The Real Differences Between Functional and Dysfunctional Families

The Real Differences Between Functional and Dysfunctional Families


The truth is that all families have some shade of dysfunctionality somewhere.

By Dr. Kurt Smith 

Spending time around teenagers is an enlightening experience for most parents. Who’s in and who’s out, the new and not so new anxiety triggers, and current slang can all be observed as they spill the tea (if you have teens, you’ll know that means info dump about friends, school, etc.). If you pay close enough attention, a lot of insight can be gained.

Recently, I overheard a teenage girl saying, “OMG! My family is soooooo dysfunctional!” I know this girl’s family and, although you never know what’s happening behind closed doors, wouldn’t have referred to them as dysfunctional. Hearing her say this made me realize that most of us, especially teens, have no real idea of the difference between a dysfunctional vs. functional family dynamic. The terms have become sucked into common vernacular to the point they’ve nearly lost their importance, much like the terms (diagnosis) “OCD” or “bipolar,” which now get used in sentences like, “Oh geez, my OCD is kicking in – these papers need to be put in order!” or “She went completely bi-polar on me.”

So, it seems worth clarifying the actual differences and characteristics of functional vs. dysfunctional family dynamics.

Functional Family

Let’s start by acknowledging that families come in all shapes and sizes. Having a functional family isn’t about who comprises that family, but rather the relationships within it and how they operate. And being a functional family does not mean you are a “perfect” family, either. There’s simply no such thing.

Being a functional family also doesn’t mean you’re a perpetually happy family. There can be strife, disagreements, and upset in a family while maintaining functional relationships.

Truly, being a functional family is about the structure and the health of the relationships that exist within the family unit. In order for a family to be “functional,” the people within it need to create a safe environment that allows the members to express themselves as well as grow, develop, and thrive. This means not only cultivating a person’s individuality, but also providing direction and education on emotional, developmental, psychological, and academic levels.

Does this mean that teenagers are going to say “thank you” when you insist they go to school, not talk back, or deal with the repercussions of their actions? Nope. But the fact that they can express their displeasure and know their family members still love, respect, and support them is a clear sign of a functional family dynamic.

A strong foundation for creating a functional family will include the following.

  • Love
  • Respect
  • Boundaries
  • Leadership
  • Communication

These attributes don’t mean there won’t be arguing, pushing of limits, discontent and frustration, or challenging times. There will almost certainly be all of those things, and it’s likely they will occur simultaneously on occasion. But what they will do is create a structure that allows for safety, growth, support, love, and connections that can last a lifetime.

Dysfunctional Family Relationships

A dysfunctional family setup, on the other hand, will be short on several if not all of those attributes.

One of the most prevalent issues within a dysfunctional family is a lack of respect between the members. A lack of respect can mean that boundaries are overstepped, communication is minimal, love is an afterthought, and leadership is nonexistent.

A family that isn’t functioning well will create feelings of disconnection between the members or may have members that are overly controlling and potentially abusive. All of this, especially for children, creates a sense of instability and being unsafe. A child who doesn’t feel safe in their environment, whether physically or emotionally, will become withdrawn, socially dysfunctional, and prone to making poor decisions.

Signs Your Family Could Be Dysfunctional

I think we can all agree if there’s abuse, cruel treatment, or no boundaries at all a family would clearly be deemed dysfunctional. But is it always that extreme? No, not always.

Sometimes dysfunction in a family can be subtle. Or, even more common, a family might be functionally dysfunctional. But much like being a functional alcoholic, “functional” doesn’t make it healthy or acceptable – just easier to ignore and harder to see.

So, what are some of the signs that your family may be dysfunctional? Take a look.


Secrets can undermine the foundation of any relationship and in a family, can create separation, dissension, and distrust. This isn’t, “We’re throwing mommy a surprise party – keep it a secret,” but rather the kind of secrets that could cause pain or damage to other members. Within a family members can and should have privacy, but that’s different than keeping secrets that would change the nature of the relationships if they were to be known.

Mixed Messages

Parents need to maintain a consistent and uniform approach to what they tell their children. Both as a parenting team and individually. Telling a child one day that something is wrong and the next that it’s right or allowing it to happen sends conflicting messages. The same way knowing that dad has his rules and mom has hers will.


Instruction and constructive direction are necessary for development and a sign of respect. Constant criticism without recognition of positives will do damage, however.

Lack of Rules

Did you envy the kids who never had a curfew, could do what they wanted, go where they wanted, and wear what they wanted? That level of freedom seems highly desirable to teens especially, but it’s really a sign of disinvestment and disinterest. Rules can be difficult to enforce, especially when at certain rebellious ages, but consistent enforcement is a sign of love and creates stability. It also creates a sense of safety within children.

Too Many Rules

There is, however, a balance. Too many rules that govern too many actions can create fear and fear has no place in a functional family.

Unrealistic Expectations and Punitive Actions

No one is perfect and expectations that are too high can cause anxiety and fear in family members, especially if failure to live up to those expectations means harsh punishments. Expecting a child to get nothing less than 100% on every test taken and punishing them for getting a 95 percent, or expressing clear disappointment when your child isn’t the star of the soccer team is too much. There needs to be a level of tolerance for mistakes and the opportunity for growth, as well as realistic expectations based on a child’s development and ability.

The truth is that all families have some shade of dysfunctionality somewhere. The trick is to work on balance, focus on building functional characteristics, compromise when it makes sense, and create occasional exceptions rather than give in to dysfunction altogether.

In the case of the teen I mentioned at the beginning, I did ask her what she meant by calling her family “soooo dysfunctional.” Here’s what she told me.

“Oh, my mom told my brother like five times to stop slamming his door, he does that when he’s angry, so she took the door off the hinges and said he had to earn it back. And my dad told me I can’t dye my hair pink which is totally unreasonable because pink hair is totally in and it’s just hair – duh. And mom and dad had a full argument over the fact that there was like no gas in the car and who was supposed to have filled it. I mean, they’re totally dysfunctional.”

Hmm, sounds like a pretty normal, functional family to me. Just not a perfect one.


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