Dysfunctional family refers to a family pattern generally associated with lower levels of health, well-being, happiness, and positive outcomes, compared with other families. Conceptualizing a dysfunctional family should be not as a dichotomy but as a continuum, viewing it in terms of degrees of dysfunction. Some families may be more or less dysfunctional than other families, with the extent and severity of dysfunction varying.
Many disciplines—such as sociology, psychology, social work, medicine, and criminology—study dysfunctional families. Because several disciplines study dysfunctional families, many different definitions, viewpoints, and solutions to dysfunctional families exist.
Many different types of dysfunctional families exist, as do various forms of family violence commonly classified as dysfunctional. For example, all forms of chronic or severe child abuse—sexual, emotional, and physical—are considered dysfunctional, as is child neglect, perhaps the most common form of child abuse. Spousal violence is also dysfunctional because of the physical and emotional harm inflicted on the victim and the negative and threatening environment in which the children live.
Chronic and abusive use of drugs or alcohol within the family is dysfunctional because of the action affiliated with such activity. Such chronic and abusive use correlates with higher levels of emotional and physical violence as well as diminished parent- child interaction. The net results for offspring are lower levels of academic success, self-esteem, and other indicators of overall well-being. Moreover, a higher likelihood of drug or alcohol abuse among children and adult children of drug- or alcohol-addicted parents is another negative outcome.
Dysfunctional families often result from chronic poverty, particularly in areas that offer few economic opportunities, inadequate educational programming, and an overall lack of hope for the future. Such families experience low levels of academic achievement, few plans for the future, high levels of criminal activity, drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, and homelessness. With fewer means to achieve success, families in chronic poverty are more likely to be considered dysfunctional.
Some research findings suggest that families experiencing emotional or physical disabilities have higher rates of stress, marital breakup, and second generations of emotional disorders (among families with emotional/psychological disorders, such as depression). However, many families in similar situations do not become dysfunctional. No particular event or social circumstance appears to cause or create a dysfunctional family, despite such assumptions. More likely, the way a family or family member views the event or social circumstance is the determining factor as to whether or not the family remains more functional. Thus, one family may experience a family member becoming disabled and yet remain highly functional, whereas another family may experience the same event and become dysfunctional because of inadequate support, self-definition of the event as a crisis, and lack of previous positive experiences.
Where on a dysfunctional family continuum families fall relates to the number of dysfunctional characteristics present within the family. That is, families with several elements associated with being dysfunctional would fall in the “more dysfunctional” category. For example, a family in chronic poverty, headed by a drug- or alcohol-addicted parent where child and spousal abuse are also present, is more dysfunctional than a family where one event of non-life-threatening couple violence occurred. The more dysfunctional the family, the more challenging it is for the offspring to have successful outcomes in life.
Dysfunctional families are a social problem for two main reasons. First, the immediate members of a dysfunctional family may experience harm or hardship because of the nature of the family. Second, the pattern of dysfunctional families may be transmitted to the second generation, in what is known as “intergenerational transmission.” However, intergenerational transmission is not an absolute; whereas some family members will repeat the dysfunctional family pattern, many will not.
Perhaps most important in determining whether or not intergenerational transmission occurs are individual characteristics of children. Substantial research documents the resilience of some people to harsh or unhealthy environments. These individuals generally have several protective factors that aid in minimizing the long-term impact of dysfunctional families. These protective factors include high intelligence, external social supports, an internal sense of locus of control, the ability to recognize opportunities for change, and an awareness of the ability to have better outcomes. Recognition of the dysfunctional nature of family actions is essential but does not necessarily prevent intergenerational transmission of family dysfunction.
Recent research indicates that disidentification with dysfunctional family members may aid in preventing repetition of the dysfunctional behaviors. Disidentification comes about by the offspring recognizing the problem behavior and taking steps and making a commitment to break the cycle. Sometimes disidentification involves limiting with the dysfunctional family members. The presence of role models who may or may not be family members also seems to be important in preventing intergenerational transmission of dysfunctional family patterns. Less frequently, removal of children from the dysfunctional family is necessary to prevent permanent physical or mental harm to the children, resulting in their placement with alternative family members or foster care families.
- Luthar, Suniya W., ed. 2003. Resilience and Vulnerability: Adaptation in the Context of Childhood Adversities. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Martinez, Cindy. 2006. “Abusive Family Experiences and Object Relations Disturbances.” Clinical Case Studies 5(3):209-19.
- Pollock, Joycelyn M., Janet L. Mullings, and Ben M. Crouch. 2006. “Violent Women: Findings from the Texas Women Inmates Study.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 21(4):485-502.
- Reiss, David. 1991. The Family’s Construction of Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Rutter, Michael. 1995. “Psychosocial Adversity: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery.” Southern African Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 7(2):75-88.
- Werner, E. E. 1994. “Overcoming the Odds.” Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 15(2):131-36.
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