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

December 16, 2019
A dysfunctional family is any family that is unable to provide everything the children need to grow up happy and healthy (both physically and emotionally). Discover the traits of a dysfunctional family in this article.

“Dysfunctional” means that something fails to work properly or is unable to complete its function. When this term applies to a family, it means exactly that: a dysfunctional family is a family that doesn’t function as it should.

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

In a functional family, all of these needs are met. If there are conflicts or crises, the family members work together and support each other to find solutions, help each other grow and, in simple terms, be happy. 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 the following situations. The presence of any of these variables can act as a warning sign to families that think they’re “functional”, and may highlight the need to attend family therapy.

Emotional Dependence and Manipulation

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


In these cases, one of the parents has complete, authoritarian power, while the rest of the family accepts their control. There is physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse. In many cases, the other parent and children deny that there’s abuse. Unfortunately, the children may simply consider the violence to be normal.

Strict or Permissive Parenting

In this case, the rules which govern family life may be too strict, restricting all expression of personal differences. On the other hand, they may be too relaxed (as stated in this study by the Saint Thomas University in Colombia). With no respect and no boundaries, the children don’t feel like they belong to a family at all.

Communication Problems

dysfunctional family

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

Gender Biases

In this case, parents show preference to children of a certain gender. They assign too many chores or deny education to the children of the other gender. Sometimes, parents impose their sexual orientation on their children regardless of their children’s own preferences.

Inappropriate behavior

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

According to this study carried out by the CES University in Colombia, growing up in a functional family can prevent children from becoming school bullies, as they are equipped with healthy, effective strategies for dealing with their problems.


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 and, according to this study by the University of Barcelona, may even feel a pathological need to isolate them from others, using lies to trick and deceive them about their health, or undermining their self esteem.


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

Excessive Responsibilities

dysfunctional family

The 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 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 from 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, learning to hide and repress their emotions. In addition, their self-esteem may be damaged.
  • They are opportunistic and 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 greatest evidence of this is that a child who grew up in a functional family can turn into an adult with behavioral problems. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we might see a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family turn 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.