Which of the 5 Types of Dysfunctional Families Do You Have?

Which of the 5 Types of Dysfunctional Families Do You Have?

Are you filled with dread at the thought of going home? Is your family constantly at war with each other? Do you feel neglected or worry about a possible violent outburst? You may think you’re the only one whose family life is filled with tension, strife, and emotional chaos. You’d be wrong. Far too many people are living in families where communication, emotional support, and love are in short supply.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can leave you emotionally scarred and set you up for a lifetime of issues. Not all dysfunctional families are the same though, and each type can create specific problems that carry on into adulthood.

Here are 5 types of dysfunctional families:

1. The Substance Abuse Family

Over 8 million children under the age of 18 live with a parent who has a substance use disorder, according to research in Social Work in Public Health. When one or more parents abuse drugs or alcohol, it can lead to chaotic family life. Children of alcoholics or drug addicts may not have their basic needs met. The addicted parent may forget to pick up the kids from school, neglect to fix lunch or dinner, and skip important health checks. Unreliable and inconsistent parenting causes children to feel insecure and leads to issues with trust and pent-up anger that may linger for decades.

Living in constant fear, being blamed for problems the parent creates and feeling ashamed impact the ability to form healthy relationships later on in life. Children of alcoholics are prone to develop overactivity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, and can contribute to mental health conditions, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. And research in Drug and Alcohol Dependenceshows they are at heightened risk of developing substance use disorders.

2. The Conflict-Driven Family

Is your family life filled with heated arguments, hurtful disputes, and long-running feuds? When family members are constantly picking fights or pressing each other’s buttons to create conflict, it creates a highly stressful environment. When one family member feels threatened, they may retaliate with even more hateful actions. It doesn’t really matter what the conflicts are about—money, personal style, where to go to dinner, or what to watch on TV—it’s the inability to communicate and resolve issues peacefully that causes lasting damage. Children in conflict-oriented families often develop stress disorders and have trouble with attachment.

3. The Violent Family

Each year, approximately 4.5 to 15 million children are exposed to some form of physical violence in the home. Growing up in a volatile or violent family is a horrific experience that no one deserves. Family violence is not only physical. It can also include verbal, sexual, or psychological abuse or any other behavior that makes you feel unsafe. For children, simply witnessing domestic abuse can have the same devastating effects as experiencing abuse oneself, according to 2018 research in JAMA Network Open.

Childhood trauma causes physical changes in the developing brain that are associated with an increased risk of psychiatric disorders and substance abuse. For example, brain imaging research shows that children who grow up in an abusive environment tend to have:

  • Decreased volume in the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in judgment, impulse control, planning, and follow-through
  • A smaller hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory
  • Reduced volume in the cerebellum, an area involved in coordinating physical movement and thoughts
  • Excessive activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear centers

4. The Authoritarian Family

Authoritarian parents act like dictators, making great demands but giving little positive feedback. Mistakes are often met with severe punishment, which can include yelling, spanking, or other forms of corporal punishment. In these households, the authoritarian sets the rules and it’s “my way or the highway.” Children learn to follow rules but don’t gain valuable experience in making their own decisions or learning from their own mistakes.

When they grow up, these youngsters tend to have poor self-esteem, may be overly aggressive or excessively shy in social situations, may be prone to anxiety or depression, and may be vulnerable to substance abuse due to an inability to control their own behavior.

5. The Emotionally Detached Family

In some families, signs of affection and warmth are missing. Emotional unavailability and a lack of hugs, handholding, and other physical signs of love teach children to repress their emotions. This causes little ones to bottle up their feelings and have a hard time opening up to others, which can lead to a series of failed relationships.

In some cases, it creates problems with self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. Without loving parents, children are more likely to have a fear of abandonment, school problems, and psychological issues, such as a lack of identity or personality disorders.

Overcoming the Dysfunctional Family Curse

Whichever form of family dysfunction affects your home life, understand that you can overcome these issues. You don’t need to let them ruin your life. Here are some powerful steps that can help you heal from a dysfunctional upbringing.

