When a child is incubated in a dysfunctional environment, serious damage can be done. Dysfunctional family settings are accompanied by a whole host of problems and symptoms in the children. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact trauma or syndrome, because family dysfunction comes in so many varieties, and no two cases are unique. Yet there are still many common problems that can be discussed.
Family dysfunction & family behavioral problems
Children absorb what’s around them. Dysfunctional families tend to result in major social deficiencies in kids as a result. A child raised in a dysfunctional home will learn how to be dysfunctional in life, because those are the social habits they will have formed in childhood.
Children from dysfunctional families tend to model the behavior themselves. In one study, the parents of preschoolers were observed during a marital disagreement while researchers documented their behavior. It was found that the couples who were antagonistic, who didn’t listen to each other, who were angry and contemptuous and often withdrew from each other as hostility grew had children who modeled the same. Not surprisingly, children of these couples imitated the same pattern with their playmates, by being angry, demanding, and hostile…sometimes flat out bullying other children. (Fainsilber-Katz & Woodin, 2002) This doesn’t just apply to conflict. Kids will pick up just about any unhealthy pathology that exists within their home.
As a result, antisocial behavior in the child is a common outcome of a dysfunctional family setting. Dysfunction in the family creates dysfunction in the child. The more children are exposed to interparental conflict or other problems, the more it increases their risk of antisocial behavior. (Harold & Conger, 1997) All of this has a long-term impact. Recollections of high parental conflict are associated with greater relationship conflict as adults. (Riggio & Weisner, 2008) Patterns for the rest of life are set in childhood, and any dysfunctional family setting can set unhealthy precedent.
Poor parenting & dysfunctional homes
Whether you’re discussing marital conflict, parent pathology, family disorganization, enmeshment, over-dependency between family members, or poor family problem solving strategies; deficiencies in parenting are a common result of all types of dysfunctional family settings. (Cummings & Davies, 1994)
When the family dynamics are interrupted by dysfunctional behavior, childrearing becomes a significant problem. Such families commonly display a variety of inappropriate parenting practices, such as “inconsistent parental supervision of children, use of harsh punishment, failure to set limits, neglectfulness in rewarding prosocial behavior, and a coercive style of parent-child interaction.” (Fraser, 1996, p. 349) Children raised in this type of environment are unable to acquire competent social problem solving skills, and will often become aggressive toward people in authority as well as their peers. (Perry, 1997; Fraser, 1996)
Family disruption of any type will diminish the amount of nurturing children receive and lower the quality of the relationship parents have with their children. (Lee & Gotlib, 1991) Parents become more self-focused and preoccupied with their own problems, making them less able to give their kids the type of warm and consistent parenting that children need.
Stress & instability in dysfunctional homes
Dysfunctional homes are stressful places. In addition to the emotional problems this causes, this anxiety can result in many physical ailments. Such chronic stress damages immune response systems in children, leaving them more susceptible to physical illness. Migraines, stomach aches, or other chronic pains commonly accompany a high-stress household. Data from a large number of epidemiological studies suggest that toxic relationships are as major a risk factor for disease and death as are smoking, high blood pressure or cholesterol, obesity and physical inactivity. (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1999) Further research shows that high levels of family conflict are associated with poor physical health in adolescents.
In all types of dysfunctional family settings, kids feel a general loss of control. Their family lacks stability. Their home, what should be their pillar of comfort, is instead an unpleasant place to be. This threatens their general sense of security.
Dysfunctional families and risky sexual behavior in children
There is a strong correlation between dysfunctional family settings and earlier sexual behavior or promiscuity in children. (Fergusson & Woodward, 2000; Hanson, Myers & Ginsburg, 1987; Robbins, Kaplan & Martin, 1985; Sharpies, 1-28-08) As would be expected, rates of teen pregnancy also rise. When the home environment is volatile, kids will look elsewhere for the love and affection they need, which often means they’ll seek attention and sexual affection from all the places they can find it. This difference is especially apparent in early adolescence among girls 11 to 13-years-old. (Sharples, 1-28-08)
Conflict & shame in the dysfunctional family
Just about all dysfunctional family settings create conflict of some kind, and many are host to violence, both of which are extremely harmful elements. Conflict is the king of stress. Nothing makes kids more fearful, fills them with more anxiety, or causes their hearts to sink lower in their chest. Nothing leads to more depression. When it comes to hurting children, conflict is king. Actions only matter in-so-much-as the amount of conflict they bring. When you think about any form of legitimate abuse, be it verbal, physical, sexual or social, it all involves conflict of some kind. And if conflict is king, then dysfunctional family settings are the kingdom in which hurt is allowed to grow and prosper.
All conflicts create social pain of some type. To a young child, there are few things worse than having to listen to family members argue with each other. In worst case scenarios, the child gets drawn into the conflict or is forced to take sides. Dysfunctional homes also create a great deal of shame. Children feel a stinging blow to their psyche over family dysfunction, even if it’s a well kept secret that others know little about.
How family dysfunction is transferred across generations
If children are brought up in environments full of stress or violence, their brains download the culture, and it can have a harmful effect on the child’s ability to regulate emotions later on in life. (Perry, in Osofsky, 1997) For better or worse, children are learning how to act and conduct themselves on the basis of what those around them do. A dysfunctional family breeds dysfunctional children. This means family violence and dysfunction tends to be intergenerational. (Rudo & Powell, 1996, p. 8)