Takeaway: Family is where we learn how to interact with other people. Therefore, dealing with a dysfunctional family can make it more difficult to form and maintain healthy, strong relationships in life. In this blog post, I dive into the things you can do to prioritize your well-being while dealing with your dysfunctional family.
Most families experience times of tension, miscommunication, and hardships. No family is perfect, and every family endures some amount of dysfunction.
In healthy families, everyone listens to and respects one another. When harmful behavior occurs, people make genuine efforts to make amends. They try to change their behavior in the future.
However, most dysfunctional families contain members who won’t change. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may have been subjected to abuse, neglect, and repeatedly poor behavior. This is frequently the result of having toxic, dysfunctional parents. Sometimes siblings or other family members can cause dysfunctional dynamics as well.
The toxic behavior of even one family member can have a negative effect on the entire family. It can result in a dysfunctional family. The rest of the family develops unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with this toxic behavior, which results in unhealthy dynamics throughout the whole family unit.
Dealing with a family like this is difficult. It can feel very lonely, isolating, and frustrating. In my therapy practice, I work with teens and young adults who are struggling to deal with a dysfunctional family. Together, we work toward understanding dysfunctional family dynamics and finding ways to overcome family dysfunction.
Within a healthy family, members are able to express themselves freely and communicate openly and safely with one another. But in a dysfunctional family, communication is not encouraged or altogether avoided. Being at home can feel emotionally or physically unsafe. This is usually due to inconsistent or unpredictable behavior from one or more family members.
Here are some common signs of a dysfunctional family:
Having toxic or dysfunctional family members can feel like walking on eggshells all the time. It results in developing coping mechanisms that help you survive, but that keep you stuck in habits or behaviors that don’t serve you.
Teens and young adults who grow up in dysfunctional families can have a difficult time adjusting to relationships in adulthood. I often work with young adults who:
Family is where we learn how to interact with other people. Therefore, dealing with a dysfunctional family can make it more difficult to form and maintain healthy, strong relationships in life.
But being part of a dysfunctional family isn’t your fault, and it isn’t a death sentence to all your future relationships. It isn’t a death sentence to your health and wellbeing, either. On the contrary, you can work to build warm, loving relationships with yourself and others.
You can’t control anyone else’s behavior. You only have power over your own actions.
You can develop awareness of your family’s dynamics and your own behavioral patterns and work to change what you can control. You can dismantle your family’s unhealthy dynamics within your life and decide how you want to behave. You can learn skills to increase self-compassion, communicate in a loving and healthy way, cope with your emotions, and strengthen your relationships.
These things all require patience, vulnerability, skill-building, and forming new habits. The process of overcoming dysfunctional family dynamics is uncomfortable and slow. Be patient and kind with yourself as you work through this process.
Here are some things you can do to prioritize your well-being while dealing with your dysfunctional family.
Boundaries are limits or separations in relationships.They help the boundary-setter maintain their sense of safety and wellbeing. While boundaries are sometimes seen as harsh or cruel, they aren’t. They’re actually the opposite – they help define which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t.
Think of boundaries as teaching people how you want to be treated. You deserve to be treated with respect and care, and you’re allowed to ask for this type of treatment.
Communicating and upholding boundaries with other people is an important way to advocate for yourself. Setting boundaries is difficult and takes practice, but you’re responsible for maintaining and enforcing them.
Setting boundaries can be as simple as telling your family you’ve decided not to attend a family function. It can also look like you asking family members not to come into your room without asking first, walking away from a conversation when they start to berate you or raise their voice, or saying “no” to something you don’t want to be involved in.
It’s easy to feel guilty and anxious before and after you’ve communicated a boundary, especially when someone reacts poorly to it. Know that this reaction is a reflection of their own lack of boundaries, and has nothing to do with you. If someone argues with you about setting a boundary, it only means the boundary really needed to be set.
Creating physical and emotional space from your dysfunctional family is a crucial step in protecting your energy.
Limiting interactions with toxic family members can help with this. You can opt out of family gatherings and meals. Try to avoid spaces where you’ll be ridiculed or where fights are likely to break out.
If it’s not possible to stay apart from them physically, you can create intentional emotional space. You can choose to share less personal information with them, knowing they may try to use what you say against you later. If they ask you a personal question, redirect the conversation back to them by asking them about something they’re interested in.
If you feel unsafe around family members, know that it’s okay to cut contact with them. Do this only if this is an option for you and you have somewhere else to go.
Be aware that a lot of grief, anger, and other tough emotions may arise from having to make a decision like this, and that’s okay. Feeling grief around having dysfunctional family dynamics is completely valid and normal.
Limiting interaction with toxic family members helps you protect your own health and happiness, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love your family and can’t ever have relationships with them. It just means you’re putting yourself first, which you deserve to do. Protecting yourself and prioritizing your wellbeing is difficult and complex, but ultimately worthwhile.
When dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics, it’s important to seek support outside the family.
Working to overcome a dysfunctional family will probably involve processing a lot of difficult emotions, including grief, anger, sadness, guilt, and shame. You don’t have to deal with this alone, and you shouldn’t have to.
While venting to friends or other family members is a great way to blow off steam, they will only be able to offer so much practical help. However, friends offer incredible support systems and can help you get through really tough times.
You can also seek support in the form of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, which are free to attend and are offered worldwide. This can help if your or one of your family members struggles with alcohol abuse.
Another form of support to consider is therapy. You can get therapy for yourself, your whole family, or both.
While some families are willing to work on difficult dynamics together, not all are. Know that if your family is unwilling or not ready to go to counseling with you, it’s not your fault. A family member’s inability or lack of desire to seek help doesn’t reflect on you or your worth as a family member. It’s simply a reflection of their own inner workings. Remember that you can’t control the behavior or decisions of others, no matter how much you may want to.
If you are unable to seek counseling as a whole family, focus on what you have control over: yourself and your decisions.
Individual therapy can help you understand the dynamics of your family. It gives you tools for coping with the grief, anger, and other strong emotions that result from dealing with a dysfunctional family.
You deserve support in getting through this. If you’d like to explore therapy, I can help. I work with teens and young adults in New York who want to break out of toxic cycles of family dysfunction.
You’ll come away with a clearer idea of how to express yourself and be heard, how to set boundaries, and how to get your needs met outside your family. We’ll also work together to help you develop more self-compassion, confidence, and resilience.
If you are a perfectionist and people-pleaser trying to keep the peace as a coping mechanism, click here to take a two-minute quiz to clarify and uncover your need to please. After you connect with your personal archetype, you'll receive resources to support you in overcoming those pesky people-pleasing tendencies!
Justine is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She helps teenagers, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflict and relationship issues. Justine is also the host of the podcast Thoughts From the Couch.