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Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson explores the topic of dysfunctional family relationships. Characteristics and examples of dysfunctional families are presented, and functional families are discussed in comparison.

Jamie's Life

Jamie is a typical 10-year old boy in many ways. He likes to play video games, hang out with his friends at the basketball court, and does okay in school. At home, however, Jamie's life leaves much to be desired. His Dad is hardly ever home and when he is, he is always drinking. Jamie's Mom is an angry person, and easily agitated by the smallest things. Just a few nights ago, she broke the controller to Jamie's video game system because he didn't answer her when she called him down to dinner. Jamie locks himself in his room most of the time to get away from his parents' arguing, and he wonders if other families live this way, too.

What is a Dysfunctional Family?

The term 'dysfunctional' refers to something that is not functioning in the way that it should. Going back to Jamie's situation, there is something obviously broken in his family. It is important to note that there is no such thing as a ''perfect'' family. All families experience conflict at one point or another. However, when the conflict is pervasive and interferes with normal functioning, a family is considered dysfunctional. Common characteristics that are found in dysfunctional families include:

  • A lack of routine - dysfunctional families are often found to be unpredictable. It is impossible to predict what may happen in any given situation.
  • Fear - growing up in a dysfunctional family is often marked by a consistent sense of dread and fear. Children who grow up in such families are often fearful of their parents and of their parents' actions.
  • Addiction to drugs or alcohol - substance abuse problems are often found to be an underlying factor to dysfunctional family dynamics.
  • Arguing - there tends to be a lot of disagreement and arguing in dysfunctional families.
  • Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse - members of dysfunctional families are often abused and/or abusive in one or more of these ways.
  • Poor communication - there tends to be a general lack of communication that occurs in families that are dysfunctional.

Children who are neglected, discounted, and/or abused, often grow up to have low self-esteem, addiction problems, and poor relationships due to ineffective communication skills.

Finding Normalcy in a Dysfunctional Family

Many children who grow up in dysfunctional families don't see their families as dysfunctional. They believe that the way their family functions is normal, and unfortunately, many carry this way of functioning into their own families. In order to prevent the perpetuation of dysfunction, it's important that people learn to recognize these issues in their own families. Some of the things that those who grew up in dysfunctional families can do to make positive change include:

  • Recognizing their own negative behaviors and accepting that they need to change
  • Accepting, rather than denying, painful childhood memories
  • Practicing alternatives to negative behaviors
  • Seeking out professional mental health counseling

What is a Functional Family?

As mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a perfect family. Even in a functional family there are going to problems at times. The following are characteristics of a family that is considered functional:

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