A dysfunctional family is a family unit which includes strange behaviors, conflict and sometimes abuse or neglect occur.  Children grow up in these families with the understanding that the dynamics are normal.  Sometimes the adults in the families become “stuck” in the rut, and are unsure of how to get out of the unhealthy situation they have found themselves in.

Common Signs of a Dysfunctional Family

  • Secrets –  The family hides things from each other and to others in the community.
  • Denial or Avoidance – The family ignores that a problem existsts, the family members do not speak about the issues going on, acting like everything is normal.
  • Conditional Love – The family puts a price, or strings attached to their support, attention or love.
  • Lack of Quality Time Together –    The family rarely enjoy each other’s company. Weekends, family vacations and holidays are extremely stressful to members of the family.
  • Addiction – One or more members of the family may struggle with various forms of addiction. This includes illegal substance abuse, alcoholism, sexual, gambling, video games, etc.
  • Abuse – Families may exhibit behaviors that may be verbal or emotional abuse, or non verbal such as physical (hitting, kicking, beating, etc)
  • Role confusion – Families where the child takes over the role of caregiver, and disciplinarian to other siblings.
  • Control – This can be seen by rigid rules, boundaries that are not age appropriate.
  • Unrealistic expectations – Expecting children to be able to do things above and beyond their ages, skills, abilities and development.


Now, the million dollar question.  How to move from dysfunctional family patterns to functional, healthy and happy families? First, one must understand that families are systems.  Each person effects the way the system operates.  In order to change family dynamics, everyone in the family needs to identify what is happening, and make the commitment to change. Secondly, the unhealthy behaviors (secrets, addiction, etc) should be eliminated and as a family you should find new ways to support each other.


Some traits of healthy families include:

  • Healthy expression of feelings – do the children feel safe enough to share when they are excited, scared or sad? Do the adults show a good example (coping skills) of when they are angry or happy?
  • Healthy boundaries and limit setting by the adults.  Parents are the adults in the household setting age appropriate boundaries or limits for the children.
  • Conflict is addressed. No family is perfect, siblings will bicker, parents might disagree, but in healthy families, conflict is addressed, not swept under the rug. Family meetings are a great way to address what’s bothering family members.
  • Stability, Structure, yet flexibility  – Families have routines in place, but allow flexibility of something out of the ordinary occurs. Children should be able to predict their day to day lives.
  • Openness – Families are willing to accept outside help

Counselors can help identify unhealthy dynamics and work with the family unit to build new patterns and habits.   Counselors can also help you understand what’s behind those behaviors, and help the family to heal and move forward.

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt



Jennie Wilson is a child and adolescent therapist. She holds the credentials of a Licensed Professional Counselor, National Certified Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor