50 signs of a dysfunctional family (and what to do about it)

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Tolstoy couldn’t have said it any better. When a family is happy and “functional”, it’s quite easy to see why. Despite some fights, a happy family is warmly wrapped in security and love.

Dysfunctional families, on the other hand, are unhappy in a thousand ways.

The thing is, it’s not so easy to know for sure if you’re in one. Maybe you’ve become blind because the abuse is so subtle or you’re deep in denial.

In this article, I will give you 50 clear signs you’re in a dysfunctional family and what you should do about it.

1) Your parents have been unhappy for a while

Deep inside, you know your parents hate each other but they just can’t be bothered to fix their marriage anymore. They’re the perfect examples of couples who are staying together for the sake of their children. Sometimes you wish they’d just divorce already.

2) They share their misery to everyone in the household

Your parents are miserable and they’re not trying to hide their unhappiness from any of you. They shout at each other, they tell you how awful the other parent is, they cry in front of you. It’s as if they want to lessen their burden by sharing it with everyone else.

3) They make you feel like you owe them something

It could be as direct as them telling you that If it weren’t for them, you would not exist in this world. But it could be subtle, too. They could remind you that you should be thankful they sent you to a good school or that they’re not like other parents who can’t even feed their kids.

4) Dinnertime is awkward and tense

Dinnertime makes you sick. The dining table is the battleground of dysfunctional families. This is where anger, frustration, criticism, gaslighting, and other toxic behaviors are being showcased. If you’re a fast eater or you have an eating disorder, it could be a sign that you grew up in a dysfunctional home.

5) The silence is too loud

Whether you’re together in the living room or in a car, there’s nothing much to talk about and the silence is really uncomfortable. The distance has gotten bigger, the resentment has grown thicker that you’re all scared you’d say something that could cause even more tension.

6) You often resort to small talk

Since you can’t talk about the big things, you just talk about the latest news and gossip. You’re relieved when there’s a kid around to play with because at least you can all focus on something else. You don’t want to talk about your lives and problems because it can open a can of worms.

7) You’re not excited for the holidays

You book a ticket home but you’re not really excited to see your family. You still go, of course, because you don’t want to be alone and a part of you is still hopeful something will change…but your disappointment just keeps piling up year after year.

8) Having your photos taken is awkward

An intimate moment such as having a family portrait feels too forced and fake. It’s so awkward you feel like everyone’s holding their breath when you’re just inching close to each other. You know deep inside that is just an attempt to look like a normal family.

9) Everything you do for them feels like a chore

You do sweet things for them—giving them gifts, greeting them on their birthdays, and going to family dinners —because you feel that it’s your duty, and not because you really want to. There’s nothing else connecting you to each other except your last names.

10) They invalidate your feelings

When you finally have the courage to tell them what’s bothering you or what they’re doing that’s hurting you, they gaslight you and tell you you’re crazy for feeling that way. They then proceed to cry and enumerate how they’re actually good and that you’re just ungrateful.

11) Important issues are not discussed

Topics like infidelity, finances, deaths, betrayal and other important things are set on the side or not discussed at all. Your parents may have decided that those topics are “off-limits” when you were still kids and that would have been totally fine, but even now that you’re adults they keep on avoiding them all the same.

12) Trauma and mental health issues are not addressed

Your father clearly has a gambling problem, your mother has suicidal tendencies, your sister is exhibiting signs of depression. However, there’s no “adult” that tries to face the problem and deal with the issues at hand. You all just live your life like usual.

13) They demand respect

When you try to argue or make a decision that they don’t like, your parents try to control you by using the “I’m the parent” card. “You’re my kid, so listen to me!” is a common line said in dysfunctional households. They’re likely going to use this power as long as you’re the child or younger sibling…and that means forever if you won’t put an end to it.

14) They’re overbearing

They think they’re doing what’s best for you so they give themselves the right to boss you around. You might be fully grown, but they would impose curfews on you and give you long lectures on how to live your life as if you were still a kid.

15) They throw tantrums

They throw a fit or give you the cold shoulder when you won’t do something for them. This could be as simple as you not buying them a birthday gift or as slightly serious as you actually forgetting that it’s their birthday. This makes you feel like the worst person in the world, which is exactly what they want you to feel as punishment.

16) You don’t really like them as people

When you’re much younger and you’re still trying to figure out who you are, you really didn’t care so much about their values, beliefs, and opinions. Now that you’re older, it’s become clear that they’re the kind of people you really don’t want to be associated with so you can’t stand being with each other.

17) You have a love-hate relationship

You try to be nice, you look for the good in each family member. This keeps the peace for a while but then they do something or say something which can make you hate them to the very core. Then you feel guilty for it, and the cycle repeats.

18) You say bad things behind each other’s backs

You’re not really a gossip but because you can’t confront your family members, you resort to talking about each other instead. You have no choice. You need to process your feelings or else you’d go crazy.

