The Effects of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family


The effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family


If you grew up in a family with a chemically dependent, mentally ill, or abusive parent, you know how hard it is -- and you know that everyone in the family is affected. Over time, the family begins to revolve around maintaining the status quo – the dysfunction. Rigid family rules and roles develop in dysfunctional families that help maintain the dysfunctional family system and allow the addict to keep using or the abuser to keep abusing. Understanding some of the family rules that dominate dysfunctional families can help us to break free of these patterns and rebuild our self-esteem and form healthier relationships.


What is a dysfunctional family?

There are many types and degrees of dysfunction in families. For the purposes of this article, the defining feature of a dysfunctional family is that its members experience repetitive trauma.

The types of traumatic childhood experiences that I’m referring to are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and they include experiencing any of the following during your childhood:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • A parent or close family member who is an alcoholic or addict
  • A parent or close family member who is mentally ill
  • Parents who are separated or divorced
  • A parent or close family member being incarcerated


The effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family

In order to thrive, physically and emotionally, children need to feel safe -- and they rely on a consistent, attuned caregiver for that sense of safety. But in dysfunctional families, caregivers are neither consistent nor attuned to their children.


Unpredictable, chaotic, and unsafe

Dysfunctional families tend to be unpredictable, chaotic, and sometimes frightening for children.

Children feel safe when they can count on their caregivers to consistently meet their physical needs (food, shelter, protecting them from physical abuse or harm) and emotional needs (noticing their feelings, comforting them when they’re distressed). Often, this doesn’t happen in dysfunctional families because parents don’t fulfill their basic responsibilities to provide for, protect, and nurture their children. Instead, one of the children has to take on these adult responsibilities at an early age.

Children also need structure and routine to feel safe; they need to know what to expect. But in dysfunctional families, children’s needs are often neglected or disregarded and there aren’t clear rules or realistic expectations. Sometimes there are overly harsh or arbitrary rules and other times there is little supervision and no rules or guidelines for the children.

In addition, children often experience their parents’ behavior as erratic or unpredictable. They feel like they have to walk on eggshells in their own home for fear of upsetting their parents or unleashing their parent's’ rage and abuse. For example, children in dysfunctional families often describe feeling anxious about coming home from school because they don’t know what they will find.

In dysfunctional families, adults tend to be so preoccupied with their own problems and pain that they don’t give their children what they need and crave – consistency, safety, unconditional love. As a result, children feel highly stressed, anxious, and unlovable.


You feel unimportant and unworthy

Quite simply, dysfunctional families don’t know how to deal with feelings in healthy ways. Parents who are dealing with their own problems or are taking care of (often enabling) an addicted or dysfunctional partner, don’t have the time, energy, or emotional intelligence to pay attention to, value, and support their children’s feelings. The result is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Children experience this as my feelings don’t matter, so I don’t matter. This, of course, damages a child’s self-esteem and causes them to feel unimportant and unworthy of love and attention.

And children in dysfunctional families don’t learn how to notice, value, and attend to their own feelings. Instead, their focus is on noticing and managing other people’s feelings – their safety often depends on it. Some children become highly attuned to how their parents are behaving so they can try to avoid their wrath. For example, a young child might learn to hide under the bed whenever mom and dad start arguing or a child might learn that consoling mom after that argument earns her mom’s affection. So, children learn to tune into other people’s feelings and suppress their own.

In addition to ignoring a child’s emotional needs, parents can also damage a child’s self-esteem with derogatory names and harsh criticism. Young children believe what their parents tell them. So, if your father called you stupid, you believed it. As we get older and spend more time away from our parents, we begin to question some of the negative things we were told as children. However, it’s amazing how much of it sticks with us even as adults. The emotional sting of hurtful words and derogatory messages stays with us even when we logically know we aren’t stupid, for example.


Dysfunctional family rules

As Claudia Black said in her book It Will Never Happen to Me, alcoholic (and dysfunctional) families follow three unspoken rules:

1) Don’t talk. We don’t talk about our family problems – to each other or to outsiders. This rule is the foundation for the family’s denial of the abuse, addiction, illness, etc. The message is: Act like everything is fine and make sure everyone else thinks we’re a perfectly normal family. This is extremely confusing for children who sense that something is wrong, but no one acknowledges what it is. So, children often conclude that they are the problem. Sometimes they are blamed outright and other times they internalize a sense that something must be wrong with them. Because no one is allowed to talk about the dysfunction, the family is plagued with secrets and shame. Children, in particular, feel alone, hopeless, and imagine no one else is going through what they’re experiencing.

 The don’t talk rule ensures that no one acknowledges the real family problem. And when the root of the family’s problems is denied, it can never be solved; health and healing aren’t possible with this mindset.

