Understanding Dysfunctional Relationship Patterns in Your Family

Types of Dysfunctional Families

The following are some examples of patterns that frequently occur in dysfunctional families.

  • One or both parents have addictions or compulsions (e.g. drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, overworking, and/or overeating) that may have strong influence on family members.
  • One or both parents use the threat or application of physical violence as primary means of control. Children may have to witness violence, may be forced to participate in punishing, siblings, or may live in fear of explosive outbursts.
  • One or both parents exploit the children and treat them as possessions whose primary purpose is to respond to the physical and/or emotional needs of adults (e.g. protecting a parent or cheering up one who is depressed).
  • One or both parents are unable to provide, or threaten to withdraw, financial or basic physical care for their children. Similarly, one or both parents fail to provide their children with adequate emotional support.
  • One or both parents exert strong authoritarian control over the children. Often these families rigidly adhere to a particular belief (religious, political, financial, and personal) Compliance with role expectations and rules is expected without any flexibility

There is a great deal of variability how often dysfunction interactions and behavior occur in families and in the kinds of severity of their dysfunction. However when patterns like the above are rather than the exception they systematically foster abuse and/ or neglect.

Children may:

  • Be forced to take sides in conflicts between parents.
  • Experience "reality shifting" in which what is said contradicts what is actually happening (e.g. a parent may deny something happened that the child actually observed, for example when a parent describes a disastrous holiday dinner as a good time).
  • Be ignored, discounted, or criticized for their feelings and thoughts.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately intrusive, overly involved, and protective.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately distant and uninvolved with their children
  • Have excessive structure and demands placed on their time, choice of friends, or behavior; or conversely, receive no guidelines or structure.
  • Experience rejection or preferential treatment.
  • Be restricted from full or direct communication with other family members.
  • Be allowed or encouraged to use drugs and alcohol
  • Be locked out of the house
  • Be slapped, hit, scratched, punched or kicked.

Making Changes

Sometimes we continue in our roles because we are waiting for our parents to give us permission to change. But that permission can come only from you. Like most people patterns in dysfunctional families often feel threatened by changes in their children.

As a result, they may thwart your efforts to change and insist that you "change back." That's why it's so important for you to trust your own perceptions and feelings. Change begins with you. Some specific things you can do include:

  • Make a list of our behaviors, beliefs, etc. that you would like to change.
  • Next to each item on the list write down the behavior, belief, ect. that you would like to do/have instead
  • Pick one item on your list and beginning practicing the alternate behavior or belief. Choose the easiest item first
  • Once you are able to do the alternate behavior more often than the original pick another item on the list and practice changing it to.
  • In addition to working on your own, you might find it helpful to work with a group of people with similar experiences and /or with a professional counselor.

Special Considerations

As you make changes, keep in mind the following:

  • Stop trying to be perfect. In addition, don't try to make your family perfect.
  • Realize that you are not in control of other people's lives. You do not have the power to make others change.
  • Don't try to win the old struggles you can't win.
  • Set clear limits-e.g. if you do not plan on visitng your parents for the holiday, say "no", not "maybe."
  • Identify what you would like to have happen. Recognize when you stop behaving the way you used to, even for a short time, there may be adverse reactions from your family or friends. Anticipate what the reactions will be (e.g. tears, yelling, other intimidating responses) and decide how you will respond.