< Back

What Causes Family Dysfunction?

What Causes Family Dysfunction?

There can be many types and degrees of dysfunction in a family. For this article's purposes, a defining feature of a dysfunctional family is that its members experience repeated trauma. The McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine defines the term "dysfunctional family" as a family with "multiple" internal "conflicts, like sibling rivalry, a battle between parents and children, domestic violence, mental illness, parental strife, alcohol or drug use, extramarital affairs, gambling, and unemployment.

Neglect, abuse, secrecy, addiction, and denial thrive in dysfunctional families. Children's emotional needs are neglected in these families because the needs of the parents take priority.

Although no parent is perfect, in dysfunctional families, the difficulties in the home are often overlooked or downplayed. Children who raise these issues risk being shamed or punished, leading them to ignore their own senses of reality and suffering from poor self-worth.

The causes of dysfunction in a family can vary, but one constant is that the children who live in these households suffer. Kids struggle to grow into confident individuals with good self-esteem and healthy coping skills when they are deprived of parents who nurture their emotional needs, give stability, and acknowledge issues.

Causes of Family Dysfunction

Family History of Dysfunction

Many people tend to learn their parenting styles from their parents or other caregivers. If their parents abused them, they might abuse their children. Or, they may go overboard the other way, being unnecessarily lenient. They may manipulate each other and their children as their parents did. They might not truly understand how to teach their children in healthy ways.

Physical Illness

Physical illness alone does not establish dysfunction in the family. For anyone involved, though, it can make life even harder. Parents often rely on their kids to do things they usually do for themselves, causing them extreme anxiety and sometimes depression. The other kids can feel neglected if one child is ill, as you concentrate all your energies on helping that one kid.

Mental Illness

In many mental disorders, genetics plays a significant role, but behavioral issues typically part of psychiatric problems make family life even more difficult. People with untreated mental disorders in a family that would otherwise be highly functioning can cause discord.


An inevitable part of life is stress. Although low-stress levels can positively affect individuals and drive them to achieve their goals, high stress can jeopardize the protection and well-being of a family.
Within a family, high levels of stress can contribute to hostility. For the person and the family's happiness and well-being, learning to cope with life's stressors healthily is essential. When you model healthy coping mechanisms for your kids, they know how to work well even in desperate situations.


Drugs, alcohol, gambling, and other addictions, with caregivers spending excessive amounts of time, energy, and other resources on the addicted person, can contribute to codependency. It can drain the financial and emotional resources of a family when addiction is severe. When addiction is present in the family, individuals with even the slightest mental health problems appear to get sicker, but psychologically stable individuals have trouble coping with family addictions. While addiction may trigger family problems, to deal with unstable family dynamics, addictive behaviors are also used. In a family that does not fulfill their needs, people can turn to alcohol, narcotics, food, or gambling for relief.


Perfectionist parents also place immense pressure on their partners and kids, not only to do their best but to do the impossible. Perfectionism is unattainable, and family life can be toxic. The loved ones of perfectionists sometimes feel like they're walking on eggshells. Kids with perfectionist parents can lose their inherent spirit of lightheartedness and find it hard to learn. Such kids may lack self-esteem and feel incompetent, useless, or commonly inadequate.

Lack of Empathy

If a parent lacks empathy, their kids can believe the love of the parent is conditional. However, when a parent displays empathy, they model the child with this attribute, which may help kids become caring, empathetic adults. Unconditional love, kindness, and open communication in healthy families encourage parents to work constructively with their children, even when making a mistake or wrong decision.

Lack of Trust

Parents in families that are dysfunctional also lack faith in their children and seek to violate their privacy. Although there are occasions when parents need to know what's going on with their kids so that they can respond accordingly, parents use truthful communication rather than room raids and harsh interrogations in a functional family. The ability to be themselves is also not granted to children in dysfunctional families. They may be discouraged from making their own choices, forming interests separate from their parents', or disapproving of friends of their parents. Instead of cultivating unique personalities, they're always supposed to emulate their parents.

Ineffective Communication

The single most telling trait of a dysfunctional family might well be poor communication. With accessible, frank, safe communication, virtually every issue can be handled. In dysfunctional families, one common trend is the inability or reluctance to listen to one another. In certain situations, in an attempt to prevent conflict, an individual may avoid direct contact with the person who has created a problem instead of trusting other family members. Bitterness and passive-aggressive actions may be caused by indirect contact. It may also contribute to a crisis of trust inside a family unit.

Excessive Control

Dysfunctional families are also identified by parents' overwhelming need to regulate their kids and the other parent. In each case, taking a more relaxed, welcoming attitude allows children to do their best, rather than living to please the controlling parent.

Constant Criticism

In a dysfunctional household, criticism runs wild. Often, the parents are chastising everything the kid says or does. Other times, in a sneaky effort to say something derogatory without making themselves appear mean, parents take a more subtle approach by using sarcasm, threats, or teasing.