Dysfunctional Families . . . What Exactly Does that Mean?
Part I

by LuAnn Pierce, MSW, CMSW


The term "dysfunctional families" has been used and abused so much over the years that it is hard to define. In order to define a dysfunctional family, one must first know what a functional or healthy family is. While there is a lot of difference in what is normal for families, there are some common traits found in families that are considered to be healthy, and other traits found in families experiencing excessive stress which can lead to "dysfunctional" behavior. Without taking cultural, economic, or social consideration into account, the following information highlights some common traits of healthy families and warning signs that a family may be under too much stress and in danger of becoming "dysfunctional."

Characteristics of Healthy Families

  • The family is open to others from outside of the immediate family system.

  • They allow outsiders to enter the system and members are allowed to go outside of the system for help when needed.

  • Parents set clear generational boundaries. Parents assume the role of primary caregivers and children are secure in their role as siblings, children and individuals.

  • The family recognizes that stressful situations are inevitable and temporary. They recognize that stress can be positive if handled appropriately.

  • The family works together to minimize stress. They focus on their strengths as a family and as individuals.

  • The family works together to find solutions to problems. Their energy is focused on solutions, not blame.

  • Family members focus on what is controllable. They make the best of situations over which they have little or no control.

  • The family develops and revises rules to deal effectively with day to day life. When they are under stress they work together to revise existing rules and evaluate the results.

  • Family members recognize that decisions and routines are flexible. Rigid rules and expectations are challenged as a family.

  • Family members feel empowered as a result of effectively dealing with stress. They see challenges as opportunities rather than roadblocks.

  • Family members recognize the difference between the symptoms of stress and the sources of the stress. They address the source of the stress.

Areas of Stress For Healthy Families

  • Finances
  • Dealing with children's behavior
  • Insufficient couple time
  • Lack of shared responsibility for household upkeep
  • Communicating with children
  • Insufficient time for self
  • Guilt for not accomplishing more
  • Couple/relationship issues
  • Insufficient family play time
  • Over-scheduled family calendar

Other Stressors in Dysfunctional Families

  • Parent/Child role reversal
  • Resentment toward the person with the problem
  • Blame primary caregiver for staying in the situation
  • Individuals may be prone to depression
  • Develop fear of becoming close to others
  • Fear of losing the primary caregiver
  • Learn to discount feelings and needs
  • Irrational belief systems
  • Multiple unresolved losses (real, symbolic or perceived)

Stages of Stress

  • "I can do and be everything." Built in failure and guilt
  • "I can't do and be everything." Self Acceptance
  • "I don't want to do and be everything." Choice
  • "I don't want to do anything." Burnout

Symptoms of Families Under Excessive Stress

  • Constant sense of urgency and hurry
  • Sense of tension underlying sharp words and misunderstandings
  • 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 of life
  • Little me or couple time
  • Pervasive sense of guilt for not being and doing everything to and for the people in your life

Transitions and Dynamics That Can Lead To Excessive Stress

One or More Persons in The Family Has Any of The Following or Has a Family History Of:
  • A Mental Illness
  • An Addiction To Legal or Illegal Drugs
  • Overly Rigid Religious Beliefs
  • An Abusive Spouse
  • An Abusive Parent
  • A Physical Disability
  • An Emotional or Behavioral Problem
  • Responsibility For an Aging Parent
  • An Infant/toddler
  • An Adolescent
  • An Adult Children Living at Home

Some of these situations may be temporary, yet without proper preparation, clear guidelines and teamwork can lead to severe strain on the primary caregiver, thus placing the family at risk for malfunctioning.

Continued in Part 2


LuAnn Pierce is a licensed social worker and therapist, as well as an author and publisher. She has worked with hundreds of youths and families in the last 15 years. Ms. Pierce writes columns for several other publications and is the publisher/editor-in-chief of Person to Person.

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