The impact of the dysfunctional family on children


Fractured families in South Africa

”In South Africa, the ‘typical’ child is raised by their mother in a single-parent household. Most children also live in households with unemployed adults.” ¹

”70% of black children grow up without a  father present in their lives.”¹

  • ”The latest available data about fathers in South Africa, shows that the proportion of fathers who are absent and living increased between 1996 and 2009, from 42% to 48%.” ¹
  •  Over the same period, the proportion of fathers who were present decreased from 49% to 36%.”¹
  • African children under 15 years had the lowest proportion of present fathers in 2009 at 30%, compared to 53% for coloured children, 85% for Indians, and 83% for whites.” ¹

The impact of the dysfunctional family on children

Children who grow up in a dysfunctional family have no control over their toxic environment. They grow up with emotional scars caused by repeated trauma and pain from parents’ actions, words or attitudes. The trauma can start from when they are born right through their teenage years into their adult life. As adults, they tend to attempt to escape past pain by engaging in destructive behaviours for example addictions. They also tend to repeat the mistreatment that was done to them and do the same to their children – instead of breaking the cycle of abuse and maltreatment.

Common Signs of a Dysfunctional Family ²

  • Family members have a lack of empathy, respect and boundaries towards family members.
  • They will borrow or destroy personal possessions without consent.
  • They easily invade the privacy of another family member without permission.
  • There is abuse in the family – emotionally, verbally and physically between parents/ children/ siblings.
  • Sometimes roles reversal happens where children act as parents in these families.
  • Family members can become isolated if, for example, the father prohibits friendships with people outside the family.
  • Some families are secrecy; denial, rigid rules are enforced by extremist parents (religious fundamentalist).
  • Some parents have unrealistic expectations of their children (parents’ expectations beyond their child’s skills, abilities and development) and expect them to be perfect.
  • Family members are not allowed to talk about what they feel or think. (Not allowing their children to have their own opinions and neither accepted sadness nor happiness emotion).
  • In some families, parents use the children as a weapon against the other parent in revenge.
  • There is no unconditional love and acceptance. Everything has a price tag on it. Family members manipulate each other to get what they want.

Types of Dysfunctional Families ²

Different dynamics drive dysfunctional families. Basem Abbas Al Ubaidi described the following dynamics in an article in the Journal of Family Medicine and Disease Prevention. ¹

“Chronic conflict family.”

When every family member argues with the other in harmful ways that leave wounds to fester, the causes come from corrupt parental style (abusive, authoritarian). Prolonged conflict can damage a child’s neurochemistry (breeds stress/insecurity and loss of a child’s attachment).

“Pathological households.”

It is one where severe psychological, mental health disorders and/or impaired parent from substance abuse/drug addiction; is present over one or both parents (having diagnosable schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) or a personality disorder in the parent. The family roles are usually reversed (children are more responsible and in charge of daily functioning) because of their one or two impaired parents. Unhealthy pathology is sometimes contagious (breeds problems or social deficiencies in the children).

“The chaotic household.”

It is a place where children are poorly looked after with busy and non-present parents or parental inadequacy. It has no clear regulation/rules or expectations and no consistency. Parents may be moving in and out of the house, and their traditional caretakers are inconsistent. Older siblings often develop early parental figures; therefore, family attachment and security is often severely threatened. School-age group victims usually have concentration problems and discipline difficulties. Many future secondary abuse & neglect issues commonly arise in the adult age group.

”The dominant-submissive household.”

It is one ruled by a dictator parent, with no consideration to the other family members’ wishes or feelings. The other partner is usually depressed, with many negative, angry emotions (one parent strict, controlling, the other is soft, passive). All family members are miserable and dissatisfied with life from an unhealthy relationship but are passively obedient to the dominant adult and show little open revolt. This shows severe long-term negative consequences, as one parent tries to control others without considering their personal needs.

“Emotionally distant families.”

It is families with social/cultural background which don’t know how to show love and affection (show little or no warmth towards each other). Children learn from their parents that feelings should be repressed (seem uncomfortable opening up to each other). It brings insecure or non-existent attachment, difficulties in a child’s identity and self-esteem issues. Emotionally Distant Families may be one of the least obvious dysfunctional family settings.

How do children cope with growing up in a dysfunctional family?²

Basem Abbas Al Ubaidi, a Consultant Family Physician, Arabian Gulf University, Bahrain, describes the following coping styles to survive a dysfunctional family.

