Dysfunctional Families

The role of the family and/or primary caregiver influence an individual’s development.  If you come from a family system organized around conflict, alcoholism/addiction, mental illness, illegal behavior or child neglect/abuse on a regular basis, you most likely adapted to those behaviors and, for you, dysfunction is the norm. Understanding how dysfunctional family system patterns have impacted you allows you to identify and change unhealthy behaviors and choices you have carried into your adult life.  

By the time you reach adulthood, you may have total command of your low self-esteem, lack the ability to trust, have unhealthy boundaries, struggle with intimacy, jealousy, and have an increased tolerance for unacceptable behavior of others.  To further complicate things, you may be coping with these issues by feeding your own addictions and impulsive behaviors.  To guard against exposure, you tell lies, avoid conflict, fear abandonment, and set your own needs aside in service to the needs of others. 

I’ve read varying estimates ranging from 40 to 80 percent of individuals come from dysfunctional families than healthy families. Clearly, normal has little to do with being emotionally healthy. You are not alone. But, gaining new perspective about the dysfunction empowers you with choice.  Understanding how you adapted to the environment to create safety and how those same coping strategies are no longer effective in your adult life, frees you from the prison of shame and allows you to stand in your own light. 

Family Rules

Each family system has rules for living.  There are rules about celebrating and socializing, rules about touching and sexuality, rules about sickness and proper health care, rules about vacations and vocations, rules about household maintenances and spending money. Perhaps the most important rules are about feelings, interpersonal communication, and parenting.

Family rules create structure and are most effective when there is consistency, predictability and follow-through.  Healthy family rules are designed for the child to learn and live within the family system.  The shame-based family rules acquired in a dysfunctional family system are needed for self-preservation in the toxic family system. They are not conducive to adults in a normal life. Shame-based family rules include:

  1. Control – one must be in control of all feelings and personal behavior at all times. 
  2. Perfection – always be right and do right.
  3. Blame – when it doesn’t go as planned, point your finger and find blame.
  4. Denial of the 5 Freedoms – deny what “is” and follow perfectionist ideals.
    • Freedom to see/hear what “is” rather than what you “should”;
    • Freedom to say what you feel and think rather than what you “should”;
    • Freedom to feel what you feel instead of what you “ought” to feel;
    • Freedom to ask for what you want, instead of waiting for permission;
    • Freedom to risk on your own behalf rather waiting for assurances.
  5. No-Talk Rule – full expression of feelings, needs, or wants is forbidden.
  6. No Mistakes – cover up mistakes to conceal vulnerability and avoid scrutiny, but shame others for making mistakes.
  7. Unreliability – don’t trust anyone so you will never be disappointed.

Common Characteristics of Adults from Dysfunctional Families

If you have been raised in a family where conflict, alcoholism/addiction, mental illness, illegal behavior or child neglect/abuse were common occurrences more than likely you will relate to some of the characteristics shared by adult children of alcoholics.

1. They guess what is normal?

Adults from dysfunctional families arrived in adulthood perceiving life from the distorted lens of the disorganized family system they grew up in.  Because it is the only “normal” they know, they behave as though they know it better than anyone else, but are never really sure.  They have survived their environments based on instincts and accommodating the shame-based family rules they acquired over the years. However, life delivers them new experiences and, absent the freedom to ask questions or challenge ideas, they are insecure about what is the right way to respond.  They have no frame of reference, continue to conceal vulnerability and are left “guessing” at what is expected. 

2. They have difficulty following projects to completion.

This is not the same as procrastination. They were raised in families where the next job, gift or deal was just around the corner.  It was always “coming”, but never really happened. After a period of time, the promise was forgotten. In functional families, project completion and problem-solving are modeled for children. Typically, disorganization in the family system results in no one taking the time to teach problem-solving or prioritization skills. Lack of knowledge for problem-solving is not the same as procrastination. Further, the individual becomes accustomed to doing several things at once and struggles with pacing themselves and all the tasks in front of them.  This is stressful and exhausting. 

3. They can lie even when it is just as easy to tell the truth.

The original sin of a dysfunctional family is failure to acknowledge there is a problem. From the gate, the individual has to deny the truth.  Referenced above in “family rules”, dysfunctional families are often marked by denial to speak openly about what they see, hear, and feel.  Full expression of feelings, needs, or wants is forbidden, especially to the outsider. The façade they present to the public is seldom entirely true.

The disorganization of the family system creates a climate of unfulfilled promises and outright lies. People raised in these circumstances may recognize the truth, but also struggle to deny it.  Practiced in stretching the truth about their family problems, they applied the practice to other areas of their life; perhaps to embellish their shortcomings and present a more desirable public image. Without realizing it, stretching the truth or lying becomes as easy as telling the truth. 

4. They judge themselves without mercy.

Being raised in a dysfunctional family requires individuals to grow up quickly in order to survive. They are often criticized or scapegoated for things that make no sense. They internalize criticism and develop a toxic, negative self-perception. To counter the internal critic, they set high standards of performance for themselves. They judge others as well, but not nearly as harshly as they judge themselves. When others don’t meet those same standards, they will step in and do the work themselves, because they can do it better. They think in “all-or-nothing” terms, but even when something is deemed to be good, they can be haunted with the notion that it won’t last. 

5. They have difficulty experiencing fun.

Imagine being raised in a family system organized around conflict, alcoholism/addiction, mental illness, illegal behavior or child neglect/abuse on a regular basis. Joyful is not the first description that comes to mind. Problems and chaos are often the center of attention. The idea of fun or play is way down the list of priorities. Fun is not a modeled behavior where they come from.

