Your Family: Functional or Dysfunctional? 8 Characteristics

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest

Table of Contents

Healthy family on beach

Your Family: Functional or Dysfunctional? 8 Characteristics


In my previous life as a psychotherapist, my observations and my previous training led me to see with crystal clarity the power of a family in influencing its children as they advanced from baby to adolescence.

What became alarming was how prevalent these symptoms of “unfinished business” were still present in adulthood. It spurred me to not only conduct research but to start observing my clients (of which I had over 40 a week in individual and group sessions regularly) with different eyes.

I began to include family history workups with each client, and we often were down on the floor doing charts of the family tree and looking at the heritage of my arcannabis client in terms of “issues” that were coming down the line to them. It saw incredible results, impact and insight for my clients as they began to see what had brought them to this point. Our slogan became,

I may not be responsible for what happened up to now, but it IS up to me what happens from now on.”

This was so empowering for my clients. Gone was confusion and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. They just needed help in plotting a new course in their lives and developing and using their resources to help them stay strong and determined.

Another pertinent little piece of history is that part of my research sought information on just what a “healthy” (or functional) family actually was. I found NOTHING that was specific and/or helpful. Seemed mostly a bunch of platitudes…like “love one another” and “be kind” and “don’t abuse”…but nothing really specific you could sink your teeth into.

Those who knew what was going on, at that time, were people in the adult children of alcoholic movement, like Claudia Black, Virginia Satir, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, and Terry Kellogg.* I attended every conference I could where they appeared, including John Bradshaw. He was known well, but was really a student of Kellogg’s, but he knew how to commercialize and popularize his books and TV appearances. Bradshaw deserves a lot of credit for bringing important knowledge “to the masses” about the effects of family dysfunction. He passed away in Houston in 2016.

From both my research with books, authorities in the field, and – especially – what I learned from my clients, I gradually developed an accurate picture of just what a healthy family looked like in real terms and time. Consequently, a very good picture of the opposite, the unhealthy or dysfunctional family was even more apparent.

Most every client I had was a victim of a dysfunctional family. Our goal, in counseling, was to reverse the effects…and achieve a normal, healthy life, despite already being an adult. Most of my clients admitted that, inside, they still felt like children and/or “adult imposters.” That admission was a massive step to recovery. The pressure of being a child and hiding it while keeping up appearances of being an adult, created unbelievable stress on each of them. I wept with them often. It was not self-pity, it was long-deserved grief work. And there was anger. Oh, boy, was there anger!

Family in group portrait

Functional VS. Dysfunctional



This simple diagram is accurate and misleading at the same time. I will cut to the chase by saying that ALL families and the people in them have moments of dysfunction, or unhealthy behavior.* Most of us also have moments of healthy (or functional) behavior. The goal is to spend MORE time at the functional end, and avoid behaviors that push us towards the dysfunctional end. By and large, it is an over-simplified formula, but the format of X versus Y is helpful in bringing distinctive and crystal clarity to what differentiates a functional family from a dysfunctional family.

Unfortunately, such formats can also be misleading. As mentioned before, families are dynamic and ever changing. To statically call a family functional and another family dysfunctional might make for engaging journalism but, at any moment in time, one family could suddenly shift categories. Sometimes even the best (most functional) of families fall apart under pressure and do something they later regret. Or sometimes it just cannot be helped.


*Note that behavior is defined as words, thoughts and deeds.

For example, the story is told of Picasso’s family, often represented as a most functional and, therefore, loving family, basically coming unglued during a series of horrendous earthquakes to hit Malaga, Spain, when Picasso was 3 years old. Hiding underground, his family was frantic and anxious to the point that, in front of little Pablo, Picasso’s mother bore Picasso’s sister Lola prematurely on a basement floor on Christmas Day. Not only did this affect Picasso and influence his painting, but his sister Lola became known affectionately as Little Earthquake to the family and friends who survived.

In Picasso’s famous painting Guernica we can see what might have happened in the mind of the 3-year-old child while he was watching dying people and horses while listening to children screaming for help on the long walk to the shelter (Miller 1998).

Suffice it to say that the past is truly not in the past. How much we carry with us into the future, and how it affects us, is determined by a mysterious equation based on factors in our vulnerability, our resiliency, and the failure of personal tools and coping skills to develop, which we need later in life.


The Dysfunctional Family Syndrome


After years of counseling work, research in the field of human psychology, and polling the best brains in the field of family systems, I proposed the following eight universal category continua for judging family health in the book, SHADOW CHILDREN. It is based on how people in the family regard and treat one another. Again, most families probably fall somewhere in the middle of each pairing. It is not so much how family members act occasionally as it is what the normed behaviors are on a fairly constant basis. It is the near-daily, consistent, and persistent messages that are actively driven into the heads of children—passively taken in and regularly absorbed subliminally—that do damage or good!


Sub-Note: It is interesting to note that at a staff-development workshop at a Milwaukee high school, a faculty member, referring to the list of dysfunctional characteristics I had shown on a slide, suddenly exclaimed: “That’s our faculty! That’s us!” More scrutiny followed by other workshop members, which led to comments such as, “No wonder it’s like it is around here” and “We should hang this in our lounge.”


