Family/household structures and strategies are very diverse worldwide and their response to processes of economic and political change is equally diverse. In other words, if there is a crisis in the family, it can only be a multiple set of crises in many different families. (UNRISD, 1) The outcome is the decline of the traditional male-breadwinner families, into what society, today, calls the dysfunctional family.
But first, what is a dysfunctional family? To define this term, we must first know what constitutes a functional or healthy family. Therefore, the opposite of those characteristics would define what a dysfunctional family is. (Pierce, 1) The factors that lead to dysfunction in the family will be looked at in a political-economic perspective and how it affects the family unit.
What is a dysfunctional family?
According to LuAnn Pierce, the term dysfunctional family is difficult to define because it must be understood as being the opposite of what constitutes a functional or healthy family.
Notwithstanding cultural, economic, or social factors, characteristics of a healthy family include:
- the family is open to others from outside of the immediate family system;
- family members allow outsiders to enter the system and they can go outside the system to get help;
- parents set clear generational boundaries; that means parents are the caregivers and children are secure in their role as siblings, children, and individuals;
- recognizes stressful situations or crisis as evitable and seeks healthy ways to deal with them as a family;
- the family works together to find solutions to problems – they focus on solutions, not blame each other;
- family members focus on what is controllable and make the best of situations over which they have control;
- the family develops and revises rules to deal effectively with day to day life;
- family members recognize that decisions and routines are flexible;
- family members feel empowered as a result of effectively dealing with stress; and
- family members recognize the difference between the symptoms of stress and the sources of the stress.
Therefore, a dysfunctional family exhibits the opposite pattern of behaviors and coping strategies in stressful situations.
In Recreating Your Self, Nancy Napier defines functional and dysfunctional in a similar way. Instead of making some moral judgment (i.e. good or bad) about dysfunctional families, LuAnn Pierce and Nancy Napier focus on the difference between the kinds of coping strategies and communication patterns used by functional families and those used by dysfunctional families.
According to Napier, functional strategies and patterns are those that enable family members to negotiate challenges and crises effectively (p.28). Dysfunctional coping strategies and communication patterns are those that interfere with a family s ability to deal with stressful events (p.28).
What are the stressors of healthy vs. dysfunctional families?
According to LuAnn Pierce, the stressors that lead to stressful events also differ between healthy families and dysfunctional families. In healthy families, the following are some of the areas that can cause stress within the family: finances, dealing with children s behavior; insufficient couple time, lack of shared responsibility for housework, lack of communication with children, insufficient time for self, guilt for not accomplishing more or not fulfilling others expectations, divorce, or insufficient family time together. (p.1) However, the stressors are quite different for dysfunctional families and are far more harmful in the long-term to either individual family members or to the family unit as a whole.
These include parent/child role reversal, resentment, and blame on the person with the problem, blame on the primary caregiver for staying in the situation, individual family members subject to depression, fear of intimacy or getting close to others, learn to discount feelings and needs, irrational belief system, and multiple unresolved issues (p.1)
Others factors that can contribute to excessive stress in a family and if not dealt with properly, can cause it to behave dysfunctionally are if one or more persons in the family have any of the following: a mental illness, an addiction to legal or illegal drugs, overly rigid religious beliefs, an abusive spouse, an abusive parent(s), a physical disability, an emotional or behavioral problem, responsibility for an aging parent, an infant/toddler, an adolescent, or an adult living at home (p.2).
Symptoms of families under excessive stress:
- constant sense of urgency and hurry
- sense of tension underlying sharp words and misunderstanding
- mania to escape to your room, car, office, or anywhere
- feelings of frustration for not getting things done or caught up
- feeling that time is passing too quickly
- frequent desire to return to a simpler time in life
- little me or couple time
- a pervasive sense of guilt for being and doing everything to and for the people in your life. (Pierce, p.1)
Pierce also identifies some basic needs that individuals require in order to be healthy functional beings (Part III). They include the need for individuals to feel capable and be successful at something, to feel cared for and belong to a group, to have power and control, to give of ourselves and help others, and to be simulated and have fun. If we do not meet these needs individually and through our family, we may become dysfunctional.
What are some of the economic, social, and cultural factors that can contribute to the stressors that lead to dysfunctional behaviors within families?
