Dysfunction means to deviate from what is normal, in a bad way. A dysfunctional person doesn’t behave in a manner that is considered socially acceptable. A dysfunctional family doesn’t create an environment to produce healthy individuals.
People often joke about their families. They chuckle and say, “Oh, we’re totally dysfunctional, but at the end of the day, we love each other!” For the sake of this article, we’re not talking about those families who boast “dysfunctionality” while enjoying rich and intimate relationships with family members. The adage, “All families have their problems,” may be true, but dysfunctional family dynamics are different. A dysfunctional family is one in which the pattern of consistent interactions and rules create damaging characteristics. It’s not a one-time thing or based on a short-term stressor, like the temporary loss of a job causing tension between parents. Rather, a truly dysfunctional family exhibits toxic characteristics as a norm. While one dysfunctional person may not create a dysfunctional family, a dysfunctional family has a much greater risk of creating dysfunctional people.
Causes and Characteristics of Dysfunctional Families
There are many causes of family dysfunction. One common misconception is that dysfunctional marriages are on the verge of separation or divorce. This is not always the case. Many times, dysfunctional families stay intact because of financial hardship, fear of religious or social shunning, or denial. The bitterness and contempt resulting from these marriages are very capable of causing problems throughout the entire family. Substance abuse, whether alcohol or drugs, is a common cause of dysfunctional family relationships. While chronic mental health or physical illness alone does not cause dysfunctional family roles,, they are a prevalent source of hardship. Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse causes significant damage. Single parenthood, gambling, and extramarital affairs are also major stressors on a family. And sometimes, authoritarian or uninvolved parenting is enough to cause dysfunction in a family. An authoritarian parent is controlling and dismissive of a child, favoring discipline above intimacy, and rarely granting exceptions. With authoritarian parenting, a child is forced to cooperate by the use of fear and threats, the child rarely gets to voice an opinion, and the father or mother use a substantial amount of yelling as communication; there may even be verbal abuse. An uninvolved parent is neglectful and often fails to give attention, guidance, or nurture to a child. Examples of uninvolved parents are parents who are absent most of the time, parents who favor their interests over spending time with their child, and parents who have no emotional bond with their child.
There are many characteristics of a dysfunctional family. Along with control, one might find excessive criticism, perfectionism, or overbearingly rigid rules. There would also be a disregard for boundaries, either of one’s privacy or the destroying of personal property. More than one family member or child might live in constant fear. Other red flags could be a lack of empathy, consistently poor communication and unpredictability, or denial of the severity of the situation at home. One might also be able to identify the rise of specific family roles.
Dysfunctional Family Roles
Children of dysfunctional families develop differently than children in a functional family. In healthy families, nurtured children learn how to express themselves verbally and behave properly. However, in a dysfunctional family, those skills are not guided. They usually have no control over their toxic home environments, so they adapt by taking on various roles to cope. It is important to note that one person may serve multiple roles, and several people might share one role. Let’s examine six different identities found in dysfunctional families.
One of the primary functions of the Caretaker is to care for any children. This can be the spouse of an addict or a child in place of absent or abusive parents or a narcissistic parent. It is common for these individuals to try and soften the reality of the problems and try hard to keep the family happy. They often take over all the responsibilities of the person, enabling them to continue their toxic behavior. At times, the Caretaker will assert that everything is normal and okay. They become the hero of the family by compensating for the dysfunctionality in the home. They might attempt to shelter children or explain away the actions of toxic persons as normal, given the circumstance.
It’s not typically an intentional coping mechanism. The Caretaker simply steps up in performing as many of the necessary duties as possible. He doesn’t want to believe that things are as bad as they are because then there might not be an end to the suffering. He also believes that in explaining the dysfunction to others, the advantages given to healthier families, would be more in reach to their family members. Because of this disillusion, they are less likely to take outside help, whether from friends, family, or the government.
Much like the Hero, the Mascot attempts to add normalcy and even charm to the dysfunctional family. They might do this in two ways: through comedy in the home and external ambition. The Mascot will often be the favored member of the family because he breaks the tension and pain with comedy. He is seen as light-hearted and seeks to diffuse stressful family situations. The Mascot might also be excessively involved in outside pursuits. As a child or adolescent, he might be engaged in a lot of sports or clubs or have an exceptional academic record. He might work hard and strive to be the best in his field. This brings an element of goodness to the hardship that is his home environment. Success often blinds others to the vileness of dysfunction. He is more likely to be active, continually involved in as many things as possible, and struggle with loneliness or despair when there isn’t something to do. He might also be the most protected of the family because he adds the most value, sometimes referred to as the “golden child.”
