Good mental health starts at childhood. Unfortunately, the mind of a child is very delicate, and the slightest bit of negativity in this stage of development can have lasting impacts for the rest of their life. When it comes to families that fuel the fire of poor mental health, dysfunctional families are common and detrimental to the health of our current and future society. While claiming your family is dysfunctional may be a silly joke you say when your uncle makes a joke at Thanksgiving, it is actually a medically defined term that causes people’s lives to turn upside down.
What is a Dysfunctional Family?
A dysfunctional family is when the adult caregiver, be it a mother, father, uncle, grandparent, or adopted parent is unable to fulfill their responsibilities to the family consistently. A parent may be able to bring in the money, but without offering a nurturing environment, their child will grow up unfulfilled.
Responsibilities of the Parent
Researchers at Virginia Tech compiled five basic responsibilities that every parent should fulfill for the entire family to be happy and healthy.
Provision of Resources
The parental figure needs to provide money, clothes, food, and shelter for the entire family. Making sure that a child has a shirt that isn’t riddled in holes or making sure that everyone in the family is well fed with good and nutritional foods.
Nurture and Support
The parent needs to provide comfort, warmth, and reassurance for all family members. This is comforting a child after a rough day at school or showing love to a family member after losing a loved one.
Life Skills Development
Parents should be supporting physical, emotional, social, and educational development. When a child is having trouble with homework, this is helping them learn how to figure it out. Or teaching your child how to deal with a troubling situation through healthy coping mechanisms and healthy thinking.
Sexual Gratification of Marital Partners
A happy couple is a happy marriage. A happy marriage is a happy family. One of the things the parents need to do is meet the needs of both spouses, whether it is intimacy or space. Both need to feel comfortable in romance and feel respected and loved.
One of the biggest red flags of a dysfunctional family is when a parental figure holds one of their own responsibilities over a child's head as a way to control their behavior. But this isn't the only way a family can be dysfunctional.
What Does a Dysfunctional Family Look Like?
You might think you can spot a dysfunctional family from a mile away. You are probably thinking of someone who is more focused on a bottle of beer than their children, or a married couple more focused on fighting each other than raising their kids. Some red flags are right in your face, while others can creep up on you and you don’t realize that you are in a toxic environment until the damage is already done.
- Constantly interrupting
- Silent treatment
- Name calling
- A person is bad, not their behavior
- Using threats or ultimatums
When parents aren’t communicating with the family, it causes a lot of stress. Poor communication in the family can cause constant conflict, poor problem-solving skills, and poor emotional bonding. This can teach a child the wrong way to deal with their problems, and they will eventually have problems communicating in relationships later in life helping to further this vicious cycle.
- Spending more money on drugs or alcohol than the family
- Spending more time around drugs or alcohol than family
- Missing work or family events because of drugs or alcohol
- Unable to care for children due to the effects of drugs or alcohol
- Unable to control emotions because of drugs or alcohol
Drug abuse in the family can cause financial issues, conflict, and even abuse in the home. The effects of addiction can cause negativity to be the only thing that is talked about in the home like complaining or criticizing. This takes down the overall mood of the whole house, making it hard for children to get any attention. This can also make the rule setting more erratic, making it difficult for the children to learn boundaries and right from wrong. Without the proper family structure, the child can start to act out badly in hopes of their parents setting the appropriate boundaries.
Fear and Unpredictability
- Constantly expressing anxieties and fears
- Having exaggerated emotions of anger or fear in front of children
- Inconsistently responding to family member’s needs
- No structure in schedules or rules
When a child grows up in an environment that is filled with fear and is unpredictable, it can cause them to carry the burden of anxiety themselves. If this goes on for too long, this burden can turn into a full anxiety disorder that follows them into their adulthood. Living in this environment has also shown that when the child reaches adolescence, they are more likely to take unhealthy risks like unsafe sex or abusing drugs.
Disrespect of Boundaries
- Sharing information with a child that isn’t age appropriate like money problems
- Sharing personal sexual information with children
- Arguing with children
- Requesting affection from a child because of a spousal disagreement
Having healthy boundaries is important for any relationship, and it starts at home. When parents start to hold their children responsible for things they shouldn’t be responsible, like comforting a mother because the father made her angry, this puts impossible expectations on the child. This sets them up to make the child believe they have more power in situations than they actually have, eventually leading to inadequacy. This also shows the child that the parent doesn't value them, making them feel like they only exist for their parents and nothing else. This commonly leads to abandonment issues, acting out, low self-esteem, and a child who grows up not understanding and are unable to comprehend that their parents were wrong.