Some of the more conservative elements in the media (i.e. the Canadian Press Newswire and the Western Report) blame changing social conditions and trends, and ill-conceived social policy (i.e. subsidized daycare) as being the culprits for the increasing numbers
of dysfunctional families in Canada. The author of What s happened to the nightly family dinner? featured in the Canadian Press Newswire argues that the traditional family dinner is a very important ritual that promotes effective family communication and bonding. This view is backed up by quoting Diane Marshall, who is a family therapist practicing in Toronto. She said that the decline in the traditional dinners is part of the (larger) breakdown everywhere in our whole culture of parent-child, family.
The idea of eating together at a common table fosters a quality relationship between parents and children. The article also blames changing social conditions such as two-income families, single parenting, extra-curricular activities, after-school jobs, and commuting for the decline of this important traditional ritual.
Looking at a political-economic perspective, the redefinition of the family unit is crucially dependent on portraying the family as an autonomous unit, which is responsible for its own relations with the market due to the rising costs of welfare. If a family fails to provide for its members then this failure is an individual one and may be attributed to a lack of effort or to the dysfunctional nature of the family unit. As a result, the changing family/household structures (dual-income families both parents must spend time outside of the home, to raise a family) The rise in female-headed households is among the most important in these changes and these households have thus become a focus of policy debate.
The inability of female-headed households to manage in some contexts is not a result of the fact that they are dysfunctional families, but of the discrimination, women suffer in the labor market and of the unequal distribution of labor and income within families. Public transfer programs worldwide, favor families with employed male breadwinners, and they thus effectively divert resources away from families most in need. This leads to poverty, a factor or characteristic that a dysfunctional family possesses. (UNRISD, 2)
The supposed indicators of family crisis marital conflict, youth crime, disadvantaged children and single mothers are not simply the result of dysfunctional families, but must also be seen in the context of the strain placed on certain family relations and categories of individuals by poverty and extreme economic hardship. Lack of control over their lives forces many disadvantaged families into situations where personal relations break down under stress. Loss of self-esteem both for parents and children, combined with joblessness, unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse, and despair, are made worse by the fact that poverty also dispossesses people of their political as well as their economic rights. (UNRISD, 4)
Other factors such as divorce and unsocialized youths (leading to youth crime and behavioral problems) are due to the increase of dual-income families, where time is spent by the parents, outside of the home; paying the costs of raising a family instead of actually, physically, being there, nurturing and taking care of the family unit. This can lead to marital problems and problems with the children because there is not enough time spent with the other partner in a marriage or with the children.
What are the long-term effects of children who grew up in dysfunctional families?
In another conservative article called Should governments subsidize bad parenting? Study of the effects of non-traditional family arrangements on children, the subject of two-income as a negative factor in long-term secure attachment or bonding is raised. The study of an Edmonton doctoral student entitled Long-term effects of insecure attachment in children is used to prove this point. This study assessed the psychological health and parenting arrangement of 138 adolescents.
According to Dr. Mark Genius, at the heart of psychological health is secure attachment, which becomes the foundation for later healthy adult behaviors and bonding patterns. He argues that the main causes of insecure attachment are non-traditional family arrangements such as non-parental care (by nannies, relatives, close friends, or daycare centers) of children prior to school age, custody sharing by divorced parents, career changes of parents requiring major adjustment and relocation, and insufficient time spent between parents-children. The long-term effects of insecure attachment are aggression, delinquency, withdrawal, anxiety, depression, cognitive and attention problems.
Robert Becker in Don t Talk, Don t Trust, Don t Feel: Overcoming the Power of Your Dysfunctional Family s Secrets and Nancy J. Nanpier in Recreating Your Self also discuss the long-term consequences for adults who were children of dysfunctional families and how they can overcome these psychosocial issues through self-help and therapy.
Children from dysfunctional families more often than not, adopt unhealthy coping strategies, relationships, and communication patterns than those who were raised in healthy families. They may also develop a fragmented sense of self and are prone to the feeling of shame, rage, guilt, fear, and helplessness (Napier, p.35) If the effects of dysfunctional families are not dealt with, this results in stress that can continue into adulthood.
Yes, this is the responsibility of the parents to raise their children in a healthy functional environment, but it is also the responsibility of the state to intervene when it comes to the economic factors and costs in raising a family to help the traditional healthy family prosper in the future.
The term “Dysfunctional Family” to me means (very basically) a family that is impaired in its functioning, but still operates as a family, with the inherent love underneath all the neuroses and abnormalities.