2) Don’t trust.  Children depend on their parents or caregivers to keep them safe, but when you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you don’t experience your parents (and the world) as safe and nurturing. And without a basic sense of safety, children feel anxious and have difficulty trusting.

Children don’t develop a sense of trust and security in dysfunctional families because their caregivers are inconsistent and undependable. They are neglectful, emotionally absent, break promises, and don’t fulfill their responsibilities. In addition, some dysfunctional parents expose their children to dangerous people and situations and fail to protect them from abuse. As a result, children learn that they can’t trust others – even their parents – to meet their needs and keep them safe (the most fundamental form of trust for a child).

Difficulty trusting others extends outside the family as well. In addition to the don’t talk mandate, the don’t trust rule keeps the family isolated and perpetuates the fear that if you ask for help, something bad will happen (mom and dad will get a divorce, dad will go to jail, you’ll end up in foster care). Despite how scary and painful home life is, it’s the devil you know; you’ve learned how to survive there – and disrupting the family by talking to a teacher or counselor might make things worse. So, don’t trust anyone.

3) Don’t feel. Repressing painful or confusing emotions is a coping strategy used by everyone in a dysfunctional family. Children in dysfunctional families witness their parents numbing their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, pornography, and technology. Rarely are feelings expressed and dealt with in a healthy way. Children may also witness scary episodes of rage. Sometimes anger is the only emotion they see their parents express. Children quickly learn that trying to express their feelings will at best lead to being ignored and at worst lead to violence, blame, and shame. So, children also learn to repress their feelings, numb themselves, and try to distract themselves from the pain.



Shame is pervasive in dysfunctional families. It’s the feeling you have when you think there’s something wrong with you, that you’re inferior or unworthy. Shame is the result of family secrets and denial and being told you’re bad and deserve to be hurt or neglected. Children in dysfunctional families often blame themselves for their parents’ inadequacies or for being mistreated or ignored. “It’s my fault” is the easiest way for their young brains can make sense of a confusing and scary situation.

As adults, part of healing from a dysfunctional family is unwinding the feeling of shame and recognizing that our parents’ shortcomings were not our fault and don’t mean we’re inadequate or unworthy.



Healing also means moving beyond the rules that govern dysfunctional family dynamics. You can replace don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel with a new set of guidelines in your adult relationships:

  • Talk about your feelings and experiences. You can break down shame, isolation, and loneliness, and build more connected relationships when you share your thoughts and feelings with trustworthy people. Acknowledging and talking about your problems is the opposite of staying in denial. It opens the door to solutions and healing.
  • Trust others and set appropriate boundaries. Trust can be a scary thing, especially when people have let you down in the past. It takes time to learn to trust yourself and who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Trust is an important component of healthy relationships, along with healthy boundaries that ensure that you’re being treated with respect and your needs are met.
  • Feel all your feelings. You are allowed to have all of your feelings. It will take practice to get back in touch with your feelings and realize their value. But you can start by asking yourself how you feel and telling yourself that your feelings matter. You no longer have to be limited to feeling shame, fear, and sadness. You also don’t need anyone else to validate your feelings; there are no right or wrong feelings or good or bad feelings. For now, just let your feelings exist.



©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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If you live in the San Jose area, click the button below to learn more about how counseling can help you overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family and reclaim your life!

Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.


  1. There are many families dealing with problems such as addiction, abuse, fighting and many more all over the country. There are a handful of families I know that struggle with problems such as these. Parents having problems can even lead to their children having problems of their own. A quote that spoke to me was when Sharon Martin recalled the criticizing words her parents said to her as a child, which she never forgot. She wrote, “However, it’s amazing how much of it sticks with us even as adults.” This quote shows how careful parents should be about what they say to their children because hurtful words can last all the way to adulthood and could even cause self esteem issues. This article, not only portrays the struggles of many families, but also shows ways to help cope with the hard times. After years of a child not trusting their parents due to lying or absence, they learn not to trust others. Martin said, “Trust is an important component of healthy relationships.” I think this quote is true in so many ways. Without trust, a child might not be able to have a healthy relationship with others in their adulthood due to trust issues from their parents.

