Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family


According to the Handbook of Relational Diagnosis and Dysfunctional Family Patterns by Florence W. Kaslow, the near universal characteristics of a dysfunctional family are the following:

  • Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy towards one or more members who have real or perceived “special needs”. In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than he or she deserves, while another is marginalized.
  • Denial (refusal to acknowledge abusive behaviour, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the “elephant in the room.”)
  • Inadequate or missing boundaries (e.g. tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment, tolerance of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

  • Disrespect of others’ boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises without just cause; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed)
  • Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient peaceful arguing between family members)
  • Unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role (mother, etc.), abilities, race, caste, etc. (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven enforcement of rules)

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
– Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

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