Dysfunctional families seem to have become the norm I believe. Part of the reason for this seems to be that many adult children are educators or counselors (adult children is the term for adults who are still functioning based on some of their childhood traumatic events). These adult children have evolved at a very high level intellectually but emotionally still carry unhealed wounds from their own childhood traumas.
We should understand that dysfunctional families occur for many reasons. A family can become dysfunctional if any compulsive behavior is present, mental illness, rigid rules, religiosity and any situation where the outer circumstances seek to control rather than facilitate the emergence of a strong inner sense of self, personal power, and life skill development. Emotional and verbal abuse are extremely destructive to one’s sense of self.
The wounds for both are difficult to “make real.” Emotional abuse is less recognized, less understood, and more difficult to overcome.
Dysfunctional families are universal. Addiction treatment professionals suggest 80-95 percent of families are dysfunctional to some degree. If the norm is dysfunctional, then what attributes describe a functional family? A functional family provides children with a safe and nurturing environment, supports learning during the different developmental stages, affirms the child’s worth and nurtures a sense of self-confidence and autonomy.
Those of us who grew up in a dysfunctional family or who were neglected or abused in different ways are disenfranchised in our grief. Our losses in childhood have not been honored; they have been disregarded. As children from dysfunctional families, we have disowned our true selves; we did so to survive.
I think that some children may even have a defunct family (one that was completely non-existing and dead). I wonder if “dysfunctional family” is a term ever used…if not, it should be.
Rules of the dysfunctional family
While all families have rules, dysfunctional families have rigid rules which are often unspoken and unhealthy. These often include:
- Don’t talk (about what is really going on).
- Don’t trust anyone (but yourself).
- Don’t feel or have needs (because there is no one available to validate or respond to you).
- Deny there is a problem.
- Roles of a dysfunctional family
Family roles create special strengths in children from dysfunctional families but also “hide the scars” these children develop. These roles lead to patterns of behavior which can be problematic and difficult to let go in adulthood.
These roles include:
- The responsible child or caretaker – attempts to maintain peace by assuming responsibility for the needs of their siblings and their parents.
- The family hero – is helpful within the family and successful outside of the family.
- The enabler – enables the alcoholic to continue drinking by covering up her or his deterioration.
- The scapegoat – diverts attention from the real family problems by acting out and engaging in self-destructive behavior. They often act out the tension in the family.
- The clown – reduces the family’s tension with humor.
- The lost child – the child who copes by making as few waves as possible, their goal is to draw as little attention as possible.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family can have a significant impact on adult functioning. Adults struggle with the following issues:
- Difficulty knowing what is “normal”, in part due to the absence of adequate adult role models.
- A tendency to be extremely self-critical as a result of having internalized frequent parental criticisms.
- In response to living with unpredictability, a strong need for control.
- Difficulty with intimate relationships due in part to inconsistent parental affection.
- Problems recognizing and expressing feelings.
- May confuse feelings or allow only certain feelings (sadness but not anger; anger, but not sadness).
- Difficulty expressing needs because they have lost touch with their own needs or are fearful of “burdening” others.
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility.
- Counter-productive perfectionism.
- A tendency to engage in “all or nothing” thinking and feeling.
- Having become accustomed in childhood to crises, feeling anxious when life seems like it is going okay.
- A tendency to be hyper-vigilant (keep their eye on everything, always worried).
- Fear of anger (their own and others).
- In response to parental abandonment or neglect, they develop the belief that they are not good enough, significant or lovable, and in the absence of a “good enough” sense of self are prone to feelings of shame and inadequacy.
- Difficulty being spontaneous and having fun.
Those who did grow up in a dysfunctional family can also develop some unique strengths. These include:
- Increased ability to be empathic – to understand and care about others
- Heightened sensitivity & awareness.
- Tendency to take less for granted.
- Maturity, competence and the ability to solve problems and take charge.
- Greater commitment to having a healthy family and raising children with caring and compassion.
Is my family dysfunctional
My family may not be dysfunctional, but I think the lifestyle and personality of my immediate family are responsible in many ways for my shyness. To put it simply, my parents are very quiet people. They don’t have, and never have had, a wide circle of friends, and they virtually never go out (apart from the obvious, like shopping, eating, going to church and that).
Because they were my role models during the early part of my life, I think I probably had trouble mixing with the other kids, (simply because I never saw them mix with other people) and this has kind of stuck with me throughout life. Not that I would say this sort of stuff to their face, because they are my folks and I love them dearly. I can only say that I’m glad I had the opportunity to move away from home, as I think it’s improved my life beyond all recognition.
