Dysfunctional Families and How They Affect Children

Dysfunctional families are those that are unable to provide everything children need to grow up happy and healthy (both physically and emotionally). In this article, we talk about their characteristics.
Dysfunctional Families and How They Affect Children

Written by Thady Carabaño

Last update: 20 July, 2022

Dysfunctional means that something fails to work properly or is unable to do what it’s meant to do. When this term applies to families, it means the same: families that don’t function properly.

Families are much more than the sum of their individuals. They’re dynamic and flexible systems of interrelations between their members. These members all work together to meet the material, social, cultural, spiritual, and emotional needs of each individual.

In functional families, all of these needs are met. If there are conflicts or crises, family members work together and support each other to find solutions, help each other grow and, in simple terms, be happy. However, in dysfunctional families, the opposite occurs.

How does a family become dysfunctional?

In dysfunctional families, there might be more than one of the following situations. The presence of any one of them could act as a warning sign to families who mistakenly think they’re ‘functional’, thus highlighting the need for them to attend family therapy.

Emotional dependence and manipulation

Emotional dependence, both in situations of abuse and in normal situations, limits personal growth and development, as stated in this study conducted by the National University of San Marcos (USA). When parents are overprotective of their children, they instill feelings of insecurity and dependence in them. On the other hand, some parents are so immature that their own children end up controlling and manipulating them.

Family abuse

One of the parents exercises complete, authoritarian power and the rest of the family accepts it. There’s also physical, verbal, or sexual abuse. In many cases, the other parent and children deny its existence. Furthermore, the children often simply consider this abuse to be normal.

Authoritarian or permissive parenting

The rules which govern family life may be too strict, which means children can’t express themselves. On the other hand, they may be too relaxed, and there’s no respect and no boundaries, as confirmed in this study conducted by Saint Thomas University (Colombia). Consequently, children don’t feel like they belong to a family at all.

Communication problems

dysfunctional family

Children in dysfunctional families don’t feel comfortable expressing what they feel or think. They repress their feelings or speak indirectly, which creates more problems. They may also develop defensive behavior and even be afraid of talking to anyone else about their home life.

Lack of empathy

The failure to meet the basic needs of acceptance and care results in family members failing to empathize with one another. There’s no tolerance and the members blame each other. Children are rejected and thus feel (rightly so) as if they’re being treated unfairly.

Gender biases

Parents show preference to children of a certain gender. They give too many chores or deny education to those of the other gender. Sometimes, they even impose their sexual orientation on their children regardless of the children’s own preferences.

Inappropriate behavior

dysfunctional family

Humiliation, contempt, and lack of respect are accepted traits in dysfunctional families. In the same way, they also accept behavior such as adultery, promiscuity, and/or incest as normal.

According to this study conducted by CES University (Colombia), growing up in a functional family can prevent children from becoming school bullies, as it gives them healthy, effective strategies for dealing with their problems.


There’s constant conflict between the parents, regardless of whether they’re separated or still together. In fact, in many cases, the conflict between parents interferes with their ability to look after their children.


Children don’t spend time with their extended family (grandparents, uncles, cousins), nor with other families that have children of similar ages or gender.

Furthermore, the parents don’t provide their children with opportunities to create friendships with other children, according to this study conducted by the University of Barcelona (Spain). In addition, they may feel a pathological need to isolate the children from others. For instance, they lie to them to trick and deceive them about their health or undermine their self-esteem.


The parents are often away, due to long work hours or addictions like alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Consequently, there’s no quality family time in which they can do things together.

Excessive responsibilities

dysfunctional family

Children are forced to take on responsibilities that are well beyond their age. This may include forced labor or taking care of younger siblings, despite only being young themselves.

How dysfunctional families affect children

Children may develop some of these behaviors as a result of growing up in dysfunctional families:

  • They’re rebellious. They oppose any kind of authority, whether it’s from parents, teachers, or the police.
  • Being blamed for many family problems means the children develop a deep sense of guilt. As a result, they often become victims in their other relationships.
  • They may take on a parental role. This means they grow up too quickly and lose their childhood.
  • They’re shy and quiet as they’ve learned to hide and repress their emotions. Their self-esteem may also be damaged.
  • They’re opportunistic and manipulative. In fact, they use others’ weaknesses to get what they want.

Is the damage irreversible?

Without a doubt, the family determines children’s futures. Indeed, a child’s first six years of life are crucial in this sense. However, it’s also true that any child can make the decision to be a different kind of adult whether or not they grew up in a dysfunctional family.

In fact, there’s clear evidence that some children who grow up in functional families turn into adults with behavioral problems. Just as, at the other end of the scale, there are children who grow up in dysfunctional families who turn out to be empathetic and communicative adults with strong and happy relationships.

Everyone is capable of recovering from the worst kinds of situations. By being resilient, they can overcome childhood traumas and become happy adults.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Gamboa Correa, J. W. (2021). La comunicación y la afectividad, en el marco de la funcionalidad o disfuncionalidad familiar. http://repositorio.utmachala.edu.ec/handle/48000/16800
  • Herrera Santí, Patricia María. (1997). “La familia funcional y disfuncional, un indicador de salud.” Revista cubana de medicina general integral 13.6 (1997): 591-595.
  • López, M. E. A., & Acosta, J. M. Z. (2021). Familia disfuncional y el deterioro de la salud psicoemocional. Dominio de las Ciencias, 7(4), 731-745. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=8383941
  • López Mero, P., Barreto Pico, A., Mendoza Rodríguez, E. R., del Salto Bello, M. W., & Alberto. (2015). Bajo rendimiento académico en estudiantes y disfuncionalidad familiar. Medisan.
  • Sebastián Méndez. (2011). ¿Qué es una familia disfuncional? :: Definición de familia disfuncional :: Concepto de familia disfuncional.
  • Villacís Campoverde, I. C. (2021). Funcionalidad o disfuncionalidad desde la perspectiva sistémica a través del análisis de la escala de percepción del funcionamiento familiar. http://repositorio.utmachala.edu.ec/bitstream/48000/16896/1/ECFCS-2021-PSC-DE00048.pdf

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.