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10 Unhealthy Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family

Michele Meleen
Reviewed by Marriage and Family Therapist Gabrielle Applebury
parents arguing during lunch time

The characteristics of a dysfunctional family vary from family to family, but unhealthy families may exhibit one or more of these common characteristics. When left unexamined and unresolved, these family traits can pass from generation to generation. Discover what makes a family dysfunctional to ensure your family exhibits healthy behaviors.

Definition of Dysfunctional Family

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a dysfunctional family is professionally defined as "a family in which relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression." A family is considered dysfunctional if they meet these criteria on a regular basis, as a standard part of their life together.

Common Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family

For each trait of a dysfunctional family, there is a sort of sliding scale where the families at either end of the spectrum experience the extreme, which is unhealthy.

Poor or Ineffective Communication

Members of dysfunctional families have a hard time listening to each other and expressing feelings in appropriate ways. Dysfunctional family members may not talk to each other at all or don't talk often. In other cases, family members may yell a lot. Communication that is indirect, unkind, and one-sided is common in unhealthy families.

Family Member Comparisons

Parents who expect all their kids to follow the same life path create issues when they compare each child to another in the family. Phrases like "Why can't you be more like Johnny?" are an example of these comparisons. These comparisons can be blatant, like having more pictures of one child hung around the house, or subtle, like comparison comments.

Power Struggles

When one family member tries to control all others or multiple family members vie for control, this creates dysfunction. Those who feel controlled may subsequently experience self-esteem issues, symptoms of depression, anxiety, as well as trauma related disorders, and have difficulty regulating their own emotions. Those struggling to achieve power and control may do so by violent, unpredictable, and/or chaotic means. When power is not balanced within a family, it can lead to an unstable household.

Excessive Criticism

Excessive criticism is considered a form of verbal abuse. Criticism can be subtle, such as constant teasing about looks or behaviors, or it can include direct comments meant as put-downs. Relentless criticism can lead to a negative self-image and stunt healthy emotional development.

Mother criticizing daughter

Unpredictable Interactions

Not knowing whether you'll have breakfast today or wondering whether Dad will come home and start fighting with everyone can cause a lot of emotional trauma for kids when they are young and as they grow. Children who grow up in unpredictable environments may eventually perpetuate this pattern in adulthood by unconsciously being drawn to partners and friends who help perpetuate their childhood experience of chaos.

Conditions for Care

Unconditional love may not be present in some dysfunctional families. For example, a mother may only show love towards her kids when they do things for her or get straight As. When a family member puts conditions on when they will love others, it can lead to an unhealthy self-esteem, feeling unlovable, having symptoms of anxiety, depression, and trauma-related disorders, as well as experiencing difficulty with trust.

Little to No Intimacy

Intimacy within a relationship means having a deep, meaningful, and mutually trusting connection with another person. In families with dysfunctional traits, unhealthy relationship structures, such as co-dependent and parentified parent-child relationships, may be mistaken for true intimacy. Intimacy issues within one's family of origin can drastically impact your experience of closeness, trust, and respect within non-familial relationships.

Drug or Alcohol Abuse

Those who have experienced previous or ongoing trauma are more likely to use drugs and/or alcohol. A parent or caregiver who is actively using is unable to create a safe, loving, and stable environment for their family. If multiple people in a household are using, a family may experience higher levels of instability within their family system. Drug and alcohol use is a complex issue often steeped in childhood rejection, traumatic experiences, and unhealthy parent-child attachment, and is likely to be perpetuated as an ongoing family pattern.

Lack of Empathy

In families with dysfunctional traits, many, and sometimes all members, have a difficult time with insight. Without insight into your own behavior, cultivating empathy for another person is extremely challenging. When empathy is lacking, other family members may feel misunderstood, bull-dozed, rejected, and criticized for having genuine feelings or reactions to a situation. Someone must feel understood for trust and closeness to be present.

Excessive Expectations

Excessive expectations, or perfectionism, is when a family member's expectations of you are wildly unrealistic or put intense demands on you. When you don't meet those expectations, you could be made to feel guilty, criticized, and even punished. This can lead to a negative self-image and feelings of worthlessness.

Causes of Family Dysfunction

Feeling like your family hates you or feeling like you hate your family can contribute to the family dysfunction. There are often many factors that contribute to causing family dysfunction, including:

  • Abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Behavior issues
  • Chronic illness
  • Financial problems
  • Individual internal struggles
  • Lack of support or resources
  • Unhealthy attachment patterns
  • Unhealthy parenting patterns
  • Untreated mental health issues

How to Deal With a Dysfunctional Family

Learning how to deal with a dysfunctional family is a unique process that requires tailoring interactions to your specific situation. This may include avoiding certain family events, cutting ties with some or all family members, and setting appropriate boundaries that help protect your well-being. For those who are willing, family therapy as well as individual therapy may be helpful tools in better understanding your family's unique interactional patterns and cycles.

How Dysfunctional Families Function

Families with dysfunctional patterns typically have a long history of perpetuating unhealthy, and often unconscious cycles of interaction. Better understanding your unique family can give you insight into your role within the family system.

10 Unhealthy Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family