How Does Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family Affect A Child’s Mental Health?

Our families are our primary social interactions that play a considerable role in determining our future relationships and well-being. Each family is unique in the way its members interact with and treat each other. While some families provide children with love, affection and a safe environment, many families have dynamics that are unhelpful and adversely affect the growing child’s personality, future relationships, and emotional and mental well-being. Family dynamics influence the way children view themselves and the world around them. 

Healthy families are the ones where the child is given an environment that feels safe, secure and free from abuse. An individual’s boundaries are honoured, uniqueness is appreciated and needs are met.

Children are not expected to meet unrealistic expectations of perfection or to take up responsibilities of the parent. In such families, people can trust and rely on each other. Members interact with love, empathy and consideration of the other’s feelings. They resolve conflicts or any life crisis together and have more positive interactions. Children in healthy family environments, grow up as secure and confident individuals with a healthy self-concept, who can regulate their emotions well, and form relationships based on trust and mutual respect. 

Dysfunctional families have dynamics where parents repeatedly and consistently neglect children, emotionally scar them with trauma and treat children abusively with their harsh words, actions and attitudes.

The environment tends to feel chaotic and unsafe as the parent often behaves unpredictably and inadequately. Children who grow up in dysfunctional families have no control over their toxic family environment. They often grow up with parents being unavailable at the time of important milestones in their lives which leads to the children missing out on vital experiences of their childhood. In many cases, there is role reversal and the child has to take the responsibilities that should be of the parent. 

A dysfunctional family may consist of an abusive father or an abusive mother and in some cases, both. Abuse is not only physical or verbal; it may as well be emotional, mental and financial.

It can range from an emotionally distant parent, a parent who exerts overcontrol or shows inconsistent control, manipulates, punishes children by bullying them, constantly comparing them to others, giving silent treatment or by withholding finances. In many cases, siblings are pitted against each other by comparison or by favouring one child over the other. In cases of narcissistic parents, children often grow up seeing a pattern of counter parenting, lies, deception, infidelity, disrespect and massive fights. The toxic parent shows little to no interest in the lives of their children unless it serves their own purpose like portraying an image of having a perfect family to the world outside. 

Most dysfunctional households are a combination of two or more of the following unhealthy dynamics –  

  1. Chaotic households – In such families, parents are usually absent and behave inadequately. The parents remain busy leading their own lives and neglect the needs of the children. Many times, the elder sibling takes up the role of the parent. Children are subjected to inconsistent parenting which threatens their emotional attachment and security. 
  2. High conflict households – In these families, there remains a conflict between the parents or between a child and the parent. Children in such families grow up with insecurity, constant stress and inability to form attachments. 
  3. Households with pathological parent(s) – In households like these, either one parent or both parents are pathological i.e., they have either a personality or a mood disorder and, in many cases, the parent is impaired with alcohol or drug abuse. In these families, roles are often reversed and the children have to take up adult responsibilities from very early on. They might also be subjected to physical, emotional, and verbal abuse and often grow up with many social and personal inadequacies.
  4. Households with a dominant parent – In many dysfunctional families, there is one parent who is dominant and overly controlling who ignores the needs and feelings of their partner and the children. The soft partner and the children develop bottled up negative and angry emotions. 
  5. Households with emotionally distant parents – In many families, parents don’t know how to express or deliberately hold back any expression of emotions. This is usually due to certain cultural backgrounds. Children in such families grow up with low self-esteem and to be equally if not more inexpressive. 

For a child who’s grown up in a dysfunctional family dynamic, it often becomes difficult to form healthy boundaries, have healthy self-esteem, form healthy and loving relationships. Many times, children themselves repeat the pattern of the parent they learnt in their childhood and indulge in self-destructive behaviours as a means of escape. The child often ends up internalizing the perception of the toxic parent and develops feelings of loneliness, worthlessness and not being good enough as it is all they have grown up feeling. Children are often on their own and can’t depend on inconsistent or absent family members for emotional safety, security and comfort. 

If you have grown up in a dysfunctional family, the following are the things you can do to safeguard your mental peace and emotional well-being – 

  1. Accept – Acceptance is the first step. Accepting and understanding that as the child, you are not to blame or at fault for any of the toxic behaviours of the parent(s).
  2. Talking – Talking to friends or any elder person like a teacher or a relative who understands and shows empathy. 
  3. Shifting focus on yourself – Focus on nurturing your relationship with people who are empathetic, compassionate and loving.
  4. Define boundaries – It’s important to be aware of anyone crossing your boundaries. Set limits and don’t let the toxic parent mistreat you any further, even if this means cutting down your interaction with them. 
  5. Avoid internalization – Try not to internalize the projection of the toxic parent. Introspect, recognize and work on any toxic trait that you may have picked up from the abusive parent. 
  6. Take responsibility for your feelings and behaviours –  As much as it is difficult, it’s equally important to not let the toxic parent’s behaviour control your emotions and behaviour. Understand that whatever they do, is a reflection of them and not you.

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2 thoughts on “How Does Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family Affect A Child’s Mental Health?

  1. This is so well expained and written with such clarity. Gives a great in depth explaination of the underlying problems of toxic parenting.

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