  2. I’m the middle kid of 4, 1 older sis Michele by 3yrs, 1younger sis Kim by 7yrs,who passed away at 3:00 today. 1younger brother Michael by 3yrs. We grew up in a truly disruptive & dysfunctional place,not a home to me, but each one of us kid’s got it from both so called parent’s!! I certainly put the fault on them two!!. I had so much hate towards my mother till I was 40yrs old & it was horrible to hate her as I did, even though I hated my mom I always helped her & never refused her for anything at all & I don’t get why that was?. Mom was an abused child from a bad step mother since her mother died when my mom was just 3 so her father married this wicked step person. Minnie was her name; she did a number on my mom!! My mom never had a back bone & took abuse her whole life even by my dad we all witnessed the craziness. I’m petrified of blood due to me at 4yrs punching my way out a glass storm door trying to run away from this scary babysitter and I ended up with 52 stitches in my left arm from fingers to my elbow. Soooo many other incidents I can speak of it would take 54yrs. But my sis Kim could never live her life straight without drugs & now she’s dead & I blame my rotten so called parent’s!! I know this to be so cause when Kim was little she would stand with her fingers in her ears & close her eyes real tight it was very sad seeing this trauma on my sister Kim & I’m seeing this play over in my head always cause Kim got & was so so truly messed up she held in to the drugs as a security. Just so much Thank u for your testimony.

  3. I have struggled with substance abuse for more than half of my entire life and I have always struggled with figuring out why or what the root of the problem is. I always knew that I grew up in a dysfunctional family and I am an adult child of a anabolic steroid user which is pretty much the same as an alcoholic. When I read this I was shocked and couldn’t believe what I was reading because I felt like I was reading my life story. And there so many pieces that go to the puzzle of why a person becomes an addict or an alcoholic however I didn’t realize that growing up with 1 predominantly authoritarian parent who was extremely emotionally verbally mentally and sometimes physically abusive and one predominantly enabling parent who was extremely passive and emotionally unavailable due to the domestic violence at hand and hiding all the secrets and showing one face to the world and it being a completely different story behind closed doors would have such an effect on me in my life. And I’m so grateful that I read this and that I figured out the core piece to the puzzle for me, shame. Thank you so much and I would be very interested in Reading anything you have with more information on this!

  4. Every paragraph hit home with me. It’s sad when all your emotions from don’t feel come out and your a totally mess. This article reminds me of how much I really need to enter into counseling again.
    Wish me luck.

  5. Dearest Sharon, I’ve had hours of both one on one, and group therapy. That was some years ago, and I thought I was doing fine. Your wisdom is beyond anything I’ve learned in life. Every paragraph was Bingo! Now at 51, I’m alone from the rest of my family, who are on the other side of the world. Very little contact since this pandemic. And I now regret not having children, and building my own family. How could I, with all this mess in my head: I thought I would pass it on to them, like a disease. I fear I will now die alone. Dysfunctional is too gentle a word for these families. But your words moved me to write this to you, share it, and hope others know: forgive your parents, your family, and the rest will heal itself. I’m resigned to my fate, but wish I could have you, Sharon, as my therapist. I think we’re all in for a terrible time in this world, and families, although divided now more than ever, need to be unified and strong. We modern folk forgot the basics of a happy life. Society dropped the ball, with too many kids now affected. God help us.

  6. I am in my 60’s and have always heard the term “dysfunctional families,” but it was just a couple of years ago that I ran across articles on Narcissistic mothers. Bingo! Add to that an alcoholic father and Schizophrenic brother, all under 1 roof. I went through a lot of physical and psychological abuse as a child. My parents strove to make me think that I was the problem. And without good role models, I had a rough time through adolescence. There is a God and he loves me. I quite truthfully should have died by 20. Instead, I caught a few breaks. I survived with some scars but eventually I fell into a good career and family, for which I am thankful. I will never know what my full potential was, though.

    There is an extraordinary amount of intervention by many agencies into what children are taught in school. Schools also are now required to maintain spreadsheets an a variety of students’ personal matters. But to my knowledge there is not a single program that educates children about family dysfunction. Thus, there is no mechanism in place for children to seek help. I am the last fan of big brother poking its nose into personal lives, but there are some families that really need it.

    • I agree with you, Rick. Most kids in the U.S. get very little education about healthy relationships. We’d do well to invest in teaching relationship skills and providing accessible mental health services, resources to support families, and so much more!

  7. As with most writings like this, there is no mention of abusive siblings, saying everything is due to parents. Yes, my father was an alcoholic and stopped drinking when I was about 12. However, my older brothers verbally and emotionally abused me throughout my childhood. My father was not engaged in stopping the pattern, even modeling it in the way he treated them, but he didn’t take things out on me. My mother was not able to stop my brothers, blaming my father for not supporting her efforts. Yet, my brothers were the actual abusers, not my parents. Some children in difficult situations turn into abusers themselves. For those of us whose siblings did turn into abusers, it was our first peers who rejected, ridiculed, demeaned, marginalized and gaslit us. The resulting challenges can be very different from when it’s your parents.

    Why isn’t there more written about sibling abuse?

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