A healthy family should be a safe haven for all individuals within the family system. Individuals should feel comfortable expressing their needs and anticipate that their needs will be appropriately met by the family. Family members should feel as though everyone in the family has their best interest at heart and will be willing to grow and change to meet future needs, hardships, and expansion of the family.
What is a Dysfunctional Family?
Dysfunctional families are the opposite of healthy families. They often struggle to meet the needs of all family members, are rigid, and often lack the ability or desire to grow and change. Family members often do not feel safe to express themselves and needs are often viewed as weaknesses. In these families, people often seek to hide their most vulnerable parts and minimize and avoid close interactions as these are more likely to result in emotional pain or disappointment.
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9 Signs of a Dysfunctional Family
- Members often deny responsibility for hurtful behavior – Some members are utterly unwilling to accept responsibility for their hurtful or unhealthy behaviors. Therefore members carry around long-standing hurt as little has been done to ever try to heal hurt or pain from the past.
- Members use intimidation to maintain power in the family – in healthy families, each member is valued equally. However, in dysfunctional families, certain members are more valued than others. The valued members may use intimidation and fear to keep their powerful status in the family.
- Certain family member’s needs are expendable – Individuals in the family with less power often have their needs neglected and ignored.
- Reality is difficult to discern – Individuals in dysfunctional families have been taught that their emotions and experiences are wrong and therefore cannot trust their own perceptions. These feelings of doubt allow dysfunctional behaviors to continue without much push back or challenge.
- Victims are made responsible for abusive behavior – Certain family members are made responsible for another’s anger, aggression, addiction, or poor decisions. Certain family members may be required to meet unrealistic expectations or unhealthy needs of another member.
- Family appearance is deceptive – Many dysfunctional families try to keep their dysfunction hidden from the outside world. Therefore, there is often a strict code of silence that allows these families to look healthy to outsiders, but behind closed doors, there is great pain and suffering.
- There is no straightforward healthy communication – Communication is very difficult and often does not accomplish change, empathy, or increased understanding. Verbal messages may be contradictory or confusing resulting in more shame, doubt, and hopelessness.
- Healthy emotions are not valued – Dysfunctional families only value happiness and compliance to others needs and demands. Feelings of sadness, regret, disappointment, embarrassment, or fear are not valued or discussed.
- They exhibit poor boundaries – Family members may be rigid and reluctant to flex as the family grows, develops, and transforms over time. Other family members may be overly involved in the lives of their children giving them little room to make mistakes or formulate their own opinions. Some lack boundaries at all and do not enforce any healthy rules or guidance. Lastly, some are unpredictable leading to the members feeling unsure and worried that they are going to “mess up” at any moment.
How To Deal With A Dysfunctional Family
I often teach my clients to “be as close as you can possibly be to your family without being hurt by them.” Poor boundaries and manipulation have taught many of us that a “good person” is always close to their family, even if it hurts and causes distress in some members.
Many people have great difficulty looking at their family dysfunction due to the fear that the dysfunction will be labeled as “abusive” and force them to cut their family members out of their life for good. As much as our family may have hurt us, many of us do not desire a complete severance of relationship but desire a way to grow and stop the patterns of hurt.
Identifying the dysfunction within the family does not often or always result in an end to our relationship with our family. Instead, family therapy can provide a valuable way to stop these patterns of distress and create a way for all members to feel loved, respected, and understood.
Some families present for family counseling read to work through hard topics and embrace the idea of growth and change. However, some family members are not yet ready to “do the work” and may not be open to family counseling at this time.
Family Systems Theory famously states, that when one member of the family system changes, it forces the whole family system to be different and adjust to the change. Seeking individual counseling for distress within the family can be the first step in helping the family become more healthy.
When one person in the family begins to practice healthy boundaries, communication, and expectations the rest of the family must accommodate that change. One family member’s first steps can set the stage for other family members to seek out family counseling and healing for the whole family unit.
Biltmore Psychology and Counseling’s psychologists, counselors, and marriage and family therapists love working with families through the difficult seasons of their life.
Many families present with a great deal of hopelessness and frustration from long-standing distress. And while many families are on the brink of despair or feel completely overwhelmed, we know that families can heal and we find such reward in this work!
If the whole family is ready to take the step for counseling, we are ready for this journey.
Yet, if only one person is ready to make the change, know that this can also be an important step to heal your family as a whole.
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Family therapy can be used as a therapeutic approach to a wide range of presenting concerns, problems, or frustrations. Yet, rather than each family member meeting one on one with an individual counselor, family therapy invites multiple family members to meet together to participate in the therapeutic process.
Dr. Melissa Estavillo is a Licensed Psychologist and founder of Biltmore Psychology and Counseling. With over 7 years of experience, she specializes in both individual and couples therapy in Phoenix and Scottsdale, AZ. She integrates complementary methodologies and techniques stemming from Emotionally Focused Theory, Psychodynamic Theory and Other Evidence Based Practices to offer a highly personalized approach tailored to each client.