19) You’re scared of them

You didn’t commit a crime of any sort but they make you feel like you do it every single time you disobey them. Their mouths release words that cut like a thousand swords. They also shame you and threaten you and even physically abuse you. You can’t remember the time you feel 100% relaxed around them.

20) Your parents have stopped being parents

Being a good parent means being involved in the children’s lives. It requires time, effort, and a lot of sacrifice. While your parents are physically around, they don’t get involved in your life too much. They expected you to do grown-up duties. The Wormwood family in the movie Matlida is a perfect example.

21) Someone’s suffering some form of addiction

No matter if they’re the most loving parent or sibling, if they’re addicted to something like drugs, alcohol, or gambling, they’ll bring suffering to themselves and to your family. But the sad thing is that your family being dysfunctional maybe what’s caused them to look for an escape and get addicted in the first place.

22) Someone’s an enabler

Whether it’s an addiction, abusive behavior, or something else, there must be an enabler or else this dynamic wouldn’t continue. The enabler does it because they “love” the other person “unconditionally”, even if it has negative long-term effects on the individual and the family.

23) You rarely laugh together

You’re only together because you’re family but you really don’t bond well. Laughter is a sign of a healthy relationship. If people are still able to laugh together, things are still alright despite the squabbles. The absence of laughter means the relationship is dying or has been dead for a while now.

24) You’re not a team

When a problem arises, some of you just disappear. You can’t plan and do anything like a team because you all want different things. Because of this, you prefer to “do your own thing”. And while this can still be considered normal, it becomes a sign of a dysfunctional family if you notice many of the other signs in this list.

25) There’s role reversal

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The kids become the parents, and the parents become the kids. Maybe your parents are quite irresponsible and you had to be the adult one to clean up after their mess and make sure everything is still alright. Parent-child confusion/ role reversal can develop resentment that could affect the child’s future relationships.

26) They want to keep you near them

When your parents notice that you’re starting to have a life of your own, they start to get clingy. They were not too excited when you accepted a job 10,000 miles away. And when you can’t go home on special occasions, they guilt-trip you by saying “you don’t love us anymore” or “you’ve changed.”

27) They’ll sabotage your relationships

Instead of welcoming your significant other to the family, they’ll find a way to break you apart. They will impose rules and demand that you ask for their approval. They also have incredibly high standards because they “love” you and want what’s best for you.

28) You’re excited to leave your home for good

Since you’re young, you’ve been plotting on how you can escape your family. It’s not because you simply have an adventurous spirit, you want to break free from their chains and start a brand-new life that’s free from baggage.

29) You feel like you have to prove something

If you have overly-critical parents who are extremely hard to please, you’d spend the rest of your adulthood trying to prove to them you’re good enough. Your self-esteem is shot because you had little opportunity to build any in the first place. Instead of trying to make you more confident about yourself—which is what parents should do—they tear you down by giving you their “honest feedback.”

30) They have favorites

They say they love you equally but it’s obvious to all of you that they have a favorite child and a least-liked child. Maybe your parents underestimated its effects on you but it’s too late. Because of this, not only do you have resentment towards them, you have resentment towards your siblings, too.

31) They demand attention

Your parents or siblings feel bad when you don’t reply to their messages. They make you feel guilty if you don’t call them when you say you would. They want to be your first priority no matter what because family should come first all the darn time.

32) They demand affection

You’re raised by narcissists. They like the feeling that they’re loved. It makes them feel good about themselves—that they’re actually good parents. The thing is that they’re not the most affectionate parents but they somehow expect you to be the one to show affection. It’s a one-sided stree

33) They give promises they can’t keep

Most of our trust issues can be traced back from childhood. Maybe you have a family that doesn’t put too much weight on promises. Even breaking a seemingly simple promise like buying a toy could have a huge effect on children.

34) They make you feel guilty for having a different opinion

Everything goes well when your opinions are in agreement, but the moment you hold an opinion that’s different from the rest of the family, they start giving you pointed stares and treat you like you just committed a cardinal sin. They might even confront you about it and then try to give the idea that you’re hurting them by thinking differently!

35) You have extremely high expectations from each other

You expected them to be a very involved parent who’d bake cakes and tell bedtime stories—but they aren’t that type. They expected you to be an A1 child who’s smart, talented, and kind—but you aren’t. As they say, expectations are the root of all heartache and you all can’t get over the fact that you’re not the best parent or best child.

36) They don’t respect privacy

They check your browser history, they ask you who you’re chatting with. And then when you decide to put a password on it, you get yelled at and punished for “hiding things”. If your family is still disrespecting your privacy until now, that’s a clear sign they don’t trust you and you’re in a dysfunctional family.

37) They have control issues

Your parents just can’t let go and trust you to make good decisions for yourself. They might try to make your decisions for you and put you in a position where you’re under their control even after you have left the house.

38) They keep a lot of secrets

You can’t count the times when you would ask your family something, and their response is to brush you off one way or another. You might ask because you noticed your parents look upset, or because your uncles are no longer coming by to visit, and their response would be to barely answer you at best and to tell you to shut up and respect their privacy at worst.

