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Growing up in a dysfunctional family affects one's well-being, and the effects often continue into adulthood. Here we look at what a dysfunctional family is and how to seek help.

What is a dysfunctional family?

A dysfunctional family is characterised by conflict, misunderstanding and often emotional neglect or abuse. This results in an unhealthy environment for everyone, especially the children. In a family structure like this, there can be different problematic behaviours and dynamics that undermine the well-being and development of family members.

Children growing up in dysfunctional families can carry the negative effects into adulthood, including issues with relationships, low self-esteem and emotional problems. However, help is available. Many people find ways to heal and build healthier relationships through therapy, support groups and personal development.

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What are the characteristics of a dysfunctional family?

Dysfunctional families are characterised by behaviours and dynamics that harm the emotional and sometimes physical well-being of its members. These include poor communication, where family members have difficulty openly expressing feelings and needs, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. Emotional and physical abuse occurs, creating an unsafe environment that doesn’t meet the emotional needs of members. Control, manipulation, lack of support and trust, and rigid family roles limit individual freedom and independence.

Problems are often denied, hindering resolution and healing. Addiction creates problems; excessive criticism damages self-esteem; and favouritism towards siblings creates rifts and feelings of inadequacy. These dynamics can have long-term negative effects, especially for children, but there is hope for healing through professional help and personal development, that offer pathways to change.


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What are the different roles of a dysfunctional family?

In dysfunctional families, members often take on specific roles as a way of dealing with the family’s problems. These include the Caretaker, who takes responsibility for the family’s needs; the Hero, who strives for success to give the family a good reputation; the Scapegoat, who is often blamed for the family’s problems; the Forgotten One, who withdraws to avoid conflict; and the Mascot, who uses humour to relieve tension. Another role is the Problem Child or Rebel, that challenges family norms.

These roles are developed as coping strategies and can limit an individual’s personal development, negatively affecting their emotional health. Identifying and working through these roles in therapy can be crucial to healing and building healthier patterns of behaviour and relationships.

What is co-dependency?

Co-dependency is a pattern in which one person becomes excessively dependent on another. Often seen. in relationships where one person has an addiction problem or behavioural dysfunction. It is not a clinical diagnosis, but a pattern of relating that many people can recognise. It involves a need to ‘save’, control or care for the other person at the expense of one’s own well-being and needs. Characteristics of co-dependency include low self-esteem, difficulty setting boundaries, neglect of one’s own needs, and a tendency to engage in unbalanced relationships.


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Co-dependency can affect an individual’s ability to have healthy relationships and often occurs in environments with addiction problems or other dysfunction. Treatment may include therapy and support groups focused on building self-esteem, learning to set boundaries, and developing independence, to overcome co-dependency and improve quality of life.

Treatment of dysfunctional families

Treatment of a dysfunctional family involves several strategies to address underlying problems and improve relationships. Family therapy is central to this, focusing on identifying and changing dysfunctional patterns. Individual therapy can support individual members’ personal development by working on issues such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress following trauma. It can also involve treating substance abuse and addiction issues if those are present among family members.

Developing effective communication and setting healthy boundaries is important for changing family dynamics. Support groups offer community and understanding. Parenting classes can help improve parenting methods and, in serious cases of abuse or violence, specific interventions may be necessary. If necessary, the NHS can be contacted for advice. The treatment process requires time and commitment from all family members to create a healthier environment.


12 common questions about dysfunctional families

What is a dysfunctional family?

A dysfunctional family is characterised by conflict, misunderstanding and often emotional neglect or abuse, resulting in an unhealthy environment for its members, especially the children.

What characterises a dysfunctional family?

Dysfunctional families are characterized by behaviours and dynamics that harm the emotional and sometimes physical well-being of its members. These include communication problems, emotional and physical abuse, addiction, control, manipulation, lack of support, rigid roles and favoritism.

What are different roles in a dysfunctional family?

