Do you think that you might have grown up in a dysfunctional family system?
What actually “counts” as dysfunction? While there are some characteristics that might seem obvious (like addiction or abuse) there are other markers for dysfunction that have become so normalized within our society that they can render dysfunction nearly invisible. I am all about helping you raise your awareness and increase your self-knowledge so that you can recognize and heal from any dysfunctional experiences and avoid repeating them in your adult relationships.
That’s why in today’s episode, I’m pulling back the curtain on traits of dysfunctional family systems so that you can learn more about how your upbringing might be negatively impacting you today… from the way you parent your own kids to how worthy you feel of being authentically loved…and we will hit what you can do to start to heal from any lingering wounds from the past.
From the time we are very young, we are constantly getting signals and information within our family culture about what’s expected of us and how to behave (or not). This sets the foundation for our belief systems around love, relationships, parenting, self-worth and self-esteem, conflict resolution, communication…the list goes on.
A healthy organization of the family system fosters age-appropriate, loving interdependency. In general, an unhealthy or dysfunctional family system can produce the opposite – things like codependency, isolation, trust issues, inappropriate role-reversal (like a child acting as a parent), ineffective communication and disordered boundaries.
The Common Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family
There are many different kinds of abuse that can show up in a family system, but a general definition of abuse would be: an individual asserting their power to dominate or punish another for what the abuser would consider unwanted behavior. It can be physical, emotional, or psychological.
This unhealthy power dynamic can show up just between spouses in a family, resulting in secondary trauma for the children who are witness to it. It can also occur between siblings even if there is no violence between the parents or between the parents and the children.
It’s important to recognize the ways abuse could be normalized or justified with comments like, “My parents hit me, and I’m fine” or, “My brother used to torture me…but that’s how all siblings are.” No, it really isn’t.
Now, as an adult, it is essential for you to raise your awareness about how these experiences that you may have deemed normal, impacted you. As Christine Langley-Albaugh asserts, “We repeat what we do not repair,” and in order to repair it you have to know what it is.
Any addiction within a family system creates dysfunction for everyone. According to American Addiction Centers, at least 45% of the US population has been exposed to some kind of alcoholism or alcoholic behavior. It could be drugs, alcohol, a combination of both. There are also less obvious type addictions, like workaholism, debting, and sex addiction to name a few.
Children of addicts are often parentified, assuming the role of the parent at a young age and essentially being robbed of their childhood. Other by-products of addiction within families could be communication issues, trust issues, and financial problems. There are many different ways addiction causes chaos.
Next week, I will be talking about the common family roles in an addicted family system, so if this resonates with you, be sure to join me next week for part two of this series.
This is a trait that is revered in our society, and while it might not be as obvious as abuse or addiction, growing up in a perfectionistic system can have a lasting negative impact.
Having unrealistically high standards for kids does not necessarily produce elevated success. Kids in this system simply feel like they can never meet the standard, so even being very successful does not feel good because the main message in the perfectionistic system is, you could have done better or more and you are really only as good as your last big accomplishment.
The conditional nature of perfectionism can lead children to suffer from self-image issues and self-esteem problems. One of the most damaging parts of this system for the child is that when they fail or make a mistake they do not feel like they can go to their parents for comfort.
In healthy family systems, when a kid does something irresponsible or dangerous, there’s space for a parent to say, “I am disappointed that you made that choice, but I still love you.” In perfectionist systems, it’s more likely the child will hear “What’s wrong with you?”
Perfectionism in a family system impedes intimacy and again, that can translate to a lifetime of repercussions.
4. Lack of Intimacy and Codependency
Real intimacy is the ability to be your most open and authentic self with another. In dysfunctional family systems, sometimes codependency can be confused with intimacy.
In a functional family, there exists an appropriate hierarchy with the parent teaching and guiding the child to ultimately be able to be on their own. The goal is for children to become self-sufficient, thriving adults.
