Dysfunctional Families and Family Patterns: An Overview

Nour Bazzy
· 7 min read

What is a dysfunctional family?

To begin with, the term dysfunctional refers to impaired functioning based on the behaviors of an individual amongst people in any relationship and especially between members of a family. Examples of such behvaiors are as follows:

Early research shows that experiencing emotional distress during pregnancy not only puts the mother’s well-being at risk, but also has adverse effects on her infant’s development. For instance, increase in the mother’s stress hormones during pregnancy predisposes the fetus to greater sensitivity and reactivity to stress. Maternal distress has also been associated with a more difficult and fussy temperament in infants and future cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems. Likewise, mothers exhibiting symptoms of emotional distress after birth have been linked with less parenting sensitivity and greater negative attitudes toward their child.

- A teenage couple that deals with conflicts by not speaking to each other.
- A family in which a parent is drinking daily and family members are afraid to talk about what's happening.

A dysfunctional family is characterized by one that continually involves conflict, misbehavior, and/or abuse. The interactions within the family are defined by poor communication, tension, shouting, and neglect. A member might also feel obligated to constantly accept negative treatment to the extent where they normalize these unhealthy patterns of behavior. Moreover, there is no safe space for any member to express their thoughts and feelings freely.

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Patterns of a dysfunctional family

A variety of patterns can occur in dysfunctional families. For instance, one sign of dysfunctional families is if one or both parents expressed compulsive behaviors, such as gambling or overworking. This type of behaviors can lead to significant difficulties for the rest of the family members. Another pattern can be violence imposed by one or both parents onto each other and onto their children. This violence can be limited to threatening verbal abuse and it can also escalate to physical abuse.

In addition, on one end of the spectrum, there is parental neglect playing as a factor in the dysfunction whether it was emotional, physical, or even financial. While on the extreme other end of the spectrum, there is the overly controlling parenting where parents who view their children as ‘possessions’ instead of separate and free human entities. In these cases, the children are treated in a way to please the parents by being means of fulfilment for their parents’ personal needs and satisfaction. It is an extremely unhealthy relationship when children are not given their autonomy and are not given the chance to exert control of their own lives.

How does it affect the children?

When these patterns become the norm in family interactions, that is when the label ‘dysfunction’ sets in. The effects of these patterns on children are significantly detrimental and can highly impair their functioning whether presently or in their future adult relationships. Several studies have shown some of the damaging effects on the children can be displayed as follows:

• Having to take sides in parental conflicts
• Rejection or favouritism
• Rigid control on who their friends are
• Rigid control on how they dress
• Ridiculed or being ignored when sharing thoughts and feelings
• Verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse
• Constant feeling of having to be the adult in situations
• Causing a ‘distorted reality’ for the children because parents have no consistency between their words and actions

How to fix it?

Family therapy is one of the better options available to seek if a family has been experiencing any dysfunctional patterns. Research has shown that family therapy has been proven to be extremely effective in helping family members learn how to communicate, to empathize, and to solve conflicts in healthy manners. Furthermore, it has shown to be successful in directing families towards building a whole support system for each other.


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