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Causes of Dysfunction In Families

Family dysfunction can be any condition that interferes with the healthy functioning of the family.

Almost every family have a period of time when the functioning of the family is impaired by stressful circumstances, but dysfunctional families tend to have chronic problems and the needs of the children in the family are not met and in many cases it leads to child abuse including child neglect and abandoment.


There are many types of dysfunction in families. Some parents under-function, leaving their children to fend for themselves while some parents over-function, never allowing their children to grow up and be on their own.


Other types of dysfunction are seen when there is consistent inappropriate behaviour such as domestic violence and substance abuse in the family setting.


Let us examine some of the causes of dysfunction in families and you would see that although each situation is different, they all lead to abuse of children and in many cases robbing children of their childhood.

Deficient Parents

Deficient parents hurt their children more by omission than by commission. Frequently, chronic mental illness or a disabling physical illness contributes to parental inadequacy. Children tend to take on adult responsibilities from a young age in these families.


Parental emotional needs tend to take precedence, and children are often asked to be their parents' caretakers. Children are robbed of their own childhood, and they learn to ignore their own needs and feelings. Because these children are simply unable to play an adult role and take care of their parents, they often feel inadequate and guilty. These feelings continue into adulthood.


Controlling Parents

Unlike the deficient parents, controlling parents fail to allow their children to assume responsibilities appropriate for their age. These parents continue dominating and making decisions for their children well beyond the age at which this is necessary.


Controlling parents are often driven by a fear of becoming unnecessary to their children. This fear leaves them feeling betrayed and abandoned when their children become independent (Forward, 1989). On the other hand, these children frequently feel resentful, inadequate, and powerless.


Transitions into adult roles are quite difficult, as these adults frequently have difficulties making decisions independent from their parents. When they act independently these adults feel very guilty, as if growing up were a serious act of disloyalty.


Alcoholic Parents/ Drug Abuse
Families battling with parents or a parent who abuse alcohol or other drugs, tend to be chaotic and unpredictable. Rules that apply one day don't apply the next. Promises are neither kept nor remembered. Expectations vary from one day to the next. Parents may be strict at times and indifferent at others.


In addition, emotional expression is frequently forbidden and discussions about the alcohol or drug use or related family problems are usually nonexistent. Family members are usually expected to keep problems a secret, thus preventing anyone from seeking help. All of these factors leave children feeling insecure, frustrated, and angry.


Children often feel there must be something wrong with them which makes their parents behave this way. Mistrust of others, difficulty with emotional expression, and difficulties with intimate relationships carry over into adulthood. Children of alcoholics are at much higher risk for developing alcoholism than are children of non-alcoholics.


Abusive Parents

Abuse can be verbal, physical, or sexual. Verbal abuse - such as frequent belittling criticism - can have lasting effects, particularly when it comes from those entrusted with the child's care. Criticism can be aimed at the child's looks, intelligence, capabilities, or basic values. Some verbal abusers are very direct, while others use subtle put-downs disguised as humor. Both types are just as damaging.


Definitions of physical abuse vary widely. Many parents, at one time or another, have felt the urge to strike their child. With physically abusive parents, however, the urge is frequent and little effort is made to control this impulse. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines physical abuse as "the infliction of physical injuries such as bruises, burns, welts, cuts, bone or skull fractures; these are caused by kicking, punching, biting, beating, knifing, strapping, paddling, etc."


Striking a child has much to do with meeting the parent's emotional needs and nothing to do with concern for the child; parents often erroneously justify the abuse as "discipline" intended to "help" the child. Physically abusive parents can create an environment of terror for the child, particularly since violence is often random and unpredictable. Abused children often feel anger.


Children of abusive parents have tremendous difficulties developing feelings of trust and safety even in their adult lives.

While parents may justify or rationalize verbal or physical abuse as discipline aimed at somehow helping the child, there is no rationalization for sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is the most blatant example of an adult abusing a child purely for that adult's own gratification.


Sexual abuse can be any physical contact between an adult and child where that contact must be kept secret. Demonstrations of affection -- such as hugging, kissing, or stroking a child's hair -- that can be done openly are quite acceptable and even beneficial. When physical contact is shrouded in secrecy then it is most likely inappropriate.


Sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls. It is perpetrated by both men and women. It cuts across lines of race, socioeconomic level, education level, and religious affiliation. In most cases, sexual abuse is part of an overall family pattern of dysfunction, disorganization, and inappropriate role boundaries.


Responsibility for sexual abuse in all cases rests entirely with the adult. No child is responsible for being abused. Most sexually abused children are too frightened of the consequences for themselves and their families to risk telling another adult what is happening. As a result they grow into adulthood carrying feelings of self-loathing, shame, and worthlessness. They tend to be self-punishing and have considerable difficulties with relationships and with sexuality.


Regardless of the kind of dysfunction or abuse, effects vary widely across individuals. Support from other healthy adults, success in other areas, or positive changes in the family can help prevent or minimize negative effects. The following questions may help you identify how you may have been or continue to be affected.

Domestic Violence

Children who live in homes where there is domestic violence grow up in an environment that is unpredictable, filled with tension and anxiety and dominated by fear.  A home with domestic violence is a home where the dysfunction can lead to significant emotional and psychological trauma, similar to that experienced by children who are victims of child abuse.

Continue reading about domestic violence and its impact on children here.

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