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There are several different types or “styles” of family discord. Each brings with it its own unique elements. Hobbs (2008) outlines seven different types of families on 4 different tiers of quality, outlining a linear progression ranging from ideal to severely dysfunctional. We’ve broken somewhat with the traditional categories, as they seem to us a poor way to compare what the children endure, and we’ve set them among two categories, moderate and severe, though you’ll find the outlying principles to be similar to what is characterized throughout other literature.

The Optimal Family

The ideal family is a place where there is strong love and respect for every member. Children grow up with strong, secure attachments to their parents. A heavy dose of love and respect between family members ensures that conflict is kept to a minimum, and quickly reconciled when it does occur. The optimal family should possess a clear structure with parents as the authority figure. However, authority doesn’t mean authoritarian, and parents should work for a type of ‘benevolent dictatorship,’ where all members of the family feel as though their opinions and desires are valued, and reasonable negotiation is accepted. Parental duties should be shared and consistent, with each parent showing love and respect to the other and seeing them as a competent parent. As Hobbs (2008, p. 90) states: “single parent families can also achieve this level of competence, although the task is more difficult.”

Categories & Levels of Family Dysfunction

It’s difficult to classify such environments according to moderate or severe, as each style may have its own level of pathology. A severely dominant-submissive household may bring about elements more severe than a mildly violent household. Long-term effects can also be altered by a child’s individual strengths and weaknesses. But as a general rule, the following types fall into the range of moderately dysfunctional families:

  • Emotionally distant families
  • Dominant-submissive households
  • The chaotic household
  • Pathological households

Whereas the following generally qualify as severely dysfunctional families:

  • Chronic conflict
  • Violent homes

Once again, we must proceed cautiously in trying to place any of these within that category. All of the items in the first sub-grouping can be quite severe depending on the level of pathology. Furthermore, families may share two or more of these particular conditions. The chaotic household is often just a springboard towards other problems. We provide these categories as a means of outlining the different problem areas within a family setting, not as an attempt to stereotype households.


A) The chaotic household
The chaotic household is a place where basic stability is virtually non-existent. It has no clear structure, no real rules or expectations, and no consistency. People may be moving in and out of the house on a regular basis. Caretakers are inconsistent. Children may be shuffled off between one adult and another. Older siblings often emerge as parental figures, filling the void and doing the daily caretaking for their younger siblings.

The Problems:

  1. Attachment is often severely threatened. Children need stability in order for healthy attachments to form.

  2. Home instability and chaos creates excess stress which leads to concentration problems in school.

  3. Instability creates insecurity, which comes with its own set of problems.

  4. Discipline is virtually non-existent. You can’t bring order from chaos

  5. In such households, many secondary abuse & neglect issues commonly arise.

  6. Chaotic households tend to be places where children are poorly looked after. You’ll almost always find secondary safety issues, from physical neglect to lax supervision to isolated cases of physical or sexual abuse.

B) Emotionally Distant Families
As the title would suggest, these are families which show little or no warmth towards each other. Affection is virtually non-existent, and children learn that feelings are to be repressed. Its members will seem uncomfortable opening up to each other, and the family is run like a corporation: tasks may get done, but there’s no compassion or identity to everyday life. This is often seen among parents who had attachment issues in their own childhood, and simply don’t know how to show love and affection. They’re uncomfortable with it. Caring has to be forced, because it doesn’t come naturally. It can also come from insecurity. Exposing oneself to the vulnerability of opening up or showing love or affection is taboo in such households.

The problems:

1. Emotionally distant parents foster insecure or non-existent attachments in children.

2. Emotions come from the innermost core of our being, so encouraging a child to suppress how they feel is like suppressing the child as a person. This tends to lead to identity and self-esteem issues.

3. Emotional regulation or emotional intelligence as it is often called is one of the most important skills for happiness and a well-adjusted person. Suppression of emotions is about the most dysfunctional thing that can be done with them. Thus, children raised in households where the residents are emotionally distant from each other tend to grow up unhappy and dysfunctional. This may be one of the least noticeable dysfunctional family settings, but if the pathology is strong enough, it can be just as harmful as abusive homes.

