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9 Signs You Grew Up in a Dysfunctional Family

Updated: May 20

Caitlin Weese LCSW-C, 200 RYT, CCTP


person with their head down on table

Have you ever heard the term "dysfunctional family?" People often discuss being from, or knowing, a dysfunctional family but we might not know what that actually means. The American Psychological Association defines it as "a family in which relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression." This can be the result of substance use, trauma or mental health struggles, regardless of its cause, growing up in a dysfunctional household can have a significant impact on a person's life. It can affect their mental, emotional, and physical well-being, along with their relationships with others. However, its very normal to be unsure what dysfunction looks like as we often only have our own experiences to compare to. Because it can be challenging to recognize that you grew up in a dysfunctional household, I've created a list of some signs that might indicate that you did.

  1. Poor communication: One of the most common signs of a dysfunctional household is poor communication. This can manifest in several ways. For example, there may be a lack of open communication between family members, with conversations typically being superficial and family members communicating through a member to someone else. For example, a mother speaking to her daughter to convey a message to her husband. Additionally, communication may be aggressive or hostile, with family members frequently arguing or yelling at one another.

  2. Emotional neglect: Emotional neglect can also be a sign of a dysfunctional household. Emotional neglect occurs when parents or caregivers fail to provide the emotional support and care that their children need. This can include neglecting to provide praise, encouragement, and validation, failing to express love and affection, or failing to provide a safe and nurturing environment. Children who experience emotional neglect often struggle with self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.

  3. Substance abuse: Substance abuse is another common sign of a dysfunctional household. Parents or caregivers who struggle with substance abuse can have a significant impact on children's lives. Children may grow up feeling neglected, abandoned, or unsupported, which can lead to a range of emotional and behavioral struggles. Children may become "parentified" taking on the responsibilities of their parents due to their illness. Additionally, children of substance-abusing parents may be more likely to develop substance abuse problems themselves as they learn substances are coping skills.

  4. Complex PTSD: Growing up in a dysfunctional household can also increase the risk of Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is defined as a set of symptoms that appear as the direct result of chronic or long-term nervous system activation and trauma. These include classic PTSD symptoms as well feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem. Children who grow up in households with high levels of conflict, abuse, neglect, or substance abuse will be more likely to experience trauma and high levels of stress, making them more likely to struggle with this issue.

  5. Perfectionism: Perfectionism is another common sign of growing up in a dysfunctional household. Children who grow up in households where there is a lot of pressure to be perfect may struggle with self-esteem issues and anxiety. They may feel that they can never live up to the high expectations set for them by their parents or caregivers or that their love is conditional and based on their success.

  6. Difficulty setting boundaries: Difficulty setting boundaries is another sign of growing up in a dysfunctional household. Dysfunctional families often have very porous (or loose) or rigid boundaries. In addition, their may be little or no respect for personal boundaries within the family. As a result, they may struggle to set healthy boundaries in their adult relationships, finding it challenging to say no to others or feeling guilty when they do set boundaries.

  7. Avoidance of conflict: Children who grow up in households with high levels of conflict may learn to avoid conflict as a coping mechanism. While avoiding conflict can be helpful in the short term, it can lead to problems in adult relationships. Avoiding conflict can lead to feelings of resentment, anger, and frustration, which can damage relationships over time.

  8. People-pleasing: People-pleasing is another common sign of growing up in a dysfunctional household. Children who grow up in households where they feel they must please their parents or caregivers may continue this pattern of behavior into adulthood. They may struggle to set boundaries, feel guilty when they do, and put others' needs before their own.

  9. Fear of abandonment: Children who grow up in households where there is neglect, abuse, or abandonment don't have their needs met and often develop insecure attachment styles. This makes them more likely to develop a fear of abandonment. This fear can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood.

Growing up in a dysfunctional household can have a significant impact on a person's life. It can affect their mental health, emotional well-being, and ability to form healthy relationships. If you recognize some of the signs listed above in your own life, it's essential to seek help from a mental health professional. A therapist can help you process your experiences, develop coping strategies, and build healthier relationships.


It's Not Your Fault

It's also important to remember that growing up in a dysfunctional household is not your fault. It's common for children to internalize the dysfunction in their families and blame themselves for their parents' behavior. But it's crucial to recognize that the dysfunction was not caused by anything you did or didn't do.

If you're currently raising children, it's important to be mindful of how your own childhood experiences may be influencing your parenting. Seek out parenting resources and support to help you break the cycle of dysfunction and provide your children with a healthy and nurturing environment.

Healing is Possible

Finally, it's important to recognize that healing from the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional household is a process that takes time and effort. It may be a difficult journey, but with the right support, it's possible to overcome the challenges and build a fulfilling life for yourself. Give yourself credit for getting here, recognizing the signs of dysfunction is the first step in healing and building healthier relationships. Seek out support from a mental health professional and remember that you are not alone. With time and effort, it's possible to overcome the challenges and build a fulfilling life for yourself.

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