The Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family

Living in a dysfunctional family is difficult. There are no set rules, no empathy, and no security from parents who are usually self-involved. There are no perfect families. The Cleavers and the Brady Bunch are only television shows to entertain; they are not reality.

This article will discuss what constitutes a dysfunctional family and some traits that signify one is present. Plus the article will also cover the roles children of these harmful families take on.

Dysfunctional Families are Not a Joke

Modern culture would flippantly toss about terms such as dysfunctional family and do not deal with the realities of its definition. The term dysfunctional family means a family that lives in constant conflict and instability. The parents in these family units may abuse or neglect their children or both.

The children in a dysfunctional family are forced to allow the horrid behavior of their parents because they are young and cannot fend for themselves. A few of the causes for a dysfunctional family are the presence of codependency, addiction, or mental illness that is untreated.

The maltreatment of children in a dysfunctional family can leave lifelong scars.

Six Defining Traits of a Dysfunctional Family

There is a saying in popular culture that states all families are dysfunctional in some way or another. While it is true that all families have difficulties sometimes, that does not constitute a dysfunctional family.

There are six common characteristics of a dysfunctional family, and they include the following.

A Controlling Parent. In the structure of a dysfunctional family, one or more parents are very controlling of their children. These parents do not see their children as separate entities and have blurred lines between their kids and themselves. Sometimes a controlling parent will try to make their children fight amongst themselves, causing them to compete for love and affection. The parents in a dysfunctional home will not acknowledge their children’s need for privacy.

The result of children not being allowed to make decisions for themselves is that they grow into adulthood without confidence in themselves and cannot excel in anything they do.

Poor Communication Within the family. Being able to discuss things in life is vital to building good relationships among people. Dysfunctional families cannot listen to one another, so each member of the family feels misunderstood and that their needs are not being acknowledged. There is also a distinct disjointedness in the behavior of a dysfunctional family. They will often talk among themselves about another member rather than talking directly to that person.

The result of poor communication within the family is that the children grow up to exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, have anxiety, and not being able to trust others.

A Perfectionist in the Family.  Dysfunctional families contain one or more parents who are perfectionists. These parents have incredibly high expectations for their children. They will not accept any failure on the part of their kids.

Unfortunately, perfectionism causes a steady stream of negative messages about the children, and they grow up feeling inadequate.

Substance Abuse. Although substance abuse is not present in all dysfunctional families, many do. Children love rules, they make them feel safe and gives them guidance. When substance abuse is present, there are no set rules for the children to follow, and their lives are uncomfortable at best.

Because of substance abuse, children fall into roles that define who they are in the family, such as the enabler, scapegoat, and the hero (discussed in more detail later).

There is a Lack of Empathy. One of themost distinctive properties of a dysfunctional family is lack of empathy. The parents do not show their children unconditional love and act judgmentally towards their kids. Instead of trying to understand the feelings of their children, these parents use anger and guilt to control their children.

The results of such behavior include the children growing up with internalized negative messages about themselves.

Disproportionate Criticism. Verbal abuse in the form of criticism is nearly impossible to overcome. Parents in dysfunctional families will criticize their children’s intelligence, talents, or value using putdowns and teasing to drive their abuse home.

Ongoing criticism from these parents negatively impacts their children’s self-image and self-esteem.

Other outcomes from living in a dysfunctional family include the development of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental health conditions.

Children’s Roles in Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional families were first noted by scientists doing research on families containing at least one alcoholic. However, the scope of their work soon grew to include families where at least one parent was emotionally or psychologically ill. They also added parents who are sexually or physically abusive and demanding a religious rigidity of the children and other adults in the home (Boyd, 1992).  

The different roles children take on in a dysfunctional family are not fixed but rather can and do change. Also, there might not be enough children to assign all the roles, and so multiple roles might be given to each child. These children grow up not knowing who they are and feeling the stress from their childhood experiences.

In the next section, will be a discussion on the four roles children inhabit in a dysfunctional family, the scapegoat, the hero, the enabler, the lost child, and the mascot (Vernin, 2011).

