Three main effects

Growing up with a dysfunctional family
123922521 © Nikolay Kulikov |

Did you grow up in a dysfunctional family?

If you never really talk about growing up. It can feel like a sticky subject. You describe your family as difficult, tricky, or complicated. You likely lived with caregivers or parents exhibiting chemical dependence, mental illness, or abusive behaviour.

Or all three.

That’s what makes it a dysfunctional family.

Which in conclusion is more than things not running well. In fact, it’s a system of rigid family rules and roles developed to maintain the addict, abuser or unwell persons behaviour. Resulting in three main effects, but also so much more. Therefore, by unpacking the dysfunctional family, you can develop healthier relationships. Not to mention breaking learned behavioural patterns.

So what is a dysfunctional family?

In short, a family that experiences conflict, misbehaviour, and abuse. Often with child neglect, because caregivers (s) are absorbed with their own issues. With two adults it takes one to be typically overtly abusive and the other to be co-dependent and go along with the abuse.  Substance abuse, addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, divorce, or incarceration are ways the family becomes dysfunctional. Parents who’ve experienced dysfunctional families themselves may repeat the cycles of behaviour continuing generational trauma.

You can’t pass on what you don’t know yourself.

Creating a dysfunctional nervous system

Connection and safety are essential for children to thrive physically and emotionally. From the second you are born you are reliant on a consistently attuned caregiver to meet your needs and make you feel safe. When a caregiver can self-regulate their emotions, they can then co-regulate their children. In a dysfunctional family, caregivers are neither consistent nor attuned to their children creating a dysregulated nervous system for the child. Meaning caregivers are unable to provide the necessary co-regulation to help children be calm and feel safe.

So no one feels safe and often no one feels in control.

Chaotic lifestyle

Family life is disorganised, unpredictable and can feel frightening for children of dysfunctional families. When caregivers do not consistently meet needs, it doesn’t feel safe. Neglected children become anxious and stressed and often a Child will take on adult responsibilities at an early age. Children parent adults and become their emotional support as well as taking on major household responsibilities. Without the safety of a structure, supervision, or known boundaries Children cannot thrive and reach their full potential.

Generating an anxious cycle

Instead, they are stuck in an anxious cycle of chaos, wondering what will happen next. Unpredictable parental behaviour creates hypervigilance as Children tiptoe around trying to avoid the caregiver’s outbursts or abuse. Often Children can blame themselves for their parents’ failings as they don’t feel loved then they must be ‘unlovable’.  It’s the simplest way to make sense of the frightening confusing situation for young children.

Pushing feelings down

Children from dysfunctional families fail to recognise or value their own feelings. Not being heard and dismissed consequently leave children feeling unimportant.The parent always comes first. So their survival hinges on tuning into others’ emotions while suppressing their own. Hyper-aware, these children pick up on subtle shifts to avert explosive outbursts or to comfort a parent, creating an opportunity for connection. Prioritising a parent’s emotions becomes the child’s key to safety. This can often be the beginning of people pleasing in difficult or divorced families.

The effects of abuse

Emotional abuse, alongside physical and emotional neglect, is an integral part of dysfunctional families. Verbal abuse often surfaces amidst stress and chaos, ingrained in a dysregulated nervous system. This abuse may emanate from parents or siblings, or permeate the entire family, systematically dismantling self-esteem and self-worth.

Beyond neglecting a child’s emotional needs, parents can tarnish a child’s self-esteem through derogatory names and harsh criticism. In the formative years, children internalise their parents’ words, believing them to be true. Even as adults, the emotional impact lingers, persisting despite logical awareness that they are not, for example, unintelligent.

The saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names with never harm me’ –  isn’t true.

Names definitely hurt and are harmful.

Unspoken rules

Dysfunctional family dynamics adhere to three unspoken rules:

1. Silence is Golden

Family issues are taboo, both within the family unit and to outsiders. This denial forms the basis for concealing abuse, addiction, or illness. Children, sensing an underlying problem, grapple with confusion and often shoulder blame, fostering a sense of isolation, hopelessness, and the misconception that they are alone in their experiences.

The “don’t talk” rule perpetuates secrecy and shame, hindering acknowledgment and resolution of the family’s core problems.

2. Trust No One

Growing up in a dysfunctional family erodes the fundamental trust children should feel towards their parents and the world. Inconsistency and unreliability in caregivers prevent the development of a secure and trusting environment. Dysfunctional parents expose children to perilous situations, further compromising their ability to trust others, even those closest to them.

The “don’t trust” mandate extends beyond the family, isolating them and fostering a fear that seeking help may lead to undesirable consequences.

3. Forbidden Emotions

Repression of painful emotions becomes a coping mechanism within dysfunctional families. Children witness their parents numbing their feelings through various means, such as alcohol, drugs, or technology. Expressing feelings is discouraged, as it can result in being ignored or, at worst, facing violence, blame, and shame. Consequently, children learn to suppress their emotions, numb themselves, and distract from the pain to cope with the challenges of their environment.

The last rule “don’t feel” of a dysfunctional family makes it very hard to connect and talk to others. If you manage to get past the first two rules, trying to explain how you feel becomes an impossible challenge. Often there aren’t words to describe the feelings or the name of the feelings are unknown.

Post traumatic growth

In conclusion, the impact of growing up in a dysfunctional family goes beyond surface-level disruptions. Counselling offers the opportunity to unpack this dysfunction and create healthier relationships. Where you can show your feelings, speak your mind and experience co-regulation. Breaking years of learned behavioural patterns. When you can understand your upbringing, and how this has affected you – it gives you the chance to know what was ‘theirs’ and what is ‘yours’.

Doing the work means breaking the cycle of passing trauma to the next generation. It also transforms chaotic lifestyles by addressing neglect, enabling individuals to create stable environments for themselves and their families.

Finally, counselling aids processing the effects of emotional abuse, enabling individuals to rebuild self-esteem and challenge unspoken family rules.

Helping you rewrite the narrative, untangle dysfunction and make a new chapter in your story.

Your past doesn’t have to determine your future.


If you are interested in exploring family behavioural patterns please email or click here

About the author: Chris Boobier is the owner of CRB Counselling specialising in anxiety, trauma, Bereavement & loss. Supporting adults and adolescents, she is passionate about helping people be their authentic self through counselling.


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