Codependency, by contrast, even though it can feel like closeness, is characterized by a parent(s) wanting to remain the center of their child’s world. The parent relies in a dysfunctional way upon their adult child to continue to satisfy their needs and wants and might still want to control things like they did when their children were actually children.
What ends up happening is resentment, guilt and heavy feelings of obligation for the adult child. Those emotions create distance, not closeness.
5. Poor Communication
Ineffective or poor communication is in almost every family…it’s one of the most common traits of dysfunction that I see. The conflict here usually stems from not knowing how to communicate effectively with words.
If you were not allowed or encouraged to express yourself unless you learned to from someone else, you may still struggle with how to speak your truth and be seen, heard and known now.
Dysfunctional communication patterns have a tendency to show up in current relationships. In the cheat sheet, I’m sharing an exercise that you can use to start to recognize and liberate yourself from unhealthy communication patterns, so be sure to download it right here.
6. Lack of Boundaries
Simply put, a healthy boundary is an ability for you to express what is ok with you and what isn’t ok with you. In psychology, we talk about family systems in terms of open or closed systems, and that has everything to do with the kinds of boundaries that are in place.
In a closed system, there’s not a lot of people outside of the family that can come in. It’s sort of an “us against the world” mentality. What I’ve found is that often in a closed system, there are little to no boundaries within the system, but there’s a big boundary to the outside world.
Closed family systems can be secretive and distrust authority. Within this kind of dysfunctional system, there are often blurred boundaries between members, because parents may act like the child is an extension of themselves. If you had little privacy for example, your parents monitoring your phone calls, reading your diary or going through your things, you learned that you don’t have a right to create boundaries which can make it challenging to know how to create healthy boundaries in adult relationships.
7. Conditional Love
In manipulative, perfectionistic or narcissistic family systems, conditional love can come into play. Conditional love is just what it sounds like: there are conditions that must be fulfilled or expectations that must be met in order for a child to get love and this can extend into adulthood.
When someone is only nice or loving to you when they want something from you or when you perform to their satisfaction, you can feel manipulated and unworthy. These feelings of resentment can become blocks to achieving healthy love and intimacy. I’ve done several episodes on narcissistic parents, so if this feels like you, I have included those additional resources for you in the cheat sheet and you can download that right here.
8. A Fear-Based Home
What creates a fear-based home? This dysfunctional system trait includes constant unpredictability and a feeling of never knowing what to expect and can often go hand in hand with abuse, mental illness or addiction.
If you’re in an abusive or addictive home, you don’t know if it’s going to be the good parent or the bad parent when you get home. This can create hyper-vigilance to stay safe, which is exhausting. A child who grew up in a fear-based home may experience long periods of their fight or flight reflexes activated, which pours cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that are extremely taxing on your physical and mental health.
In my experience, a lot of empaths grow up in a fear-based home, because when you’re in that situation as a child, you become incredibly skilled at reading other people’s feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s because if you are in that system, you just want to get out of the way and so you will overextend yourself to get that person whatever they need so there isn’t a conflict.
I created a downloadable little cheat sheet for you with all of these traits and symptoms, so that you can do a self-inventory to identify anything could be negatively impacting your life right now.
Know that this work is deep and brave and that the only reason I ever want you to go back in time is not to re-live any pain from the past, but to empower yourself to transcend it. When you can identify problematic childhood experiences, you can then connect the dots forward to what might be happening in your life right now so you know where to put your time, energy and attention.
And listen…most people have some kind of dysfunction. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it IS something to be aware of.
I’d love to hear what you think about this and if this was helpful for you. If it was, I hope that you will share it on your social media platforms and with the people in your life you think it may help.
This week is part one of a two-part series I’m doing on dysfunctional family systems, and next week I’ll be covering specific family roles in addicted and chaotic systems, so make sure to tune in next week!
I also go into more detail in my video which you can view HERE.
Thank you for watching, reading, listening and sharing. I hope you have an amazing week diving deep into you and as always, take care of you.
Terri Cole is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. Sign up for Terri’s weekly Newsletter, check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.