Individuals from these families often struggle with relaxation. All they know is work and staying busy. They never learned how to play. They don’t take time off to play. They don’t know what to do with the concept of vacation. The antidote for the stress – vacation and relaxation – is often beyond the comprehension of individuals from dysfunctional backgrounds.

6. They take themselves very seriously.

It makes sense that if they judge themselves harshly and have difficulty having fun, adults from dysfunctional families can also take themselves very seriously.  They can be inflexible and impatient. They tend to lack spontaneity. They are disapproving of the playful, animated behaviors of others.

7. They have difficulty with intimate relationships.

Being raised in a setting where behaviors can be unpredictable does not provide the best frame of reference to observe healthy relational interactions. The approach-avoidant message they received was often “I want you – go away”.  At one point their caregiver may have been affectionate, caring and loving. The next time, under identical circumstances, the caregiver may be hostile, abusive and rejecting. They received mixed messages and learned not to trust or fear abandonment.  They lose faith in themselves and feel unlovable. 

They become dependent on someone else telling them they are ok. In an intimate relationship, this creates an imbalance of power. They give their significant other power to build them up or knock them down. They walk on eggshells waiting for approval. The individual from a dysfunctional family is extremely sensitive to abandonment and the slightest disagreement can consume them with fear of rejection. The fear of abandonment can be all-consuming and they try desperately to connect to their partner. The urgency and desperation can cause their significant other to feel smothered and retreat, even though the intent was to connect.  

8. They overreact to changes over which they have no control. 

Disorganized family systems are often poorly managed, therefore, individuals from those families find being in control very important. Survival in a dysfunctional home can depend on taking charge.  To the degree they can, they seek to create order out of chaos. They expect others to be controlled as well.  Change is often difficult for them. They can be irritable and overreact to even simple changes. As a result, they are viewed as control freaks, rigid and lacking in spontaneity. 

9. They constantly seek approval and affirmation.

The messages received in the family during one’s formative years have great influence.  Those messages get internalized and impact the individual’s self-concept.  In families where the messages were mixed or inconsistent, the individual was confused. The message “Yes, no, I love you, go away” is dizzying. The individual does not receive affirmations regularly and comes to interpret that as negative. 

As an adult with poor self-concept, when they do receive an affirmation, they struggle to accept it. In addition, when someone else expresses appreciation or affirmation of the individual, they in turn judge the person as worthless for seeing value in the adult with the poor self-concept. It is a self-defeating pattern.

10. They feel different from other people.

Adults from dysfunctional families feel different than others because they are somewhat different. It was acquired during their formative years. While years, education, and life experiences may have them appear to be like everyone else, the feeling of “different” prevails.

These individuals were always preoccupied with what happening in their homes. Socializing was difficult and they tend to isolate. Failure to practice the social skills made it difficult to relax in social situations. They did not develop the social skills needed to feel comfortable and part of a group. They do not believe they are accepted for who they are. And, they believe that they must earn the acceptance of others. 

11. They are super responsible or super irresponsible.

It is an all-or-nothing proposition for the adult from a dysfunctional family. They will strive to please and do as much as they can to achieve success. They tend to be perfectionistic, compulsive, and need everything in order.  Their families typically did not cooperate to complete tasks, therefore, they did not experience how collaborating with others could  complete a project. They did it all by themselves or they did nothing. 

They also lack limits. They take on more than they should, not due to an inflated sense of self, but because they have no sense of their capacity or saying “no” might expose their true feeling of incompetence. The fear of being found out moves them to work even harder to the point of burn out.

The other extreme, super irresponsible, seems to surface once they realize that, no matter how hard they try, it doesn’t make a difference, so they do nothing. During midlife the super responsible person who suffers burn out or collapses under the weight of their responsibilities, may become super irresponsible. Conversely, the super irresponsible person, being disappointed with their lives, may become super responsible in order to change the their life’s path.

12. They are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. 

Individuals raised in dysfunctional families remain committed to the family even when it seems unreasonable to do so. This sense of loyalty is born out of fear and insecurity more than anything else. This loyalty is transferred to adult relationships. It’s hard enough for these individuals to form relationships. Once they do, it’s forever. When someone cares enough to commit to friendship or intimacy, they feel obligated to hang in there forever. 

Having come from a dysfunctional family, once they have been accepted by others, no matter how poorly they may be treated, the individual will excuse the behavior, find themselves at fault, and preserve the loyalty.

13. They are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. 

Impulsivity is a rather primitive characteristic. Children tend to be impulsive. Being raised in a disorganized or dysfunctional family, these individuals did not have the luxury of childhood. They were often parentified. Childlike impulsive behaviors left unchecked mature into poor self-regulation and failure to anticipate associated consequences. 

They are not deliberately impulsive. It often leads to self-loathing and loss of control. They were raised in families that lived from crisis to crisis. They learned to respond with a sense of urgency. This feeling of urgency becomes “familiar” and they may actually feel more ill-at-ease when things run smoothly.  Being “in crisis” is their familiar state of being, but they don’t relish the time and energy expended on cleaning up after impulsive decisions.


Educating and understanding your relationship to your family dysfunction is empowering, but it may not be enough.  Continuing to navigate your adult life with those same coping strategies is usually ineffective. The solutions to these entrenched behaviors is a personal as the family systems that produced them.  

Unraveling them is a process and it can take some time. You psychotherapist can help you:

  • Identify the maladaptive characteristics in your life.
  • Recognize how they are manifesting in your adult life – what from your past shows up in your current thinking and responses that that you find disturbing?
  • Become mindful of which characteristics are disrupting your life in real time.
  • Identify ambivalence interfering with your ability to take action to change those behaviors and overcome your stuck points.
  • Develop motivation to change your behavior.

I am here to help, if you are interested.  Together we can begin the journey towards healing.

(805) 849-7828

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