  • Adopt brain healthy habits. Even if your brain bears the emotional scars of childhood abuse, you can improve your brain function, which will enhance every area of your life.
  • Find a support network. If your family unit isn’t there for you, find friends, a church group, a support group, or a therapist who can be a good listener and be there for you when you need help.
  • Work on relationship skills. Even though you didn’t grow up with healthy relationships, you can learn to develop strong bonds with others.
  • Stop being a victim. When you are a victim, you are powerless to change anything. Only when you take responsibility for your own behaviors can you gain the power to make changes.

If you’re struggling with issues that stem from growing up in a dysfunctional family or you’re still caught up in an unhealthy family dynamic, Amen Clinics can help. At Amen Clinics, we can help you—and everyone in the family unit—achieve better brain health and a stronger, more fulfilling relationship. We use brain SPECT imaging to help diagnose mental health conditions and to identify areas of the brain that may benefit from optimization. We believe in using the least toxic, most effective solutions, including psychotherapy, natural supplements, nutritional coaching, medications (when necessary) and more.

To find out more about how we can help, call 888-288-9834 to talk to a specialist today or schedule a visit.


  1. Finally! Dr. Amen talks about family-induced brain problems! I have been waiting so long for this!

    Comment by e c — February 7, 2020 @ 12:14 PM

  2. Does Amen acknowledge faith in the treatment process; we are mind, body, soul, and spirit- need the Holy Spirit, our Maker for wholeness and health.

    Comment by Christine — February 15, 2020 @ 2:44 AM

  3. We grew up with 9 kids in our family with an abusive alcoholic father who had a strap ( leader strips attached to a wooden handle) hanging over the back of his chair at all times and not afraid to use it on us,,. the thing that often saved us our Grandparents on our Maternal side lived in the same yard and we sometimes ran there for refuge. We all ran away at an early age to make a living for ourselves except for the youngest boy who got treated better and was to only one left to help on the farm. I myself married a farmer and helped my husband with everything on our mixed and dairy farm, we had two children and now being a Grandmother realize how I have missed out not knowing how to show my kids love even though I would do anything to protect them from harm, I always made sure they were fed, clean cloths ,lunch for school etc, but realize after getting a TV, how to show your kids love. Even tho I loved them with all my heart I did not know how to show it. I find it still affects my life now even tho I am 88 years old. I feel depressed, is there hope for me? I feel clumsy showing affection.

    Comment by Laura Grift — February 15, 2020 @ 8:49 AM

  4. Where does Gambling Addiction/Compulsive Gambling fit in……..damages everything it touches, destroys families, help and support often difficult to find etc etc

    Comment by Dennie — February 15, 2020 @ 7:03 PM

  5. My husband came from an extremely violent family. He definitely has the issues mentioned in that description in addition to PTSD. Is there anything that can be done to help him.

    Comment by Virginia N Weeks — February 16, 2020 @ 2:14 PM

  6. This article was great. I think discussing the issues is very helpful. My family matched number 4 & 5 from the article.
    I would love to find ways to heal from growing up not feeling loved!

    Comment by Sandi — February 17, 2020 @ 10:56 AM

  7. Laura, dear sweet soul, of course showing love feels clumsy to us who weren’t shown much , if any, of it. But, we give it anyway, we press past our feelings of inadequacy, and we do it afraid. We give ourselves the grace we weren’t given, but we wanted. And then we give grace to the ones we want to have it better than we did. It isn’t easy, but, as we give it anyway, even if it isn’t perfect or comfortable, then one generation at a time, we make our families better. You are quite insightful, compassionate, caring, and loving to see it like it is. I know how daunting it can feel, but we got this! Because our Heavenly Father is a good, loving, gracious, forgiving Dad! He is so proud of you!!
    I came from the same kind of home, except I didn’t have anywhere or anyone to run to, except to Jesus. He saved me from suicide more than once. Now, at 70, I don’t get much right, but, I won’t give up trying, because my kids and grandkids are worth it. Set the example of one who humbly asks for forgiveness for where we reverted to the family modeling and messed up. But, also keep up the good work of loving, no matter what. Remember, it is the truth that sets us free. We’ve come a long way, baby. And our Father knows our struggle. There is a reward for those who loved even when they didn’t quite know how. I really believe that. You just do the best you can with what you do know to do and ask God to bless your efforts. He can do so much with our little bit. Remember how he fed the multitude. God is the great multiplier. God bless you.

