What Does "Dysfunctional" Mean?

Understanding How Dysfunction can Affect Your Family

Father and son argument
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The term dysfunctional is defined as "abnormal or impaired functioning" on the part of an individual person, between people in any sort of relationship, or amongst members of a family. Poor functioning refers to both behavior and relationships that aren't working and have one or more negative, unhealthy aspects to them, such as poor communication or frequent conflict.

This is a term used often by mental health professionals for interactions between people and is often used to describe any relationship in which there are significant problems or struggles.

Dysfunctional relationships or situations are often the impetus for getting help in psychotherapy. Many families develop dysfunctional aspects when trying to cope with a troubled teen because family members are forced to adapt to the teen's emotional or behavioral problems that impact them on a daily basis.

Examples of Dysfunctional Behavior

  • A troubled teen who expresses anger by hitting others.
  • A teenage couple that deals with conflict by not speaking to each other.
  • A family in which a parent is drinking daily and family members are afraid to talk about what's happening.
  • A teenager with a dual-diagnosis who uses drugs to deal with their symptoms rather than deal with what is causing them.

Dysfunctional Family Patterns

In dysfunctional families, there are a variety of patterns that can occur. Here are the most common:

  • Parents or teens in the family abuse alcohol and/or drugs.
  • One or both parents has compulsive behavior, such as gambling or overworking, that leads to difficulties for the rest of the family.
  • One or both parents threaten or actually carry out violence that may or may not involve the children.
  • One or both parents treat the children as possessions and as if the children are only around for the parents' own personal needs or satisfaction.
  • One or both parents are extremely strict to the point of not giving their children autonomy and exerting tight control over their lives.
  • One or both parents are unable to provide or simply stop providing emotional and/or physical and financial support.

Many families have times when these patterns occur, but it is when they start to become the norm that dysfunction occurs.

The Effects of Dysfunction on Children

When dysfunctional patterns become the standard in a family, the detrimental effects on the children are great and can be carried on into their adult relationships. Some of these potential and damaging effects for children are:

  • Having to take sides in parental conflict.
  • Actions of parents not matching their words, which causes a distorted reality.
  • Being rejected or being favored.
  • Having rigid controls put over everything from who their friends are to how they dress.
  • Having parents that are either way too involved and overly protective or parents who are uninvolved and disinterested.
  • Being ridiculed or ignored when sharing thoughts or feelings.
  • Being physically abused.
  • Feeling like they have to be the adult in the situation.

Family Therapy can Help Dysfunction

If your family is experiencing dysfunction for any reason, seeking out family therapy may be a good option.

Family therapy has been shown to be extremely effective in learning new ways to communicate, solving problems between family members and becoming sources of support and strength to each other.


"Dysfunctional Family Relationships." Brown University (2016).

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