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A couple fighting demonstrating dysfunctional family dynamics and the need for counseling

What are Dysfunctional Family Dynamics and How Can I Deal with Them?

By: Kristina Murr

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Dysfunctional family dynamics have lasting effects, impacting relationships, and personal development, and causing issues such as anxiety or depression. Whether it’s dealing with toxic communication patterns, navigating through unresolved conflicts, or coping with emotional neglect, the journey to self-empowerment amidst such circumstances can feel daunting.

However, for those struggling with dysfunctional family dynamics, it is possible to find self-empowerment, foster healthy boundaries, and cultivate a sense of agency.

Defining Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

The American Psychological Association defines a dysfunctional family as one where communication or relationships are often impaired, and members of the family are not able to express themselves or be close to one another. For many families, this can have a negative impact on emotional well-being, physical safety, and communication.

While there are many reasons that a family can be dysfunctional (and no one is immune to dysfunction) children are most negatively impacted. This is because it will negatively influence how they see relationships and families and they may end up being emotionally neglected. They tend to see the world as the way they’re living theirs. To them, chaos and dysfunction are normal, a mindset they’ll take with them into adulthood.

Signs of a Dysfunctional Family 

Dysfunction can occur through emotional manipulation, which means one person can sway another person’s motion to benefit them the most. In recent years, the term gaslighting has gained popularity, and it’s a great example of emotional manipulation.

Another form of dysfunctional family dynamics is triangulation. Triangulation is the failure to resolve a conflict between two people and pulling in a third party in an attempt to get them to take sides.  The third person should not be involved but is used for comfort and validation by the parties who are too anxious or afraid to confront each other. 

The best way to avoid triangulation is to always talk to the person with whom you have a conflict first.

A lack of appropriate boundaries is also a part of dysfunctional family dynamics. Taking responsibility for a sibling or parent, failing to enforce consequences, and not being assertive are all examples of boundary issues.

Empowerment Strategies

As hard as it can be to experience family dysfunction, it’s important to find a path toward personal growth and resilience. These strategies can help you navigate dysfunctional family dynamics and reclaim your power.

Take Care of Yourself First

Make self-care a priority in your life. Engage in activities that nourish your mind, body, and soul, whether it’s exercise, mindfulness meditation, creative pursuits, or spending time in nature. Taking care of yourself is essential for building resilience and maintaining emotional balance. When dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics, proper self-care can help buffer the negative impact.

Set Boundaries

When things feel chaotic or dysfunctional in the family, it’s okay to set boundaries so that you can feel safe within your own home or around your family. Identify what behaviors are unacceptable to you and communicate them assertively to your family members. Remember that setting boundaries is not about controlling others’ behavior, but about taking responsibility for your own. Also, setting boundaries isn’t mean. Setting boundaries can be helpful to the relationship and reduce any resentment on your end.

Practice Self-awareness

Everyone plays a certain role in the family when there’s dysfunction. Try to recognize and be cognizant of your own emotions, triggers, and patterns of behavior. Many people find that journaling can be a good way of setting aside time to reflect. Giving yourself the time to assess a situation and think through your thoughts, feelings, and actions can be helpful, and it can be a good first step in making any changes.

Focus on Positive Communication

Try to focus on the good things that are happening in everyone’s lives instead of honing in on the negatives. An example of this could be explaining how you feel and your role in an act instead of getting defensive and blaming someone else.

It could also be having everyone in the family talk about one or two good things that happened in their day. What’s important here is to find positive things to release negative energy for all involved.

Challenge Negative Beliefs

Recognize and challenge any negative beliefs or internalized messages stemming from family dysfunction. Replace them with affirming and empowering thoughts that reinforce your worth and potential. CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be helpful in challenging negative beliefs.


It’s important to acknowledge that the path to empowerment is not linear and may involve setbacks and obstacles along the way. However, by cultivating resilience, challenging negative beliefs, and focusing on what is within your control, you create a brighter, more fulfilling future.

If you’re struggling with dysfunctional family dynamics, speaking to a therapist can help. Please reach out today to learn more.

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