, then there’s the family you choose.” It’s very, very true. Fight the feelings of isolation and loneliness by surrounding yourself with a group of people who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated. Find a church or a support group near you. Allow yourself to build relationships outside of the dysfunctional dynamic you’ve been used to.

What Does God Think About Family Dysfunction?

There are a lot of Bible verses about God and Jesus caring for us by feeding us, clothing us, providing shelter for us, guiding us, etc. And while the “honor thy mother and father” verse gets repeated a lot, the Bible’s message is pretty clear that the mother and father should’ve been caring for their child with love and compassion. In Matthew 18:6, Jesus tells us exactly what He thinks of anyone who would bring offense to little children: “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

You were a child. You were not given the care you needed, unintentionally or not. God wanted better for you, and He can help you create a healthier future for yourself. If you’d like to talk more about His love for you, or about mental health resources that can help you, reach out to a Hope Coach today. We’re always here to listen without judgment and offer assistance when we can.

For more on dysfunctional families, read how to manage family boundaries when a parent is toxic.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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