Top 9 Signs of a Dysfunctional Family and How to Break the Cycle

We throw the “dysfunctional family” term around a lot these days, but what does it really mean? It’s kind of a catch-all term for any family that experiences regular tension, inappropriate behaviors, lack of support and trust, etc. But no family is perfect! So is every family dysfunctional? Not quite.

Families are made up of human beings, which means there will always be mistakes made in the home. When it comes to dysfunction, there are usually patterns, routines, or repeated behaviors that result in an unhealthy living situation. If you’re struggling at home right now and trying to figure out whether your family qualifies as dysfunctional, check out the following list.

How to Identify and Fix a Dysfunctional Family

9 Signs of Dysfunction at Home

This list is not exhaustive, and every person, even close siblings who grew up in the same house, can have a wildly different experience. That said, the following is a good place to start as you learn more about your family dynamic.

A family may be “dysfunctional” if:

1. A parent or caregiver exhibits compulsive behaviors, like “workaholism,” gambling, hoarding, substance abuse, etc.

2. One or more family members is emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive.

3. Children are left without appropriate adult supervision, sometimes to the point of neglect.

4. The children are allowed to use drugs and alcohol.

5. There is a lack of shelter, food, clothing, or other basic provisions for the family.

6. One or more caregivers is emotionally unavailable, whether they are unwilling or unable to meet the child’s emotional needs.

7. Children are allowed no independence to the point of breaching their privacy or disregarding any boundaries.

8. Silence about the family’s problems is the status quo. Either the family never discusses or addresses consequences for inappropriate behavior or you’re discouraged from sharing “family business” with anyone on the outside.

9. Conversations with one or more caregivers often turn into arguments, which may become screaming matches or devolve into the silent treatment, resulting in the rest of the family “walking on eggshells” around them.

If the above signs aren’t doing it for you, check out the list of questions Nadra Nittle offers in “What Is a Dysfunctional Family” on VeryWellMind. It’s not a quiz… but if you answer “yes” to a lot of the questions, it’s probably time to talk to someone about your family’s potentially unhealthy dynamic. Kaytee Gillis also has a really useful list of “10 Unspoken Rules of Dysfunctional Families” worth checking out. 

A Note on Shame

The term “dysfunctional” might sting because of the stigma around being part of a “dysfunctional family.” It’s important to point out that just because a family has some members who don’t handle life healthily doesn’t mean there isn’t also deep love and even joy in that family. And while dysfunction is often the result of your caregiver’s poor choices, it’s also important to note that dysfunction may very well exist in the family through no fault of any one member. Unexpected health crises, financial difficulties, and plenty of other situations can put a family on the road to becoming unhealthy. Dysfunction, or unhealthy behaviors, happen for a number of reasons, and you have nothing, nothing, nothing to be ashamed of if you find yourself in a “dysfunctional family.” 

Breaking the Cycle

We’ve also been throwing the idea of “breaking the cycle” around a lot on TikTok and other pop culture platforms that touch on mental health. What does breaking the cycle mean? Essentially, the premise is that if your home life was traumatic, it’s likely that your caregivers’ homes were dysfunctional too, just like their caregivers before them, and so on. Now here you are, the current generation, with a decision to make. Continue the unhealthy behaviors, or take the difficult, brave step out of the cycle and into something new?

Before you start trying to break a deeply ingrained family cycle, you have to get healthy. You can’t expect yourself to be able to talk everyone in your family into healing overnight. First, you need to attend to your own physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. Then you can apply what you know to be healthy and true to your future.

Here are some things you can start working on today:

  • Enlist the help of a licensed therapist.* Talking to a professional can help you figure out how to start the long process of reparenting yourself in areas where your needs haven’t been met. A therapist can also refer you to a doctor if they feel you might be struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or a number of possible impacts your family made on your mental health. A therapist can also help you with this next one…
  • Educate yourself on healthy boundaries. Boundaries are often not a thing in dysfunctional families, meaning you could likely use a crash course in boundary setting right now. Without strong boundaries, any and all relationships will be tough to sustain. Don’t worry, though, even people who grew up in “healthy” families struggle to ace the concept of setting boundaries. It takes practice!
  • Establish a community or “found family.” In times when you’re feeling let down or even betrayed by your family of origin (or first family), it helps to know who else you can turn to. Whether you already have a small circle of people you can trust (really trust) or you’re starting from scratch, community will be key to your recovery. Isolation is a big no-no when it comes to processing hard things or struggling with mental health, and it sure doesn’t help you learn that there is such a thing as loving, supportive, kind people who love you for you. If you’re not sure where to find your people, check out local support groups, book clubs, sports teams… anything you can join to meet new people and fill your time with something healthy.

Perhaps one of the most important things to know, as you start to recover from your family’s dysfunction, is that your life is still up to you. You have the freedom to choose what you do next. If you want to stay in a relationship with your family, you can. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. If you distance yourself from them for a while in order to heal, but then you miss them and want to reconnect, you can do that too! There aren’t a lot of wrong answers when it comes to healing, as long as you’re focused on finding a healthier way of living.

*If you can’t swing therapy right now, due to money, time, or transportation, there are a number of free and online resources available to you. Check out Focus on the Family for recommendations, talk to a trusted adult, or do some research on support groups in your area. Never assume that you’re alone!

Your Built-In Family

Processing how your family may have failed you in certain aspects is a very lonely time for most people. Where once there was family, albeit an imperfect one, now there is disappointment, betrayal, pain, anger, a lack of trust, etc. Sometimes it might seem like nobody you talk to could possibly understand how abandoned you feel. In some ways, that may be the case. But you are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever alone, without love, or without family when it comes to Jesus. Jesus went through it with His family… one mom, two “dads,” a million brothers, poverty, abandonment, impossible expectations… the whole nine yards. His message, though, is still one of perfect peace, understanding, joy, hope, and abundance because it demands that we all treat one another as brother and sister, with loving kindness. If you want to know more about how to connect with Jesus, how to deal with a dysfunctional family, or where you can find mental health resources, please chat with a Hope Coach today. We hope you find what you’re looking for!

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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