What is a dysfunctional family? According to Webster Dictionary dysfunctional means “abnormal” (Webster’s Dictionary 66), while the word Family means “related group of people.” So if you put both definitions together you get an “abnormal related group of people.” Too many people in the US think that a dysfunctional family is a bunch of deranged psychos, I should know I was one of them.
Truth be told I’m not too sure what a dysfunctional family is anymore. I always thought it was a family that was always on a bunch of drugs, who had sex with each other. But my definition has changed over the years.
Now I believe that a dysfunctional family can be any family in the world. There are all kinds of problems that can happen to a family. There can be abusive fathers, or husbands. There can be an abusive mother, and wife’s. Both of the parents can be alcoholics. The child can be a consent drug user, and his or her excuse might be that they just want to escape the reality of their everyday life.
The same problems can still occur in the family but they don’t have to be as serve as being abusive or drug use. Look at Bill Clinton and his family, he cheated on his wife with an intern. Jesse Jackson as well cheated on his wife and paid his mistress not to say anything to the media.
Are these two families dysfunctional? How can they not be dysfunctional? Think about if there was a perfect family with a beautiful house and a picket fence with two and a half kids, one boy and one girl with another on the way. In my opinion, there is no such family in the existence on this planet.
So are all families on this planet dysfunctional? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends if the family believes they are. Take my family for example. The only other person in my family that lives in the city besides myself is my mother. The rest of my family lives in Mexico, my aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc. I never met my father and don’t care to meet him either. Is my family dysfunctional? Well, I believe
so. Only because it compares to the ideal picture of a real family, doesn’t match compare or come close to it. Nowadays there are more and more families that only have a single parent running a household with children. In the old days, no family was without a mother or a father. But now that women are becoming more and more independent they don’t need to rely on a so-called significant other for financial support.
Self-destruction of the Mind Many children grow up in dysfunctional families and in order to know what a dysfunctional family is, we have to understand how it operates. No family is perfect and disagreements, bickering and yelling are normal. But the word we are looking for here is “balance”. This is exactly what dysfunctional families’ lack, whether parents are controlling, deficient, alcoholic or abusive, they have an adverse, long term effect on the children even long after they have grown up and left home. Many of these adults from dysfunctional families often feel inadequate and incomplete.
They have difficulty with intimate relationships and often develop compulsive behaviors and addictions, being self-destructive in their own mind. Let us consider a family that is too controlling, where parents are over dominating and do not allow their children simple fun and deny them of their independence. These parents continue to make decisions and control their children even at an age where it is unnecessary. So growing up and learning to be independent can be difficult, a feeling of anger and resentment may present itself.
Transition into adulthood poses some struggle to these adults who often feel unsure of themselves and guilty because they feel as though they are disobeying their parents by making their own decisions. Let us take a look at the other extreme where parents are deficient in their roles and are not present in the rearing of their children. These parents leave their children to often fend for themselves which forces them to grow up too fast. Taking on adult responsibilities to make up for the parental inadequacy, these kids ignore their feelings and often grow up not knowing how to show emotion.
They find it difficult to form and maintain intimate relationships, they fear getting close to others for fear of abandonment. They often develop a sense of helplessness and blame themselves for the absence of their parents. Whether there is too much parental discipline or a lack of guidance, children growing up without this balance often fear badly. And when alcohol, drug abuse, and abusive behavior on the parents part is thrown in, this can be very damaging to these children all through their life. This kind of environment strikes terror in these children, they feel afraid to make mistakes and often live on the edge of fear.
Abused children feel anger, frustration, and are usually insecure. They do not feel comfortable at home and never voice their opinions. They do not trust easily and find it hard to maintain relationships. Adults grown up from alcoholic and abusive families develop all these negative character traits and often never grow out of them. Children of alcoholics and drug abusers are at much higher risk for developing substance abuse than are children in healthy families. Therefore, unfortunately, many of these adults create their own patterns of compulsive behavior and addictions.
The effects of dysfunctional families are long term and most times these children are robbed of their childhood. Whether families are over-functioning by not allowing children breathing room to think for themselves or under-functioning by neglecting the needs of their kids, these families are inconsistent and lack the proper balance of discipline and freedom.
As a result, these children grow up with trouble maintaining positive self-esteem, they often blame themselves for the dysfunctions in the family and this feeling of helplessness and unworthiness carries on throughout their adulthood.
