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8 Characteristics Shared By Dysfunctional Families

The family environment where one grows up can tremendously impact an individual’s emotional, psychological, moral, social and overall development.

The year was 2004 and the news of A’s death came as a shock. I was in my late teens and A was just a couple of years younger than me. It hadn’t been a disease or an accident; it had been suicide.

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This fact had thrown me into a tizzy – I had known her for some years then, what must have brought her to it?

Once things settled down and I felt a little more at ease with this new reality, I began to go back in time and look for evidence.I could then recall a lingering sadness in A’s eyes, which I had earlier written off as her being “low”.

I remembered that there were times she would sound despondent, and that I hadn’t paid attention. Through my own guilt trip, I realized it was highly likely that A had been trapped in a dysfunctional family.

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There had been symptoms – the misplaced humor, the children never being taken seriously, the lack of respect between the parents. I had seen it all and taken it in my stride, given the dysfunctions in my own family of origin.

In time, I met various people who had seen torrid times growing up, and the commonalities seemed glaring.


This piece is to throw light on commonly found traits of dysfunctional families. Not all would exist in every case, but a combination is often likely.

Characteristics Shared Dysfunctional Families

1. Toxic Dynamics

Every family has a unique dynamic. Dynamics in a family situation typically stem from the roles being played, personalities in the scenario and how communication happens.

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In dysfunctional families, the dynamics are usually toxic. In a toxic environment, no one feels valued or respected or accepted, but the relationships continue to linger.

Such family’s communication pattern may severely restrict the child’s expressions of feelings, thoughts and needs. Children in such environment develop low self-esteem and inadequate self-image.

In adulthood, these children end up in toxic relationships. (1)

Children who live under these conditions may also develop long-term issues including anxiety and stress, phobias as well as addictions. 


2. Control and Manipulation

Straightforward communication is a feature of healthy interactions. And this is exactly what goes missing in dysfunctional families.

The reasons could be many:

  • What counts as a common theme is that of control. And along with control, comes manipulation.
  • Emotional manipulation refers to the attempt to indirectly or directly influence or control someone else’s behaviour, thoughts or actions resulting in a preferred consequence of the manipulator. Control is exerted in the form of threats, neglect and at times, even overt violence and abuse. Manipulation is tied in so that control can be maintained. These manipulators observe and learn the emotionality and weaknesses of the victim and apply lethal manipulative techniques to control them.Manipulation techniques may range from lying, showing double standard, threats, diversion, shaming and blaming the victim to even physical violence to implement their domination. (2)
  • In some cases, the financial condition of the family is also an issue.
  • Drug use and abuse by one parent or both and in others there are psychological issues like the parents themselves having pathological personalities.


3. Constant Conflict

The foundation of a healthy family essentially lies in peace. This peace does not come about because people involved are all similar, but because they work on differences and find middle grounds to meet at.

In dysfunctional families however, conflict is often a constant state. Underlined by different forms of abuse, conflict sets the stage for everyone involved.

Even if there are no regular “fights”, the sub-text is one of dissent and disappointment; which means that the basic survival needs of love and togetherness are not met and insecure attachment patterns are created.(3)


4. Ignored Feelings

Imagine a scene where the parents give each other the cold shoulder at breakfast and the child at the table senses something is off but knows trouble will break out if they talk about it.

Unsaid things and as a result, ignored feelings are a classic symptom shared by many dysfunctional families.

Remember the point I had made about A earlier, about how she would be met with inappropriate humor.

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Sunanda Pati
Sunanda Pati is a certified expressive arts therapist and facilitator and a freelance creative writer. Having developed an early interest in psychology and later various forms of bodywork, she has actively worked in knowing her own inner world and processing various traumas. She believes every person is blessed with an endless reserve of inspiration, courage and wisdom. Sunanda lives, writes, practices and facilitates in Bangalore, India. More of her writings can be found at : She also runs an expressive arts initiative of the same name (Gaia Comes to the City), which can be found on Facebook.
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