Dysfunctional Families And Their Psychological Effects

Dysfunctional Families And Their Psychological Effects

Contrary to common misconception, the idea of the “perfect” family does not exist. As much as parents are supposed to be responsible caretakers, it is normal for them to be flawed or be experiencing their own issues – they are human, after all. In a “functional” family, children are still able to feel safe, heard and loved even when parents may have the occasional outburst. Children who grow up in such a high support and low conflict environment are more likely to develop the necessary skills to navigate emotional, social, and psychological challenges in the future.

On the other hand, a dysfunctional family can have lasting negative impacts on an individual, especially on youths and young children. Studies over the years have reinforced and emphasised the significance of family influence on a child’s development and personality.

In this article, we discuss the common characteristics of dysfunctional families and their psychological effects.

What is a dysfunctional family?

When it comes to defining what a dysfunctional family is, it can be pretty tricky. The term encompasses various issues such as neglect, abuse, denial, secrecy, addiction and more. In some cases, parents might even be suffering from a mental disorder or serious issues such as substance abuse. In essence, while the source of dysfunction may differ, the common thread is that the needs of children typically go unmet, and they end up suffering because of the family dynamics.

Common characteristics of dysfunctional families and their effects

As mentioned above, there is no single cause or tell-tale sign of dysfunctional families. Various reasons could constitute why a family may be dysfunctional.

Individuals who have grown up in dysfunctional families are more likely to be socially withdrawn. They also often have difficulty expressing themselves and are at higher risk of developing mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more.

Here are some of the common characteristics of dysfunctional families and their effects on children:

1. Neglect

Neglect can affect a child’s ability to trust the world, since they have grown up without a frame of reference for what is healthy and normal. When parents are absent in a child’s life, this may force children to grow up quicker. Substance abuse is one of the issues that can lead to neglect.

Research has found that when drugs or alcohol are present in a family, relationships and roles are established around the substance. For instance, one parent might be struggling with addiction which keeps them from fulfilling their parental duties. The other parent might be co-dependent, spending more time on their partner’s addiction than taking care of the children. This creates an unstable family dynamic where the child might grow up to feel neglected.

Being robbed of their childhood can cause children to be disconnected from their needs and find themselves in harmful situations in the future. An individual who had grown up with an emotionally unavailable parent may develop attachment issues out of the fear of abandonment. They may also struggle to grow into adults with high self-esteem and healthy coping skills.

2. Authoritative parenting style

While it may be normal for parents to be strict with their children, parents who demonstrate a lack of empathy and believe that children should not be seen or heard are common characteristics of dysfunctional families.

Rather than attempting to understand their children, authoritative parents lack the ability to nourish their children’s emotional needs and often withhold affection or love. In some cases, especially when the parent resorts to anger, the child might feel guilty, demeaned, or frightened. Authoritative parents also tend to deny their children the space and freedom to make their own decisions.

This could result in children developing anxiety disorders from constantly feeling like they have to walk on eggshells around people. They may also lack the ability to make their own decisions in the future.

Besides this, demanding parents who are obsessed with the idea of “perfection” can result in children developing serious mental disorders such as depression. For instance, expecting perfect results and refusing to accept anything less can cause children to feel discouraged, hopeless and like a failure. The intense pressure from demanding parenting often leaves children with a low self-esteem.

3. High conflict and abuse

Squabbles among family members are an inevitable experience. However, living in a household where conflict and abuse are regular occurrences can have a negative impact on a child psychologically. Being raised in such a volatile, high-tension, and dangerous environment can leave children feeling isolated and alone – since their families that were supposed to love and protect them have betrayed them instead.

Experiencing physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse at home can leave children at a higher risk of developing unhealthy coping habits such as substance abuse, self-harming behaviour and more. They may also develop severe trust issues, hindering their ability to form meaningful relationships.

4. Parents struggling with mental issues

When a parent is suffering from a personality disorder such as narcissism, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and more, the family functions and dynamics are affected. Parents struggling with mental issues may overlook the child’s development as they are too busy focusing on their own needs, which could leave the child feeling lonely. This feeling of loneliness could translate into having difficulty expressing themselves and opening up to others.

According to research, parental mental illness also increases the risk of a child developing mental disorders as well.


While families are a huge part of an individual’s life, growing up in a dysfunctional family does not mean that there is no hope of living a healthy and fulfilling life. There are several ways to gain the emotional support needed to heal from the effects of growing up in a household filled with such animosity. One of the most effective methods is to attend individual professional counselling in Singapore.

Here at Emotional Wellness, we are an established counselling centre providing effective and professional psychotherapy services for individuals of all ages. No matter if you are looking for counselling services for anxiety, depression, eating disorders or other issues, we can help you to regain control over your life. Through the use of integrative counselling and psychotherapy techniques such as schema therapy, gestalt therapy, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) and more, our certified psychotherapist can help you address and overcome issues that have stemmed from your dysfunctional family backgrounds.

Schedule an appointment with us today.