The good child (also known as the ‘Hero’/’Peacekeepers’ role)

A child who assumes the parental role or inadvertent playing the role of the ‘peacekeeper’ to mediate and reduce tension between conflicting parents. Their behaviour may be reacting to their unconscious anxiety about family collapse.

The problem child or rebel (the ‘Deviant’ role)

A young person may be inadvertently playing a ‘distracting family role’ to attract attention and keep the family busy from their own relationship difficulties, thereby keeping the family altogether.

The ‘Scapegoat’ role

The child is seen as the black sheep blamed for most problems related to the family’s dysfunction, while other children are seen as good children. Sometimes they may label the young child as ‘mentally ill’; despite being the only emotionally stable one in the family (with an adaptive function enabling them to handle appropriately in the toxic environment).

The lost child

The inconspicuous, quiet one, whose needs are usually ignored.

The mascot/charm child

Uses comedy to divert attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.

The mastermind child

The opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members’ faults to get whatever he or she wants.

Children who survive usually have three qualities that make it possible to mature properly or survive the disadvantages of a dysfunctional family.

  • Either, children have a worthy focused quality for themselves and could easily grow up internally and not meet everyone else’s needs.
  • Children have well-intentioned, unlimited energy with the plan to work hard.
  • And lastly, children might have an adaptable maturation process that requires constant adjusting and change.

What does a normal healthy family look like?²

If you have a family, you should strive to have these values and rules in your family.

  • As an individual, you are allowed to say what you feel and show it.
  • There are rules and boundaries between individuals in the family that is respected and consistent.
  • Family members are flexible in accommodating one another.
  • All family members feel safe and secure (no fear of emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse).
  • Parents provide care for their children (not expecting their children to take their parental responsibilities).
  • Responsibilities given are appropriate to their age, flexible and forgiving to a child’s mistakes.
  • The family don’t try to be perfect – they accept that it is normal to have faults and make mistakes.

Get help

If you recognize yourself or your family in the examples given and have problems adjusting or coping with life, please get help by talking to a mental health professional.


Preventive efforts are essential. Providing support and safe environments to stressed families and single parents is crucial for helping children have a good early experience and forming appropriate bonds. This is preferable to removal. Child welfare services and the courts need to understand that removing a child from parents harms and is not a benign intervention.

See: Attachment Disorders Treatment & Management


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More information:

Toxic parents – how to survive them

Individual care support ³

Should be appropriate to the traditional patient circumstance.

1. “Learn Protective Ways” by practising meditation and being patient with yourself and others.

2. Become “Self-Aware of Your Reaction” to break negative patterns as much as you can.

3. “Limit Your Time” spent with the toxic family/family member. Limit visits, holidays, do what you can to prevent as much conflict as possible.

4. “Accept your Parents or Family Member’s Limitation” and don’t have to repeat their behaviour.

5. ”Learn to “Identify and Express Emotions” by accepting your own feelings/experiences and avoiding exaggerated consideration of others’ feelings.

6. “Try to Vent your Anger” in productive ways (exercise, sports, use art and creative expression) and not destructive ways; don’t withhold your emotions.

7. Avoid “Chronic Guilty, Shame Feeling” that led to low self-esteem for their parents’ mistakes.

8. Begin “Individual Long Learning Practice” to know whom you trust and how much to trust by avoiding in an all-or-nothing manner and avoiding seeking approval/acceptance from others. Practice saying how you feel and asking for what you need.

9. Practice “Taking Good Care” of yourself by exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and trying to identify enjoyable things to be done.

10. Begin to have “Good Family Relationship” by focusing on yourself and your behaviour and reactions.

11. “Take Charge of Your Life/Happiness”, and don’t wait for others to give it to you.

12. At the end, “Move Out” if meet patient cultural/religious customs and tradition (with a friend, an extended family member) to a nurturing environment.

13. ‘‘Read Helpful Books” that provided strategies for recovering from dysfunctional family effects such set out in the article: Dysfunctional Families: Recognizing and Overcoming Their Effects 

References & Resources

¹ first-steps-to-healing-the-south-African-family-final-report-mar-2011.pdf

²  Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional Family.

³ Dysfunctional Families: Recognizing and Overcoming Their Effects 


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