C) Pathological Households
This is where the crazy people live. Or at least it seems that way at times. The pathological household is one where some type of negative psychology or mental health disorder has taken over. It could be due to one or both parents having a diagnosable mental disorder; such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It could be one that has been consumed by heavy narcissism or one where roles are reversed, such as you find sometimes when the children are more responsible and in charge of daily functioning than are their two immature parents. There are dozens of scenarios that could qualify as dysfunctional pathology. Whatever the particular nuance, it’s marked generally by one member’s strong pathology which ends up either seeping into the others or dominating the way its members interact. The next thing you know, everybody is acting a little bit nuts.

The problems:

1. Unhealthy pathology is something that is contagious. It is likely too breed problems or social deficiencies in the children.

2. Most family pathology greatly increases stress and conflict among its members.

3. Parenting is severely hindered in these types of environment.

D) The Dominant-Submissive Household
This is a household that is ruled by a dictator, most often the father. His word is king, and little or no consideration is given to the needs or feelings of the other members. The other partner is often treated like a child. They are likely to be extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with life, but are submissive to the dominant adult and show little open rebellion. The members of the household are like slaves to a dictator.

The problems:

  1. This type of relationship is unhealthy, if you could even call it a relationship to begin with. It’s based on the lopsided whims and desires of an insecure dictator, not love, respect, or affection.

  2. Kids learn to despise the dictator, which sooner or later leads to conflict.

  3. Dictator styles of control do not build competence in children. Rather than developing an internal means of self-control in children, they instill compliance through threats and intimidation. Which is why these family types usually experience explosive problems during a child’s teenage years, when control through power and intimidation lose their effectiveness.

  4. This type of household models relationship patterns that have severe long-term negative consequences. Should children pick them up, which they most often do, they learn that they must be controlling of others. That thy should put their own desires first, or be inconsiderate of the needs of others. Children will model this same relationship style in their adult life. Put in a stereotypical way, boys become the future wife beaters and control freaks, while girls become the future victims and unhappily submissive wives. This oversimplifies the situation a bit; there are many different variations. But the basic problem is that children learn a dysfunctional relationship style.

  5. The other partner is usually depressed, and so you have a lot of negative emotions in such an environment that children absorb.

E) Chronic conflict
Aside from households were violence is common, the chronic conflict household is generally second down on the list in terms of the damage done to kids. It’s a place where everyone argues with each other. And argues, and argues, and argues some more. Its tough to pinpoint at what point everyday squabbles become too much and tip a family into the dysfunctional range, but most outside observers can tell quite easily and often times even members of the family know they’ve tipped the scale and are sliding down the slope. (Other times, the conflict is so commonplace and native to the home that they fail to see that anything is wrong.) Arguments abound, while resolutions to conflict are scarce, usually leaving wounds to fester.

The problems:

1. Conflict itself is an extremely harmful element, and conflict with a child’s most important circle of providers is especially hurtful.

2. Conflict breeds stress, and prolonged exposure to stress can damage a child’s neurochemistry.

3. Security and attachment are threatened through conflict.

F) Violent homes
This is the type of environment most people think of when they envision a dysfunctional family, and households where abuse and domestic violence are present are also usually the most traumatizing for children. Mere exposure to violence can be as harmful to kids as experiencing it themselves, and this type of household also predispositions a child towards violence in their own interactions. Alcohol or drug problems are a common component, and it generally makes a child’s home into a scary place to be.

The problems:

1. Children’s safety is jeopardized.

2. Exposure to violence can be as traumatic as direct abuse.

3. Extended exposure to violence in the home causes significant brain damage in young children. Physical head trauma is not the only way to damage a child’s brain. Because a child’s developing neurochemistry is so sensitive to violence, prolonged exposure can literally damage parts of their brain beyond repair.

4. When home becomes a terrifying place, everything else in the child’s life is disrupted. Tear apart a child’s foundation and everything else crumbles.

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