Individuals in the family often take on different roles such as the caregiver, the hero, the scapegoat, the forgotten one, the mascot and the problem child or rebel. This is to compensate or challenge the dysfunctional patterns that exist in the family.

What is co-dependency?

Co-dependency is a pattern where one person becomes excessively dependent on another, often in relationships where the other person has an addiction problem or behavioural dysfunction. It involves a need to rescue, control or care for the other person, at the expense of the co-dependent person’s well-being and needs.

How can dysfunctional families be treated?

Treatment of a dysfunctional family involves several strategies to address underlying problems and improve relationships. Family therapy, individual therapy including trauma and addiction treatment, information on what dysfunctional families are, support groups, and parenting classes are some of the interventions. If necessary, the NHS can be contacted for advice. The treatment process requires time and commitment from all family members to create a healthier environment.

What to do if a family member has an addiction problem?

It is important for the person with an addiction problem to receive individual treatment to achieve sobriety and freedom from drugs. It is also important that other family members receive therapy for their problems. Addiction problems are often due to dysfunctional family relationships and patterns over time, so multiple interventions are needed.

Can you be traumatised by growing up in a dysfunctional family?

Many people who grow up in dysfunctional families are traumatised. This can be a single difficult event or repeated trauma. This can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (C-PTSD). It is important to get help with this in therapy.

What about children growing up in dysfunctional families?

Children growing up in dysfunctional families can carry the negative effects into adulthood, including problems with relationships, low self-esteem and emotional problems. It is important to get help early to prevent problems later in life.

My husband doesn’t want to go to family therapy, what should I do?

If the person doesn’t change despite being told to do so, it may be useful to go to self-help therapy to get more help to deal with the situation and make a decision about what to do in the future.

I am co-dependent with my mother who drinks, what should I do?

If you have a loved one who drinks, it is important to seek help yourself to manage the situation. Therapy and support groups can help.

Can you get therapy online?

Lavendla has a team of therapists available for online sessions done via video conference. These offer great flexibility and accessibility.

Where can I seek help?

If you want to get therapy, you can ask a GP for a referral to a psychologist or therapist who works with relationship or family problems. Alternatively, book an online session with one of Lavendla’s team for an initial discussion. We help make the difficult easier.

Family therapy treatment

Family therapy treatment aims to address and resolve the problems and conflicts that affect a family’s functioning and well-being. The process involves several steps which can vary depending on the therapist’s approach and the specific needs of the family. Here is an overview of how a family therapy treatment usually works:

Initial assessment

Treatment often begins with one or more initial sessions where the therapist meets with the family to assess their dynamics, identify problem areas and set therapy goals. This phase is important to establish an understanding of the family’s structure, relationships and the specific challenges they face.

Identification of goals

Together with the family, the therapist works to define clear and concrete goals for the therapy. This may include improving communication, resolving specific conflicts, changing dysfunctional behavioral patterns, or strengthening family bonds.

Therapy sessions

During therapy sessions, the therapist uses various techniques and methods to promote positive change within the family. This may include communication exercises, role play, conflict management techniques and exercises to build empathy and understanding between family members. The therapist acts as a neutral and supportive facilitator, helping the family to explore their problems and find solutions together.

Working with relationships

A key focus of family therapy is to work on the individual relationships within the family, such as parent-child relationships or sibling relationships, to address specific conflicts or problems and improve mutual support and understanding.

Homework and practical application

Families can be given ‘homework’ or tasks to work on between sessions to practice the skills and techniques they learned during therapy. This aims to encourage application and change in the family’s everyday life.

Evaluation and closure

Toward the end of the therapy process, the therapist evaluates the family’s progress. Based on this evaluation, the therapy can be terminated, or further sessions can be recommended if necessary.

Family therapy is a flexible form of treatment that is adapted to the family’s unique needs and circumstances. By investing in the process, families can develop stronger, more supportive relationships and learn to deal with future challenges more effectively.

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Written by dominic

Dominic is a Cape Town-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology.