Coping with Dysfunction: Understanding the 10 Unspoken Rules of Dysfunctional Families


, ,
Hidden Dynamics Unspoken Rules of Dysfunctional Families

Have you ever noticed certain patterns in your family that have made you think, “Maybe my family is dysfunctional”? This post delves deep into the signs your family is dysfunctional and the unspoken rules of dysfunctional families. Let’s find out more about how to tell if your family is dysfunctional or not.

Key Points

  • All families, as with all social systems, have some level of dysfunction. It does not mean they are all unhealthy or abusive, but some are.
  • Growing up in unhealthy environments can set children up for unhealthy or unsafe relationships down the line.
  • Developing and maintaining boundaries can help decrease trauma symptoms that arise later in adulthood.

Perhaps you are reading this because you worry your family is dysfunctional. Or maybe you know it is, and you are looking for further information about how and why, or something to confirm what you already know.

The truth is that all families have dysfunction, just on varying levels. Like many things, dysfunction runs on a spectrum.

But a family with a healthy or safe level of dysfunction is one that recognizes that it is imperfect, and whose members are open to learning and supporting one another rather than blaming or finding fault.

Families with unhealthy levels of dysfunction are the ones that run the risk of causing harm to its developing children due to blame, chaos, lack of boundaries, and poor communication.

Related: 18 Signs of A Dysfunctional Family and How To Deal

This is often when one or more of its caregivers has an untreated mental illness or personality or substance use disorder, or when some sort of trauma or impairment impacted the adult(s)’s ability to care for others effectively.

Following are 10 of the major unspoken rules of dysfunctional families that I’ve noticed in my practice and from personal experience.

10 Unspoken Rules of Dysfunctional Families

1. We don’t talk about the imperfections.

While a “normal” dysfunctional family will joke or laugh about their dysfunction, or even be willing to have conversations about how to work together to improve, unhealthy families have an unspoken rule not to acknowledge the dysfunction or imperfections.

Unspoken rules of dysfunctional families

2. Communication can feel like war.

Unhealthy families, particularly ones in which one or more caregivers have elements of a personality disorder such as narcissism or borderline personality, are riddled with poor communication.

Triangulation, in which members of the family are pitted against each other; gaslighting, in which people’s realities are denied; and other passive-aggressive or abusive practices are common.

Communication can feel so scary, intimidating, and confusing that survivors are often left feeling exhausted and traumatized just from trying to make sense of their situation.

3. Punishment can often feel like revenge, instead of a normal response to wrongdoing.

Children in unhealthy families, particularly ones in which there are elements of a personality disorder, are often “punished” as a form of revenge for angering or disrupting the unhealthy parent, as opposed to the normal punishments one would expect for a child, such as being grounded for lying or breaking curfew.

In these families, a child is punished for daring to say that they are upset with something a parent has done, having a different opinion, or breaking another unspoken rule.

Related: What Is A Dysfunctional Family? Identifying Signs and Types Of Toxic Families

4. Blackmail is acceptable.

Feelings can, and will, be used against you. Due to the unhealthy dynamics, vulnerabilities will be exploited to further control.

One of my clients remembers sharing with her mother that she felt worried about something the other parent would do. Her mother shared this information with the other parent as punishment for a recent mishap. It was done to achieve power, control, and intimidation.

5. The adult’s feelings/emotional needs are more important.

This is not just about Mommy putting on yet another movie so she can have her alone time.

This is when the parent or caregiver’s emotional needs are more important, meaning that if they are upset, it takes precedence over whatever else is going on. The child’s emotional needs have to wait if they get attended to at all.

Toxic rules of dysfunctional families

6. You can be angry or sad, just not ever at us.

When the child is upset, they are never allowed to be upset at the parent, no matter what happened. While this is normalized in some generations or cultures, it is unhealthy to not allow children to express their feelings.

We should encourage them to do so respectfully, so they can learn how.

7. Roles are often switched.

From a surrogate spouse, which is common in dysfunctional families, to children having to be the emotional caretakers of their parents, it is common for family roles to be switched.

Many survivors report being parentified, yet at the same time emotionally neglected.

Related: What Is Parentification: Identifying The Signs, Types, Effects, And How To Deal With Parentification Trauma

8. Others aren’t like us, so we can’t get too close.

Survivors of unhealthy families often report feeling “different” from others.

Some of this is due to feeling like others will not understand their history, but it is also due to the constant messages that unhealthy caregivers send about people outside of the family: that they can’t be trusted or “let in.”

9. We thrive on drama or chaos.

There has to always be someone we are mad at or something that is wrong or causing stress.

It can be someone in the family or extended family, a neighbor, a teacher, a family friend, or even the hairdresser. And there will never be any insight into what we did to contribute to the conflict, as it is never our fault.

Rules of dysfunctional families

10. Boundaries are just suggestions.

Boundaries, such as physical, emotional, and spiritual, are essential for all of us. In healthy families, those boundaries are encouraged and respected.

However, in unhealthy families, they are not. Diaries are read, and then the information is used against the writer.

Children don’t have the right to refuse hugs, unwanted touching, or even unwanted conversations. Privacy is not allowed, and children are made fun of for requesting it, as in, “What are you doing in there?” or “Why do you need a lock on the door?”

Many survivors find support and healing through acknowledging their history and working to develop boundaries so as to not repeat these patterns.

Related: How Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family Affects Your Dating Life

Please do not hesitate to seek support or professional help if you are struggling to deal with a dysfunctional or traumatic family structure or are working to address any resulting trauma.


Al Ubaidi BA (2017) Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family. J Fam Med Dis Prev 3:059.

