dysfunctional family

Do you think that you might have grown up in a dysfunctional family system?

What actually “counts” as dysfunction? While there are some characteristics that might seem obvious (like addiction or abuse) there are other markers for dysfunction that have become so normalized within our society that they can render dysfunction nearly invisible. I am all about helping you raise your awareness and increase your self-knowledge so that you can recognize and heal from any dysfunctional experiences and avoid repeating them in your adult relationships.

That’s why in today’s episode, I’m pulling back the curtain on traits of dysfunctional family systems so that you can learn more about how your upbringing might be negatively impacting you today… from the way you parent your own kids to how worthy you feel of being authentically loved…and we will hit what you can do to start to heal from any lingering wounds from the past.  

From the time we are very young, we are constantly getting signals and information within our family culture about what’s expected of us and how to behave (or not). This sets the foundation for our belief systems around love, relationships, parenting, self-worth and self-esteem, conflict resolution, communication…the list goes on.

A healthy organization of the family system fosters age-appropriate, loving interdependency. In general, an unhealthy or dysfunctional family system can produce the opposite- things like codependency, isolation, trust issues, inappropriate role-reversal (like a child acting as a parent), ineffective communication and disordered boundaries.                                                                                                                                                        

The Common Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family

  1. Abuse

There are many different kinds of abuse that can show up in a family system, but a general definition of abuse would be: an individual asserting their power to dominate or punish another for what the abuser would consider unwanted behavior. It can be physical, emotional, or psychological.

This unhealthy power dynamic can show up just between spouses in a family, resulting in secondary trauma for the children who are witness to it. It can also occur between siblings even if there is no violence between the parents or between the parents and the children.

It’s important to recognize the ways abuse could be normalized or justified with comments like, “My parents hit me, and I’m fine” or, “My brother used to torture me…but that’s how all siblings are.” No, it really isn’t.

Now, as an adult, it is essential for you to raise your awareness about how these experiences that you may have deemed normal, impacted you. As Christine Langley-Albaugh asserts, “We repeat what we do not repair,” and in order to repair it you have to know what it is.

  1. Addiction

Any addiction within a family system creates dysfunction for everyone. According to American Addiction Centers, at least 45% of the US population has been exposed to some kind of alcoholism or alcoholic behavior. It could be drugs, alcohol, a combination of both. There are also less obvious type addictions, like workaholism, debting, and sex addiction to name a few.

Children of addicts are often parentified, assuming the role of the parent at a young age and essentially being robbed of their childhood. Other by-products of addiction within families could be communication issues, trust issues, and financial problems. There are many different ways addiction causes chaos.

Next week, I will be talking about the common family roles in an addicted family system, so if this resonates with you, be sure to join me next week for part two of this series.

  1. Perfectionism

This is a trait that is revered in our society, and while it might not be as obvious as abuse or addiction, growing up in a perfectionistic system can have a lasting negative impact.

Having unrealistically high standards for kids does not necessarily produce elevated success. Kids in this system simply feel like they can never meet the standard, so even being very successful does not feel good because the main message in the perfectionistic system is, you could have done better or more and you are really only as good as your last big accomplishment.

The conditional nature of perfectionism can lead children to suffer from self-image issues and self-esteem problems. One of the most damaging parts of this system for the child is that when they fail or make a mistake they do not feel like they can go to their parents for comfort.

In healthy family systems, when a kid does something irresponsible or dangerous, there’s space for a parent to say, “I am disappointed that you made that choice, but I still love you.” In perfectionist systems, it’s more likely the child will hear “What’s wrong with you?”

Perfectionism in a family system impedes intimacy and again, that can translate to a lifetime of repercussions.

  1. Lack of Intimacy and Codependency

Real intimacy is the ability to be your most open and authentic self with another. In dysfunctional family systems, sometimes codependency can be confused with intimacy.

In a functional family, there exists an appropriate hierarchy with the parent teaching and guiding the child to ultimately be able to be on their own. The goal is for children to become self-sufficient, thriving adults.

Codependency, by contrast, even though it can feel like closeness, is characterized by a parent(s) wanting to remain the center of their child’s world. The parent relies in a dysfunctional way upon their adult child to continue to satisfy their needs and wants and might still want to control things like they did when their children were actually children.

What ends up happening is resentment, guilt and heavy feelings of obligation for the adult child. Those emotions create distance, not closeness.

  1. Poor Communication

Ineffective or poor communication is in almost every family…it’s one of the most common traits of dysfunction that I see. The conflict here usually stems from not knowing how to communicate effectively with words.

If you were not allowed or encouraged to express yourself unless you learned to from someone else, you may still struggle with how to speak your truth and be seen, heard and known now.

Dysfunctional communication patterns have a tendency to show up in current relationships. In the cheat sheet, I’m sharing an exercise that you can use to start to recognize and liberate yourself from unhealthy communication patterns, so be sure to download it right here.

