Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family

In an ideal world, your family members would be your staunchest supporters – people you could count on to be in your corner through thick and thin. Unfortunately, for many of us, that isn’t the case. Family dysfunction is a prevalent problem that creates a shaky foundation for relationships. However, if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you might not recognize the hallmarks of this environment.

The American Psychological Association defines a dysfunctional family as one in which “relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression.” A family is dysfunctional if they regularly meet these criteria in their interactions.


Members of dysfunctional families find it challenging to listen to each other and express their feelings in a healthy way. Dysfunctional family members may not reach out to each other often, and in extreme cases, they don’t talk at all. Some families may primarily express themselves by starting arguments or giving each other silent treatment. Indirect, unkind, and one-sided interactions are common characteristics of dysfunctional families.


Healthy boundaries help define relationships and foster trust. A lack of boundaries creates fertile ground for issues like codependency and enabling to take root and thrive. When family members don’t agree on what behaviors are acceptable, take opportunities to speak up for themselves, and ask others to respect their values, it’s a warning sign of family dysfunction.


One of the most prevalent characteristics of a dysfunctional family is addiction on the part of one or more of its members. Often, addiction takes the form of substance abuse, but people can also form addictions to activities like gambling and sex. Self-destructive behavior usually manifests itself in communications breakdowns between family members. It may also create financial hardships and debt. Though adult family members are more likely to experience addiction, substance abuse can happen at a younger age as well.


Another hallmark characteristic of dysfunctional families is controlled. This phenomenon is when one family member exerts their will on some or all the other family members, and it usually happens between spouses or from parent to child. For example, a husband may forbid his wife from spending time with friends, or a parent might refuse their teenager’s desire to start dating. Control usually results in emotional stunting and may make people feel as if they can’t be assertive or live independently. Control may be overt, or it could be subtle, causing people to feel guilty for defying set rules.


If your family has any of these characteristics of dysfunction, dealing with it will require a customized response depending on your specific situation. Steps you might need to take include avoiding family events, severing ties with some or all family members, and setting appropriate boundaries that help protect your well-being. For those who are willing, family support and counseling, paired with individual therapy, may be helpful tools in better understanding your family’s unique dynamic.

At BRC Recovery Services, we know the steps you take after completing a qualified addiction treatment program are essential to long-term recovery. That’s why our aftercare services include a full complement of relapse prevention tools and training. Contact us when you’re ready to learn more.