                                     FUNCTIONAL FAMILY DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY
·          Affirms one another

·          Refuses to abuse

·          Provide quality time

·          Necessities provided

·          Health needs met

·          Problems are opportunities

·          It’s okay to make mistakes

·          Rides easy in the saddle

·                Critical of one another

·                Righteously abuses

·                Dedicated elsewhere

·                Neglects basic needs

·                Health needs neglected

·                Problems weaken

·                Mistakes spotlighted/shamed

·                Hypervigilance as a way of life

Value of the Chart

My advice to that Milwaukee school staff, who was starting to feel depressed, was to take heart because the chart was not only a diagnostic tool, i.e., now they could identify why they had problems, but it also laid out a clear path of cure: Stop doing what is on the right. Start doing what is on the left!

Family in snow



We all come into the world hardwired with the need for affection, nurturing, and cherishing, that is, affirmation in all of its forms. As infants we are not pre-programmed for rejection, abuse, or neglect. When we run up against these threatening experiences we usually find ways to cope and survive, but many of our coping attempts, despite being earnest, are warped reactions. We keep using them anyway because what choice have we. We duck and cover best we can.

Affirmation is the most positive form of human regard.

The scale is like this:

INTOLERANCE: We are born ready for affirmation, meaning that we were ready to accept “I love you and value your uniqueness just the way you are.” Intolerance is at the opposite end of affirmation, and it says to the child, “I detest you as you are; change or be in danger.”

Does a child know how to change in response to this? No, because the tendency of the infant human being is to just be.

TOLERANCE: Tolerance says, in effect, “I don’t really want you around, but the law, culture, family, or spouse, says I must put up with you. Don’t expect me to like that mandate, or you!”

ACCEPTANCE: Acceptance is “nice” and it surpasses intolerance, or mere tolerance, but it still shows a distance in a family—polite distance, but a distance nevertheless. “You are a child, and I cannot expect you to be anything else, just yet. Someday you will grow up and not be such an acceptable bother.”

AFFIRMATION: Affirmation is about commemoration. It says, in effect, “Wow! Some people from India are moving in next door. Cool! How long before you think I can go over there and get to know them?”

Affirmation is unconditional approval of something or someone exactly as they are. Affirmation does not ask you to change but, rather, celebrates you, and wishes there were more just like you. Affirmation is what infants come into the world expecting. Basically, infants expect a brass band in the delivery room, confetti, and long parades of applause and attention—and for it to never end. A family at its “most functional” should be like that: constantly affirming regardless of whether you were born with a birth defect, don’t sleep through the night for a year, or aren’t the hoped-for gender.

We are not talking about preferring other behaviors, not at all. Sure, I would have preferred that both of my sons would have slept straight through each night, waking only after I had brushed my teeth and had some coffee in the morning. I wish one of them had not almost de-tailed the cat with an enthusiastic grab, or stuck a screwdriver into an electrical outlet (and twisted it). But these things they do are not them. They are behaviors I work to help them change, but I affirm their essence, what makes them the unique contribution to the world that they are. Each family can benefit from a maid service, we suggest checking out this one from Ohio http://www.mymaidservice.net/. It is my privilege to know them, to learn from them, to work with them, and to laugh with them. I did not always do this well, but they were always treasured, and maybe that is a good synonym for affirmation.

Is this asking too much of a family? Of course not. If you are not prepared to affirm children, don’t have any, because if children are not affirmed, they act out, and things get very confusing from then on. Kids do not need confusion; they need clear affirmation and direction. They need surety and confidence. Parents alone have this privilege, and if they fail, the resulting symptomatic behaviors in children, of all color and variety imaginable, quite often come to school with the child, creating chaotic and obstructive situations in what is supposed to be a learning environment.

Oh, you already have kids…now what?

            The same lesson the school staff learned, stop doing what is on the right and start doing what is on the left side of the chart.

In the next blog entry on the family, I will go into each of these eight areas on the Functional <==> Dysfunctional chart to bring more definition and advice on how intricate these areas can be and what to do about them.

Talk later!


*Terry Kellogg is a humble genius at understanding our “unfinished business” and what to do about it. I call him a friend, as well as a colleague. Many of those “healers” in the recovery movement owe a great deal to Terry and his insight into the condition and issues of a wounded child in an adult body. This is the only good video in existence I know of featuring Terry Kellogg. Treasure it, it is priceless. [Note: If you search, note that there are two prominent Terry Kelloggs! One is about environment vs. business. That is not the Terry Kellogg I am speaking of. You will also find several of his “audio books” on YouTube and they are worth listening to – definitely.

Have you not signed up for the Doctor Zest mailing list? Why should you? Glad you asked! You will not be pestered but you will receive notices that a new blog entry is up, or that a new specially priced DZ item is up for sale, as well as any promos that we do. Sign up HERE!

Share this post with your friends

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
For further assistance