  1. Lack of Boundaries

Simply put, a healthy boundary is an ability for you to express what is ok with you and what isn’t ok with you. In psychology, we talk about family systems in terms of open or closed systems, and that has everything to do with the kinds of boundaries that are in place.

In a closed system, there’s not a lot of people outside of the family that can come in. It’s sort of an “us against the world” mentality. What I’ve found is that often in a closed system, there are little to no boundaries within the system, but there’s a big boundary to the outside world.

Closed family systems can be secretive and distrust authority. Within this kind of dysfunctional system, there are often blurred boundaries between members, because parents may act like the child is an extension of themselves. If you had little privacy for example, your parents monitoring your phone calls, reading your diary or going through your things, you learned that you don’t have a right to create boundaries which can make it challenging to know how to create healthy boundaries in adult relationships.

  1. Conditional Love

In manipulative, perfectionistic or narcissistic family systems, conditional love can come into play. Conditional love is just what it sounds like: there are conditions that must be fulfilled or expectations that must be met in order for a child to get love and this can extend into adulthood.

When someone is only nice or loving to you when they want something from you or when you perform to their satisfaction, you can feel manipulated and unworthy. These feelings of resentment can become blocks to achieving healthy love and intimacy. I’ve done several episodes on narcissistic parents, so if this feels like you, I have included those additional resources for you in the cheat sheet and you can download that right here.

  1. A Fear-Based Home

What creates a fear-based home? This dysfunctional system trait includes constant unpredictability and a feeling of never knowing what to expect and can often go hand in hand with abuse, mental illness or addiction.

If you’re in an abusive or addictive home, you don’t know if it’s going to be the good parent or the bad parent when you get home. This can create hyper-vigilance to stay safe, which is exhausting. A child who grew up in a fear-based home may experience long periods of their fight or flight reflexes activated, which pours cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that are extremely taxing on your physical and mental health.

In my experience, a lot of empaths grow up in a fear-based home, because when you’re in that situation as a child, you become incredibly skilled at reading other people’s feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s because if you are in that system, you just want to get out of the way and so you will overextend yourself to get that person whatever they need so there isn’t a conflict.

I created a downloadable little cheat sheet for you with all of these traits and symptoms, so that you can do a self-inventory to identify anything could be negatively impacting your life right now.

Know that this work is deep and brave and that the only reason I ever want you to go back in time is not to re-live any pain from the past, but to empower yourself to transcend it. When you can identify problematic childhood experiences, you can then connect the dots forward to what might be happening in your life right now so you know where to put your time, energy and attention.

And listen…most people have some kind of dysfunction. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it IS something to be aware of.

I’d love to hear what you think about this and if this was helpful for you. If it was, I hope that you will share it on your social media platforms and with the people in your life you think it may help.

This week is part one of a 2-part series I’m doing on dysfunctional family systems, and next week I’ll be covering specific family roles in addicted and chaotic systems, so make sure to tune in next week!

Thank you for watching, reading, listening and sharing. I hope you have an amazing week diving deep into you and as always, take care of you.

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  1. This article and the you tube video have given me a lot of aha moments today. My family of origin was kind of disfunctional but the one I created with my husband of 30 years is disfunctional. We have gone through the whole addiction codependent thing and gone to marriage counseling where I wound up going by myself. Now have adult children trying to figure out a way to have a relationship with their dad and stay close to me… Anyway I found some missing pieces and validation here that is very meaningful. Thank you!

    1. I am so glad to hear it resonated for you and that you are finding the missing pieces. Thank you for being here and sharing!

  2. This is very helpful. I lived in a fear base relationship with my mom and she loves me at times conditionally. I went silent with our relationship. Not out of disrespect but out of protection for myself at the age of 61 to move forward and have a healthy relationship with myself, my two adult children and anyone else that I come in contact with. I don’t want to walk around with the baggage anymore.

    Having to deal her, constantly brings up my childhood and horrific memories.
    She was very jealous of me and she still is. She is very threatening both physically and mentally abusive. My dad has since passed who has loved me unconditionally. Since his passing the family is now divided thanks to her.
    I cannot turn back time but I can make a better future.

    Thank you Terri… Much love

    1. Thank you for bravely sharing your story here. I am witnessing you with compassion. You deserve a healthy life, and you matter. I’m sending you strength, mama.

