Dysfunction in the Family: Definition and Characteristics

The primary resource for this topic are the notes from the lecture of married couple Marlon Ramirez and Ianessa Ang-Ramirez, M.D., of Human Life International - Asia on October 22, 2002, at the conference "Moving Thomasian Families for Life and Love" organized by the University of Santo Tomas Center for Campus Ministry and Human Life International - Asia. I added information from online resources duly cited in the footnote to expound and substantiate the topic.

What is a Dysfunctional Family?

"A dysfunctional family is not a family beset by a lot of problems, but a family that refuses to confront its problems.1"
All families encounter and do have problems. What makes a dysfunctional family is when these problems become chronic, when the family refuses to acknowledge the problem and find pro-active and responsible solutions. Primary coping mechanisms would be blame and avoidance.

And in line with the explanation of Chloe Sekouri2, a psychotherapist and whose definition I found most profound, when a family's treatment to the problem is not morally upright or short-changing for its members, and this becomes their systematic approach to problems, then the family is dysfunctional.

To make it clearer, the table below shows the characteristics of a healthy family and a dysfunctional one.

Healthy FamilyDysfunctional Family
Emotions are expressed. Members can freely ask for and give attentionEmotions are suppressed
Open communicationLittle or no communication. Members fail to take responsibility for personal actions and feelings
Rules are flexible to adapt to individual needsRules are rigid, inconsistent, implicit and exacting
Mistakes are tolerated
Perfection is preferred.
Differences are allowed. Each member is encouraged to pursue his/her interestsIndividualities are not respected. Members tend to take roles that serve to restrict feelings, experience, and self-expression.
Children and their rights are consistently respectedBoundaries between members that are either too loose or too rigid. Parents depend too much on their children, or make all decisions for them.
Children do not fear or are subject to emotional, verbal, physical or sexual abuseParents are abusive

To further differentiate a healthy and functional family from a dysfunctional one, here is an acronym from John Bradshaw as cited by Tina Teesina:

"F ills its function
U understands everyone's purpose
N nurtures - everyone's needs are met
C communicates frequently and effectively
T teaches the children what they need to know
I intimacy is available
O open to new ideas
N never punishes by shaming or withholding love
A always seeks to understand each other
L LOVE IS MOST IMPORTANT (including sometimes tough love)
F fights fair
A assists each other (teamwork)
M makes each individual important
I in times of trouble, focuses on solving the problem, support
L lets each member be an individual
Y YOU have the power to be functional, no matter what anyone else is doing"
To some degree, I think I came from a dysfunctional family... How about you?

Next in this series: Types of Dysfunctional Families

Resources for this series:
[1] Marlon Ramirez and Ianessa Ang-Ramirez, M.D. "Moving Thomasian Families for Life and Love: Understanding Dysfunction in the Family." University of Santo Tomas. 22 October 2002.
[2] Chloe Sekouri. "What is a Dysfunctional Family?: Harmful Patterns in the Family System." Suite101. 25 Jan 2010. 26 Aug 2010. http://improving-relationships.suite101.com/article.cfm/what_is_a_dysfunctional_family
[3] Tina Tessina, Ph.D. "Dysfunctional Families (excerpt)." It Ends With You; Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. 2003. 2 Sept 2010. http://www.enotalone.com/article/4407.html
[4] "Dysfunctional Family." Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. 1998. 25 Aug 2010. http://www.healthline.com/galecontent/dysfunctional-family
[5] "Dysfunctional Families: Recognizing and Overcoming their Effects" 1997. Counselling Services. Kansas State University. 25 Aug 2010. http://www.k-state.edu/counseling/topics/relationships/dysfunc.html
[6] George Boyd. "When You Grow Up in a Dysfunctional Family." 1992. Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies. 25 Aug 2010. http://www.mudrashram.com/dysfunctionalfamily2.html
[7] "Dysfunctional Family." Wikipedia. 25 Aug 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysfunctional_family
[8] Suzanne Gold. Surviving a Dysfunctional Family. 1997. http://www.suzannegold.com/

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