Help Us Help Others:

Dysfunctional family settings may not be traditionally thought of as an abusive environment but the effects and consequences of family dysfunction can be just as severe for children as other types of abuse.

What qualifies as dysfunction: The definition of a dysfunctional family

There are several things that could qualify as dysfunctional when it comes to family settings. When most people think of a dysfunctional family, they tend to think of domestic violence, and that certainly would qualify. However, a family can become quite dysfunctional without any physical violence occurring or a single punch being thrown. The presence of verbal arguing, unhealthy alliances between family members, turmoil, or other family conflict is plenty enough to qualify. Many other forms of maltreatment are commonly incorporated within dysfunctional family settings (abuse, substance use, etc.) but for the sake of conciseness, in this chapter we’ll exclude any other potential aggravators and explore only the underlying principles and effects of family dysfunction.

Dysfunctional homes are those where the family exhibits one or more of the following characteristics:

  • There are high levels of conflict in the home.

  • One or more of its members needs are consistently not being met.

  • Some type of pathology (depression, alcoholism, a personality disorder) exists in one or both parents (or another family member) that forces others in the family to make adjustments.

  • There is little environmental and/or emotional stability; parents are disorganized, allowing chaos to run amok.

  • Triad situations or other unhealthy alliances have developed, resulting in an abusive distribution of power and/or manipulative interactions between family members.

  • A deregulated emotional climate exists within the home.

There are any number of ways for families to become dysfunctional, many of which are explored in greater detail throughout other areas of this book. (We devote entire chapters to family conflict, domestic violence, parent depression and/or pathology, and emotionally distant parenting later on.) This chapter is designed more to give a general overview of dysfunctional family settings while talking about some of the universal effects that a poor family environment will have on children.


It’s hard to get a handle on just how many families could be considered dysfunctional. We’ve heard estimates that up to 63% of all American families could now be considered dysfunctional, (Newsweek, 2-5-2007) In the U.S., between 4 and 5 million cases of domestic violence are also reported each year, and the CDC estimates that a quarter of American women will suffer from domestic violence at some point in their lives.

Another study found that verbal violence was very high in relationships between men and women of all ages – 95.3% of the women and 92.8% of the men have acted in a verbally abusive way. (Matud, 2007) Assuming that such exchanges don’t magically ‘disappear after marriage, it’s safe to say that inter-family conflict and turmoil is quite prevalent throughout society. Granted, the occasional lovers spat doesn’t amount to a dysfunctional family setting by any stretch of the imagination. But such conflict, whether verbal or physical, tends to escalate, and can lead to family dysfunction when it does.

More information on dysfunctional families:

Help Us Help Others: