This article addresses something that impacts many of us— the lasting effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Growing up in a dysfunctional family can be lonely, scary, and confusing. And children in dysfunctional families don’t have typical childhoods.
What is a dysfunctional family?
Let’s start by defining what we mean by “dysfunctional family.” Certainly, nobody has a “perfect” childhood, but some families function in healthier ways than others.
A dysfunctional family is characterized by unhealthy patterns of communication, conflict, and behavior that negatively impact the well-being of its members. In these families, communication is often hindered by misunderstandings or silence, roles are unclear (children act as parents and vice versa), emotional expression is extreme, boundaries are blurred, conflict is frequent and unresolved, addictive behaviors may be prevalent, and parenting is inconsistent. family members don’t feel safe and supported and their emotional and/or physical needs may not be met.
In contrast, functional families prioritize healthy communication, maintain clear roles, foster emotional well-being, establish boundaries, address conflicts constructively, encourage healthy coping mechanisms, and provide consistent parenting.
What is a healthy or functional family?
If you’ve never been a part of a healthy or well-functioning family, it can be hard to differentiate between a functional and dysfunctional family. Below are some of the qualities of a functional family. Notice how they compare to the dynamics in your family of origin.
In healthy families, children typically:
- Feel safe and relaxed
- Enjoy playing, creating, and exploring
- Are supervised
- Do age-appropriate chores
- Aren’t expected to keep family secrets
- Feel comfortable having friends over
- Don’t have to take care of their parents
- Don’t worry about their parents
- Don’t witness their parents verbally or physically hurting each other
- Aren’t physically, emotionally, or sexually abused
- Usually know who will be present in their home
- Don’t have to call the police or worry about whether they should
- Are accepted for who they are
- Experience consistent and age-appropriate rules and consequences
- Trust their parents’ judgment
- Experience their parents as emotionally and physically available and willing to help
- Are encouraged and consoled
- Are allowed to have and express feelings and opinions
- Can have privacy, emotional and physical space
- Receive verbal and physical affection that feels good
- Feel loved and wanted
You don’t get a childhood when you grow up in a dysfunctional family
Growing up in a dysfunctional family affects everyone differently. Factors such as personality, age, coping skills, support system, and access to resources play a part.
And not all dysfunctional families function in the same ways. For example, in some, children are micromanaged, harshly criticized, and punished for every minor mistake. In other dysfunctional families, children are ignored and there are few rules or expectations.
Many adult children of dysfunctional families (adult children) didn’t have a typical childhood. They weren’t able to play, try new things, or have friends come to their homes. They never felt safe, nurtured, or carefree. Instead, adult children often describe their childhoods are confusing, unpredictable, chaotic, and fearful.
Young children in dysfunctional families may sense that something’s wrong, but they don’t know that their family is dysfunctional or that other families operate differently. They think everyone’s Mom passes out on the couch after dinner or that all kids hide in the closet when Dad starts yelling. As children get older, go to school, and spend more time outside their home, they begin to realize that something is different about their family.
The effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family
Often children with troubled parents don’t get to just be kids. They’re saddled with responsibilities, worries, and shame from an early age. They don’t have friends visit because it’s not allowed, they’re ashamed, or their home is unpredictable.
They have to take on adult responsibilities when their parents can’t—caring for siblings, cooking, cleaning, or making sure Mom gets up for work. They feel on edge because their parents are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—they never know which version they’re going to get.
Other adult children remember being given lots of freedom or material possessions, but emotional connection, supervision, and consequences were lacking. On the one hand, kids certainly like staying up as late as they want and playing unlimited video games, but children don’t feel safe when there isn’t supervision and rules.
Dysfunctional families tend to have no rules, overly harsh, or arbitrary rules. Consistent rules provide structure and safety. They teach kids what’s expected of them and help them self-regulate and behave in socially acceptable ways. We need a caregiver who consistently shows up and meets our physical and emotional needs to form a secure attachment. Secure attachments are the basis for healthy and satisfying relationships throughout our lives.
In addition, some children in dysfunctional families don’t feel loved. When kids aren’t given positive attention or encouragement, they feel damaged and unworthy of love. If a parent is too busy, self-centered, or distracted to show up for the school play or basketball game, children internalize this as “I don’t matter”. And nothing hurts more than feeling unloved and unwanted by our own parents.
Children mistakenly believe they did something that makes them unlovable or that caused their parents’ problems. They fantasize that if they could only be perfect, their parents would love them. In reality, children don’t cause their parents problems and can’t fix them, but as children we feel responsible.
If you feel like you didn’t have a childhood because of your parents’ or family’s difficulties, you aren’t alone. Many adult children feel that growing up in a dysfunctional had a profound and lasting impact on them.
Others don’t think their childhood had an impact at all. For some, this may be the case. And for others, it’s not until well into adulthood or becoming parents themselves that they realize the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family.
These effects can be experienced as feeling anxious and fearful, expecting perfection and being very hard on yourself and others, difficulty relaxing and having fun, being overly responsible, difficulty trusting and having intimate relationships, feeling overwhelmed by parenthood, and having trouble setting rules/consequences for your own children.
Most importantly, please know that you aren’t alone, you didn’t cause these issues, and you can heal.
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Resources for Adult Children
For additional support, please use the following resources:
- Parentified Child: When a Child Has to Act Like an Adult
- 6 Roles in Dysfunctional Families
- Why Do Some Adult Children of Alcoholics Become Workaholics and Perfectionists?
- What Causes Codependency
- Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics
- Codependent No More
- It Will Never Happen to Me (and other books by Claudia Black)
- Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization
©2024 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.