1. Abuse & Neglect;
Abuse and neglect are extremely common within dysfunctional families. Abuse can be anything from physical violence, sexual violence, verbal abuse, or any other action deemed abusive. The abuse is often carried out by all members of the family. Neglect is also carried out by all family members but is usually thought of in relation to the parents/caregivers. Neglect can be anything from emotional neglect (not giving hugs, withholding love and attention, withholding support, etc) to physical neglect (not providing food, not providing first aid, etc). The cycle of abuse and neglect often becomes intergenerational leading new parents to abuse and neglect their children.
2. Conditional love;
All members of a dysfunctional family can become manipulative with their love after learning to give it out on conditional terms only. That is, the dysfunctional family learns that love is only to be shared/expressed when something has been exchanged in return. For example, a child may learn that a mother or father only expresses ‘love’ towards them when they get good grades or act in certain ways (sexual abuse). They may also only express ‘love’ when they want something from you. Your value to the other family members really depends on what you have to offer. Do you have money that they want? Do you have time or energy that they want? Does a sibling only ‘love’ you when they need a babysitter?
3. Lack of boundaries and role confusion;
Dysfunctional families have extremely poor boundaries. Children become parentified and so care for their parents and siblings. Mothers and fathers over share and manipulate their children into being therapists or pseudo husbands and wives. Siblings can become enmeshed emotionally and sexually (incest) which becomes more problematic if there is neglect and an extreme lack of parental/caregiver supervision. Parents play out their lost dreams and hopes through their children forcing the children to develop ‘ideal’ personalities. A lack of boundaries really ‘connects’ and ‘bonds’ a dysfunctional family in an extremely toxic way because any and all individuality and uniqueness will eventually get lost and ignored.
4. Extreme secrecy and privacy;
Most dysfunctional families are closed systems which receive little to no input from the outside world. Family members are strongly discouraged from discussing the inner workings of the family to outsiders. In some cases, only the abuser can interact with their community. Children may be forced to home school and spouses may be prevented from working or interacting with outside people. The dysfunctional family will rarely have guests over and they may choose isolated areas to reside in. Dysfunctional families also often have ‘big’ family secrets. For example, a mother may never tell her children who their father is. A child may be raised with a sister or brother who turns out to be their mother/father (teenage pregnancy covered up), or a family member may be “living overseas” when they are in fact in prison.
This refers to addiction of any sort. Whether its alcohol and drug addiction, gambling addiction, shopping addiction or sex addiction. The addiction always filters down through the family adding to its toxicity and dysfunctionality. Alcohol and drug addiction can fuel violence, abuse, neglect and parentification. Gambling and shopping addictions can leave little money left for food, schooling, rent, etc. Sex addictions can lead to multiple affairs or even incestual abuse. Addiction by one or both parents may encourage their children to also develop addictions as the addictive behaviours are normalised by the dysfunctional family.
6. Extreme fear and unpredictability;
Dysfunctional families often walk on eggshells. Since the family is so toxic and dysfunctional, and all things go, nothing can be predicted and so nothing can be relied upon. Persistent and consistent violence, abuse and neglect creates an atmosphere of fear and fear-related attachment (trauma bonding). Fear and trauma bonding is often mischaracterised as love and loyalty. For example, a child may remain in contact with their family out of ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’ when in fact they are petrified about what would happen to them if they ever abandoned their family.
This sounds counterintuitive but not all dysfunctional families argue and fight frequently and loudly. Some dysfunctional families are cowed into silence and so they may fear making unnecessary noises which can potentially make other family members (especially the abusers) angry. Silent behaviours might include walking around the house quietly, not flushing the toilet or washing hands at night time when everyone is asleep, making food quietly, speaking quietly or having TVs and radios set to low volumes only. People raised in these families may find that they are very quiet in other areas of their lives (work, school, etc).
8. Favouritism and scapegoating;
Dysfunctional families rarely treat children equally. There is often a golden child and the rest are either black sheep/scapegoats or simply insignificant and inconsequential. The golden child can do no wrong regardless of how abusive and dysfunctional they really are. The black sheep/scapegoat is usually the ‘healthiest’ one. They are healthy because they have glimpses and insights about the family toxicity. The black sheep also challenges the status quo which makes them targets for the others who prefer to continue the toxicity and abuse for whatever reason.
Black sheep threaten the dysfunctional family as the dysfunctional family would prefer to deny the toxicity and deny that the family is nothing but perfect. Sexual abuse, incest and other forms of abuse are easily swept under the rug. Abusers will deny that they are abusive. Codependents and enablers will deny that they contribute towards the dysfunctionality. Children will deny that they are unloved, abused and neglected. Siblings will deny that their childhoods were as bad as other siblings describe.