The Rebel/Problem Child
Unlike the Mascot, the Rebel refuses to pretend that everything is normal and acts out in defiance. He can be cynical and self-destructive and involve himself in risky behavior. This can put him in precarious situations with others and the law. He may inadvertently behave this way to distract family members from their dysfunctional relationships. If they are all focused on him, the family becomes united, even if it’s over something negative. Despite that subconscious motive, the Rebel will be combative, argumentative, and even hostile at home. The Rebel cannot adequately convey feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or pain. This inability to communicate emotionally tends to carry with him into adulthood.
The Scapegoat bears the brunt of the ill consequences of the dysfunctional family. They are usually blamed for the problems in the family and treated poorly in comparison to the others. Of course, it is rarely the fault of the Scapegoat, and he usually sees more of the reality of the situation than any other member of the family. This role often overlaps with the Rebel since the family’s attention focuses on the consequences of the Rebel. The cycle of mistreating the Scapegoat only for the Rebel to act out perpetuates the continued dysfunction in the family. The Scapegoat lacks self-confidence because he is constantly blamed. He is much more likely to run away from home and is often the first child to leave home. Because the consequences of being the Scapegoat include abuse, familial isolation, devalued status, and less physical health and well-being resources, the Scapegoat is at the highest risk of suicide.
The Lost Child
The Lost Child is inconspicuous, quiet, and nearly invisible. He intends to be unseen. He makes himself as small as possible to minimize the possibility of being a target for dysfunctional behavior. This results in spending an excessive amount of time alone. He stays out of the way. If he can get away with not being home, he stays away as long as possible. When he is home, he cares for himself in ways that do not draw attention to him. He will not argue or defy, he will only respond when necessary, and he will avoid the path of the dysfunctional person. Because of this, the Lost Child tends to be shyer and struggles with social interaction. He is less likely to make friends and will favor activities that keep him in isolation. His limited interactions with others will make him mistrustful of people in general and unable to identify healthy individuals from dysfunctional ones.
Unlike any of the other roles, the Mastermind tends to manipulate the situation in his favor so that he may enjoy as many advantages as possible. This is most noticeable in a child who pits two intimate relationships against each other. Still, it could also exist in a child or spouse who takes advantage of a particular weakness in dysfunctional family members. The child usually learns early on, not necessarily because he is inherently malicious, that the key to attaining what he wants lies in behaving a certain way. Consequently, the Mastermind ends up spoiled and self-entitled. He is also likely to be narcissistic or develop a personality disorder from a young age and will struggle to keep healthy relationships. Because he has learned manipulation and control from so young, he’s also more likely to perpetuate dysfunction by being abusive in his relationships.
Consequences of Dysfunctional Family Roles
Each of these roles carries different consequences, though some may overlap. All of these roles have a higher tendency toward depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. The Caretaker and the Mastermind run a higher chance of developing narcissism while others have low self-esteem and poor self-image. They have difficulty expressing emotion, have little self-discipline, and are likely to gravitate toward chronic procrastination and compulsive spending. Dysfunctional families tend to either make children grow up too fast or not adapt to adulthood well at all, leading to an adult that spends an obscene amount of time watching television, playing video games, and surfing the Internet. Many end up perpetuating dysfunctional behaviors later in life, actually becoming less attracted to healthy behavior and may continue to be in denial of the severity of the situation. They are more likely to engage in abusive relationships. They struggle to establish solid relationships with peers, either due to low self-esteem, personality disorders, or unhealthy attachment styles. They might experience distrust of others or even paranoia. Or, to fill the constant need for love and acceptance, they are likely to join a gang or a cult.
They are also much more likely to start or continue risky behavior. This elevates the likelihood of alcoholism, addiction to drugs, especially if they had parents that did the same, and are more likely to become parents to children born out of wedlock. There is also an increased risk of becoming a sex offender, including pedophilia or expereince sexual abuse themselves. And there is more of a chance that they will experience poverty or homelessness. Often, those constantly engaging in risky behavior turn to a life of crime and spend their lives in and out of jail.
The consequences of dysfunctional families are far-reaching, often perpetuating into generations. Children often continue their roles as adults because it’s what they are familiar with. The cycle is very challenging to break and usually requires professional intervention. Family Life Educators, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists are all professionals that can assist a dysfunctional person or family.
Masteller, James; Stoop, David (1991). “The Blame Game”. Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (revised and updated ed.). ReadHowYouWant.com (published 2011). p. 222. ISBN 9781459622937
Polson, Beth; Newton, Miller (1984). Not My Kid: A Family’s Guide to Kids and Drugs. Arbor Books / Kids of North Jersey Nurses. ISBN 978-0877956334