- Choosing outfits and what toys the child has when they are old enough to make decisions
- Choosing what classes a child takes in school
- Choosing what college or job the child gets
- Always knowing what is best
- Interfere in the child’s relationships outside or inside the family
- Unreasonable expectations
- Always have contact with the child at all times
A parent who is overly controlling may think that they are just doing their best to keep their child safe from the world or their own mistakes, but they are actually slowing down the development of their child. When their parent is always choosing everything for their child, the child doesn’t learn how to make their own decisions. They become someone who may not question anything and learn just to do what they are told. Studies have shown that children who have controlling parents have a hard time controlling their emotions, self-control, and stress levels. They found that these children also had a harder time at distracting themselves from the stress they feel from not getting what they want compared to other children.
Lack Of Empathy
- Severely punishing a child for making a mistake
- Punishing a child for showing emotions
- Forcing an apology before cultivating empathy
- Not healthily expressing emotions in front of children
Children need to learn how to navigate through their emotions, but this is really hard to so when their parents don’t show empathy towards them or encourage empathetic behavior. Certain things like forcing apologies or sharing before cultivating empathy don’t teach the child why they need to be a member of society, just that it is necessary. This can make them less likely to express empathy later on when they no longer are being pushed toward misunderstood behaviors.
- Always having their hands in their child’s life
- Setting high standards
- Being extra critical
- Only rewarding when high standards are met
Perfectionist parents are also known as intrusive parents. They can’t stop from helping their kids figure things out. This can turn into setting high standards for their kids showing them what “real” acceptable work is instead of teaching them to be proud of what stage in development they are in. These children who have perfectionist parents become overly critical of themselves and have a hard time accepting outside criticism considering they do it enough themselves. This type of behavior gets worse over time if not taken care of.
- Only reward children when they do activities you like
- Only reward children when they do things how you say
- Only reward success when it is something the parent approves of
- Heavily punish when the child is doing something wrong and heavily reward when they do something right
Conditional love is showing a child that the parent only loves the child when they behave and do what the parent wants. The drastic flip-flop between being punished and rewarded can cause the child to feel the need to chase affection. This type of parenting can cause the child to have lower self-worth and can lead to serious mental health disorders.
- Denying abuse in the household
- Denying drug abuse in the household
- Denying responsibility for the emotions of the child
- Denying the responsibility of learned behaviors of the child
It doesn’t feel good to admit you’re wrong or you are doing something that may be inadvertently hurting someone, especially your child. We all like to think we all have it together, making it hard to take a good look at ourselves and we affect those around us. You can throw scientific papers in some people’s faces, and they will still stand by their methods either out of disbelief or pride. But if people in the family are hurting, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
What Do You Do As A Teen In A Dysfunctional Family?
It isn’t easy being a teenager to begin with, but when you add a dysfunctional family to it, it becomes torture. Your family upsets you, which multiplies by one hundred because of your hormones, and you might have a hard time reacting in a healthy way to your family’s behavior. You can’t get a job and move out. You need somewhere to sleep and eat. So what can you do when you feel trapped?
Tips for Teens in Dysfunctional Families
- Remember that what happens to you isn’t a result of your character, but a result of your family’s behavior.
- Remember that it is not your fault. The money problems, fighting, it’s not your fault.
- If you are being abused in any way, let a trusted adult know like a teacher, coach, or someone in your religious community.
- Remember that your time here is temporary. This isn’t a forever situation and one day you will be able to have your own place and own rules.
- Try spending time daydreaming about how you are going to improve your life and set goals.
- If your parents use money to control you, get a job as soon as you can.
- Don’t let this discomfort or hurt cause you to disrespect your parents, even if you feel they don’t respect you.
- Show them what you need. It’s hard to be the bigger person but show them what a healthy relationship looks like.
How To Recover From A Dysfunctional Family
When you move out, and you’re on your own, you may be able to start recovering and start figuring out who you are without an outside influence like a dysfunctional family. However, growing up in a dysfunctional environment can be traumatizing and often leads to issues that follow you into adulthood. One of the first steps toward recovering from a dysfunctional family is by seeing a therapist.
A therapist will be able to help you learn things that you miss out on as a kid. They can teach you how to cope with emotions, build empathy, and raise your self-esteem. They can help you get to the root of why you feel the way that you do, and you can begin to dig yourself out of the hole that you have found yourself in.
Considering that many people who rise out of a dysfunctional family come out with mental illness in hand, your therapist may also suggest using medication in tandem with therapy to help you manage your high range of emotions. A medication you may want to consider is CBD oil.
CBD has shown in studies to help with many issues that are born in dysfunctional families. CBD oil may be able to help with the following:
Taking CBD oil may be a good alternative to pharmaceuticals commonly prescribed because of the attractive side-effect profile and a wide range of benefits. Instead of taking two pills, one for anxiety and one for depression, you could just use one bottle of CBD oil. If you feel that you need help managing this whirlwind of life after family, talk to your doctor about CBD oil.