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat consists of the problem child and troublemaker among the children of the family. This child always seems angry and defiant and will act out whatever problems the family is working hard to deny. The scapegoat’s behavior is attention-seeking, but the only attention they receive for their actions is negative. Scapegoat children are bright and often become leaders in their peer group, but these relationships often are unhealthy.

The Hero

The role of hero is played by a child that devotes their time to make the family seem and look normal to the outside world. The hero child is over-responsible, an overachiever, and a perfectionist, and the dysfunctional parents look to them to rationalize that they are indeed good parents. The hero feels they must always be brave and strong but, inside, they are deeply sad and can become a surrogate husband or wife.

The Enabler    

The child who plays the role of enabler protects and takes care of the parent(s) so that they never have to face the consequences for their bad behavior. The enabler feels they must defend the parent because they rationalize that the family cannot survive if they do not. These children spend an enormous amount of their young lives, making sure that the dysfunctional parent(s) never experience a crisis. They feel if they do not behave this way, the situation will get worse.  

The Lost Child

The lost child is the quiet child and is invisible, or at least attempts to be, to the dysfunctional adults in their lives. They try to escape the family they were born into by remaining small and unobtrusive. The lost child is rarely in trouble and avoids interactions with other members of the family. This child prefers their own company and loves to be alone to escape the chaos of the dysfunctional family.

The Mascot

The mascot is good at breaking the tension in their dysfunctional family by lightening the mood with their cute behavior. The mascot child feels helpless and tries to interrupt anger, violence, and conflict that happens in dysfunctional families. Mascots will use humor to handle the dysfunction around them instead of facing it. The mascot is full of repressed anger, hostility, fear, and grief.

Healing from a Dysfunctional Family

Healing from living in a dysfunctional family while growing up is difficult. It requires one to face themselves and all their flaws. It also requires taking a good hard look at the family of origin and moving on to accept that the scars that remain will fade but never go away totally.

The impact of living in a dysfunctional family is overwhelming and can have long-lasting effects in adulthood. These include:

  • Substance Abuse
  • Poor Communication Skills
  • Difficulty with Emotions
  • Difficulty with Sexual Intimacy
  • Trust Issues
  • Obsessions with Perfectionism
  • Clinginess in Relationships
  • Oversensitivity to Criticism
  • Feelings of Powerlessness
  • Feelings of Worthlessness
  • Feeling Like They Do Not Belong in the World
  • Feeling Like They Are a Mistake

Finding a mental health professional and going through therapy will help heal adults who grew up living in a dysfunctional home. It takes time and hard work, but with a lot of determination, these adults can let go of their history and embrace a future for themselves.

They can finally be free to be who they were intended to be before they were born into a dysfunctional family.

“I explain to my patients that abused children often find it hard to disentangle themselves from their dysfunctional families, whereas children grow away from good, loving parents with far less conflict. After all, isn’t that the task of a good parent, to enable the child to leave home?” ― Irvin Yalom

“Adults who were hurt as children inevitably exhibit a peculiar strength, a profound inner wisdom, and a remarkable creativity and insight. Deep within them – just beneath the wound – lies a profound spiritual vitality, a quiet knowing, a way of perceiving what is beautiful, right, and true. Since their early experiences were so dark and painful, they have spent much of their lives in search of the gentleness, love, and peace they have only imagined in the privacy of their own hearts.”― Wayne Muller  


Arora, M. (2018). Dysfunctional Family Characteristics and Effects. Retrieved from:

Boyd, G. (1992). When You Grow Up in a Dysfunctional Family. Retrieved from:

Dysfunctional Family Roles. Out of the Storm. Retrieved from:

Kier, F. J., & Buras, A. R. (1999). Perceived affiliation with family member roles: Validity and reliability of scores on the Children’s Role Inventory. Educational and psychological measurement59(4), 640-650.

Vernig, P. M. (2011). Family roles in homes with alcohol-dependent parents: An evidence-based review. Substance use & misuse46(4), 535-542.


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