39) Someone’s walking on eggshells

You have always felt like you had to be especially careful around people at home. One wrong word or gesture, and a calm chat will easily become a big argument — and you’re lucky if it stops at simply screaming and shouting. For that reason, you just want to hide away instead of engaging with your family at all.

40) Someone’s suffering from codependency

Stories glorify the idea of dedicating all of your life to your partner, or for your children.

But the reality is that it’s just not healthy. Codependency—whether it be between your parents, or between them and their children—will plague the household with issues such as possessiveness and emotional instability.

Related: If you notice these 8 signs, you’re codependent with your sibling

41) Friends and relatives rarely visit

Outsiders can see things that you can’t, and if friends and relatives seem to be unwilling to visit you that often, it could be because they’ve noticed that there is something wrong with your family. Maybe they could feel the tension in the air every time they drop by, and decided that they would rather not get involved. And when they do come to visit, they don’t stay too long.

42) You’re scared you’ll turn out to be like them

You can’t relate when some character in a movie goes “I want to be like my parents!”, because every time you think about them the only thing that comes to mind is “I don’t want to be like them!” This might also be the reason you’re scared of having children. This isn’t a common sentiment, and it’s a sure sign that you’re in a dysfunctional family.

43) They get offended if you express your true feelings

One of the biggest crimes in a dysfunctional family is expressing any negative feelings towards it, from discontent to outright hate. And if you ever feel this way and express it, they act like you’re the absolute worst person in the world and say things like “nobody’s perfect!” or “you’re so ungrateful!”

44) It feels like you’re in a cult

If you’ve ever tried to look up things like “signs I’m in a cult” and can’t help but think “wait, but that’s my family” every time, then chances are that something’s horribly wrong at home.

45) You envy other families

Ever since you were a kid, you have always envied how other families seem to be a lot more peaceful and loving. While it’s normal to want something you don’t have, if you consistently see every family as better than yours, then that means that maybe your family’s just missing something that everyone else has.

46) Nobody tries to change for the better

Nobody is perfect, but the sensible thing to do when you learn that you’re doing something wrong is to try to get better. A dysfunctional family, of course, doesn’t do that. The best you might get is a “yeah, I’ll work on it,” and at worst you’ll get yelled at because how dare you demand that they become perfect when you’re imperfect yourself!

47) You feel suffocated

For one reason or another, you feel like you’re being suffocated when you’re with your family and would rather spend as much of your time as possible away from it. You feel like you just can’t move, or be yourself without anyone yelling at you or otherwise making your life hell.

48) You always try to be the “bigger person”

Being with your family is almost like being in a kindergarten, and you find yourself always trying to be the bigger person. Sometimes you might even feel like you’re the only one around who’s sane and mature, especially when you find your parents or your siblings throwing temper tantrums over things that you know just don’t matter.

49) It feels like you’re keeping up appearances

Every time you’re in public or when you have visitors, you feel a very strong pressure to make sure everything looks good and that you’re a good and loving family. You know that what you’re showing people is very different from the reality, and when something happens that would break the illusion—like someone having an argument—you’d feel horrible.

50) You wish you had a better childhood

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Children are naturally resilient and optimistic. When you’re a kid, you didn’t feel that it was all that bad except if there’s physical abuse. Now that you’re older and you’re able to step out into the real world, it becomes clear to you that you grew up in a toxic environment. And now you feel you’re suffering from the consequences of the trauma you experienced in your childhood.

What you should do:

Growing up in a dysfunctional family will leave you with permanent scars that could affect you for life. If you’re not careful, you might even keep scratching at these old wounds so that they won’t ever heal.

If you’re still in one—whether you interact with them daily or not— it’s time to save yourself while you still can.

Here are the things you can do to heal yourself from your past and to protect yourself from further damage that can be caused by your dysfunctional family :

  • Seek emotional support from friends, relatives, or support groups.
  • If there’s physical abuse, contact child protection services
  • If there’s addiction, contact the authorities
  • Seek help from a counselor or therapist
  • Limit interaction
  • Set clear boundaries
  • Stay away for a while
  • Suggest family therapy
  • Engage in coping strategies
  • Try meditation
  • Read self-help books
  • Journal
  • Guard your feelings by having no expectations
  • Prioritize yourself
  • Focus on the present and the future
  • Accept that you won’t have an ideal family
  • Try to fix what you can without hurting yourself

You might feel sorry for yourself for having a dysfunctional family, and it’s perfectly understandable. We all want to have a healthy childhood and a family we can always run to, not run away from.

However, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. In fact, it’s the norm— statistics show that 80% of Americans consider their families dysfunctional. That’s eight out of ten people!

You can still have a great life whether you continue to keep your family or you decide to keep your distance.

Scars are part of life but do make sure your wounds are healing well by going to therapy and developing a healthier approach to dealing with your dysfunctional family.

And the wonderful thing is that you can always try to build your very own family whether it’s by having kids or nurturing friendships that can be thicker than blood.

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Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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