Written By Kaytee Gillis
Originally Appeared On Psychology Today
dysfunctional families
dysfunctional family, unhealthy families, how to tell if your family is dysfunctional

— Share —

— About the Author —

Leave a Reply

Up Next

Brain Fog After Narcissistic Abuse? 8 Ways Narcissists Can Muddle Your Brain

Brain Fog After Narcissistic Abuse? Reasons Why It Happens

Have you ever heard of the term “brain fog”? Brain fog is like a maddening haze that seems to muddle your thoughts, makes you forget what you were saying, and has you searching for your clothes in the trash bin? Well, today we are going to talk about a specific sort of brain fog – brain fog after narcissistic abuse.

Imagine that you have just escaped from a toxic and abusive relationship with a narcissist. You are slowly picking up the pieces and trying to get your life back in order, but somehow you feel like your head is not in the right place. Everything still feels very odd and you still feel very lost.

Even though you are free from the clutches of your narcissistic ex, this bizarre mental fog just won’t lift. Let’s explore how narcissists cause brain fog, and the link between brain fog and narcissistic abuse.

Up Next

Toxic Bosses Unmasked: 20 Warning Signs to Watch For

Toxic Bosses Unmasked: Warning Signs to Watch For

Having a toxic boss can really take a toll on you mentally, and toxic bosses are seriously so horrible. This article is going to help you understand the traits of a toxic boss so that you know which behaviors are not normal and ethical. Read on to know more about the signs of a toxic boss or toxic bosses.

We hear about toxic bosses all the time, but how do you know when a boss is “toxic”? “Toxic” is, of course, a vague descriptor. Are bosses toxic when they throw fits and scream, or only when they break the law?

Or are they toxic when they are immoral or unethical? Are they toxic if they’re nice one day and nasty the next, or just when they make you uncomfortable, nervous, or sick? These are valid questions because these individuals are easy to identify when their behaviors are outrageous; but perhaps less so when their behavior

Up Next

How To Know If Your Mother Hates You: 8 Not-So-Subtle Signs

How To Know If Your Mother Hates You: Not-So-Subtle Signs

Have you ever found yourself wondering if your mother harbors some deep-seated resentment, or even hatred towards you? If you have, then I know that it’s a really tough pill to swallow. How can your mother hate you, and most importantly, how to know if your mother hates you?

Today, we’re diving straight into the realm of family dynamics, exploring the question “why does my mother hate me?”. We will try to understand the signs that give away her true feelings for you, and which may indicate if your mother’s love has taken a dark turn.

Let’s uncover 8 revealing clues that might just help you make sense of the complicated bond you share with your mom. Explore how to know if your mother hates you.

Up Next

How to Recognize and Counter Emotional Blackmail: 8 Techniques and 7 Signs

What Is Emotional Blackmail? Telltale Signs Revealed

Picture this: You’re sitting across from a friend, engrossed in conversation, when suddenly you feel the atmosphere change. Their tone becomes harsh, their eyes seem accusatory, and it feels like you’re trapped in an emotional minefield. Now, that’s what is emotional blackmail.

We’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives, whether it’s a toxic relationship, a manipulative friend, or even within our own families. But what is emotional blackmail exactly, and how to deal with emotional blackmail?

In this article, we are going to take a look into the world of emotional blackmail and try to understand each and every nuance. We will talk about the signs of emotional blackmail, the types of emotional blackmail and how to deal with emotional blackmail.

So, are you ready to do this?

Up Next

What Does Being Submissive Mean? 9 Warning Signs You Might Be A Meek, Submissive Woman

What Does Being Submissive Mean? Signs Of A Meek Woman

Ever wondered, “What does being submissive mean?” Well, let’s put it this way: it’s like constantly being in the backseat of your life’s car, letting others take the wheel while you navigate the road of existence.

For example, meet Jess. She’s that friend who’s always putting everyone else’s happiness and needs before her own, and she often finds herself getting involved in abusive and unhealthy relationships.

If you relate to Jess and the ways she lives life, then you might be in for a very rude reality check. Because this points to the realm of female submissiveness. Stick around as we uncover nine warning signs that scream, “Hey, you might be more like Jess than you think!”


Up Next

What Is Unintentional Gaslighting? The Surprising Ways You Might Be Gaslighting Without Knowing It

What Is Unintentional Gaslighting? How Good Intentions Can Go Awry

Ever found yourself questioning your own reality after interaction with someone you know? Unintentional gaslighting can sneak into conversations, leaving you feeling disoriented and invalidated, even when no harm is intended.

Accidental, unintended or unconscious gaslighting in relationships can make you doubt your own thoughts, feelings, or even sanity. Someone’s words or actions can make you feel uncertain, dazed & confused without even realizing it.

Gaslighting, a term derived from a movie titled “Gaslight,” refers to the act of manipulating someone into doubting their own experiences and perceptions. But what is unintentional gaslighting?

Let’s explore this lesser-known concept and shed light on

Up Next

10 Covert Signs Of A Psychopath: Don’t Be Fooled By Their “Nice” Behavior

Signs Of A Psychopath: Look Out For These Sneaky Signs!

Have you ever wondered what lurks beneath the surface of those seemingly nice, charming and friendly individuals? You know the type—the ones who effortlessly wear a smile, say all the right things but leave you feeling a bit unsettled and uneasy. Well, my friend, get ready because we’re about to discuss the signs of a psychopath.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to scare you, but let’s face it, we all love a good psychological puzzle, right? So, let’s uncover the sneaky signs of a psychopath, the signs that separate the “nice” from the truly dangerous.

Brace yourself, because what you’re about to discover might just blow your mind. Let’s explore more about people who are nice but psychopathic.