    Comment by Eva Sedor — February 18, 2020 @ 1:12 PM

  8. Missed a most important dysfunctional family., gay parent dysfunction. The child brought up in this family becomes very confused, especially when that parent has great issues about their identity, is a liar, thief, relationship issues, and narcissistic. Children’s messages are alarming. More families are suffering with parent like this

    Comment by Rosalie — February 23, 2020 @ 8:30 AM

  9. i live in horrible place right now and that is my home where my brother whi is just 21 yo child threaten my mom dad to give him money so that he can do drugs and alcohol. If they dont give him then he make sure to damage everything present in the home. he broke huge LED tv, dinning table, living table and the list is countless. im his sister if i say something he beat rhe the shit out of me. idk what to do.

    Comment by ritika — July 27, 2020 @ 2:42 AM

  10. Dysfunctional family systems is the worse generational trauma abuse that ever existed. My daughters were family abducted and kidnapped because of this
    Type of horrific behaviors. Our system rewards this type of behaviors. This destroys families.

    Comment by Paris G — February 25, 2022 @ 4:51 PM

  11. I could not agree more when you said that a highly stressful environment is being created when your family life is filled with heated arguments and feuds. With this in mind, I will convince my husband and two children to undergo an intensive outpatient family therapy program within the month. Our children appear to have lost their faith in our family since my husband and I almost got divorced two months ago.

    Comment by Shammy Peterson — June 20, 2022 @ 1:26 AM

  12. I have always dreaded disfunctionality in the home, while dating, I let my husband know about my fear. Now we are married, it's from one conflict to the other. He seems to thrive in conflict , i try to hide it b,cos I don't want the children to suffer any trauma but iam dying inside. He has refused any form of resolution. What do I do?

    Comment by Jay — July 9, 2022 @ 10:52 AM

  13. My brother is one of the biggest stressors in our family. My mother is the biggest enabler as well.
    My brother has had a drug addiction for decades. In and out of jail. He’s always playing the victim. He takes advantage of my mother, and she defends him.
    I literally can stand any of this. She kicked him out before Thanksgiving, and now she’s going to let him back home. Of course he’s going to rehab, but I know it’s not going to work.
    He manipulates my mom all the time. She’s always saying that he has no where to go.
    I have no respect for her and him. She’s telling her friends she’s letting him back home. I don’t think she realizes they think she’s an idiot.
    With all the damage he’s done with meth he’s got a lot of mental issues.
    The only good thing is he’s going to be in rehabilitation during Christmas Day.

    Comment by Stefanie Brown — December 18, 2022 @ 12:04 PM

  14. Is there a scale present to measure family dysfunction in these categories.

    Comment by Eeman — March 2, 2023 @ 11:55 AM

  15. I do not agree with the simplified sentiment of "stop being a victim"
    Instead that all these techniques have been life skills for survival in your past. Without them you would never be at the point that you are now where you survived and are able challenge your worldview. Forgive yourself and see them as part of the environment that shaped you.
    It is about rethinking what you would have needed instead of what you got in those key moments, and then giving yourself that compassion and help that you so desperately wanted or deserved.

    Comment by Daniel — March 31, 2023 @ 6:01 AM

  16. There is also the smorgasbord family where it is sometimes authoritarian and sometimes negligent; some feelings are OK to express, but others, like anger, are not. Some parents are so emotionally damaged that they can not respond to the children's emotional needs because they are in survival mode themselves. They do love their children, as best they can, but the children must grow up too fast and too soon to take care of themselves and their parents emotionally while remaining dependent for material needs and still expected to behave like children. Very confusing.

    Comment by Patty — April 7, 2023 @ 8:28 AM

  17. Growing up as an only child in a family with a mentally ill mother qualifies as dysfunctional. It had elements of type 4 and 5. I am 72 years old and still not good at relationships.

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2023 @ 1:21 PM

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