What is a Dysfunctional Family and How Does It Affect Children?

November 24, 2018
A dysfunctional family is a family that fails its responsibilities to support and nurture. Unfortunately, this can have lasting effects on children.

“Dysfunctional” means that something fails to work properly or is unable to complete its function. When this term applies to a family, it refers exactly to that: a dysfunctional family is a family that fails its responsibilities.

A family is much more than the sum of its individuals. It’s a dynamic and flexible system of interrelations between its members that work to cover their material, social, cultural, spiritual and emotional needs.

In a functional family, all of these needs are met. If there are conflicts or crisis, the family members work together and support each other to find solutions.

In a dysfunctional family, however, the situation is the complete opposite.

How Does a Family become Dysfunctional?

In a dysfunctional family, we might find more than one of these situations.

In any case, any one of them is a warning sign to families that think they’re “functional”. If a family shows a sign, family therapy might be beneficial.

Also see: 6 Mistakes That Destroy Family Relationships

Emotional Dependence and Manipulation

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Emotional dependence limits personal growth and development.

When parents overprotect their children, they become insecure and dependent on their kids. Some parents are so immature that their own children end up controlling and manipulating them.

Unfortunately, the opposite case is also true.


In these cases, one of the parents or family exercises complete control and authority while the rest of the family is controlled.

There is physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse.

In many cases, the other parent and children deny that there’s abuse. Unfortunately, they may simply consider the violence to be normal.

Strict or Permissive Parenting

In this case, the limits regarding family life may be too strict, restricting all expression of personal differences.

On the other hand, they may be too relaxed. The latter results in the lack of respect and the children fail to feel like they belong to a healthy family hierarchy.

Communication Problems

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In this case, the children don’t feel comfortable expressing what they feel or think. They repress or speak indirectly, which creates more problems.

The children may also act defensively. In many cases, they may be afraid of talking about home life.

We recommend that you read: 5 Children’s Books Your Child Should Read Before They Turn 6

Lack of Empathy

The failure to meet the basic needs of acceptance and care results in family members that fail to empathize with each other.

In these families, there’s no tolerance and the members blame each other. Children are, and feel, rejected or are treated unfairly.

Gender Biases

In this case, parents show preference to the children of a certain gender. They assign too many chores or deny education the children of the other gender.

Sometimes, parents impose their sexual orientation on their children regardless of their children’s preferences.

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There are constant conflicts between the parents, regardless of if they’re separated or still together.

In many cases, 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.

The parents don’t provide the children with opportunities to create friendships with other children.


The parents are often away because of work or other addictions (alcohol, drugs, gambling). There’s no family time.

Excessive Responsibilities

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

How can Being in a Dysfunctional Family Affect Children?

Children can develop some of these behaviors as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family:

  • They’re rebellious. Children may learn to oppose any kind of authority, whether it’s that of the parents, teachers, or police.
  • Having received all the blame for family problems, the children develop a deep sense of guilt. As a result, they often become the victims in other relationships.
  • Children may take on a parental role, growing up too quickly and losing their childhood.
  • The children become shy and quiet. They learn to hide and repress their emotions. In addition, they have a damaged self-esteem.
  • The children learn to take advantage of others and become manipulative. They use others’ weaknesses to get what they want.

Is this Irreversible?

Without a doubt, family determines children’s futures. Their first 6 years are crucial.

However, it’s also true that any child can decide to be a different kind of adult despite what he or she lived through as a part of a dysfunctional family.

The strongest proof of that children who come from functional families sometimes still turn into adults with behavior problems. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we might see a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family who grows into an empathetic, communicative adult with strong and happy relationships.

Every person can turn around even the worst situations. By being resilient, people can overcome childhood traumas and become happy adults.

  • Herrera Santí, Patricia María. “La familia funcional y disfuncional, un indicador de salud.” Revista cubana de medicina general integral 13.6 (1997): 591-595.
  • 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.