  3. Hi terri!

    I can relate to your story. Espicialy the part to overextend yourself to avoid conflict. Also no boundaries. I am in therapy also and it made me realise I have a big avoidence strategy in life. I grew up with a difficult little sister, a workahollic dad and a mom that was to much for her. My parents did not go together well. And I tried to make the situation better by keeping the peace, acting like a mom, and believed thats what I had to do. I was angry for a long time at my parents, cauz I was dealing with the negatie self talk that developed because of that. After being angry I didn’t want to be angry anymore cauz its not moving forward but forgive them and try to understand them, and accept there is no percfect answer. We were all hurting and it sucked , and they tried their best. Also I was mad that I didn’t have a perfect childhood in where all of this wouldn’t has happened. But they are flawed and not perfect like everybody. They know they fell short during my chidhood and they regret it. but still I was mad. At the time I was thinking this is not good enough for me. but there intentions where not evil, they did the best they could at that time and made a lot of mistakes. I accept that now. Also I didn’t want to live in the past anymore but NOW. but it was a process and you have to keep going, and go with the motions. I explain my boundaries to them and other people. I am not longing for that toxic love anymore becauze i feel it wasnt’true. ( it was all about the other person) I you want to move on, some things had to change and also my idea of love ( if I do everything right, people will love me) which is i think an avoidence strategy of not dealing with the current sitation and or emotions. A strategy I used to protect myself, which is not bad, i don’t blame myself (anymore) I felt al the time there was something wrong with me, but it was actually me so in the habit of avoiding i couldnt see what was happening to me, and still doing to myself. I still don’t have a clear picture but I see and understand myself a little better now. Because before I wanted the perfect conditions to move forward, or fix myself, but step by step is better. (man o man Patience was important here still is, but I am better at it now haha) I think it’s a way of keeping control, if things don’t go the way I wanted to or expected to. So I didn’t get disappointed or stressed or ashamed etc. But I learned you can’t fix a problem with the same tools /mindset that created it

    This created a life for me that is not flowing, llke the feeling of feeling stuck and not going as forward as I think I could go. Sometimes I wanted to give up. Sometimes I did but always temporarilly. I don’t want to talk like I am at the other end of the tunnel, because I don’t believe in that, but I do feel I am one step closer to myself, and understand myself better which for me was/is my goal. So to who ever reading this, don’t give up, continue, yes it’s scary! for me to experiment was interesting to see what happends. people like teri cole help me understand or I just like to listen, it gave me a sense of “see there is something else in the world out there instead of feeling stuck and alone and used”. also mindfullness and meditation help me a lot. Hope my story can get somebody else some clarity or a feeling of not being alone. #real love revolution ( I am not a native English speaker, so grammer mistakes be aware)! (L)

    1. I am witnessing your profound reflections and your journey. You are not alone in your experiences, and it is inspiring to see how you found healing. And yes, patience is very important!! Thank you for being here and for sharing.

  4. This was so powerful. I tried to be the perfect parent – but see I caused some issues and now explains why oldest daughter wants distance. it hurts, but being aware and stepping back might help. Plus I have apologized. Not sure what else I can do?

    1. Thank you for being here! It sounds like you see how respecting her wishes could help the situation. What are you doing to resolve the issues from the past? No one is perfect because we are all human. We are all just doing our best, and sometimes that causes issues. I’m witnessing your situation with compassion.

  5. Yes, I come from a dysfunctional family. I am an only child, and spent most of my childhood comforting my mother from her lack of attention from my father. My father had a gambling addiction and ceased to provide the basics of my development, food, medical attention, emotional support. I was the scapegoat. This burden manifested itself in childhood illnesses, childhood depression well into my twenties and educational setbacks, i.e. I missed 97 sessions of first grade, and I would have been left behind if it wasn’t for my best friend bringing my homework to me every day in order for me to complete my assignments. In high school, I repeated my junior year because I couldn’t function responsibly. I did graduate with a high school diploma. My work life was frought with being fired due to lack of social skills and my inability to take orders from authority figures which stemmed from twelve years of a Catholic education being stifled by nuns. Today, I am 71 and through God’s grace have risen above those early disappointments. The dysfunction continues to manifest when in an intimate relationship with my second husband. I am his third wife. His dysfunction stems from being one of ten children and his mother left them when my husband was seven. His upbringing included being passed around from one relative to the next, never having a sense of security which led to a drug addiction at 16. He was set free from this addiction at nineteen. Today, however, his cross is alcoholism, which he has yet to admit to himself and causes pain for the entire family. I am co-dependent with him as neither one of us can accept the fact our marriage is in trouble. I can accept it, and I am enabling him in his addiction because I can’t bring myself to abandon him as his Mother did. Whew, I could write a book on how being raised in a dysfunctional environment creeps into every aspect of our lives. Thank you, Terri for shedding light on this subject.

    1. Thank you for sharing this here with us. I’m witnessing you with compassion and wishing you strength in your situation.

  6. Lovely Terri, shout out from scandinavia, I am a 46 years old woman and this hits home for me on a lot of points. I come from a fearbased family system and has spent most of my adult life being tired. I will defenately be in on next week. Thank you so much, Terri, for making this available – most of us know that something is askew,,,but hearing some one give ‘it’ names – makes it easier to actually acess and work with, care for.

    Best wishes

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