They struggle with trust and intimate relationships and sadly some fall into the pit of alcoholism and drug abuse. These children are victims and these negative self-images they have of themselves cause them to become self-destructive in their own mind. With positive thinking and the correct mindset and with the right help they can overcome these difficulties.
Dysfunctional family relationships form the basis of many Canadian short stories. Often, tragedy is the end result of severe family breakdown. In other cases, personality defects are directly traceable to poor family dynamics. In the stories Hurt, Fall of a City , and The Sound of Hollyhocks there were very profound family problems.
The difficulty in the father/son relationship in Hurt reflects a role reversal. Even though Stevie is only a young boy, he took care of himself and his father. Stevie made his own meals and when his father was inebriated, he …went down to the store and got him a couple bottles of vanilla to sober upon. (pg. 195) In a family situation, a young child such as Stevie should not have the responsibility of taking care of his parent.
Moreover, even when Stevie s father was sober, Stevie could do whatever he liked without consequence. Skip described such freedom when he said that Stevie went to the school when he wanted to go… (pg. 193) This lack of rules or an authority figure demonstrates the dysfunctionality of this family. Also, Stevie s father was a violent alcoholic. Skip observed that somedays Stevie s father would be …pounding on the walls with his fists and swearing and crying all at the same time… (pg. 195) The parent/child role reversal , the lack of structure, discipline, and authority in the home and the violent episodes demonstrate the degree of dysfunction in this family.
Fall of a City depicts the dysfunctional relationship between Teddy and his guardians. Teddy’s aunt is constantly ordering him around. After asking Teddy what he was doing in the attic she says very harshly Well, young man, you better wipe that scowl off your face and march to the bathroom and get ready for supper. (pg. 43) His aunt s coldness certainly contributes to their imperfect relationship. Furthermore, Teddy has a strained connection with his uncle because of his uncle s endless teasing. At the dinner table, Teddy’s uncle says, He s got his head in the clouds again. and then his uncle laughed mirthlessly. (pg. 43) His uncle also teases him when Teddy is playing with paper dolls (pg. 45). This constant harassment causes difficulties in their relationship.
Finally, neither Teddy’s aunt nor his uncle trusts him. Simply because Teddy spends a considerable amount of time playing in the attic on a rainy day, his aunt asks suspiciously, You been into some mischief up there? (pg. 42) and then she sends her husband to investigate (pg. 44). This clearly shows that the adults did not trust Teddy and it is imperative that an emotionally healthy family relationship be based on trust. The relationships between Teddy and his aunt and uncle are dysfunctional because Teddy’s aunt constantly orders him around, his uncle teases him, and neither grown-up trusts him.
In The Sound of Hollyhocks, there is a dysfunctional maternal relationship. Firstly, Rock s mother is very controlling towards her son. When Rock s parents visit him in the hospital, his mother says, If you ask me you re completely recovered now from your breakdown, and I m sure you ll be much better off at home, where I can take care of you. (pg. 17)
Believing her son to have been misdiagnosed (pg. 17), his mother wants him to be at home so she can dominate him more easily. This need to control her son indicates the extent of their dysfunctional relationship. Secondly, Rock s mother does not respect her son s wife and this places a great strain on her relationship with Rock. After her first meeting with her mother-in-law, …Sandra was never again invited to the house. (pg. 10) By trying to destroy her son s marriage, Rock s mother is making her relationship with her son more problematic. Thirdly, Rock does not want to live with his mother.
This demonstrates his lack of affection for her and his fear of her power over him. His disrespect and anxiety is evident after the parents visit their hospitalized son and he says, The Bitch of Belsen wants me back, but I won t go-never-never again! (pg. 17) So extreme is Rock s emotional turmoil that he commits suicide to avoid his mother s hold over him. (pg. 18) His words and actions reveal his abhorrence of his mother and thus their relationship is severely flawed. The dysfunctional relationship between Rock and his mother is the result of the mother s need to control her son, her lack of respect for her daughter-in-law, and Rock s unwillingness to live with his mother.
The dysfunctional relationships in short stories add an element of reality. All too often in our lives, we experience such problems in our own families or with our friends. There are many factors that contribute to the breakdown of the relationships in these stories. Such factors include alcoholism in Hurt, suspicion in Fall of a City, and control in The Sound of Hollyhocks.
The reality of such relationships make the stories more interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining in a tragic sense. Perhaps the reader can learn by experiencing the angst of these characters and can try to identify trouble spots in personal relationships before it is too late.
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